Simon Critchley on the History of Death

Question: How do contemporary societies conceive of death?

Critchley:    Every culture has had rituals around death, all right.  It’s a constant feature of what it means to be human.  It’s human culture and what makes our culture unique is our inability to really face up to it, to death, and touch it, have appropriate rituals that surround it.  What interest me about, I mean, the book is about the philosophical ideal of death or, and that is something that you find emerges in the end of the, with the death of Socrates, the end of the 4th century B.C. and the idea there is that to philosophize is to learn how to die and the philosopher is the person who can die the good death and dying the good death is essential to the wisdom that constitutes what it might mean to live.  So, a good life means being able to face up to one’s mortality.  So, that idea of the philosophical death which really begins with Socrates, that’s what I’m tracing through in the book.  But there’s a wider concern which is about, I don’t know, the ritualization of death, our inability to face up to death.  You know, we live in a culture which is, where death is obscene.  It’s sort of hidden away.  I like to think of us as ways of anti-Victorians.  The Victorians could memorialize death and ritualize death in a very powerful way but couldn’t deal with sex.  We talk endlessly about sex but really we can’t deal with death.  So, we are in a strange situation of, you know, the one certainty of human life is the fact that it’s going to end and that’s what we find most difficult to deal with.  Our culture finds it more difficult to deal with and we run away by not thinking about it or by constructing beliefs in the afterlife. 

Question: How did the Greeks conceive of death?

Critchley:    Philosophy begins with Plato, with Plato’s transcriptions of these dialogues.  But then what these dialogues are for?  We don’t even know why they exist but there they are and this new thing called love of wisdom philosophy develops and it develops in a sense as a kind of personality cult around this figure of Socrates and what Socrates did was to wander around Athens, talking to people, asking what they meant by certain topics and interrogating them.  But really the key issue is really the fact that Socrates was condemned to death by the people of Athens for blasphemy, for impiety with regard to the gods of the city and for corrupting the young, and Plato then tells the story of Socrates’ trial and execution over 4 dialogues.  It’s a huge, hugely important thing and Socrates says in the last dialogue which called the Phaedo and, you know, the philosopher is already half-dead.  The philosopher is the person who professes death, who is already, as who have made himself into a resemblance of death.  You know, he’s, and what that means is the philosopher is the person who is contented, who can accept the mortality without the need to run off into beliefs in the afterlife, something like that.  You know, the great death is Epicurus’, not that... Epicurus dies in pain, surrounded by his disciples.  This is another common feature of death in Death of Philosophers in the Ancient World, but he didn’t die alone.  He died surrounded by their disciples and Epicurus dies in pain from kidney stones.  It is a painful death, the last 14 days of his life was spent suffering from this pain but he dies with this, in a state of tranquility.  This was a key thing in the ancient world, the cultivation of tranquility or calm in the face of death.

Simon Critchley's historiography of death.

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