The Death of Philosophers

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Two representations of the death scene depicted in Plato’s dialogue, the Phaedo.

Philosophy is preparation for death. So said Socrates, Greek philosopher par excellence, martyr to the cause, executed by the state in 399BC for corrupting the youth. According to his pupil Plato, who recorded the scene of his death in the Phaedo, when friends snuck into his prison cell to help him escape into exile, Socrates refused to go. It is not death that we should avoid, he argued, but living an immoral life. Escaping would be wrong because it would go against the judgement and will of the state, which has authority over its citizens as parents have over their children. The next day, he drank hemlock, walked around until he felt it take effect, then lay down to pass on.(1) He would need to rest before continuing his search for wisdom in the afterlife, where his interlocutors would be the likes of Hesiod and Homer. Whole new ball game.

Aristotle is supposed to have accidentally poisoned himself with aconite, although the story of his death may be even less dramatic: he always suffered from poor digestion and may have died of unspecified stomach problems at an appropriate age. Having learned from Plato and Socrates’ experiences, he never went up against the state, went along to get along, and stamped a role model for the philosopher as empiricist, pragmatic to a fault. I imagine him running around in the afterlife wearing kakis and telling bad dad jokes.

The natural philosopher Empedocles, who first named the four elements in the presocratic quest for the-stuff-of-which-all-things-are-made, jumped into Mount Etna, a volcano on the east coast of Sicily, Italy. He wanted to prove that he was a God, and returned to the bowels of the earth where Gods were thought to reside. A spectacular way to go home.

Found this video of Mount Edna eruption.

His trickster friend Heraclitus, of you-cannot-step-in-the-same-river-twice fame, also a fan of fire, covered himself in cow poop to try to cure himself of dropsy, an old term for the accumulation of fluid in the body that could be due to any number of causes. Apparently, this did him in. Such a funny way to go.

René Descartes supposedly died of pneumonia after his patron Queen Christina of Sweden made him give her mathematics and philosophy lessons at 5am. He had been accustomed to rising at 11am since childhood and, apparently, this change killed him. I remember telling this story to my 8am Modern Philosophy students at a small liberal arts college. Not because I they complained about the early hour, but because I was under observation by the department chair — a routine teaching evaluation — and I wanted him to know that doing philosophy this early can indeed kill you. Anyhow, it may be that Descartes was not killed by a(n) (amazing! brilliant! philosopher-in-her-own-right!) woman, but that he was actually poisoned by a Catholic priest who administered an arsenic-laced communion wafer to him after he had aired ‘heretic’ views.

Another philosopher who went up against the church, openly flaunting his atheism, is David Hume. The only truly joyful character in this history of Philosophy, the rotund Scottish philosopher died in his bed, surrounded by family and friends, in good spirits and without religion. All his life he had been told that surely he would denounce atheism on his death bed. Bets were placed and everyone stood by waiting to see if he would repent, but he never did do. Philosophy is some much the better for his brand of skepticism.

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The saddest story for me has to be that of Walter Benjamin. Unlike his peers Hannah Arendt, Theodore Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, who made it to America to found The New School for Social Research in New York City, Benjamin never made it out of Europe. Having heard that the gestapo had destroyed his library back home, and fearing he would be caught and sent to a Nazi death camp, he supposedly committed suicide (morphine overdose) at the Catalan town of Port Bou.

He had already been caught and offloaded in Marseille after trying to board a freighter bound for Ceylon, and had decided to walk across the Pyrenees to try and avoid patrols along the border of France and Spain. Shortly after arriving in Spain, he was betrayed by a hotel owner and he believed he would be imminently turned over to the French border police, who would hand him over to the Nazis. The border had been closed so he had been stuck there, but the day after his death, the border was opened again. He missed safe passage by one day. One day.

On the other hand, as reported in the Guardian, it is more likely that Benjamin, an avowed Marxist, was murdered by Stalinist agents in that border town.

(Karl Marx died of bronchitis at 64, a destitute man. Being without property or means, he was buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery, where he now lies in good company.)

Another suicide, Guiles Deleuze jumped out of the window of his Paris apartment in 1995. He had severe respiratory issues, had lost a lung, and also his ability to speak or write. At this point, he chose to end it. I was a graduate student in Philosophy then. I remember a murmur in the hallways, and someone quoting him as saying that Philosophy will drive you to madness. But I’m not sure how that relates….

Speaking of madness, Friedric Nietzsche’s death is second only to that of Socrates. He succumbed to insanity, dementia, and syphilis. At which point, so the joke goes, God said “Nietzsche is dead.”

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(1) The end of the death scene in Plato’s Phaedo: “Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said — they were his last words — he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.”

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Phenomenology, Existentialism, Feminism, Poststructuralism & Critical Theory. #publicphilosophy or bust

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