Saturday, February 6, 2010
The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley
Simon Critchley taught a course at the New School For Social Research called "To Philosophize is to Learn to Die" in 2007. The summarizes of the philosophy and deaths of some 200 different philosophers speaks to this theme. The book begins with the Greeks and ends in the modern day
Each summary runs from a paragraph to a couple of pages depending on the importance of the philosophical figures. The book covers from the period of the early Greeks to modern day philosophers. It includes some Chinese, medieval arabic, medieval jewish, and women philosophers. The main divisions that are obvious are the pagan Greeks and Romans, the christians, and modern philosophers.
This book is not written for an academic audience. It is written to be enjoyed by the lay reader. There are no footnotes. There is a bibliography at the end. The writing is of ironic and funny. Some of the endings of important philosophers are quite perplexing. For example, according to legend, Pythagoras was killed because he refused to cross a bean field while being chased by his enemies.
We also learn that many were regarded more highly when they were dead than when they were alive. Nietzsche was one of these people. This is also true of many writers of what we call classic fiction.
Also, many philosophers choose to die for their beliefs, both christian and pagan. Plato died by drinking hemlock, and the Roman Emperor Nero killed three of the philosophers in the book. Maimonides was constantly on the run for his life.
Also, some refuse to give up their vices because they enjoyed them too much. Hannah Arendt would not stop drinking, nor would Freud stop smoking. There was a sense that many tried to live their life in the fullest possible way.
This is an enjoyable survey of what it means to live and die as a philosopher. It shows that death is not such a fearful thing. It also shows how unpredictable, capricious, funny, and ironic life can be.