Simon Critchley is a philosopher and public intellectual. Born in Hertfordshire, England in 1960, he studied at the University of Oxford and the University of Nice—a rare Englishman who chose to pursue continental philosophy. He has been a professor at the New School for Social Research since 2004. Critchley is a prolific writer, averaging one book a year since 2001. His most recent is The Faith of the Faithless, an effort to create a system of belief for unbelievers. Critchley is moderator of "The Stone," a forum for contemporary philosophers in the New York Times.
Simon Critchley will speak on "Philosophy and the Art of Dying" at EMPAC in Troy on February 12 at 6pm. The event is free.
You're giving a talk at EMPAC about dead philosophers?
About the dying words of philosophers? Is that right?
Critchley: Well, I wrote The Book of Dead Philosophers in 2009, which is a compendium of 190 deaths, from the pre-Socratics, in the 7th century BC, until... me. It's a series of accounts of how philosophers died, and what we might learn from that.
Philosophy's an odd subject, because it begins with a death—the death of Socrates. Socrates is often considered to be the first philosopher, and was condemned by the city of Athens, given the choice of exile or death. He chose to die. Plato devoted four texts to the trial and execution of Socrates, and in the last one of those, which is called the Phaedo, he talks about the philosopher as the one who prepares for death, who is not scared of death—of philosophy as an art of dying. It allows us to go to our death with a certain equanimity and tranquility.
Do you spend a lot of time preparing to die?
Critchley: Well, yes and no. It depends what mood I'm in. Sometimes I don't think about it at all! [Laughs.] When I was writing the book, I was thinking about it quite a lot. I was living in Los Angeles, which is a great city to ponder mortality, because it's a city premised upon eternal youth—a city where death doesn't really fit.
Do you have concrete plans for your own death?
Critchley: I want my ashes to be scattered in the goal at the top end of the Liverpool football club. As for my epitaph, I'm contemplating: "He was a man more sinned against than sinning."
But in the modern world, philosophers don't really discuss their approach to death. Hasn't that disappeared from philosophy?
Critchley: Philosophy has become a profession, part of the university industry. Philosophers dress themselves in the garb of science, and speak a technical language which they hope no one else will understand—but the questions philosophy asks are still essential to the human enterprise. One of the most essential questions is the fact they we're going to die, and what relationship should we have to that fact? That's pretty important, right? Death and taxes?
It's too bad philosophy has never resolved the problem of taxes.
Critchley: You can evade taxes, but you can't evade death.
In the last the election, we learned that 47 percent of Americans don't pay taxes—but they still die.
Critchley: Even billionaires die! It's the great leveler. It shows no respect for status and wealth—which is the nice thing about death.
They haven't been able to create a class system for death.
Critchley: In a sense, they have, or they've tried to. One development is cryogenic freezing. Simon Cowell books his place in a cryogenic facility out there in the Nevada desert, where his body will be preserved and resuscitated when it becomes possible to do that. There's been an obsession with refuting death, not so much with a spiritual afterlife as a fantasy of living forever on earth.
Book Three of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift has these amazing characters called the Struldbrugs. The Struldbrugs are human beings who are immortal. They have a black spot in the middle of their foreheads, and they can be found slouched against walls—they've lost all interest in life. The worst curse imaginable is endless life.
Death is the great leveler, but philosophers traditionally were seen as almost immune to death, as being on a higher spiritual level.
Critchley: Well, there is that. One of the things I concentrate on is the ridiculousness of certain deaths. There was a great philosopher called La Mettrie, who wrote a book called The Man Machine in the 18th century, and who worked for Frederick the Great of Prussia, as many French intellectuals did in that period. He was a doctor, and a good doctor. He saved a dignitary in the Prussian court from a dreadful disease, and as a reward he was given a wonderful feast, with a delicious paté—which turned out to be contaminated—and he died of food poisoning. So, "Physician, heal thyself!" There are deaths that crown lives, but there are also deaths which are a bit more comical. There are some strange stories, which I plan to tell in Troy.