Found this old book review and thought I’d share it for several reasons:
- The book sounds amazing and the topic–death and dying words–fascinates me.
- It is a terrific example of good writing and shows an excellent book reviewer who understands the philosophic questions outlined by Mr Critchley as well as the book’s inherent humor.
- It is a wonderful trigger for thoughts about life and death and our attitudes, especially as they are affected by our appreciation for philosophical approaches to this complex human concern.
So, here’s the review. My comments follow:
“Dying and Death: When You Sort It Out, What’s It All About, Diogenes? (Pub. NY Times, January 29, 2009) by Dinitia Smith: A Review of Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers (Vintage Books. 265 pp.)
Heraclitus, who believed that everything was in a state of flux, died, according to one account, of drowning in cow dung. The philosopher Francis Bacon, that great champion of the empirical method, died of his own philosophy: in an effort to observe the effects of refrigeration, on a freezing cold day he stuffed a chicken with snow and caught pneumonia. As a philosopher dies, so he has lived and believed. And from the manner of his dying we can understand his thinking, or so the philosopher Simon Critchley seems to be saying in his cheekily titled Book of Dead Philosophers.
Mr. Critchley has taken as his thesis Cicero’s axiom “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” That is, to understand the meaning of life the philosopher must try to understand death and its meaning, or possibly its lack of meaning. And for Mr. Critchley you cannot separate the spirit of philosophy from the body of the philosopher. As he says, “The history of philosophy can be approached as a history of philosophers that proceeds by examples remembered, often noble and virtuous, but sometimes base and comical.” He adds, “The manner of the death of philosophers humanizes them and shows that, despite the lofty reach of their intellect, they have to cope with the hand life deals them like the rest of us.”
As a result, Mr. Critchley, philosophy chairman at the New School for Social Research, has made a book out of marvelous and funny anecdotes about the deaths of some 190 philosophers, from ancient to modern. Don’t be daunted by the many centuries involved. And you don’t have to read the book all at once, Mr. Critchley advises. You can just dip in and out of it at your pleasure. Fortunately, this reviewer was obligated to read it all. And, as the philosopher would say, it was all for the good.
Thus, we have Diogenes, who disdained fleshly pleasures and was said by some to have committed suicide by holding his breath; Julien Offray de La Mettrie, atheist and hedonist, who died after eating large amounts of truffled pâté; and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who saw life and death as part of the same timelessness. He died the day after his birthday. A friend had given him an electric blanket as a present. “Many happy returns,” the friend said. “There will be no returns,” Wittgenstein supposedly replied.
Mr. Critchley recounts that Voltaire, after decades of denouncing the Roman Catholic Church, announced on his deathbed that he wanted to die a Catholic. But the shocked parish priest kept asking him, “Do you believe in the divinity of Christ?” Voltaire begged, “In the name of God, Monsieur, don’t speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace.”
Hegel, who, as much as any philosopher, Mr. Critchley says, saw philosophy as an abstraction, while he was dying of cholera, moaned, “Only one man ever understood me … and he didn’t understand me.”
On its surface this is a lighthearted book. Mr. Critchley is listed as head philosopher of the International Necronautical Society, an avant-garde group whose Web page (necronauts.org) says its central tenet is “inauthenticity” and its purpose is devotion to the study of death, a “space which we intend to map, colonize and eventually inhabit.” But Mr. Critchley has a serious side and is author of learned works like “Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance,” “The Ethics of Deconstruction” and “Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity.” He is at ease playing in the fields of intentionality, categorical intuition and the phenomenological concept of the a priori. This book has a 13-page scholarly bibliography.
In Mr. Critchley’s serious view, Western philosophy is wrongly seen as having been derived mainly from the Greeks. Not true, he says, pointing to its origins among Arabs, Persians, Chinese, Indians and others. Philosophy, he says, has abandoned its original purpose, which is to give us wisdom and help us achieve happiness. The development of philosophy, he writes, has been a process of “westering” or “bestering.” Philosophy has tried to mimic science in its constant striving toward the perfection of ideas and its quest for absolute truth. Gradually philosophy has been abstracted from the concerns of everyday life, leaving us in the grip of the “terror of annihilation.” To calm us, Mr. Critchley says, there are endless sophistries for sale, New Age nostrums, self-help books and the “mindless accumulation of money and possessions.”
All well and good. But dare we amateurs question Mr. Critchley’s organizing principle, that we can find that wisdom we are missing in the deaths of philosophers? Kant died of a stomach ailment. What does that say about “The Critique of Pure Reason”? His last words were apparently spoken after his disciple gave him a little water mixed with wine. “Sufficit,” said Kant. (“It is enough.”) But was Kant saying that he had lived sufficiently long to refine his theories on metaphysics and epistemology? Or that he simply didn’t want any more water?
Some philosophers Mr. Critchley cites may not even have existed. “Let’s not allow Pythagoras’s mere nonexistence to deter us, as the stories that surround him are so compelling,” he suggests at one point, before telling us the legend that Pythagoras died because he refused to cross a field of beans to escape his enemies. Mr. Critchley himself points out that there are also philosophers in the book whose deaths he doesn’t describe or whose last words are missing. There are also sections in which he makes no attempt to connect the philosopher’s death to his ideas. Never mind. Many deeds and utterances attributed to philosophers are apocryphal or compiled posthumously by disciples. It’s a long tradition. Philosophical writing is in its essence metaphorical.
This book is just fun to read. You do learn a lot, including the way in which the wise Mr. Critchley envisions the manner of his own death. “Exit,” Mr. Critchley says, ‘pursued by a bear.'”
Brava, I say. Brilliant! Not only is the reviewer’s writing superb, but the book and Critchley’s ironic slant make me want to rush out and buy this collection of funny stories about the deaths and last words of philosophers. I love a writer who can indulge us in a light-hearted yet intellectual examination of the “meaning of life,” even if it is meaning we project from our own perceptions or perspectives–rather a philosophical quilting project, stitching order out of swatches of others’ lives (and deaths). We used to cast bones to see the future, now we cast philosophers’ stones!
© Copyright 2015 Linda L Labin, PhD (Except as noted)