02 March 2009

Dead white men, and the woman who loves them.

The Book of Dead Philosophers (Vintage) The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
In my former life as a St. John’s College undergraduate, I read a lot of philosophy. I’m not bragging, especially: around about junior year, I realized I don’t really care for the genre (preferring the more oblique and elegant stylings of literature). By then it was too late, and I was doomed to apologetically telling people I’d majored in philosophy to the end of my days. But while I remain, I think, well versed in all the heavy hitters (Plato, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche), and have dim memories of less well-known thinkers such as Maimonides, Averroes, Plotinus (well, I remember the book was green), because of St. John’s academically sui generis notion that it’s the texts and not the author’s historical contexts that matter, I know next to nothing about the lives of these men. (Yes, they’re all men. And mostly white. That’s a can of worms for another day.) Simon Critchley’s straightforwardly titled “The Book of Dead Philosophers” remedies at least part of this gap in my background by presenting pithy and often quite funny accounts of the lives, ideas, and most importantly, demises of 190 philosophers, from Thales (originator of the maxim “Know thyself,” who believed water was the universal element) to (prematurely) Simon Critchley (entire entry: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”).

Some highlights from the catalogue: William of Ockham (of Razor fame) perished in the Black Death. Thomas Hobbes, who called man’s life in the state of nature “nasty, brutish, and short,” lived till his nineties, which he attributed to eating lots of fish, vigourous walks, daily massages, and singing loudly in bed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau died of cerebral hemorrhage, possibly a consequence of having been knocked down two years earlier by a Great Dane running at full speed. Jeremy Bentham’s body (though not his head, which was commonly stolen by prankish students) sits preserved in a glass case at University College London (Mark’s seen him!). Sigmund Freud’s prolific cigar smoking led to numerous mouth cancers. Michel Foucault was an early victim of AIDS.

Why take this morbid approach to the history of philosophy, you ask? Critchely takes his epigram from my all-time fave, the charming, wide-ranging inventor of the personal essay, Michel de Montaigne: “If I were a maker of books, I would make a register, with comments, of various deaths. He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.” Montaigne’s subject in the essay the quote is taken from is Cicero’s adage “to philosophize is to learn how to die.” As Critchely says, “[t]he main task of philosophy, in this view, is to prepare us for death, provide a kind of training for death, the cultivation of an attitude toward our finitude that faces—and faces down—the terror of annihilation.” It is this attitude that Critchley finds dangerously lacking in this era, where longevity is “the sole unquestioned good of contemporary Western life,” no matter at what cost it is obtained. “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” then, is itself a serious work of philosophy, examining the connection between the examined life and its usually ordinary, often ignominious end, with no less a goal that assuaging our fear of death.

And how did Montaigne die? In 1592, of quinsy (peritonsillar abcess), unable to speak, but apparently unafraid.

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