The Book of Dead Philosophers, By Simon Critchley

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The Independent Culture

"He who would teach men to die would teach them to live", wrote Montaigne, quoted in "That to Philosophize is to Learn How to Die", the epigraph to Critchley's informative, entertaining if at times bewildering book. He believes that we live in terror of annihilation, and that such fear is folly, and an evasion of the real business of living.

Critchley moves elegantly through a wide berth of philosophy. There is Socratic wisdom: that the philosopher looks death in the face and has the strength to say that it is nothing ("True philosophers make dying their profession"). There is also wisdom from Seneca, Spinoza, Schopenhauer and a host of others. And Critchley tries to link the manner of their demise to their central ideas. He evokes Seneca's botched suicide; Aristotle poisoning himself; Heraclitus suffocating on cow dung.

If this all sounds a bit grim, fear not, for there is much humour (and not only gallows humour) to light the way. There are moments when one might feel like killing oneself by munching on all the pages of this book, but thankfully the optimistic drive towards life saves the day – and the reader.