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Philosophy as the Art of Dying

"Skeleton pondering", a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical "memento mori" image.

“Skeleton pondering”, a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical “memento mori” image, and reminiscent of Hamlet pondering the skull of Yorick

“Who would Fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.”                                  Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

Hamlet is commonly considered the greatest achievement of that most superlative paragon of Western culture, William Shakespeare. What is greatest about the play is not its action, but its sublime lack of action. Hamlet’s dilemma is how to balance his desire for revenge with his fear of its consequences–namely, death. Hamlet’s fear of death paralyzes him and leads to much philosophizing throughout the play; indeed, perhaps it is no coincidence that Hamlet was a student of philosophy. Fear of death is an attribute common to all animals, but existential angst is a condition which seems to only affect mankind. The limits of philosophy are the limits of life itself, but at its heart it is a way to put our mortality into proper perspective and ward off the fear of death. As Montaigne said, channeling Cicero, “That to philosophize is to learn how to die.” Thus, in philosophizing we also learn how to live, and how to prepare for our own death and non-existence.

There are various ways to think about death, and one fruitful exercise is to look at what dead philosophers and writers of the past had to say about it. After all, we are alive and they are not, so are we not superior to them in one aspect? But they know something that we do not, which is the precise geography of that undiscovered country. A philosopher was “an apprentice to death” according to Montaigne, an author who is especially relevant because his Essays were begun after the death of a close friend and written as a way of meditating on death and his own life in order to find personal solace and happiness.

In the 6th century AD, the last Classical philosopher Boëthius’ Consolations of Philosophy, written from prison while awaiting execution for treason against the Gothic King of Italy Theoderic, is a dialogue between the author and the personified female form of Philosophy. One of the main arguments is the paradox that misfortune is better than good fortune because the former teaches us a lesson while the latter always deceives us about the illusory nature of all earthly happiness. This is reminiscent of the dialogue in Herodotus between Solon, one of the legendary Seven Sages of Greece, and Croesus, King of Lydia and the richest of men. Croesus beseeches Solon to tell him, from his wisdom and experience, who the happiest of men is (expecting himself to be named because of his great wealth and worldly success). Solon, instead, tells of a noble warrior who died on the battlefield; when pressed, he tells another story of two brothers who died in their sleep after carrying their mother to a temple. Croesus intervenes and asks why he has not been named, and Solon tells him that he can count no man happy until he is dead (that is, it is impossible to weigh the balance of a person’s happiness while he is still alive). Later, Croesus is defeated by the Persian King Cyrus and, just before being burned alive, cries out that Solon was right. Cyrus hears this and asks what he means, whereupon Croesus recounts the story to Cyrus and is subsequently released and made an advisor to the victorious king. The lesson, of course, is to take everything in stride–don’t be overly pleased in the good times, but don’t overly despair during the bad times. Things have a tendency to equal out over time as part of the normal vicissitudes of life. This basic lesson is similar to those taught by the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Buddhists.

Hans Holbein, "The Dance of Death"

Hans Holbein, “The Dance of Death”

Contrary to the common use of the word today, the Stoics were not merely unemotional people, but practiced control of extreme emotions in the face of misfortune. For them, virtue was sufficient for human happiness, and freedom was to be used in the practice of constant virtue. It is interesting that the two most famous Stoic philosophers were a slave (Epictetus) and a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius), both of whose writings show the tempering of emotions as a way to virtuous happiness despite their opposite positions in life. Like Platonism, it was a popular school in the Roman Empire that heavily influenced early Christianity, which is ironic considering that the Emperor Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD as being at odds with Christianity.

Contrary to the common idea today, the Epicureans did not merely seek pleasure as the ultimate happiness. Rather, such pleasure is achieved through modest living and the limits of one’s desires (and so the limits of one’s needs), and the search for knowledge of the world. This led eventually to a state of tranquillity and freedom from fear, which constitute the highest form of happiness. Very little of the writings of Epicurus survive, but the sublime “On the Nature of Things”, by the Roman poet Lucretius, is an encapsulation of Epicurean thought. On death, Epicurus was the author of the famous maxim, “Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us” (or more simply “when death is, I am not; when I am, death is not”).

Just as the Stoics knew that “we should not complain of life, for the door of the prison is open”, Camus claimed that suicide is the fundamental problem of philosophy. As much as they may discuss the act, philosophers do not kill themselves at a higher rate than other people (one of several notable exceptions was the cynic Diogenes, who reportedly died by holding his breath). Rather than lamenting or killing oneself, there are other recourses for finding a meaning to life. According to Schopenhauer, there are four “avenues of escape”: aesthetic contemplation; cultivation of sympathy for one’s fellow beings; music; lose the ‘will to live’. Nietzsche, also a great admirer of music, found that struggle was the key to transcendence into some type of being above that which is all too human. Marx said that “Philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” That is, to make the world better than it currently is, though your idea of better will be different from mine. Sometimes, then, the collective spirit of community and sympathy with others gives purpose in life, but for the most part this is just a remedy and not the cause. The search for meaning is always an individual one, just as one’s life and death are always one person’s alone. Wittgenstein expressed his thoughts as, “Just improve yourself, that is all you can do to improve the world.” Solipsistic perhaps, but there is a lot of leeway to the injunction of “improve yourself”.

