Philosophy can be thought of as the study of life: the subject is the broadest one there is taking in whatever fields the student desires. Translating literally as ‘love of wisdom’, the practitioner of philosophy can therefore dip into anything that can be considered wise: literature to mathematics, theoretical physics to musical theory. Philosophy is the study of everything in life. Indeed, during the twentieth-century in Europe the discipline took a turn towards telling people how they should live: Nietzsche, Sartre, Foucault, even Heidegger to some extent. These continental philosophers all gave prescriptive philosophies on the correct conduct for a human life (ironically the end result of existentialism is a decree that one should choose one’s own path rather than listen to received wisdom).
Simon Critchley propounds a different idea in his new work, ‘The Book of Dead Philosophers’. Herein he apparently argues that to philosophise is to learn how to die. The purpose of the philosophical enterprise is to accept the transient nature of life and to come to terms with the fact that existence is not an absolute. He does this by examining the deaths of various thinkers throughout history and their attitude towards it: Socrates’ execution, David Hume’s deathbed refusal to convert, and Wittgenstein, famously depressed all his life, uttering his last: “Tell them I've had a wonderful life.” There are of course many more.
Critchley’s is an intriguing idea and it makes sense when you look at his background in continental phenomenology. Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ said that the human state of existence is a constant Being-towards-death whereby the only authentic way to live is to accept one’s own inevitable death, not merely to assume it to be something that only happens to other people. Leo Tolstoy’s short story, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, gives a good summation of this attitude. Death, on Heidegger’s view, is a necessary component of life, one that defines it and makes it what it is.
The idea has vaguely romantic connotations. It makes the philosopher a person who stares death in the face, who examines it, studies it, and ultimately discovers nothing to be fearful of. Calm studied Athenians rather than brash Spartans. Life is made all the more ripe for study because it is accepted that our time is so short. It has always been fascinating to me that there is this inevitable process that occurs to every human being and yet it is a complete mystery to us. No-one knows what happens to our consciousness when we die. The Judeo-Christian idea of heaven and eternal salvation seems to be nothing more than what Plato called a “noble lie”. The scientific view of abject nothingness is absolutely inconceivable. So what happens? That’s why I look forward to death: it’s the final question, the question that we all have to find the answer to on our own. No-one will be there, holding our hand. We will all discover it. I can’t wait.
There’s also something to the fact that many philosophers have the capacity to understand that the absence of life is not a bad thing. The default position of humanity seems to be that ‘life > non-life’. Life is viewed as a rare flower blooming only in our small corner of the universe and that therefore it should be nurtured. Life is not a rare flower: in fact there is a population crisis on Earth and less human life is certainly perfectly desirable (but that’s a topic for another time). Death is not understood and so it is feared in the same way that anything not understood is feared. But ignorance of an object does not at all imply that the object is bad. Death is neither good nor bad: like all natural processes, it simply ‘is’.
Maybe it’s that philosophers are generally moribund. There is definitely a link between the study of philosophy and depression or at least a morbid personality (but as John Stuart Mill put it, “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Or maybe, as Critchley says, philosophers really do understand and accept death more readily than the normals out there. Maybe we approach it in the same way we approach everything in life; with a species of innocent curiosity, naïvety even.
The philosopher gazes wide-eyed at the world while everyone else bickers over possession of it.
Addendum: A friend and I went to see Dr. Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibition today which, apart from being fascinating both scientifically and aesthetically, gave more evidence to back Critchley's idea. The walls were lined with quotes from philosophers about how death is nothing to fear: they elaborated on how it is a natural process and thus has no inherant moral value, either good or bad.