Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dead Philosophers

I'm looking forward to Group 6's report presentation today in CoPhi, on Simon Critchley's Book of Dead Philosophers. If "to philosophize is to learn how to die," the deaths of philosophers themselves ought to be instructive. That's Critchley's premise, and I think he cashes it in nicely. It's an informative, amusing, reassuring read.

To be a philosopher, then, is to learn how to die; it is to begin to cultivate the appropriate attitude towards death. As Marcus Aureliuswrites, it is one of “the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” Unknowing and uncertain, the philosopher walks.
Confucius say: “You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?” His rival Lao Tzu thought he understood his body to be the source of all his suffering. That’s blaming the victim, if you ask me. Both are now asteroids, nominally at least. Presumably their suffering (and understanding) is no more. Same for Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), who– like Freddie the Leaf– saw death as “just like the progression of the four seasons.”

Critchley has as eye for the bizarre and unseemly side of philosophy.  We learn, for instance, that Diogenes abused himself in the marketplace, saying he wished it were as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing his stomach. It’s not too surprising to learn that he never married, but it is dispiriting to think of him as the original poster boy for cosmopolitanism. Maybe he just meant to abuse public decency laws everywhere in the world… like fellow Cynics Hipparchia (herself a disappointing “first female philosopher” who was bettered by Hypatia) and Crates. I do like his comment on Plato’s metaphysics: The table and cup I see, but I do not see tableness and cupness.

Critchley’s conclusion: accepting our mortality is the condition for courage and endurance in place of the despair that so many seekers of immortality (either in an imagined heaven or on a bio-technologically transformed Earth) must suffer. Most, including most Christians, “are actually leading quietly desperate atheist lives bounded by a desire for longevity and a terror of annihilation.” It is possible to lead an open and affirming atheist life, but only after looking the reaper square in the eyes and not flinching. I’m working on it. (Monty Python helps.)

I'm not sure what Group 6 has in store exactly, but they did indicate a particular interest in beans.

Don't Fear the Reaper... Critchley on happiness... The Philosopher Walks... The Way... Dead Stoics Society... more Critchley posts... Critchley, R.I.P

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