As Camus describes in The Myth of Sisyphus, sometimes it is the struggle to live that gives life its meaning, especially in opposition to some great burden. Thus, opposing death can be seen as an end in itself. I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s great film The Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays chess with Death. The film is a metaphor for coming to terms with death in general, and the great struggle is ended with a sort of satisfaction of the resignation to one’s fate despite doing one’s best. Living with a sense of humor and irony helps gives this satisfaction. One of the countless epigrams of the great skeptic philosopher George Santayana is, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.” Compare a line of Milan Kundera in the novel Immortality, “You make a common error: namely, considering death a tragedy”, or the famous humor of Mark Twain in the following bon mots which strikes an almost Epicurean tone: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Such irreverence is contrasted with high-minded seriousness as written by the Italian novelist Italo Svevo, “The image of death is enough to occupy the entire intellect. The efforts needed to restrain and repel it is titanic”. (L’immagine della morte è bastevole ad occupare tutto un intelletto. Gli sforzi per trattenerla o per respingerla sono titanici.) Another modernist writer, Vladimir Nabokov had this to say, “Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.” I find this line by the philosophical writer Jorge Luis Borges telling: “I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.” Like almost all writers, Borges’ main theme was human mortality, which drew him often to the concept of infinity (a relevant example is his short story “A Weary Man’s Utopia”).

For courage in facing death, philosophers give many examples. Most obviously, Socrates refused to fight against the injustice of his death sentence or to escape, and spent the last hours of his life in carefree conversation with his closest friends. Georg Hegel said, “Dialectics (or Philosophy) does not run from death and devastation. But it tarries with it a while, and looks it in the face.” Spinoza’s outlook is intended to liberate men from the tyranny of fear: “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death, but of life.” Spinoza lived up to this precept very completely, as Bertrand Russell comments in his A History of Western Philosophy. Russell himself penned these singularly eloquent lines, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I’m not young and I love life, but I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end. Nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold. Surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Philosophy, especially as understood by the ancients after Socrates, is not merely its intellectual content and doctrines, but rather an art of living that can transform our lives and help us develop ourselves day by day. This is shown once again by Montaigne, whose friend’s death caused him to write his Essays and to seek a good and fully realized life, which led him to quit his job, travel widely, get into and then out of politics, and deal with a disease and then death with dignity.

There have been a number of recent books by both academic philosophers and popular thinkers which directly confront these issues of philosophy as a way of living and dying, including but not limited to: The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton; How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell; Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly; Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers, by Costica Bradatan; The Book of Dead Philosophers, by Simon Critchley. All of these seem like worthy and fruitful reads, but I can only personally attest to the first and the last. De Botton’s book does well by the original version by Boëthius. He uses six historical philosophers’ ideas (Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche) as ways to potentially deal with six different everyday problems everyone encounters in life at some time or other. He gives funny and easy to understand examples and generally tries to make philosophy more useful and accessible to normal readers, part of his on-going life project.

Simon Critchley’s 2008 The Book of Dead Philosophers is what he calls a “romp” through how 190 or so philosophers’ deaths related to their ideas. Nearly every entry is full of funny and irreverent quips about the protagonists’ lives and deaths, and is not a bad survey of a wide range of philosophers from around the world, men and women. Some examples of short summaries given in the intro are: “Pythagoras allowed himself to be slaughtered rather than cross a field of beans”; “Bacon died after stuffing a chicken with snow in the streets of London to assess the effects of refrigeration”; “Diderot choked to death on an apricot, presumably to show that pleasure could be had until the very last breath.” One of the book’s strengths (besides the excellent bibliography) lies in its long introductory essay thoughtfully preparing us for how to use the examples given, which is to begin to think clearly about what death is and how to face it. It does not provide any solutions, for there are none to be had, but raises some of the questions that we all must ask ourselves of our place in the world. Since to be a philosopher is to learn how to die, it is first necessary to have a proper attitude towards death. Critchley quotes Marcus Aurelius as writing “it is one of the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” “Unknowing and uncertain,” Critchley comments, “the philosopher walks.” Indeed, in this case we must all be philosophers, not crawling, and not running away, but walking upright towards our fate while looking it squarely in the eye. Only when we confront our own mortality can be be truly human, and truly free to live our lives. The Greek writer Kazantzakis chose for his epitaph these lines, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” That is the goal not only of the philosopher, but of mankind.

