The Dead Philosophers Society

If, as Cicero suggests, to philosophize is to learn how to die, then what are we to make of Diogenes?

He killed himself - by holding his own breath until he kicked.

How does one learn how to do that, Diogenes?

Or what about Heraclitus, who, suffering from an edema, immersed himself in cow manure and lay down to bake in the sun, believing the process would remove the fluid.

What would Cicero tell us about these philosophers and learning how to die?

Hell, let's ask a living philosopher: Simon Critchley, chairman of the philosophy department at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

The author of “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” just published in deluxe paper by Vintage Books, Critchley has written a deliciously wise compendium detailing the deaths of about 190 philosophers spanning history.

It's also very funny and works as a great linear read or for the sort of lunch time leisure where you randomly pick any section or philosopher. Most importantly, it's a very provocative book that provides concise capsules detailing the core of each thinker's philosophy.

By phone in his New School office last week, Critchley says, “Some have said the book has a sort of Wikipedia aspect to it, and I take that in the right spirit. You absolutely can dip into sections. The idea was to provide a first-staging post for people who are curious about these things - and using levity is a way to make them more accessible.”

A former punk guitarist who originally wanted to study literature, Critchley became fascinated by philosophy partly because he reads slowly.

”I'm actually much better suited to reading the sort of stuff that requires deeper consideration,” he laughs. “Difficulty intrigues me.”

Critchley says the idea for the book came from a friend years ago. But until Critchley had some free time recently in Los Angeles, he didn't actually begin to write the work.

”I didn't really get along with Los Angeles,” says Critchley, who is very funny and polite in conversation. “Los Angeles is like the world capital of death. It's the home of seedy noir and there's this dark underbelly. There are all these tinted windows and sunglasses as though people are denying death at every corner. So the whole situation was sort of like a creative Petri dish.”

Given the various fields of thought and philosophical movement over the course of history, one would expect a great variety of life - and death - lessons from so many great thinkers. Was Critchley able, through the process of writing the book, to come to any absolute conclusion about death and its meaning?

”To be honest, my efforts to arrive at a definitive answer were not completely successful,” he laughs. “I guess you write books because you are trying to explore questions that trouble you. But now I have this expanded vocabulary, if you will. I guess what I wanted was to say is there isn't one single argument. Hopefully, this will expand the horizons a bit.”

The final chapter of the book, called “Creatureliness,” actually provides the author's blueprint for an acceptance of death and the meaning of being able to do so.

It's an amazing reflection on our limitedness as human beings - and offers the hope we can begin to give up “certain of the fantasies of infantile omnipotence, worldly wealth and puffed-up power” that have historically led to war and conflict.

And Critchley, who writes of his own demise that he hopes he will exit being pursued by a bear, suggests that, “in speaking of death and even laughing at our frailty and mortality, one accepts the creaturely limitation that is the very condition for human freedom.”
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