The Book of Dead Philosophers

The Book of Dead Philosophers is exactly what it says on the label. Structured encyclopedically and chronologically, it is a list of nearly every philosopher, both ancient and modern, what they wrote on the subject of death and dying, and then the story (sometimes admittedly apocryphal) of how they themselves met their end. The positives: the book is extremely well-researched and comes pretty close to being exhaustive. There is a lot of detail while still managing to give a fairly concise overview of the philosophical concepts under discussion. If you want to impress people at a dinner party with your knowledge of how philosophers died, this is totally the book for you.

The negatives: the author’s agenda is much too strong throughout. This would be forgivable if the book was supposed to be Sophie’s World, but it isn’t. Anywhere he possibly can, Crichly implies that a given philosopher’s religious views were merely a political cover for the real atheism he held secretly deep inside. Crichly also tries to be funny in places where it doesn’t really work. I am by no means against the use of humour (including gallows humour) in a philosophical work, or anywhere else, but Crichly comes off less as attempting to lighten the mood while dealing in such dark subject matter and more as though he’s being snarky for snark’s sake. And that’s a pretty major turnoff. It detracts from the seriousness of the book, in a bad way.

Crichly repeats Socrates’ idea that fundamentally philosophy is about learning how to die. But, you know, all due respect to Socrates, I think that’s crap. Everyone learns how to die eventually, that doesn’t take any special training. Not everyone learns how to live. Someone write a book about that. (Richard Rosenbaum)

by Simon Crichly, $19.95, 336 pgs Granta Books, granta.com

 

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