Samuel Loncar considers how death can save our lives
All life ends. The heat of breath chills to ragged wheezing. Finally movement and warmth cease utterly and the inertia of death reigns in cool silence.
In this inevitable terminus of life we find terror and significance. Martyrs embody in their deaths the meaning of their lives. Death becomes a cause, an idea; the burning stake, an implement of revolution or an incandescent revelation. If today we have neatly separated ideas and their stakes – tenure offers security if not immortality – we should remember that it has not always been like this. Death and dying lie at the foundation of Western philosophy.
Philosophy was born with the most famous death in Western literature: the death of Socrates, immortalized in Plato’s Phaedo, the conclusion of a series of dialogues depicting the days leading up to Socrates’ trial and execution in Athens. Philosophy was a way of life, Socrates claimed, that consisted in the practice of dying. The philosopher was the person most prepared for death, the one who had purified the soul so that it would meet death with hope and not fear. Philosophy was not a job but a life, and its stakes were not academic but existential.
In Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers, Costica Bradatan seeks to move the modern eye beyond philosophy in its modern academic form to philosophy in the maelstrom of life and death itself—to philosophy as life, of which the writing and talking is but an expression and not the thing itself.
Bradatan, a professor, editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and writer, is not a typical academic philosopher. If style is the man, Bradatan is clear, elegant, and erudite, moving at ease through a number of languages and literary and philosophical traditions, more in the style of a contemporary European literary intellectual than anything in the Anglophone world of letters. Indeed, Dying for Ideas, like Bradatan’s many essays and reviews, is a book that those who enjoy Pascal, Montaigne, Nietzsche, or Kierkegaard would relish, for it not only refuses a separation of literature and philosophy in its writing, but exemplifies the power of philosophy when it bothers to treat writing like an art, and philosophy as more than an academic discipline.
Dying for Ideas resists simple summary because it is dramatically organized around a progressive consideration of various literary and philosophical treatments of death, founded on a framing chapter that articulates Bradatan’s view of philosophy. Drawing on the work of Pierre Hadot, Michel Foucault, and others, Bradatan argues for a vision of philosophy as a kind of bodily act, a performance inseparable from the way in which we live, breathe, and die in the world. This act is what he finds in the philosophers whose deaths culminate and encapsulate their philosophies, whose deaths are their last and greatest philosophical deeds: “philosophy is above all something you practice … if it is not to remain just empty talk, philosophy needs to pass the test of life.” It is not, argues Bradatan, finally about talking or writing but about “deciding to put your body on the line.”
Bradatan then develops and deepens these ideas through a consideration of artistic and intellectual figures as diverse as Michel de Montaigne, Heidegger, Tolstoy, Edvard Munch, Ingmar Bergman and a variety of famous and less well-known martyrs, writers, and philosophers, from Socrates to Simone Weil. Bradatan evinces mastery of his textual and historical material (he has been teaching and writing on death and dying for years), and the result is the best contemporary book I have read for not only encountering what philosophy can really be as a literary and intellectual form – in this sense it would be an excellent book in a variety of courses, including introductions and more advanced thematic seminars – but also for introducing through an engaging narrative a complex set of debates and ideas about the meaning of death, and thus life itself.
Unlike some (or, regretfully, most) contemporary academic philosophy, Bradatan does not spin out a few thin ideas until a falling leaf would snap their connection to reality, but instead writes rich, closely textured analyses of historical and literary works, as well as conventionally philosophical material, and he proposes his own ideas throughout the book, illustrating and examining them against real lives and deaths. He avoids the arcane and often convoluted style that has become associated, fairly or not, with “theory” and “continental philosophy.” He is simply that rare thing: an excellent writer and thinker, in whom the act of argument incarnates in the pleasure of writing, thus giving the reader the gift of good ideas attired in prose to match their quality. One can always strip such ideas nude for analysis, but this does a disservice to the work and something is always lost in refusing a close reading of the text itself.
One of the major insights of Bradatan’s book – one embodied in it rather than made as a discrete point – is that philosophy does not have to choose between intellectual rigor and literary accessibility. Many academics like to pillory and mock successful writers and popular philosophers, such as Alain de Botton (one suspects jealousy as a partial motivation for these attacks), yet they would almost all dearly love to appear, as Bradatan has done many times, in the pages of The New York Times or other journalistic venues with audiences orders of magnitude larger than their classrooms or regular readers. Their envy, if it is that, proves the inverse of one some journalists seem to feel about academics, immune from the pressures of daily deadlines or a need always to say something new, no matter how ephemeral it may be.
