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The art of dying MARK VERNON CONFRONTS THE INEVITABLE The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley (Granta) £15.99 (hb) To be published in the US by Random House in January, £14.95 (pb)

benefit of writing such a book, namely as a

an anonymous caller phones old people.

powerful remembrance of his own mortality.)

The individual repeatedly utters, in a

It’s a heavy subject, but the book is written

deadpan voice, the following words:

with an appealing lightness of touch, and an

“Remember that you must die.” The police are

eye for biographical detail. There is the story

called in, though they suspect the elderly

of Heraclitus expiring in cow dung; of

complainants are hallucinating. It’s as if they

Pythagoras who was apparently killed by

live in a world in which the reality of death –

beans; of Empedocles jumping into a volcano;

in truth, the one certainty of life – is not quite

of Lucretius who is alleged to have killed

believable. It’s perhaps as Wittgenstein

himself for love; and Seneca who was forced to

mused: “Death is not an event in life.”

commit suicide by Nero.

Simon Critchley’s new book is a kind of

I particularly like the story of Hegesias. A

philosophical memento mori. It’s a desktop

teacher, he was known as the “orator of death”

encyclopedia of dozens of philosophers, from

or “death’s persuader” having reasoned that

Thales to, ahem, Simon Critchley, relating the

the key issue in life is the avoidance of pain,

various ways they died. (In fact, Critchley has

and the only way to guarantee that is to



n Muriel Spark’s novel, Memento Mori,

not died, at least at the time of writing: he includes himself on the list, I imagine, as a

Mark Vernon’s new book, Wellbeing (Acumen) is out in September

reflection of what must be the fundamental


3RD QUARTER 2008 tpm I


commit suicide. It sounds silly. But he must

Plato portrayed Socrates’ last hours, a tried

have been persuasive since he apparently

and tested formula if your aim is to assemble

provoked a string of student suicides and was

evidence for a pagan saint that could be set

banned from teaching.

before a secular devil’s advocate.

Moving to the modern day, it is striking

Plato wrote that to philosophize is to learn

how the suicide theme remains strong: Walter

how to die. Not that philosophy is a morbid

Benjamin who did it on the Spanish border to

pursuit. Rather, the idea is that it is only when

escape the Nazis; Simone Weil who starved

you know how to die, that you know how to

herself to death; or Gilles Deleuze who

live: death brings life into sharp focus. In a conclusion, inevitably entitled “Last

To be human is to be aware that non-existence frames our lives. It can no more be ignored than the frame of a picture

Words”, Critchley has a bit of a go at contemporary Christians who, he feels, ignore the teaching of Paul, Augustine and Luther. These figures are also in the book, for they taught that faith was a way of embracing the shortness of life, and ditching




However, I suspect that an inability


seriously to contemplate death is not


jumped out of a fourth-story apartment

confined just to contemporary believers. It’s a

window. Some philosophers had suitable

sign of our times. And are there not now

deaths. Plato probably died at his writing desk,

philosophers who dedicate themselves to a

though some said he was actually overrun by

“posthuman future”, a life of infinitely delayed



Other deaths are famous in the annals of

Critchley confesses that he inclines to the

philosophy. There is Socrates, of course. More

Epicurean: “When death is, I am not; when I

recently, there is the death of the Scottish

am, death is not.” So why bother worrying?

Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. It

Except that, as Critchley points out, this

was thoroughly documented by his friend, the

formula for tranquility takes no account of

economist Adam Smith, who saw that his

loved ones dying. To my mind, it also fails to

passing was a key moment in Hume’s life.

realize that to be human is to be aware that

If he did it well, then it would serve as the

non-existence frames our lives. It can no more

supreme proof of his arguments against

be ignored than the frame of a picture.

religious belief: it was not just their cogency

Moreover, how the picture is framed is

that mattered, but that their advocate could be

integral to its success as a work of art. Thus, it

seen to die without fear. Smith described

must be with life. Another reason to

Hume’s death, borrowing from the way that

remember you must die.

I tpm 3RD QUARTER 2008

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The Philosopher's Magazine Review  

Review of SImon Crithley's 'Book of Dead Philosopher's' in the The Philosopher's Magazine

The Philosopher's Magazine Review  

Review of SImon Crithley's 'Book of Dead Philosopher's' in the The Philosopher's Magazine