Thought­fully ap­proach­ing the end

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Da­mon Young

Dy­ing for Ideas: The Danger­ous Lives of the Philoso­phers By Cos­tica Bra­datan Blooms­bury, 256pp, $39.99 (HB) Philip Larkin wrote of the el­derly ‘‘crouch­ing be­low ex­tinc­tion’s alp’’, the ground ris­ing. Monty Python gave us Mr Death, point­ing at the salmon mousse. For all the monolithic fi­nal­ity of death, it is many things: thug’s threat, co­me­dian’s punch­line, widow’s si­lence. What Martin Hei­deg­ger de­scribed as the one un­avoid­able pos­si­bil­ity can be sur­pris­ingly mal­leable.

But this ‘‘be’’ is limited. Ex­pi­ra­tion, what­ever it can sig­nify, is also in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to living be­ings. The point is not that death is un­real, but that try­ing to make sense of it is as­ymp­totic: that some­thing we are al­ways ap­proach­ing is some­thing we can’t quite reach. Hel­lenis­tic philoso­pher Epi­cu­rus put it sim­ply: “when we ex­ist, death is not yet present; and when death is present, then we do not ex­ist”.

As Cos­tica Bra­datan notes in Dy­ing for Ideas: The Danger­ous Lives of the Philoso­phers, the un­canny strange­ness of death has not stopped philoso­phers from study­ing it and, more rarely, try­ing to in­cor­po­rate it into their lives.

This phras­ing is not co­in­ci­den­tal: death be­comes fully philo­soph­i­cal not by merely be­ing an ob­ject for re­flec­tion, but by be­ing ob­jec­ti­fied in the body, the cor­pus. Bra­datan’s the­sis, care­fully ar­gued with the aid of schol­ars such as

May 16-17, 2015 Pierre Hadot and Michel Fou­cault, is that phi­los­o­phy can be an ex­is­ten­tial craft: a way of life, not sim­ply a con­cep­tual anal­y­sis. At cer­tain in­ter­sec­tions of his­tory and bi­og­ra­phy, the philoso­pher’s com­mit­ments can no longer be served in writ­ing — they de­mand a project of ac­tion.

Drawing on ex­am­ples in­clud­ing Socrates, Hy­pa­tia, Gior­dano Bruno and Si­mone Weil, Bra­datan ar­gues that the de­struc­tion of the body can be wel­comed, and in some cases en­cour­aged, by what he calls the ‘‘philoso­pher­mar­tyr’’. This of­ten in­volves see­ing death not sim­ply as the end of be­ing, but as a be­com­ing: one be­comes fully good, just and beau­ti­ful by leav­ing be­hind (or pul­veris­ing) one’s car­nal lumps.

This idea was ex­pressed most el­e­gantly by Plato in mid­dle di­a­logues such as Phaedo, but has a long his­tory. What makes Bra­datan’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion es­pe­cially il­lu­mi­nat­ing is his at­ten­tion to the per­for­mance and re­cep­tion of death. For 16th-cen­tury Catholic politi­cian Thomas More

The Death of Socrates to be­come a phi­los­o­phy-martyr, for ex­am­ple, it was not enough to sim­ply op­pose Henry VIII, then cease breath­ing in bed. He had to die vol­un­tar­ily and pub­licly at the hands of his per­se­cu­tor: by be­head­ing in his case, though he was first threat­ened with hang­ing, evis­cer­a­tion and cas­tra­tion. Bra­datan ar­gues that More had to trans­form him­self into an ap­pro­pri­ate vic­tim. Recog­nis­ing the king’s author­ity as he re­jected royal dic­tates; whip­ping him­self, fast­ing and wear­ing a hair shirt; writ­ing a dia­logue to con­vince him­self of his own di­vine mission — th­ese rites helped Thomas the medi­ocre politi­cian be­come More the sac­ri­fi­cial sym­bol of de­fi­ance.

Bra­datan also re­veals how th­ese ends can be in­con­se­quen­tial with­out sto­ry­tellers who trans­form death into de­noue­ment, and with­out re­spon­sive au­di­ences. Socrates had Plato and Xenophon; More his son-in-law: each made ex­e­cu­tion the last scene in new tale of height­ened moral virtue. The sto­ry­teller had to ‘‘kill the live, con­tra­dic­tion-rid­dled per­son of the philoso­pher’’, Bra­datan writes, ‘‘and re­mould him into a ... lit­er­ary char­ac­ter’’. Re­cep­tiv­ity is also vi­tal. The hor­ri­fy­ing but en­tranc­ing sui­cides of burning monks only wounded the con­sciences of those al­ready abraded with some guilt.

Th­ese deaths re­veal the con­tin­gency of mar­tyr­dom: the per­for­mance can eas­ily be forgotten or nul­li­fied by time, or sim­ply never be staged at all. Even when they be­come leg­endary, they can achieve very lit­tle. They make more sense as the sac­ri­fi­cial cul­mi­na­tions of es­tranged lives than as de­ci­sive po­lit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tions. In fact, an air of fu­til­ity sur­rounds ev­ery philo­soph­i­cal life.

‘‘Re­al­is­ing ... that ev­ery­thing has been set up in such a way as to make you a laugh­able en­tity,’’ Bra­datan writes, ‘‘what is left to do?’’ The con­clud­ing mood of Dy­ing for Ideas is more tragi­comic than som­bre — the cli­mac­tic chuckle of the con­demned.

Bra­datan some­times trips into aca­demic sign­post­ing or phras­ing: ‘‘The em­pha­sis here is on the pos­si­bil­ity of a to­tal self-fash­ion­ing within an on­to­log­i­cal ar­range­ment where tran­scen­dence is in­creas­ingly ab­sent.’’ But over­all his style is nim­ble. A reg­is­ter of di­rect­ness works through­out the book, mov­ing from ar­gu­ment to quip, to nar­ra­tive as ap­pro­pri­ate.

The book is well de­signed, with each chap­ter build­ing on the pre­vi­ous. Be­tween the main pas­sages are Bra­datan’s clever in­ter­mez­zos. For ex­am­ple, his ex­pla­na­tion of Hei­deg­ger’s be­ing­to­ward-death is fol­lowed by a per­cep­tive dis­cus­sion of the Ger­man philoso­pher’s charis­matic, in­can­ta­tory, some­times kitschy lan­guage. ‘‘Did he re­ally mean some­thing deep here,’’ asks Bra­datan, ‘‘or is he just caught in a game from which he didn’t know how to get out?’’ Th­ese asides de­part from the chief ar­gu­ment, but the dis­tance of­fers per­spec­tive, not dis­ori­en­ta­tion.

Dy­ing for Ideas is a lu­cid dis­cus­sion of mor­tal­ity and an un­spar­ing por­trait of phi­los­o­phy’s ends — in both senses of the word.

De­tail from Jac­ques-Louis David

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