Monday, February 02, 2009

New in Paperback: The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley

The Book of Dead Philosophers (Vintage) is shockingly lucid, surprisingly good, unexpectedly funny. It’s a book that meets its initial mandate, then passes it by a country mile. Clearly, I liked it a lot. I find it difficult to imagine anyone with even a passing interest in philosophy who would not enjoy it.

Author Simon Critchley looks chronologically at those who dedicated their lives to thinking about intellectual matters of life and death and how they themselves exited the material world. “Very simply stated,” writes the author, “this is a book about how philosophers have died and what we can learn from philosophy about death and dying.”

But it’s more than that, too. Critchley points out that we, as a society, are almost ridiculously frightened of death. And what can we do about that? Critchley has the answer: philosophy.
It was a commonplace in antiquity that philosophy provides the wisdom necessary to confront death. That is, the philosopher looks death in the face and has the strength to say that it is nothing.
That’s in theory. In practice... well, Critchley gives us short profiles of close to 200 philosophers, a little about how they lived and -- more importantly in the context of this book -- how they died. On that journey, we encounter all that life has to offer: wit and wisdom, tragedy and comedy. There are bizarre ends and others that are pathetically unexceptional. In short, he gives us the tools we need to begin to “learn to have death in your mouth, in the words you speak, the food you eat and the drink that you imbibe.”

It’s a remarkable book.

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