Simon Critchley was born in Hertfordshire in 1960, and currently lives and works in New York as Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. He failed dramatically at school before failing in a large number of punk bands in the late 70s and failing as a poet some time later. This was followed by failure as a radical political activist. By complete accident, he ended up at university when he was 22 and decided to stay. He found a vocation in teaching philosophy, although his passions still lie in music, poetry and politics. The Book of Dead Philosophers is his eighth book.
“It is the ambition of The Book of Dead Philosophers to show that often the philosopher’s greatest work of art is the manner of their death,” says Critchley.
1. Heracleitus (540-480 BC)
Heracleitus became such a hater of humanity that he wandered in the mountains and lived on a diet of grass and herbs. But malnutrition gave him dropsy and he returned to the city to seek a cure, asking to be covered in cow dung, which he believed would draw the bad humours out of his body. In the first version of the story, the cow dung is wet and the weeping philosopher drowns; in the second, it is dry and he is baked to death in the Ionian sun.
2. Diogenes (d.320 BC)
Once described as “a Socrates gone mad”, Diogenes asked to be buried face down “because after a little time down will be converted into up”. He is said to have been nearly 90 when he died, either after eating raw octopus or by committing suicide by holding his breath.
3. Chrysippus (280-207BC)
Perhaps the greatest of the Stoics. There are two stories of his death, both involving alcohol. In the first, he took a draught of sweet wine unmixed with water, was seized with dizziness and died five days later. But the second is even better: after an ass had eaten his figs, he cried out to an old woman, “Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs”. Thereupon, he laughed so heartily that he died.
4. Avicenna (980-1037)
Avicenna wrote some 450 books including The Canon of Medicine, the standard medical textbook in Europe for seven centuries. Towards the end of The Life of Avicenna, his disciple Al-Juzajani writes “The Master was vigorous in all his faculties, the sexual faculty being the most vigorous and dominant of his concupiscible faculties, and he exercised it often”. However, Avicenna’s priapic performances caused a case of what his disciple vaguely calls “colic”. “Therefore,” Al-Juzajani continues, “he administered an enema to himself eight times in one day, to the point that some of his intestines ulcerated and an abrasion broke out on him.” In addition, one of his servants, who had stolen a large sum of money from Avicenna, gave him a huge quantity of opium in order to try and kill him. In this perilous state, Avicenna journeyed to Isfahan, but he was so weak that was unable to stand. Eventually, he gave in to his illness at the age of 58.
5. Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274)
On 6 December 1273 during mass in Naples, something devastating happened to Aquinas that some commentators see as a mystical experience and others see as a cerebral stroke. Either way, he was afterwards unwilling or unable to write and the massive labour of his Summa Theologiae was suspended at Part 3, Question 90, Article 4. Yet, despite his transformation, he was summoned by the Pope to attend the Council of Lyons. On the way, he was injured by the bough of a tree and died at the age of 49. On his deathbed, Aquinas dictated a brief commentary on Solomon’s Song of Songs, which sadly has not survived.
6. Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
During a particularly cold winter, Bacon was travelling with a Scottish physician and fell upon the idea that flesh might as well be preserved in snow as in salt. They got out of the carriage at the foot of Highgate Hill and bought a hen from a poor woman who lived there. Bacon then stuffed the hen with snow and was immediately taken ill with a chill. Unable to return home, he was put to bed at the Earl of Arundel’s house in Highgate. Sadly, the bed was so damp that his condition worsened and, according to Hobbes, “in 2 or 3 days, he dyed of Suffocation”.
7. De la Mettrie (1709-1751)
The author of the materialist manifesto, The Man-Machine, died after eating a huge dinner at the house of the French ambassador to Berlin, Monsieur Tirconnel. Apparently, La Mettrie expired from the effects of indigestion caused by eating a huge amount of slightly dodgy truffle pâté. Voltaire reports that although Frederick the Great was concerned with the manner of the philosopher’s death, he said, “He was merry, a good devil, a good doctor, and a very bad author. By not reading his books, one can be very content”.
8. Denis Diderot (1713-1784)
After an exhausting return trip from St Petersburg, at the invitation of his patron Catherine the Great of Russia, Diderot became ill, took to his bed, and decided to stop speaking. He enjoyed a brief respite from his illness and was able to sit at table with his wife. He ate soup, boiled mutton and chicory and then took an apricot (some sources claim it was a strawberry). His daughter, Angélique, takes up the story, “My mother wanted to stop him from eating that fruit. ‘But what the devil kind of harm do you expect it to do to me?’ He ate it, leaned his elbow on the table to eat a compote of cherries, coughed gently. My mother asked him a question; since he remained silent, she raised her head, looked at him, he was no more.”
9. AJ Ayer (1910-1989)
The year before he died, after recovering from pneumonia in University College Hospital in London, Ayer choked on a piece of salmon, lost consciousness and technically died. His heart stopped for four minutes until he was revived. A day later, he had recovered and was talking happily about what had taken place during his death. He saw a bright red light which was apparently in charge of the government of the universe. The ministers for space were oddly absent, but Ayer could see the ministers in charge of time in the distance. Ayer then reports that he suddenly recalled Einstein’s view that space and time were one and the same and tried to attract the attention of the ministers of time by walking up and down and waving his watch and chain. To no avail, however, and Ayer grew more and more desperate and then regained consciousness. Ayer was shaken by the experience and in an article for the Sunday Telegraph, he suggested that it did provide “rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to consciousness”.
10. Michel Foucault (1926-1984)
Foucault was first hospitalized in June 1984 with the symptoms of a nasty and persistent flu, fatigue, terrible coughing and migraine. “It’s like being in a fog,” he said. But he carried on working until the end on the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality, which appeared shortly before his death. Although he was a very early victim of the virus, it seems that Foucault knew that he had Aids. Foucault was fond of reading Seneca towards the end and died on 25 June like a classical philosopher.