The Book of Dead Philosophers, By Simon Critchley

In the face of death and pain, the plucky ancients found philosophising an effective analgesic
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Philosophers, if they are to win public trust, cannot go all coy when someone asks them to explain the meaning of life. They had better have a five-minute spiel ready, even if only to argue that existence is pointless. Secondly, they had better be able to look death in the eye without flinching. Although it is difficult to maintain one's dignity at the end when, like Heraclitus, you are drowning in manure (giving new meaning to the ancient Greek philosopher's famous phrase "All is flux") or like Aeschylus, when your bald pate is mistaken for a rock by a passing eagle, which drops a live tortoise upon it.

Simon Critchley's book details the last hours of 190 thinkers, and it is full of these wonderful absurdities, particularly in the sections on early philosophy where sparse documentary evidence has encouraged historians to embroider. Death by tortoise was a myth: the creature was actually the image of a lyre on Aeschylus's tombstone representing his soul being carried off to heaven by the bird as the philosopher lay slumped beneath. Nevertheless, great thinkers seem to have suffered inordinately from bizarre or ironic deaths. Thales, who believed that everything was made of water, died from dehydration while watching sports. The tyrant Nicocreon of Cyprus sentenced Anaxarchus to death by means of a giant pestle and mortar, to which the philosopher replied "Pound, pound the pouch containing Anaxarchus, but you do not pound Anaxarchus." Nicocreon ordered his victim's tongue be cut out, so the philosopher bit it off himself and spat it at his tormentor.

Lucretius argued that we should no more fear the eternity of non-existence that follows our death any more than we fear the aeons of non-existence that preceded our birth. It is a profound thought, but one that is of little help. The reason we should fear the time after our death more than the time before our birth is a simple one: the same reason why we fear a punch in the face tomorrow more than a similar blow yesterday. However, the stoic ideal has been so successful in the popular consciousness that it is now the standard image of the philosopher. The author delights in this development and agrees with Cicero that "To philosophise is to learn how to die." Socrates took his hemlock with good cheer and refused to escape Athens' death row when he had the chance. Even more admirable is Epicurus, who believed death to be a final extinction yet reportedly died happy even after two weeks of agonising pain caused by kidney stones and renal failure, because philosophising was analgesic enough.

Once we get into the sober, modern era of analytic philosophy, the deaths become as straight-laced as the thinkers, except on the Continent where things are always different. When Jean-Paul Sartre expired from dropsy, Simone de Beauvoir threw herself on top of his corpse, where she drank herself to sleep. An exception on the Anglo-American side was A J Ayer, who died twice – the first time temporarily after choking on a piece of salmon. He came back with a tale of celestial cabinet ministers and a red light that rules the universe. His wife reported that he "has got so much nicer since he died".

On the evidence of this extremely enjoyable book, atheists and materialists seem to have gone to their graves with just as much composure as true believers. This is just as well, because Critchley believes that we cannot live properly or at peace until we accept our finite nature, and that today we seek materialistic distractions from the very thought of death. It is just like a philosopher to dismiss them as "the watery pleasures of forgetfulness, intoxication and the mindless accumulation of money and possessions". This is rather harsh on everyday life. Besides, I may have an appointment for root canal surgery a week from now, but it doesn't mean I should spend my every waking hour until then dwelling on the prospect.