Let death change your life

You only die once. Why not take tips from great philosophers on how to do it well?

Published February 16, 2009 1:00PM (EST)

Cicero, the great Roman orator and martyr for the Republic, wrote, "To philosophize is to learn how to die." This idea infuses Simon Critchley's "The Book of Dead Philosophers," a collection of 190 short items describing the deaths (and some of the lives) of history's great thinkers. As Critchley, chairman of the philosophy department at the New School for Social Research in New York, sees it, the great deficiency of modern life lies in our too-common unwillingness to fully acknowledge our mortality. Frantic to "deny the fact of death," we "run headlong into the watery pleasures of forgetfulness" -- namely, traditional religion and New Age claptrap promising us one or another form of immortality. Besides making people vulnerable to scheming quacks and demagogues, these spiritual nostrums don't even really work. According to Critchley, only the right kind of philosophy can teach "a readiness for death without which any conception of contentment, let alone happiness, is illusory."

The universal truth of that assertion strikes me as debatable, as does much else in "The Book of Dead Philosophers," but the link between philosophy and mortality is by necessity an intimate one. In philosophy, the human mind studies itself, and the same faculty that makes this study possible -- our self-consciousness -- also makes us aware of the inevitability of our own deaths in a way no other living creatures are. Philosophers, therefore, ought to be experts on the problem of how to die well. Since dying only happens once, and (if we're lucky) it doesn't take long, acquiring the skill of dying well might seem like a low priority. However, Seneca, another Roman philosopher, maintained that, "He will live badly who does not know how to die well," and living well is everyone's concern. As Critchley points out, if we delude ourselves about the nature of our deaths (say, by believing that if we martyr ourselves for radical Islam we'll be welcomed into heaven by 72 virgins), we are likely to make a mess of our lives.

The chief difficulty of Critchley's project lies in the paucity of data; we simply don't know that much about how philosophers have died. The most famous philosophical death is, of course, the execution of Socrates, achieved when he drank a bowl of hemlock under the order of Athenian authorities. Because his was a deliberate, chosen death, it was both well-documented (by Socrates' pupil Plato) and thoroughly discussed beforehand; in truth, it is the sliver of life leading right up to Socrates' death that makes it memorable, not the death itself. Socrates insisted that death didn't scare him because it would be followed by either 1) oblivion, in which case he would not suffer, or 2) entrance into Hades, where he could enjoy reunions with old friends and nice long chats with Homer and other greats. (You have to wonder if such an afterlife wouldn't be a kind of hell for celebrities saddled with an eternal stream of visits from gushing fans.)

As for the biographies of all of the philosophers preceding Socrates -- and many of those who came afterward, including the Asian and Islamic thinkers Critchley includes in an admirable and refreshing gesture of cosmopolitanism -- the record consists of little more than dubious legend and freakish rumor. Heracleitus smothered in cow dung, Plato died "of a lice infestation," Arcesilaus drank too much "unmixed wine," Diogenes expired after eating raw octopus, Chrysippus from laughing at a stupid joke, the 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe succumbed when he refused to leave a feast to relieve his bladder and it burst, and so on. The early sections of "The Book of Dead Philosophers" are not much more than a litany of such suspect curiosities, making it resemble nothing so much as Monty Python's "The Philosophers' Song," a hymn to the drinking prowess of Socrates, et al., warbled by a gang of Fosters-swilling Australian professors, all named Bruce. For years, the most I could tell you about Wittgenstein was that he was a beery swine who was just as sloshed as Schlegel -- which doesn't even turn out to be true.

Critchley's resemblance to the Bruces is unfortunately furthered by his penchant for semi-effective, lowbrow gags, puns and running jokes -- about flatulence and the ancient Pythagoreans' mystifying horror of beans, for example. You can see what he's reaching for with this, that readable blend of profundity and froth best exemplified by Alain de Botton's "How Proust Can Change Your Life." But a light touch is harder to pull off than it looks, and even de Botton himself can't manage it most of the time. Above all, if you want to encourage people to think more seriously about their mortality, it's counterproductive to devote most of your text to jokes about toxic pâté or to devote, say, half the entry on Brahe to the fact that he had a false nose (made of copper, apparently), in lieu of mentioning anything about his work or what he believed.

"This is a book about how philosophers have died and what we can learn from philosophy about the appropriate attitude to death and dying," Critchley promises in his introduction. However, it turns out that it is only the rare philosopher whose death sheds much light on his thought, even when we have decent records. Too much of "The Book of Dead Philosophers" confines itself to offering up bizarre facts that can be dropped at cocktail parties to give the impression that you know more about Spinoza than you actually do. At last, however, Critchley reaches the more contemporary figures, and there he is both able and willing to go into more depth, particularly on those for whom he feels a special sympathy (Lacan, Heidegger) or else antipathy (Hegel).

