Posts Tagged ‘Critchley’

catching up

March 31, 2010

Emerson is the first dead American philosopher to grab Simon Critchley‘s attention. We got a late start, but I’m confident we’ll catch up.

For what it’s worth, Nietzsche liked him. Not everyone does. But John Updike was a fan, so was James, and so am I. Lately I find myself echoing The Sage’s self-exhortation (“up again, old heart!”) a lot. I can’t imagine how a father rouses himself after the loss of a child, and I can’t believe Emerson when he says his son’s death “does not touch me.” That has to be a rhetorical stage of grieving (stuck somewhere between denial and anger, short of full acceptance) and a way of raging impotently against what must feel like an irredeemable cosmic injustice– not to mention a soul-crushing slug to the gut.

I hope he didn’t just see it as a salutary expression of his vaunted “self-reliance.”  In any case, he knew it was “a luxury to draw the breath of life” (Div.School Address]– a bitter luxury perhaps, in the shadow of heart-wrenching loss.

He was our first “secular humanist,” though it might be more accurate to call him “spiritual, not religious” (though not exactly in the AA sense). He was also a skeptic and a stoic, much impressed by the interior and “trying” style of Montaigne. [E’s Intro to M’s Essays]

Pneumonia, with which I’ve gone a couple of rounds myself, got Emerson. Thankfully there are drugs for that now.

Thoreau, dead American #2 (at just 44!): asked if he had made his peace with God, he replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His God, with whom he communed daily on his saunters in and around Concord, MA, appears to have had much in common with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s.  He is an inspiration, to me and my kids and to lovers of bears everywhere.

James. Freud said “I have always wished that I might be as fearless as he was in the face of approaching death.” But there’s lots of life left in Richardson’s bio, so let’s move on. As we read in Passion for Wisdom on Monday, his overriding interest was always in the problems of everyday living.

Dewey. He was still doing important work into his nineties. No one has had more insight into the importance for democracy of education, or the influence on philosophy of Darwin. He had no use for a mere “spectator’s” perspective… Education is experience, participatory and engaged.(PW)

Freud. His wish seems to have been fulfilled. All those cigars took a bite out of him but he showed no sign of complaint or irritability with his painful condition, he accepted it and was resigned to his fate. Much closer to Epicurus or Montaigne than Schopenhauer.

Nietzsche. Was his seeming megalomania(or madness) really a joke, as Critchley speculates? It might be nice to think so, if not wholly persuasive.  “The most serious Christians have always been well-disposed towards me.” That definitely sounds like a joke.

Mill. A 15-mile walk atage 67 did him in. There are worse exit scenarios, and worse motivational statements than “Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”

Darwin. He’s buried in Westminster Abbey,  enjoying (as it were) a state hero’s repose.  When he grew tired of studying life’s specific origins he knew his own wasnearing its terminus.

KierkegaardDespite his tireless tirades against the degraded Christianity of the Danish pastors, Kierkegaard was buried with a full religious service. Was that gracious, mocking, or just… absurd?

Marx. Critchley is so good at bringing obscure but telling detail to the fore– like poor Marx’s carbuncles. The  material conditions of existence are no abstraction when they consume one’s “whole cadaver.”

Bergson. It’s so tempting to make light of the passing of the philosopher who championed the elan vital or life force, I’m surprised Critchley doesn’t. But he deserves a respectful remembrance, as one who stood in solidarity with his people when he might have walked away. He may have been James’s favorite philosopher.

“the philosopher walks”

January 20, 2010

That’s from my favorite line so far in Simon Critchley’s surprisingly sprightly Book of Dead Philosophers, which I’m using for the first time as a supplemental text in the Intro classes.  Concluding the introductory section on Socrates he writes:

To be a philosopher, then, is to learn how to die; it is to begin to cultivate the appropriate attitude towards death. As Marcus Aurelius writes, it is one of “the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” Unknowing and uncertain, the philosopher walks.

Walks on, that is, not out. This point calls Socrates’ martyrdom into question, it seems to me. We don’t know what, if anything, awaits the dead: permanent deep sleep, or unending intellectual gabfest with all the great dead spirits who’ve gone before, or who knows? Philosophizing is for the living.

Walking– literal walking– is one of my personal metaphors for living, and one of my favorite pastimes. Not only do the dead tell no tales, they pound no pavements or greenway trails either.

Being a walker gives a philosopher a pragmatic bent. For instance: when Diogenes the Cynic heard someone declare [after encountering Zeno of Elea‘s paradoxes of motion] that there was no such thing as motion, he got up and walked about. The best refutation is sometimes simply to walk.

But we need to acknowledge that our motion is not perpetual. Death is real. That’s how this book differs from the Egyptian or Tibetan books of the dead, which aim to gain an “Enlightened” denial of death. Critchley’s approach is to draw us closer to the philosophers by highlighting our common humanity and mortality. In the process he tells some funny stories and brings the whole subject out into the lovely light of day. Tyrants condemned Socrates and Seneca to death, but nature condemns us all. We need to admit that, so we may then stop fearing it and obsessing about it. That’s not morbid, it’s liberating. It frees us up as well to entertain a wider sense of self than that bounded by our skin– an identity as wide as the cosmos, larger than we can fathom. As I was saying yesterday in A&S, Carl Sagan put it smartly: our proper loyalty (and identity) belongs to the stars. Their atoms are ours too.

Which brings us to Democritus, “the laughing philosopher” who (legend has it)  lived an incredibly long and healthy life. He might have lived longer, but– noticing in his 109th year (!)  that his mind was beginning to show its age– he “cheerfully committed suicide.”

On the other hand consider Heraclitus, “the weeping philosopher,” who wept for humanity’s irrationality. But how did he treat his own illness? With cow dung. The treatment was unsuccessful.

The lives and deaths of the philosophers are entertaining and instructive, often in unintended ways. How ironic that Heidegger, whom I mentioned in class last week as an example of a philosopher whose biography had been so neglected that his despicable politics went unremarked by generations of professors (including my own), put the feeble case for the very approach that has shielded him against sharper scrutiny:

The personality of a philosopher is of interest only to this extent: he was born at such and such a time, he worked, and died.

And if he hooked up with the Nazis in the interim? Irrelevant, says Herr Doktor Proffessor H. Since that was also the view of most of my teachers, just about every page in this book is full of biographical detail that is new to me. What emerges most clearly is that their big ideas made them no less fallible or prone to error than any of us. So go ahead, everybody, be as philosophical as you please. It’s only human.