Every once in a while I come across a perfect booknot perfect in the sense of flawless or deep or indispensable, but perfect in the sense of being richly representative of an era or ethos or sensibility. Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom is perfect in this way. Uncomplicated, accessible, and radiant with confidence in the potential of the liberated psyche, to browse through Fromm’s manifesto for authenticity gives one the same pleasure as seeing a lava lamp or macramé at a flea market.
Simon Critchley has written a book that has this sort of culture-reflecting perfection: The Book of Dead Philosophers (Granta, 2008). Critchley teaches philosophy at The New School in New York. Smart, wide-ranging, and writing for an educated but non-professional audience, Critchley is what used to be called an intellectual, which is to say, eager and able to apply ideas to contemporary life.
“This book begins from a simple assumption,” writes Critchley at the outset, “what defines human life in our corner of the planet at the present time is not just fear of death, but an overwhelming terror of annihilation.” This terror, he opines, leads us in two directions of self-deception. The first is a plunge into “the watery pleasures of forgetfulness, intoxication, and mindless accumulation of money and possessions.” The second involves giving ourselves over “blindly into a belief in the magical forms of salvation and promises of immortality offered by certain varieties of traditional religion and many New Age (and some rather old age) sophistries.”
By his reckoning, an intellectually serious person must resist these two strategies of evasion. “The main task of philosophy,” Critchley observes, “is to prepare us for death, to provide a kind of training for death, the cultivation of an attitude towards our finitude that facesand faces downthe terror of annihilation without offering promises of an afterlife.” It’s a familiar tune. Philosophy offers unflinching realism, but belief in an afterlife is a way of averting our eyes from unpleasant realities; the promise of everlasting life in Christ is a velvet-lined fairytale; God’s power over death is a convenient wish fulfillment; and so on.
There is a great deal to be said against this rather smug and dismissive appraisal of faith in relation to the reality of death. In one of his letters, John Donne reflected on his own death: “I would not that death should take me asleep. I would not have him merely seize me, and only declare me to be dead, but win me and overcome me.” The sentiment hardly seems to evade or deny or sugarcoat death. But I don’t want to defend Christianity against the occasional asides of a contemporary philosopher. We do better to observe his approach and read him as a representative, contemporary voice.
Critchley is at his best when he sees the beam in the eye of his own habits of mind. Philosophy usually does its business of thinking in the seemingly disembodied and timeless realm of ideas. We read Descartes, then Locke, then Hume, and then Kant, weighing their arguments and counter-arguments as if they were living voices contributing to an eternal debate. In its own way, then, philosophy can tempt us to ignore or forget about death by shifting our attention to truths that transcend our mortality.
In order to fight against the ways in which philosophy itself can create illusions of immortality, Critchley takes up an idiosyncratic approach. Instead of meditating on and philosophizing about death, he provides his readers with two hundred or so short sketches of the lives and central ideas of philosophers from ancient times to present, always concluding with an account (sometimes legendary) of how they died. The idea is simple and compelling: Keep the reality of the death of philosophers front and center within the history of philosophy.
What is telling, however, is the supercilious execution of this plan. Critchley offers his readers a survey of figures for Thales to Thoreau, Socrates to Schelling, Lucretius to Lacan. He can sound very earnest. “Death is the last great taboo,” he claims, and “we cannot look it in the face for fear of seeing the skull beneath the skin.” But the overall tone of the book is oh-so postmodern: ironic, silly, and punctuated by oddball asides.
Here’s a good example of Critchley’s playful tone. After outlining the theory that the ancient philosopher Plotinus held about the fate of the soul, Critchley takes the scatological turn so prevalent these days. “Turning aside from our souls to arseholes,” he writes in conclusion to his entry on Plotinus, “Porphyry [Plotinus’ most famous student] notes that his master often suffered from a disease of the bowels. But on no condition would Plotinus submit to an enema, saying that is was unsuitable for an elderly man to undergo this sort of treatment. For the good of our souls, then, the care of our arseholes should not be permitted to block our passage to the Whole.” Soul . . . hole . . . wholeget it?
The Book of Dead Philosophers if full of this sort of low-grade wit. We read about philosophers, beans, and farting. For a number of years Theodor Adorno lived in Los Angeles“just a knife-throw from where O.J. Simpson ‘allegedly’ murdered his ex-wife.” The ancient Stoic philosopher Chrysippus argued for the legitimacy of eating the bodies of the dead. Critchley cannot resist a rather predictable zinger: “One dreads to think about the catering at Chrysippus’ family funerals.”
In addition to the jokes, Critchley gives his readers an ample supply of tangential factoids. Did you know, for example, that J.A. Roebling was one of Hegel’s students, and he designed the Brooklyn Bridge and died of a tetanus infection? Critchley especially enjoys the ironic coincidences. “For those familiar with the relentless critical negativity of Adorno’s work, it does raise a wry smile to know he was born on 11 September and died on 6 August, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.” And he cannot resist arch political jabs. An entry on John Rawls informs us that he received the Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton. “It is somewhat unlikely,” Critchley writes, “that Rawls was bedtime reading for Clinton’s successor.”
The proverbial Big Questions pursued in a mood of distracted irony and punctuated with petty ideological punches: Therein lies the full perfection of The Book of Dead Philosophers. Death is very serious business, and Critchley is clear about his commitments. Figures such as Epicurus, Montaigne, Hume, and Freud are his heroes. They confronted the reality of death with neither hope of escape nor temporizing distractions. Thus Critchley is able to congratulate himself for signing on to their approach. Yet, all the while, he is whistling past the graveyard, playing at gallows humor, and using all sorts of rhetorical strategies to distance himself and his readers from the reality of death.
I’m tempted to point out that Simon Critchley’s postmodern cleverness and distracted digressions and asides contradict his stated goal of “facingand facing downthe terror of annihilation.” But that would be a sign of my own failure as a reader. For the goal of a true postmodern book is to strike a pose rather than make an argument. And in this Simon Critchley has done quite well. His book evokes the true spirit of our age: a self-congratulating honesty that protests against old hypocrisies and evasionsall in close conjunction with a winking lack of seriousness that insulates us from any real engagement or commitment.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.
The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley