February 15, 2009
Death: Bad?
To be “philosophical” about something, in common parlance, is to face it calmly, without irrational anxiety. And the paradigm of a thing to be philosophical about is death. Here Socrates is held to be the model. Sentenced to die by an Athenian court on the charge of impiety, he serenely drank the fatal cup of hemlock. Death, he told his friends, might be annihilation, in which case it is like a long, dreamless slumber; or it might be a migration of the soul from one place to another. Either way, it is nothing to be feared.
Cicero said that to philosophize is to learn how to die — a pithy statement, but a misleading one. There is more to philosophizing than that. Broadly speaking, philosophy has three concerns: how the world hangs together, how our beliefs can be justified, and how to live. Arguably, learning how to die fits under the third of these. If you wanted to get rhetorically elastic about it, you might even say that by learning how to die we learn how to live.
That thought is more or less the inspiration behind Simon Critchley’s Book of Dead Philosophers (Vintage, paper, $15.95). What defines bourgeois life in the West today is our pervasive dread of death — so claims Critchley, a philosophy professor at the New School in New York. (He wrote this book, he tells us more than once, on a hill overlooking Los Angeles — which, because of “its peculiar terror of annihilation,” is “surely a candidate city for the world capital of 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.
Critchley has a mischievous sense of humor, and he certainly does not shrink from the embodied nature of his subjects. There is arch merrymaking over beans (Pythagoras and Empedocles proscribed them) and flatulence (Metrocles became suicidally distraught over a bean-related gaseous indiscretion during a lecture rehearsal). We are told of Marx’s genital carbuncles, Nietzsche’s syphilitic coprophagy and Freud’s cancerous cheek growth, so malodorous that it repelled his favorite dog, a chow. There are Woody Allenish moments, as when the moribund Democritus “ordered many hot loaves of bread to be brought to his house. By applying these to his nostrils he somehow managed to postpone his death.” And there are last words, the best of which belong to Hein­rich Heine: “God will pardon me. It’s his métier.”
How are we to cultivate the wisdom necessary to confront 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.”
The idea that death is not such a bad thing may be liberating, but is it true? Ancient philosophers tended to think so, and Critchley (along with Hume) finds their attitude congenial. He writes, “The philosopher looks death in the face and has the strength to say that it is nothing.”
There are three classic arguments, all derived from Epicurus and his follower Lucretius, that it is irrational to fear death. If death is annihilation, the first one goes, then there are no nasty post-death experiences to worry about. As Epicurus put it, where death is, I am not; where I am, death is not. The second says it does not matter whether you die young or old, for in either case you’ll be dead for an eternity. The third points out that your nonexistence after your death is merely the mirror image of your nonexistence before your birth. Why should you be any more disturbed by the one than by the other? These arguments are invoked in Critchley’s book, but their logic goes unexamined. Unfortunately, all three are pretty lousy. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his 1970 essay “Death,” showed what was wrong with the first. Just because you don’t experience something as nasty, or indeed experience it at all, doesn’t mean it’s not bad for you. Suppose, Nagel says, an intelligent person has a brain injury that reduces him to the mental condition of a contented baby. Certainly this would be a grave misfortune for the person. Then is not the same true for death, where the loss is still more severe?
The second argument is just as poor. It implies that John Keats’s demise at 25 was no more unfortunate than Tolstoy’s at 82, since both will be dead for an eternity anyway. The odd thing about this argument, as the (dead) English philosopher Bernard Williams noticed, is that it contradicts the first one. True, the amount of time you’re around to enjoy the goods of life doesn’t mathematically reduce the eternity of your death. But the amount of time you’re dead matters only if there’s something undesirable about being dead.
The third argument, that your posthumous nonexistence is no more to be feared than your prenatal nonexistence, also fails. As Nagel observed, there is an important asymmetry between the two abysses that temporally flank your life. The time after you die is time of which your death deprives you. You might have lived longer. But you could not possibly have existed in the time before your birth. Had you been conceived earlier than you actually were, you would have had a different genetic identity. In other words, you would not be you.
Cultivating indifference to death is not only philosophically unsound. It can be morally dangerous. If my own death is nothing, then why get worked up over the deaths of others? The barrenness of the Epicurean attitude — enjoy life from moment to moment and don’t worry about death — is epitomized by George Santayana, one of Critchley’s exemplary dead philosophers. After resigning from Harvard, Santayana lived in Rome, where he was discovered by American soldiers after the liberation of Italy in 1944. Asked his opinion of the war by a journalist from Life magazine, Santayana fatuously replied, “I know nothing; I live in the Eternal.”
Contrast the example of Miguel de Unamuno, a 20th-century Spaniard inexplicably omitted by Critchley. No one had a greater terror of death than Unamuno, who wrote that “as a child, I remained unmoved when shown the most moving pictures of hell, for even then nothing appeared to me quite so horrible as nothingness itself.” In 1936, at the risk of being lynched by a Falangist mob, Unamuno publicly faced down the pro-Franco thug Millán Astray. Placed under house arrest, Unamuno died 10 weeks later. Aptly, the Falangist battle cry Unamuno found most repellent was “Viva la Muerte!” — long live death.
Jim Holt is the author of “Stop Me if You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes.” He is working on a book about the puzzle of existence.

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The life of a unique and incredible woman whose fate was to be followed by drama, comedy and tragedy. She wandered under a lucky star, which protected her at all times, thus, overcoming the odds that forced her to swim against the high tides; but surprisingly, arriving onto safer and better shores by miracle or by her own strength. Character: Gentle as and orchid but solid as an oak tree. Distracted, but attentive to the best and worth things of life. Indifferent to the time that passes by, but always aware of the beauty around her. Understands and accepts pain, physical or mental, which she believes is absolutely needed in order to grow wiser and happier. She thinks that Happiness is within our reach and unhappiness is not letting go of things or people that don't belong to us any longer.

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I wrote two books that are being translated from Spanish into English but ready to be published in Spanish: "Abracadabra, Stop the Curse! (1999) and "Beyond the Eclipse" (2208) (Abracadabra! Que Pare la Maldicion! y "Mas Alla del Eclipse")

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