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Lions Roar : September 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN SepteMBer 2009 25 Maybe your philosophy 101 textbook was dry as a bone and your philosophy class (MWF 11 a.m.–12 p.m.) was a good opportunity to doze. But don’t hold that against Simon critchley. Though he’s professor and chair of philosophy at the new School for Social Research in new york, he’s not like the prof you had. his latest book, the book of dead philosophers, unpacks three thousand years of philosophical history by explaining how “190 or so” philosophers have kicked off. and this, surprisingly, is a lively read—life affirming and morbidly funny. — anDRea MiLLeR Why a book on dead philosophers? philosophy began with a death. socrates walked around athens asking questions no one had ever asked before. difficult, univer- sal questions about the nature of things: What is justice? beauty? truth? people answered socrates’ questions and he picked apart their answers, but he didn’t provide answers himself, just a series of perplexities. for that he was executed by the authorities. the philosopher always has their eyes on death. focused on questions of finitude, he’s already in a sense half dead himself. to philoso- phize is to learn how to die in the right way, at the right time. this is what the philosophical tradition keeps coming back to. is there such a thing as a good death? I think so. dignity is key. most people now die in a drug-in- duced state, and in some cases this interferes with dignity. In the past, a lot of people died in pain, but that wasn’t necessarily bad. a great example is epicurus. he died in enormous pain, yet he endured and died with tranquillity. this was essential to his teaching: do not fear death. these days, the overwhelming issue is not dying in pain, not being a burden to anybody else. so there’s a sense that you should drug people, pacify them. yet there are people in the modern age who have done other things—freud, for instance. he had twenty-seven operations for cancer of the mouth and refused to take painkillers because, he said, he’d rather think in pain than not think at all. how else has the culture of death changed over time? In the past, deaths were often group acts— the dying were surrounded by friends. and death was something that was meditated on throughout life. It wasn’t something one tried to run away from. our cul- ture denies death in a dramatic way, particularly in the u.s., where most people have never even seen a corpse. looking at the history of the philosophical death can get people to look at the skull beneath the skin—to focus on the one certainty in life, apart from taxes, which is that life ends. has any other society denied death to the extent we do? societies have denied death in different ways, but we’re so ex- treme it’s difficult to think of a precedent. We shuffle dying off as something that happens to other people, not to us. We see death as obscene. the Victorians had difficulties with sex but they had a powerful death culture and were very good at com- memorating it. We’re the opposite. We can talk about sex until we’re blue in the face but we cannot face death. We’re terrified of it. this is strange in an overwhelmingly Christian culture, because Christianity is a meditation on death. It’s about learn- ing to die in a certain way. longevity wasn’t something of much value in early Christianity—a brief life was often a more worthy life. the denial of death is the overwhelming desire for longevity at all costs, and the gods people believe in are the gods of medi- cal technology. I’m not against that but we should be thinking about the issue more carefully. What about the classical chinese philosophy of death? Confucianism was all about the right manners and the right behavior, so the Confucians were obsessed with rituals around death. daoists rejected that, thinking death was a passage from one state to another: We’re human beings, we QA Any Last Thoughts? SIMON CRITCHLEY , unpacks three thousand years of philosophical history by explaining how “190 or so” philosophers have kicked off. and this, surprisingly, is a lively read—life affirming and philosophy began with a death. socrates walked around athens In the past, deaths were often group acts— the dying were surrounded by friends. and death was something that was meditated on throughout life. It wasn’t something people have never even seen a corpse. looking at the history of the philosophical death can get people to photobyJohnsImmons