Thoughtfully approaching the end
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