'Dead Philosophers' tell no tales, but their deaths do

If death can be a funny sort of philosophical thing when you think about it — and it can, just ask author Simon Critchley — would that mean it gets funnier the more you think about it?

And if you were a philosopher who spent most of your life thinking about its meaning, would that make your death funny?

Well, sure!

Take Avicenna, the Medieval Islamic philosopher. He had sex so often, his biographer noted, that he wound up with "colic," then gave himself eight enemas in one day as a cure. Even in this state, he "did not take care and frequently had sexual intercourse."

He died days later at 58.

Deep thinker Heraclitus of ancient Greece fame had himself covered in cow dung as a medicinal cure (you've got to wonder what ailment was worse), but alas, he suffocated in the stuff.

Sigmund Freud, who famously observed that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, failed to note they were bad for you, smoked up to 20 each day and died of cancer of the mouth.

These and other endings are the stuff of "The Book of Dead Philosophers," Critchley's ironic take on 3,000 years of philosophy and the demises of 190 of its greatest practitioners. It's a lot funnier than you'd think, in a Monty Python, "They're throwing cows at us!" kind of way.

It's also strange, absurd, sad and bizarre, which makes it a lot like life, too.

Critchley, chairman of the philosophy department at the New School for Social Research in New York, worries that Western societies are coming unglued. New Age muddles, televangelists promising salvation after a tax-free donation, kitsch Buddhism, endless quests to find "self-meaning": All this metaphysical scrambling betrays a "profound terror of death and an overwhelming anxiety to be quite sure that death is not the end but the passage to the afterlife," he writes.

Philosophically speaking, this is not good. Philosophically speaking, you want to come to terms with the fact that, while reading this sentence, you just cashed in three seconds of the only life you'll ever live.

But by looking at the deaths (and lives, briefly) of the great philosophers, Critchley figures that our youth-worshipping, death-fearing society might buck up about our mortality.

After all, philosophers should know something about facing death. Cicero observed that "to philosophize is to learn how to die," and Michel de Montaigne had it that "He who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live."

Montaigne, the hugely influential essayist of the French Renaissance, wrote in his autobiography that he wanted to die quietly. He died in 1592 of abscesses in his throat grown so large that they cut off his ability to speak.

His brother died after being hit in the head by a tennis ball.

Feel better?

"I suppose I was always interested in gallows humor," Critchley says.

He quotes a favorite story of Freud's that defines the term. A condemned man is taken into the courtyard at dawn. The gallows await. Guy looks up, it's a beautiful morning. Sunshine, blue skies, warm breeze. Guy says, "Why, the week is beginning so nicely."

"The humor in that is stepping outside yourself in order to find yourself ridiculous," he says. "It's sort of pessimistic humor, but it's ultimately affirmative."

Critchley, a Brit, wrote the book while on a Getty fellowship in Los Angeles. He was living on West Sunset Boulevard, smack in the middle of the city of sunshine, spritz and American youth worship. He hated it.

"I lived most of the time at night, going to supermarket and getting cereal."

In between, he was carrying out Herculean periods of reading and research across 30 centuries of worldwide thought. He penned short profiles of each philosopher, distilling their worldviews in a few paragraphs or pages, then spiking it with the punch line of their passing. This is not as fun as it sounds.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher who famously opined that "God is dead," died of syphilis after a "long, soft-brained and dribbling descent into oblivion."

Austria's Ludwig Wittgenstein was, in many eyes, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. On his deathbed in 1951, his birthday occurred. A lady friend presented him with an electric blanket and thoughtlessly added, "Many happy returns!"

"There will be no returns," he said. He died three days later.

Frantz Fanon, the Algerian and Third World hero of anti-colonialism, died at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., in 1961, one of the posher pockets of the poshest nation on the planet.

"Leviathan" author Thomas Hobbes, who observed that life in nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," lived to be 91, apparently in love with a much younger woman to the very end. He played tennis into his later years but is not thought to be a suspect in l'affair de Montaigne.

And then there is the reminder that philosophers do not live charmed or ironic lives. There also is sadness and despair and confronting the vast cruelty of humanity with nothing but one's spirit.

There is Edith Stein, also known as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Born a Jew in Breslau, then part of the German empire, she lost all faith as a teen-ager, becoming an atheist and brilliant young philosopher. Making a philosophical turn, she converted to Christianity at the age of 30 and became a nun. During World War II, she escaped to Holland. However, Dutch church leaders openly condemned Hitler's anti-Semitism, and in return, Nazis ordered the arrest of all "nonAryan" Catholics.

Stein was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau on the plains of Poland, where she died in the gas chamber with her sister, Rosa. Survivors in the camp remembered her compassion toward her fellow condemned, even in her final minutes.

There. A lesson before dying: Grace and courage count.

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