Critchley is an adherent of the continental strain of modern philosophy, as distinguished from the analytic strain favored by American and British philosophers. To put it very roughly (and consequently provoke squalls of protest), the analytic philosophers concern themselves with what the universe is, or rather how we can know what it is, while their continental counterparts are more focused on the question of how we ought to live. Critchley doesn't have much use for the analytic side and its conviction that "philosophy should aspire to the impersonality of natural science." He's not especially respectful of science in general, and speaks slightingly of American philosophy's "infatuation" with it. A few scientists (Galileo, Darwin) are included in the book; others, such as Newton, Einstein, are not. Perhaps one reason why classical philosophy gets little more than a flyover from Critchley is that it was fundamentally entangled with the sort of discipline that we now call science. He is more comfortable with thinkers devoted to ethics, metaphysics and aesthetics.

Montaigne, more than any other figure, is the spirit presiding over "The Book of Dead Philosophers." Critchley clearly aspires to the 16th-century French essayist's relaxed voice and easy integration of the mundane and the profound. Montaigne advised living with "death continually present," with its taste in one's mouth, because only then can you live life as it actually is, free from pointless efforts to avoid the unavoidable. Montaigne also wrote, "He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave." (For some reason, meditations on mortality lend themselves to epigrams.) Fear has an uncanny habit of fulfilling itself, and so the overwhelming fear of the end of life can make life itself nearly endurable, as it becomes entirely consumed by the fear of death. How much better, Critchley writes, to seek in philosophy "the stillness of the soul's dialogue with itself" (a lovely turn of phrase) and the "calm that accompanies existing in the present without forethought or regret." The ideal philosophical death, then, is peaceful, accepting and dignified.

Whether or not you get to die that way, however, is not necessarily under your control, as Montaigne himself (stricken with a terminal illness that left this supreme "creature of words" speechless) discovered. Morally questionable philosophers like the former Nazi Martin Heidegger lived to a ripe old age, while his nobler contemporaries, such as Walter Benjamin and Edmund Husserl, perished during the course of the war. Perhaps most ironic, Thomas Hobbes -- author of that immortal description of life in the natural state as "nasty, brutish and short" -- enjoyed a life that was long, tranquil and well-ordered, marked by a regimen of moderation, exercise and sensible diet and blessed into his 90s with the favors of a younger mistress. Easy enough for the likes of him to die well. By contrast, it's hard to see how Hypatia of Alexandria, a brilliant pagan Neoplatonist, could have remained peaceful or dignified while being scraped to death by a Christian mob brandishing oyster shells.

Whatever the anguish of the moments or hours preceding death, however, Critchley professes bewilderment that we persist in fearing it. The classical philosopher who most commands his allegiance is Epicurus, who maintained that since the dead are annihilated, they cannot suffer, and therefore death should not terrify us. Why regard the time after your extinction with dread, when you don't feel the same way about the equally vast stretch of time before you existed? It's not death, but the "longing for immortality that ruins life." (And as Montaigne observed, "Imagine how much less bearable and more painful to man would be an everlasting life.") Religion, "spirituality" -- anything in short that promises an afterlife -- becomes, counterintuitively, a source of anxiety.

This, of course, is patently not the case. People believe in an afterlife because they fear death, not the other way around. Whether it's the prospect of our own nonexistence that torments us or the misery of knowing that we'll never be reunited with dead loved ones, most human beings (even those of us who don't believe in it) see the promise of life after death as the primary comfort that religion has to offer. Given the choice, most of us will endure a tremendous amount of pain before we welcome death, even when we know that death offers relief. So it's not the fear of the suffering in death that drives us, but the fear of not existing itself.

Critchley is right that this -- fearing an experience that can't be experienced -- isn't rational. Furthermore, even people who believe in the possibility of a lovely afterlife avoid death. We don't fear death because we fear suffering but because we crave life, as miserable as it can sometimes be. It is our "creatureliness," as Critchley puts it, our material, biological nature that makes us cling to life. In short, our fierce hold on life is a symptom of being alive, a quality inherent in life itself. Life wants to live. Even creatures that don't understand that they can die will fight to go on living. And while the history of philosophers is full of examples of rational suicide, it's also true that people otherwise in good health and their prime, people without external causes for despair, sometimes choose to end their lives because some aspect of their neurobiology, their "creatureliness," has malfunctioned.

All this is undoubtedly the result of what Critchley refers to as "evolutionary forces beyond our control," which means that philosophy as Critchley conceives it is supposed to teach us how to transcend our creatureliness. (Nothing is more creaturely than the instinct to survive at all costs.) We wouldn't know about those evolutionary forces, however, if it weren't for science and its detached, impersonal rigor; the worldly-wise, belletristic species of philosophical rumination favored by Critchley would never have produced the theory of natural selection. Yet, ironically, it is science that has offered the most comprehensive argument against religion and superstition by demonstrating how the universe and our own minds came to be the way they are, absent the influence of any supernatural entity. For all that the author espouses "a radical doubt with regard to all things," he does not doubt that. Even a self-professed skeptic has to take something on faith.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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