This tension is very old, even if it has assumed different forms in different ages. Contrary to what most people would expect from reading philosophy books, a popular orator like Isocrates offered serious competition to Plato in his own day, and Isocrates’ ideas would exert a profound influence on the development of Western education and culture. The young Hegel, like many of his generation, hoped to contribute to a popular enlightenment, available to all, but later came to regard philosophy as possessing a necessarily esoteric dimension, one that would always appear abstruse and imposing to those who had not entered its house and becomes disciples but only looked in through the window. This debate, to the extent that it is one argument, is ultimately a kind of literary and meta-philosophical argument about the nature of writing itself.
Only if one assumes that philosophy is essentially a kind of thinking and then writing does philosophy become necessarily forbidding to “outsiders.” If philosophy is, as Hadot and others, including now Bradatan, have powerfully argued, a way of life, then the writing of philosophy is a tactical question, and why should much of it not be a kind of literature, an art of helping anyone and everyone discover something significant about what it means to be human? If the tenure track were paved entirely with books as well written as Dying for Ideas, there would be no debate about the relevance of academics for public life, or why the humanities matter.
It would then be obvious to everyone – as it is obvious to all who wish to look – that every intelligent debate or discussion is an embodiment of the value of the humanities and the importance of philosophy as a way of living. Thinking well, knowing oneself, acknowledging one’s ignorance and finitude, and living the truths one professes – these are not optional possibilities but constitutive features of a human life lived well. It is our failure to do these things that creates much of our madness and suffering.
Strangely, we demand more consistency from even politicians’ lives and words than we do philosophers’. But as Bradatan shows so clearly, we cannot cease admiring and lending a special status to people like Socrates, Gandhi, Thomas More, or Martin Luther King Jr., people whose lives and words reinforce each other, and to whom even violence was an invitation to counter one bad and cruel argument with the testimony of living flesh, holding fast in itself a commitment to principles deeper than bones and unshaken by the threat of words, fists, or flame.
There is something exciting, inspiring, even thrilling, about literary portraits of bodies dying for ideas, in part because such images kindle in us a fire of recognition: we all, whoever we are, want our lives to amount to something, to have some kind of coherence, and that desire has everything to do with how we live, suffer, and face death, and yet it cannot be cleanly separated from thought, and, for intellectuals, writing. Bradatan discusses religious martyrdom, but he (not implausibly, though more firmly than I would) separates it from philosophical death, yet recognizes that both provide powerful motivation to followers who want ways of living that will not crumble under the shadow of death.
Holding ideas and words to such a high standard – can they manifest in the body of the thinker herself, can she speak them without saying a single word when it matters most? – may seem quixotic. But the truth is that we all do this, perhaps only to parents or friends, or politicians and religious leaders. Who has not lost faith in a word upon witnessing a deed?
But if we take seriously what philosophy has been – and there is no question that merely academic philosophy is a historical novelty, and cannot erase the overwhelming evidence that philosophy was and has mainly been a life lived in pursuit of wisdom – and consider it a form of art, the art of living, then a new possibility emerges. We can pass beyond a contrastive and competitive vision of philosophy as one academic discipline among others (and all praise be to that discipline, but it has no monopoly on the term or its history) – to which it is indeed natural to ask, “Why does this matter?” – and begin treating life itself as a work of art in process.
Art requires discipline, practice, and, in Nietzsche’s words, a long obedience in the same direction. Whether, as Bradatan himself suggests, we need death without immortality to give our life meaning, or we can aim beyond death to eternity, as many religions and ancient philosophers believed, we could agree that the art of life requires some practice for death, that a way of living that cannot abide even the gaze of its inevitable termination is childish.
Death threatens us with the end of meaning, and it would be a lie to deny that death does unmake many of our meanings, and sometimes whole selves fall into nothingness when death sweeps them away. One trembles to think of what would happen at many funerals if instead of eulogies there were “Speakers for the dead,” the role, invented in the fiction of Orson Scott Card, of a person who unflinchingly speaks the truth of the deceased’s life and not the hopes we had for it. This cruel power of death can be, if not conquered, suborned by philosophy as the art of living and the practice of dying.
Death can become a gift. If we can bring into ourselves while living the test of death’s power to unmake meanings that will not survive it, then from death and in life we can fashion selves that will be our own, that will have a sense of ending, and in ending a shape of wholeness. Books cannot do this, but they can help point the way. Finally even words will fail, and the test will be in our bodies themselves. We owe Bradatan a debt for reminding us of, teaching us anew, this truth.
Words are finally promises of poems we give to others, including ourselves, only through the action and the touch of warm bodies and soft fingers. We can believe death ends this poetry of bodies making meaning in the world, or merely interrupts it, but in either case we can find in death not just an ending but a beginning of wisdom.
Samuel Loncar is a philosopher and scholar of religion and editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, currently teaching at Yale Divinity. His work focuses on integrating separated spaces, including philosophy and poetry, science and religion, and the academic-public divide. His speaking and workshop engagements include the United Nations, Oliver Wyman, and Trinity Wall Street’s retreat center. His website is www.samuelloncar.com. Tweets @SamuelLoncar.