Monday, February 16, 2009

Dead Philosophers on Death

Here is a NYT review of Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley. This may be nice companion to Nothing to be Frightened Of. In any case, here is a good motivation for collecting views of philosophers on death:
As long as we are afraid of death, Critchley thinks, we cannot really be happy. And one way to overcome this fear is by looking to the example of philosophers. “I want to defend the ideal of the philosophical death,” Critchley writes.

So he takes us on a breezy and often entertaining tour through the history of philosophy, looking at how 190 or so philosophers from ancient times to the present lived and died. Not all of the deaths recounted are as edifying as Socrates’. Plato, for example, may have died of a lice infestation. The Enlightenment thinker La Mettrie seemed to have expired after eating a quantity of truffle pâté. Several deaths are precipitated by collisions: Montaigne’s brother was killed by a tennis ball; Rousseau died of cerebral bleeding, possibly as a result of being knocked down by a galloping Great Dane; and Roland Barthes was blindsided by a dry-cleaning truck. The American pragmatist John Dewey, who lived into his 90s, came to the most banal end of all: he broke his hip and then succumbed to pneumonia.
And what do we learn from musings on death?
It’s hard to find a consistent message here. Montaigne trained for the end by keeping death “continually present, not merely in my imagination, but in my mouth.” Spinoza went to the contrary extreme, declaring, “A free man thinks least of all of death.” Dying philosophically means dying cheerfully — that is what one would presume from the examples cited in this book. The beau ideal is David Hume, who, when asked whether the thought of annihilation terrified him, calmly replied, “Not the least.”
Hmm...lets go with Hume on this one. Read the full review here. Also read the first chapter here.