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How Philosphers Face Death

EDITORIAL NOTE: Kimberly Hanson has added a photo of her workspace to the Where Elders Blog feature. You can find a list of many others here where there are also instructions on how to send in your blogging desk photo.

There is a curious little book I've been reading titled, The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley who is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. It is a collection of short pieces about what philosophers throughout written history have said about death and how they died. It is one of those lovely little books you can keep around on a table, dip into anywhere to find something to surprise you.

“I want to defend the ideal of the philosophical death,” writes Critchley in the introduction. “In a world where the only metaphysics in which people believe is either money or medical science and where longevity is prized as an unquestioned good, I do not deny that this is a difficult ideal to defend.

“Yet, it is my belief that philosophy can teach a readiness for death without which any conception of contentment, let alone happiness, is illusory. Strange as it might sound, my constant concern in these seemingly morbid pages is the meaning and possibility of happiness.”
In the first chapter, he recounts a long list of how some philosophers died. Among them:
  • Heraclitus suffocated on cow dung.

  • Plato allegedly died of a lice infestation.

  • Diogenes died by holding his breath. (As did a larger number than you would guess.)

  • Simone Weil starved herself to death for the sake of solidarity with occupied France during the Second World War.

  • Roland Barthes was hit by a dry cleaning van after a meeting with Jack Lang, the future French minister for culture.

In addition to the alternately tragic and absurd stories of philosophers' deaths, with Critchley's wit and his selection of quotes from these men and women, it veers from comedy to tragedy with a lot to reflect upon. Some excerpts:

“It is widely believed that Aeschylus [525/524 – 456/455 BC] was killed when an eagle dropped a live tortoise on his bald head, apparently mistaking his head for a stone. Apparently, the great tragedian was represented on his tombstone slumped over, while and eagle – the bird of Apollo – carried off his soul to heaven in the form of a lyre.

However, a lyre looks like, and perhaps was originally, a tortoise shell strung with a few strings. Presumably, someone ignorant of the iconography mistook 'eagle-taking-the-soul-of-dead-poet-to-heaven-in-the-form-of-lyre' to mean 'eagle-drops-tortoise-on-head-of-sleeping-poet-killing-both.'” (page 11)
“William of Malmesbury tells the doubtless apocryphal tale that [John Scott] Eriugena (810 – 877 AD] was summoned to England by Alfred the Great and subsequently stabbed to death by his pupils, presumably some unsatisfied English monks. Apparently, the murder weapons were not knives but writing styli. Further proof, if proof were needed, that the pen is mightier than the sword.” (page 85)
“Metrocles [late third century BC] reportedly farted when rehearsing a speech. This drove him to such despair that he tried to starve himself to death. Crates came to visit the distraught Metrocles and made him a meal of lupins. Of course, as lupins are members of the bean family, this merely caused him to repeat the indiscretion...

“Thus, philosophy begins in farting, and some might say that hot air at one end of the body is simply accompanied by hot air at the other end.”

“Metrocles died in old age, 'having choked himself,' as Diogenes Laertius curtly notes. One hopes that the cause wasn't lupins.” (page 29)
“Naturally enough, the Meditations ends with a meditation on death. Marcus Aurelius [121 – 80 BC] asks, 'Why do you hunger for length of days?' The point of life is to follow reason and the divine spirit and to accept whatever nature sends you. To live in this way is not to fear death, but to hold it in contempt. Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present. Marcus Aurelius concludes, 'Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.'” (page 64)
“Before his final illness, Thomas Hobbes [1588 – 1679] invited his friends to write possible epitaphs to be engraved on his tombstone. His favourite was the following: 'This is the true philosopher's stone.'” (page 121)
“[Franz] Rosenzweig (1886 – 1929) was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1922 (the same degenerative disease that afflicts Stephen Hawking). In his final years, Rosenzweig could only communicate by his wife reciting letters of the alphabet until he asked her to stop and she would guess at the intended word. His final words, written in this laborious manner, were an unfinished sentence that reads,

“'And now it comes, the point of all points, which the Lord has truly revealed to me in my sleep, the point of all points for which there - '

“Apparently, the writing was interrupted by a doctor's visit. Rosenzweig died during the night.” (page 201)

Damn. Imagine what we may have missed learning thanks to the doctor's visit.

I love this little book. It can be read for the 190 individual stories, some of them amazing. But there is much more to gain from it as a whole.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson writes of a recent death in Seven Days to Say Goodbye.]


Hmmm, there's a great temptation as I read this to go along with the lighter aspect of what you and Critchley seem to be offering here. I'm struck, probably not a propitious word in this discussion, by the fact the examples are all male.

I've often noted that few women must die since one hardly ever see their obituaries in the New York Times.

Naomi, thanks for the laugh! And Ronni, thanks for the occasion of it!

Another book for my "books to look for list". Sounds like my kind of read. As for women in the New York Times obituary, you'll not see mine there either. It costs money to have your obituary printed in a newspaper; either men control more of that or women are too wise to waste it so foolishly.

I just visited my 92 year old friend who is extremely healthy with the exception of arthritis.

I was struck by the fact that we both go on as if death will never come. Of course, that is foolishness, but to laugh about death is a tonic for us. Guess I will have to get that book.

I just got back from visiting my best friend in the hospital, where he has "died" 3 times since Saturday and has been brought back to life each time by his implanted defibrillator. Tests show that his body is simply failing and there's nothing the doctors can do about it. Despite his good spirits, he and I both know that it's just a matter of time -- and a short time -- before he will die "for good."

My mind is in such a muddle over the potential loss of this brilliant and generous man that I can be anything but "philosophical" about it. He is far more ready for his end than I am.

He mentioned a couple of weeks back that he has this book. I will ask him tomorrow what his favorite parts are and why. Maybe it will help me adjust my attitude to be a little closer to his!

The closest friend I ever had, called me one day in October to tell me that he had just see his Oncologist who said that he had six months left. Up until that moment, I didn't know that he had cancer. My friend's wife called me on Friday the 13th of April to tell me that Jerry had died the night before. Exactly six months to the day of Jerry's call the previous October.
Jerry really was a real control freak and I miss him a lot.

Philosophers would have me live in the present, accept my failing body and enjoy, even savor, the journey toward death. I just re-read Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night .... Rage, rage against the dying of the light." For now, I'll let the doctors have their way with my heart. At 73, there's so much living left.

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