The Book of Dead Philosophers (Vintage) Paperback – 2009
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Top Customer Reviews
The purpose of the book as Critchley states in the introduction is to "humanize" these individuals whom we have placed up on the pedestal. I definitely appreciated his breadth in covering Eastern philosophers as well and not limiting himself to Western philosophers.
Not much depth, but I still recommend this book for anyone looking for a casual read about philosophy. Don't expect any complex analysis or academic jargon, just a simple book about a bunch of people who had ideas about life and how they died.
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They also include a section on Chinese philosophers with a commentary on the Zen way of thinking about Death.
Critchley too is guided by his own 'philosophy of life and death'. This is one in which there is a strong objection to ideas of an afterlife or world- to - come. He prefers a kind of straightforward courageous looking of Death straight in the eyes, and accepting it. The 'learning how to die wisely' that he commends involves a preparation in acceptance and understanding. The idea seems to to be, to be here when we are here, without worrying where we will one day not be.
What surprised me in one sense is that while most of the accounts are interesting few are moving. It is perhaps possible to be moved by Sartre's final words to his Beaver, de Beauvoir assuring her of his Love ( provided that is that they are not her invention). It is possible to be amused by Thoreau's reply to the question, "Have you made your peace with God?" in which he says , "I did not know we had quarrelled " It is possible to be struck by the philosopher of the Absurd Camus' dying in an absurd car- accident. There are dozens of accounts which have some kind of fascinating twist or detail. And often what is best in them is what they reveal about the character of the philosopher involved. Often as for instance with the no- nonsense courageous Hume and the endlessly fussing and deceptive narcissistic Rousseau their deaths are the continuation of their characters in life.
The book fascinates but in focusing on the deaths of the philosophers and not on their overall conception and experience of Death it misses much.
Thus for me the most profound and insightful words of the book come quite close to the beginning . They paradoxically have little to do what the book is about. Critchley writes about "the aspect of death is hardest to endure: not our own death, but the deaths of those we love.It is the deaths of those we are bound to in love that undo us, that unstitch our carefully tailored suit of the self, that unmake whatever meaning we have made.In my view...it is only in grief that we become most truly ourselves.That is , what it means to be a self does not consist in some delusory self- knowledge, but in the acknowledgment of that part of ourselves that we have irretievably lost".
I would suggest another book could be written about what the deaths of those close have meant to the great Philosophers. And in fact in the pioneering work of Ben- Ami Scharfstein on how the lives of philosophers have effected them we learn that many of the greatest philosophers lost a parent at an early age. Still another book of great interest could be written on what the Deaths of the Philosophers themselves have meant to those closest to them.
This is by the way not a book for students of Philosophy only- but rather one for all those who somehow wish to know and think more about the inevitable- and prepare themselves for it. And this though I doubt it will deprive each and every one of us of his own experience his own most likely very unpleasant surprise.
I will only add one personal note. The traditional Jewish way, for philosophers and not philosophers, of leaving this world- if that is one has a chance to do it peacefully - is through uttering the great affirmation of the Jewish faith - 'Shema Yisrael'. Surrounded by loved ones after having bid farewell to each and all in the most considerate way possible- I can imagine myself saying the 'Shema' as word of prayer and faith not only for myself but for all those I love and care about who continue here. A word of prayer and blessing as a way of ending this life may be the best a person can do.
After the well-written and thought-provoking introduction revolving around the role of death -- and thoughts of death -- in philosophy and life, the remainder of the book can feel jarring. In some cases, the philosopher's life and work -- and even their death -- is disposed of in only one or two witty sentence. In others, there is a lot about their deaths, but Critchley doesn't always deliver on his promise to explain how the way in which his subjects met those deaths ties into either their personal philosophies or into a philosophy of death. Sometimes, that just isn't relevant, it seems. The best moments in the book -- such as the discussion of the atheist, David Hume, meeting his end contentedly -- stand out simply because they are relatively rare. In a few cases, Critchley has to admit he doesn't even know how his subject died -- in which case, why is that philosopher included? In a handful of cases, he exaggerates the story behind the philosopher's death, only for the reader to discover that they have been misled. For instance, Simone Weil, he claims in the introduction, starved herself to death in sympathy with her beleagured countrymen in France. In fact, the exiled philosopher limited her caloric intake during the early years of World War II in exile from her homeland to what was available to French citizens under the Nazi regime. She didn't deliberately starve herself to death; she weakened her health so that she was unable to fight off the illness that killed her.
So why, then, do I give this 3.5 stars? Simply because it's a witty romp through a topic that is relatively rarely discussed except in hushed tones and with trite references to Kubler-Ross (who, yes, makes a very brief appearance here, as well). It's also the kind of book that may provoke interest in the philosophers being discussed by readers who would otherwise never pick up a more weighty tome on, say, Hume or Spinoza. The premise is also solid and the author's grasp of his subject is more solid than his delivery sometimes implies. It's also refreshing to see a philosopher write something so accessible.
That said, this is not a book likely to appeal to anyone who heads straight for the philosophy section whenever they enter a bookstore. There's little or no new thinking on the topic of mortality, and serious-minded philosophy students, already be familiar with much of the contents, are less likely to find Critchley's whimsical approach to his subject either amusing or intriguing. For readers with a passing interest in philosophy, it's worth a look, but you probably will want to pick up a paperback copy or find it in a library.
Anyone looking for a very personal and extraordinarily eloquent series of random musings on the subject of death itself couldn't do better than check out Julian Barnes's new book on the subject, Nothing to Be Frightened Of. It's not as comforting as Critchley's book ends up being (whether or not Critchley intends it to be!); it's the personal ruminations of one of Britain's best writers (Flaubert's Parrot, et. al.) on aging and the need to come to terms with death not only in the abstract but as something that he will encounter sooner rather than later.
In general, while the reader will be surprised and entertained at the unique way that each philosopher has expressed his or her entries, he should not be surprised to discover that almost all of the philosophers had no trouble breaking the code of man's existence on this earth: which is to dedicate their mental energies, their institutions and their lives to denying that death exists at all?
For those readers not already familiar with Ernest Becker's famous treatise on death denial, called aptly enough "The Denial of Death," Critchley's introduction to this book provides a succinct review, beginning with Socrates' own famous defense of his own life while in the docks of the court that had sentenced him to death.
What these philosophers have to say basically is this: that by not fully admitting that death is the end point of life (like say Omar Khayyam does so beautifully in the poems of the Rubaiyat), man has managed to fashion his life as a towering totem of self-made (ostensibly protective) lies, lies that in the end are in fact little more than beliefs in the magic of death bed salvation.
That is to say, instead of facing the reality of life's biological limitations, man has fashioned for himself a revetment of beliefs, behavior rituals and institutions around various fantasies that suggest that at the appointed hour of death, he will somehow be magically rescued from the terror of annihilation -- at which point he will then be transported across, and into, another dimension where he will be redeemed in an afterlife.
What Critchley underscores here is that philosophy is in fact an alternative to this sanctioned form of institutional dishonesty. What he tells us is that "To philosophize is to learn how to die:" He who has learned how to die, has unlearned how to be a slave; for the denial of death is just another form of self-hatred. The philosopher, unlike the Pastor, looks death in the face and has the courage to say "it is about nothing." Five stars