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Simon Critchley


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Critchley, who is himself a philosopher, begins by stating that what defines our attitude to death is not simply fear but overwhelming terror at the thought of annihilation. This has become more prominent with the decline of religious faith, at least in Europe. Ancient philosophers such as the stoic Seneca had a lot to say about death, and Critchley wants to defend the idea of the philosophical death.

His way of doing this is to write about how philosophers have died and what we can learn from philosophy about the appropriate attitude to death and dying. This, he believes, may also help us learn how to live.

The book consists of short (sometimes very short) accounts of the deaths of some 190 philosophers, in sections ranging in time from the sixth century BC to almost the present. The accounts of the deaths are often linked to the philosophers' central ideas. The author's tone is often light-hearted, even comic, but this does not preclude an underlying seriousness.

"Philsophers" is interpreted fairly loosely; one would not usually think of Aeschylus as a philosopher, for example, but Critchely includes him because his plays contain so much deep wisdom. Incidentally, the delightful story that Aeschylus was killed by an eagle dropping a tortoise on his bald head in mistake for a rock is apparently a myth that arose because someone misinterpreted the iconography on his tomb. How disappointing.

Critchley's own views of death emerge here and there throughout the book in the form of asides. In a short concluding section he finds that the ideal of the philosophical death helps to counteract the death-denying ethos of our time. Acceptance of our mortality is the key to this but it's not a facile answer. "This is not easy, I know. To philosophize is to love that difficulty."

See also Nothing to be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes

30 March 2010

%T The Book of Dead Philosophers
%A Critchley, Simon
%I Granta Publications
%C London
%D 2008, 2009
%G ISBN 978-1-84708079-0
%P xv + 298pp
%K philosophy

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