Socrates claimed that the aim of philosophers was “to practice for dying and death,” and this means that the philosopher must be eager for death all his life and face his eventual death as with equanimity. 

Preparation for death involves dying before death, and this is a process of purification and consecration that separates soul and body: “does purification not turn out to be . . . to separate the soul as far as possible from the body and accustom it to gather itself and collect itself out of the body and to dwell by itself as far as it can both now and in the future, freed, as it were, from the bonds of the body? . . . And that freedom and separation of the soul from the body is called death? . . . And this release and separation from the body is the preoccupation of the philosophers” (Phaedo).

Peter Sloterdijk observes (Art of Philosophy, 63) comments: “Socrates refers to the disturbing, not to say cognition-obstructing, function of bodily existence as a motivation for the desire for purification: ‘our hunt for that which has being’ could never reach its goal as long as the soul remains burdened by the evil of being trapped in the body. For ‘the body fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and much nonsense so that, as it is said, in truth and in fact, no thought of any kind ever comes to us from the body.’” In what Sloterdijk calls an “astonishing bias,” Socrates “commits himself . . . to a strictly intellectualist concept of knowledge.”

It has an ancient pedigree, but this struggle for purification is still with us: “Striving toward purity is linked to the attempt to create a totally “intuitive” relationship to the conditions of consciousness. Husserl worked all his life to recreate a contemplative modus vivendi that he intended to base on an appropriate modus cogitandi. His summing up at the age of seventy in 1929 has a touch of pathos: he wrote that he had to do philosophy otherwise he would have been unable to live in this world.” Thus, “It is no coincidence that the word ‘pure’ constitutes the word for pathos in Husserl’s vocabulary . . . as an adjective in phrases such as ‘purely aesthetic’ or an adverb as in ‘purely aesthetically’ or ‘purely phenomenologically’” (23).

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart