Simon Critchley - The Book of Dead Philosophers (4 stars)

(Granta)

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Simon Critchley

PHILOSOPHER HISTORY

Alongside religious types, the permanently unhealthy and stand-up comedians, philosophers have a nightly battle with questions about the process of dying and the actual reality of having snuffed it. Naturally, none of them have quite come up with watertight theories about all this mortality stuff, but they’ve had a fair old stab at it. The Egyptians and the Tibetans scripted their own Book of the Dead and this has acted as a spur for modern thinkers to peel away at the layers of confusion and doubt over the end of existence: is it a passageway to another consciousness? Is death merely an illusion that we shouldn’t be duly troubled by? Or is a constant acknowledgement of our bucket-kicking fate the only way to lead a fulfilling life?

As Simon Critchley (author of Things Merely Are and Infinitely Demanding) has discovered during the obviously vast amount of research he’s conducted down the years, not only do philosophers ponder over the moment of expiration, they’ve managed to accumulate an impressive list of strange obituaries within their number. And while Critchley asks some big questions, he also grants us a pick’n’mix of the most noteworthy demises in philosophical history. You may know that Foucault died of AIDS and Barthes was killed by a laundry truck but did you know that Nietzsche’s descent into oblivion was sparked by kissing a horse in Turin or that Plato died from lice infestation and that the possibly fictional Pythagoras allowed himself to be murdered rather than cross a field of beans? Whether the entertaining Critchley will go the way he predicts, being pursued by a bear, is a matter for cold contemplation.

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