If philosophy is, as Plato thought, preparation for dying, then perhaps we can learn something from the deaths of famous philosophers. That’s the central insight behind Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers. The book consists of short, biographical vignettes of philosophers, with special emphasis on how they met their end. Although it may sound like a morbid exercise, the goal is to cultivate a philosophical attitude toward death, thereby robbing death of its power. At least, that’s the idea.
Of course, the prime example of a philosophical death is that of Socrates. The equanimity with which he faced his demise set the ideal of the philosophical death for centuries. In the Apology, he says of death:
Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we have been told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another.
After nearly three millennia, these are still the two main options in our culture. Lucretius, the Roman Epicurean philosopher, opted for annihilation. For him, we shouldn’t fear the eternity after our death any more than we fear the eternity before our birth.
One who no longer is cannot suffer, or differ in any way from one who has never been born, when once this mortal life has been usurped by death the immortal.
He also showed little regard for what happened to his body after death.
For if it is really a bad thing after death to be mauled and crunched by ravening jaws, I cannot see why it should not be disagreeable to roast in the scorching flames of a funeral pyre, or to lie embalmed in honey, stifled and stiff with cold, on the surface of a chilly slab, or to be squashed under a crushing weight of earth.
This is similar to the sentiment of the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who said:
An unburied body will be consumed by crows and eagles, but a buried body will be eaten up by ants. So you’re snatching food from the mouths of crows and eagles and feeding it into the mouths of ants. Why are you showing favors to ants?
This disregard of the body found its way into Christianity, especially through the influence of Platonism. The ideal of the philosophical death can also be found in the lives of Christian saints, such as Boethius in his The Consolation of Philosophy. Although Boethius is ostensibly a Christian, it is Philosophia, personified as a woman, rather than Christ, who comes to console him at death. The only perceptible difference between the Socratic ideal of the good death in paganism and Christianity is in their evaluation of suicide. For the pagans, particularly the Stoics, suicide or euthanasia (literally “good death”) is preferable to slow decline. The stigma toward suicide is a decidedly Christian innovation in our Western tradition.
Despite philosophy’s attempts to come to terms with death, it arguably never completely succeeds in lessening our terror at the prospect of our own annihilation. As La Rochefoucauld said in the seventeenth century:
Nothing proves as well that philosophers are not as convinced as they claim that death is not an evil, as the torment they go through in order to establish the immortality of their names by the loss of their lives.
La Rochefoucauld’s contemporary Pascal, a Christian, accused Montaigne of having a ‘cowardly and effeminate’ conception of death based on classical paganism. For Pascal, one cannot come to terms with death without belief in immortality. His famous Wager comes to mind.
In the twentieth century, death is again at the fore of philosophy in large part due to the devastating wars that plagued the century. The Second World War in particular was a clash of ideologies and some philosophers died taking sides. The little known (at least to me) Italian philosophers Giovanni Gentile and Antonio Gramsci died for the causes of fascism and communism respectively. Gentile, the self-described ‘philosopher of Fascism’, was assassinated in 1944 after the liberation of Italy. Gramsci was imprisoned by the fascists. He was released when his health deteriorated and he died soon afterward. In the safe, professionalized world of philosophy today, one can hardly imagine a philosopher committed enough to die for a cause.
Other philosophers of the period became preoccupied with death as they fled persecution by the Nazis. Those who escaped to the United States, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, realized that their philosophy had to come to terms, not simply with their individual deaths, but with the mass slaughter of the Holocaust. Adorno especially seems to have questioned whether philosophy is equal to the task.
Heidegger, of course, (in)famously took sides during this period, becoming a member of the Nazi party. Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian Jew who was only saved from the concentration camp because of his status as an officer in the French army, remarked: “One can forgive many Germans, but there are Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger.” Heidegger died in his sleep at the age of eighty-six, having never recanted or suffered any repercussions for his Nazi sympathies.
If there’s one criticism of Critchley’s book — which he acknowledges — it’s that he prefers the Continental tradition and gives short shrift to the Analytic philosophers. This is not without justification, however, because the Continental tradition sees philosophy as inextricably bound up with one’s life (and death). As such, many of the Continental philosophers have more interesting biographies than their more sterile analytic counterparts. Of course, there are a few exceptions. Wittgenstein famously wrote his Tractatus as a solider in World War I and displayed almost reckless courage. He describes his first taste of combat: ‘Yesterday I was shot at. I was scared! I was afraid of death. I now have such a desire to live.’ And live he did, becoming one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. However, his desire to live waned when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. On his last birthday, his friend Mrs. Bevan, wished him ‘Many happy returns’ to which he replied ‘There will be no returns.’ Of death, he said:
Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the same way in which our visual field has no limits.
Russell is another analytic philosopher with a very interesting biography. I can’t possibly go into the details of Russell’s long and interesting life. As a famous atheist, however, he had a predictably materialist view of death:
I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.
A.J. Ayer also led an interesting life, which provides two of the most memorable anecdotes in the book. He once attended a Manhattan party also attended by then-heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. A woman rushed into the room saying that her friend was being assaulted by Tyson. Ayer found Tyson trying to force himself on model Naomi Campbell. Ayer confronted Tyson, who said “Do you know who the f*** I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” Ayer replied, “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” Surprisingly, Ayer survived the encounter and Ms. Campbell was likewise unharmed. Ayer had another near death experience after choking on some salmon in 1988, in which he encountered a bright light that he described as the governor of the universe. He also saw luminous beings in charge of space and time. Although he said in the Sunday Telegraph that his experience did provide “rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to consciousness”, he apparently remained an atheist until his permanent death a year later.
There are many other stories I could relate from the book, but I recommend that you read it for yourself. The book is by no means an exhaustive biographical treatment of these philosophers, but that’s not the point. Rather, the point is to see whether or not we can learn anything from the deaths of these thinkers and, importantly, whether the manner in which they faced their mortality was consistent with their philosophy. In our death-avoidance culture, I think that there’s much that we can collectively learn from reading this book.