Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Book of Dead Philosophers

by Simon Critchley

Cicero said, "To philosophize is to learn how to die," so why not compile a book of the deaths of philosophers through the ages. The sentiment — not universal but far from uncommon among such folk, particularly the ancients — has some connection with the (also ancient) notion that no one can be judged happy or to have lived a good life until s/he has died. And such a compendium as Critchley has assembled is itself a memento mori.

It's also a great book, surprisingly entertaining, something that will stand up to multiple readings, and a book I actually want to own. (As I've mentioned before, wanting to own a book is a big deal for me, and I've only bought four or five books during the ten years I've been working in a library.)

So, why a memento mori? Critchley believes that fear of death — including but not limited to: fear of non-being; fear of the afterlife or reincarnation; fear of dying painfully or alone; fear of not having lived a good/long/satisfying/meaningful enough life — has a negative impact on our lives while we are living them. Fear of death, he argues, must be confronted and overcome, so thinking about death is to be encouraged rather than avoided. We can be aided in this endeavor not only by philosophers' ideas about death but also by the particular circumstances of their deaths, and the harmony, or lack thereof, between the two.

The author includes more women than most people ever imagined were philosophers, and he also gets in some non-Western guys. No living philosophers, of course, but some who've died within recent memory. Most of the entries don't fully explain the individual philosophers' schticks, but some do give an overview — and in either case there's definitely fodder for future trivia games.

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