Let’s Read: The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley

Roger Miller, for my money the preeminent American philosopher of the 20th century, once famously sang that “You can’t take a shower in a parakeet cage / but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.”

Now, before you concern yourself too much with what the hell Roger is talking about here, it may help to remember that this was a man who had a big hit with a song called Do Wacka Do, so, honestly, even I’m not 100% sure. But what I like to think Roger is trying to communicate, beyond reminding his audience of the physical impossibility of showering in a bird cage, is a noble sentiment traceable from Marcus Aurelius to Shakespeare to Milton: namely that, though our lives are subject to various exigencies and inherent limitations far beyond our control, happiness — however you choose to define that slippery term — is largely contingent on the way one chooses to approach the terrible beauty that is human existence.

But even assuming that we accept such a philosophy, we’re inevitably led to another, more difficult question, and one that I don’t believe Roger Miller ever addressed in song: how do we define ourselves in relation to our deaths, the biggest limitation of them all?

I probably don’t need to tell you that there’s been a lot of ink spilled throughout history on just this subject, or that, even after all that spilled ink, humanity still hasn’t come to any kind of consensus on the matter, so — fyi — you may want to consider not dying until we’ve figured this one out. If that’s not an option, or you simply stubbornly insist on shuffling off this mortal coil, you can at least prepare yourself for your imminent dirt nap by studying up on what some of your philosophically-inclined predecessors (all dead — hence experts in the field) thought about death and dying or, if you’ve a more morbid inclination, how they actually died.

The latter, mixed with a spoonful of the former, is the subject of Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers, a short and readable romp through the history of Western Philosophy, told through pithy biographical sketches of the lives and — more to the point — the deaths of its most famous practitioners.

In other words, an exhaustive survey of philosophical attitudes toward death this is not. Critchley doesn’t pause to dig into the nuances of any particular philosopher’s ideas here, although the major bits are sometimes related, particularly if they have any bearing on kicking the bucket. What you get instead is exactly what you’d want out of a book called The Book of Dead Philosophers: 190 (or so) dead philosophers, listed chronologically, and the stories — sordid, terrible, noble, funny, apocryphal — of how those philosophers died.

You may be tempted to dismiss this whole enterprise as ghoulish rubber-necking, but that ignores a deeper issue: that we’re all inherently interested, to some extent, in the details of how people croaked — particularly well-known people — because such gawking, besides the humanizing effect it has on those we may consider larger than life, helps to satisfy our own curiosity and apprehension about death in general, and our own deaths in particular. It’s OK, then, to point and stare, because we’ll all be taking a cruise on the River Styx soon enough.

But Critchley’s motives go beyond just relating tabloid tales of the dead and well-read. As he notes in his introduction, his little book is intended as a sort of teaching tool for a generation terrified of death, a generation willing to do almost anything to delay its inevitable extinction, when not simply fantasizing it away or avoiding it altogether. But acknowledge it or not, death still hangs over us like the sword of Damocles, patiently waiting to drop. As Cicero says, “to philosophize is to learn how to die,” and the author leaves no doubt that he believes we moderns are a lot who urgently need just such a lesson from philosophy, one that teaches us how to confront the idea of death with eyes wide open and, by extension, allows us to be absolved of that fear of oblivion which pollutes our lives — a fear that reduces the majesty, sensuality, and joy of existence to a mere prologue to death.

Still, this isn’t a didactic book, or even, considering the subject matter, a particularly depressing one. Critchley has a knack for finding the right tone — whether it’s describing Heracletius suffocating in cow dung or Edith Stein dying in Auschwitz — and he treads the line between thoughtful contemplation and good-natured bemusement exceedingly well, recognizing in the process that death is simultaneously the most serious and the most un-serious thing that will ever happen (or not happen) to any of us.

The Book of Dead Philosophers, then, reminds its readers that life and death are forever locked in an eternal, awkward embrace, much like you and your date on prom night, and that any attempt to divorce the two is folly. Life is not affirmed by the denial of death, nor by a hopeless acceptance of it that gives way to despair, but by a simple acknowledgment of death’s reality and its inevitability; a dark space within us that, once illuminated, casts light upon everything around it, and perhaps brings all into sharper focus.

That Critchley’s book succeeds not just as a guide to dead philosophers, but as a treatise to living readers on how best to live, delivered with pathos, heart, and humanity, is what elevates it from mere artifice to a work of serious — and funny — art.

Author: Simon Critchley / Publisher: Vintage, 2009

Hello! I’m Walter Jones and I write random things on Medium and on Twitter. My work has appeared in McSweeneys, Worldly Remains, and a zillion other places on the web. Follow me on twitter @saladofdespair