Author Sums Up Philosophers' Thoughts On Death

Throughout recorded history, philosophers have made light of death — in some cases, they've even taught us to embrace it. Author Simon Critchley has compiled the thoughts of more than 190 philosophers on the subject of death in The Book of Dead Philosophers.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Now, we'll turn to a lighter topic: death. Simon Critchley has written a number of books about philosophy, but his latest book is "The Book of Dead Philosophers." And in it, he sums up the positions many famous philosophers have had about death. And in some cases, he shares how these people met their fates, as it were.

Simon Critchley joins us from our New York bureau. What is your fascination with death, and the death of these philosophers?

Dr. SIMON CRITCHLEY (Author, "The Book of Dead Philosophers"): The issue, really - what the book is about is the ancient wisdom that to philosophize is to learn how to die. Philosophy begins with the death, the death of Socrates, but he goes to his death with equanimity - without fear. And the key thing is that philosophy can allow you to overcome the fear of death without requiring a belief in the afterlife, a sort of longing for immortality.

LYDEN: Well, let me take you back to Chinese philosophy. You offer the thoughts of Zhuang Zhou, who died in 286 BC. Death and life are never- ceasing transformations. They are not the end of a beginning. If we once understand this principle, we can equalize life and death.

Dr. CRITCHLEY: For Zhuang Zhou, death is just the transformation of matter from one state to another. We were alive, and now we become worm food or bird food or whatever. That's nothing to be sad about. That's something to be celebrated. And there's a lovely story of, after Zhuang Zhou's wife died, of him being discovered by a friend, pounding on a tub and singing. You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old. And he's asked why he was singing. He said: Why shouldn't I sing? She lived, she died, she's become something else. One shouldn't mourn, one should ring the changes, pound the tub and sing. Death is nothing, nothing to be scared of.

LYDEN: Now, I want to ask you about Alfred Jules Ayer. This is a really compelling tale.

Mr. CRITCHLEY: Absolutely.

LYDEN: And he died in 1989, but not before - not one, but two near-death experiences, if you count the confrontation with the boxer Michael Tyson, which not every philosopher gets to indulge. And would you please tell the story - I had to put it in because it's one of the best stories in your collection.

Mr. CRITCHLEY: Right. Well, the premise is itself fascinating, A.J. Ayer, Freddie Ayer, is at the party for a fashionable underwear designer in Manhattan. I mean, the premise itself is fascinating. How many philosophers get to go to underwear designer parties?

LYDEN: Have you?

Mr. CRITCHLEY: Not recently, no. I mean...

LYDEN: Oh, back in the past.

Mr. CRITCHLEY: I hope to receive invitations as a consequence of this interview. But the - I have heard, you know, there was a kafuffle going on in the next room and it was Mike Tyson, who was trying to force himself on a young British model called Naomi Campbell. And Ayer warned Tyson to take his hands off her. Tyson said something quite rude, finishing with, I'm the heavyweight champion of the world. And then Ayer replied without missing a beat: And I'm the former Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. We're both eminent men in our field. I suggest we just discuss this rationally. By which point, Naomi Campbell has released herself from Tyson's clutches, and Ayer had saved the day. The second story is the - he choked on a piece of salmon and technically died. He was dead for four minutes. He saw a red light, a huge, red light. He was aware of the universe and these ministers. He's aware that the universe was governed by these ministers of space and time, but he knew something was wrong. And so he began to walk up and down and twiddle his Hunter watch to try and alert them to something of the fact that something was wrong with the universe. At that point, he revives. But then - this is the kicker; this is really the very peaceful part of the story. His mood changed with his near-death experience. He published an article about it. He no longer thought that immortality was out of the question. But his mood very much improved, and there was a party some time later, and he was there, and Jonathan Miller, the theater director and all-around genius, said to Ayer's wife, Dee: Freddie, he seems he's got such a good mood. And his wife said: Yes, he's so much nicer since he died.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: So you studied the philosophies of death through the ages and around the world. Did you find any common themes?

Mr. CRITCHLEY: The main - I think the main conclusion I came to can perhaps be encapsulated in a quotation. Wittgenstein says eternal life is given to those who live in the present because we live so much of our time either in the future, thinking about whether I'm going to be well, whether I'm going to be wealthy or whatever in the future, or in the past, with our traumas and memories from whatever might have happened. The difficult thing is living in the present.

LYDEN: Hmm.

Mr. CRITCHLEY: And a large chunk of the philosophers I'm concerned with focus on that. And for me, that's incredibly consoling.

LYDEN: Simon Critchley is the author of "The Book of Dead Philosophers," which is published by Vintage Books, and it will be released this Tuesday. Thank you, Simon Critchley.

Mr. CRITCHLEY: Thank you very much, Jacki.

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