Simon Critchly is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. He is the author of many books,including On Heidegger's Being and Time and Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. The Book of Dead Philosophers was written on a hill overlooking Los Angeles, where he was a scholar at the Getty Research Institute. He lives in Brooklyn.
Question: What style of living engenders a more accepted appreciation for death?
Critchley: Why, it’s complicated because one view of the philosopher is the, the philosopher’s lost in contemplation, lost in thought. There’s plenty of evidence for that. Another view which I’m more partial to is that if you look at the last 3,000 years of history as I tried to do in this book, what you find, first it would be the person of Socrates, is that Socrates is someone who intervenes in the political, in the public realm. He intervenes politically. He is the political animal in a very, very obvious way and if we follow through the history of philosophy and what I’m trying to do in this book in many ways is to re-think the way we approach the history of philosophy by focusing on this particular, and try and get the general from the particular from the example. Is there an awful lot of philosophers where part of the administrative elite of the cultures that they lived in, Seneca, the most important philosopher in the Rome of his time was also the chief administrator of the Roman Empire, Boethius throughout the consolations of philosophy, same thing. The idea of the philosopher as somebody who works in an academic institution like a university and was divorced from public life, an ivory tower, is really something of the last 200 years. That’s one of the things that’s going on in this book is an attempt to retrieve the public political role of the philosopher and to try and show that if you look at it in those terms, well then, philosophy does has something to offer, you know, how we think about public and political life because philosophers were, they were involved and they were as dependent as anybody else on the whims of their bosses or whatever. Boethius was pounded to death in a mortar at the orders of his employer, Theoderic. You know, well Thomas More, another example in the book, who was beheaded by Henry VIII. So, you know, we’re inclined to think that the contemporary view of philosophers has somehow, these creatures that live in institutions have no connection with the real world, that’s the way it’s always been and it’s not the case and in many ways I’d like to go back to what I do.