On History and Herodotus

That History is a useless and boring collection of names and dates is one of those careless statements of foolishness that one overhears occasionally and which immediately marks the speaker as an illiterate member of democratic society — a grave deficiency from my point of view as a historian, teacher, and concerned citizen. In this essay, I intend to define exactly what history is and why it is important.

Herodotus, called the “father of history”, invented the word history as we know it (from Greek  istoria: “inquiry” or “research”) as well as the field of historiography. His Histories of the Persian Wars were composed and performed in Periclean Athens from about 440-420 BCE, or roughly two generations after the wars. Herodotus gathered all of his information about the background and events of the wars second- or third-hand from eyewitnesses. He also traveled widely and gathered first-hand information about customs, geography, and local history of not only the archipelago of Greek poleis (city-states), but also the nations comprising the distant and exotic Persian empire, including Egypt, Babylon, and Arabia. Already in the first line of the Histories he presents the reader (or audience, in the original case) with the results of his inquiries into the Persian wars:

This is the result of the inquiry (historia) of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, published so that time may not erase the memory of past events from the mind of mankind, so that the great and marvelous deeds of the Greeks and the barbarians should not be without fame, and especially to explain why they fought against one another.

Herodotus collects this information so that it will not be forgotten, so that both Greeks and the Persians be rightly honored for glorious deeds, and, most importantly from the historical point of view, to try to understand the causes behind the conflict. While the Histories remains almost as much a work of literature as of history, Herodotus lays the groundwork for a rudimentary systematic method of recording past events.

Thucydides, writing soon after Herodotus, and contemporary with him, composed his History of the Peloponnesian War, which has been the obvious foil for Herodotus’s work ever since. Thucydides was an Athenian general who personally fought in the Peloponnesian War until he was exiled for losing a strategic fortress in 423, whereupon he began recording a history of the war while it was still being fought.

In his opening lines, Thucydides copies Herodotus by giving his name and purpose, although we will note a difference in focus:

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war in which the Peloponnesians and the Athenians fought against one another. He began to write when they first took up arms, believing that it would be great and memorable above any previous war. For he argued that both states were then at the full height of their military power, and he saw the rest of the Hellenes either siding or intending to side with one or other of them. No movement ever stirred Hellas more deeply than this; it was shared by many of the Barbarians, and might be said even to affect the world at large. The character of the events which preceded, whether immediately or in more remote antiquity, owing to the lapse of time cannot be made out with certainty. But, judging from the evidence which I am able to trust after most careful enquiry, I should imagine that former ages were not great either in their wars or in anything else.”

Describing his method, he has this to say later in Book One:

Of the events of the war I have not ventured to speak from any chance information, nor according to any notion of my own; I have described nothing but what I either saw myself, or learned from others of whom I made the most careful and particular enquiry. The task was a laborious one, because eye-witnesses of the same occurrences gave different accounts of them, as they remembered or were interested in the actions of one side or the other. And very likely the strictly historical character of my narrative may be disappointing to the ear. But if he who desires to have before his eyes a true picture of the events which have happened, and of the like events which may be expected to happen hereafter in the order of human things, shall pronounce what I have written to be useful, then I shall be satisfied. My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten.

Already we can see Thucydides taking a dig at Herodotus with that last line. Thucydides would have considered himself a more rigorous and scientific historian than his predecessor, and most critics since at least Cicero have agreed. In Thucydides, we are focused solely on military and political matters, in a straight-line and chronological order. He goes to pains to show that he presents the only the facts or the most likely interpretation of the facts when there is uncertainty. He even tells us he basically made up the speeches when he could not remember them or according to what he thought they should be. Still miles ahead of Herodotus in terms of modern historiography. Thucydides has been appreciated for centuries due to his apparent realism, or Realpolitik, and experienced a resurgence in military study before and after the World Wars and the Cold War.

In Herodotus, however, we find something that Thucydides lacks. In Herodotus there is much less focus on politics, and the military encounters are more exaggerated and less detailed, with the occasional involvement of the gods à la Homer. But Herodotus takes us on a literary and anthropological journey that surely would (and perhaps did) make Thucydides blush. He traveled far and wide interviewing people and seeing different cultures and lands for himself. The result is a book which remains the most important ancient source on the Persian empire. In one case, Herodotus spends the entire Book Two on a description of Egypt, its history and customs, and flora and fauna (though his report of the crocodile and hippopotamus reveal that he certainly did not see them first-hand). This chapter is also one of the founding documents of the field of Egyptology. In another full chapter we are told all about the customs and geography of the area north of Greece called Scythia, one of the best sources for these mysterious people as well. Other things he includes are India and its culture, Arabia and its culture and spice-collecting method, and any number of other interesting anecdotes and digressions. Herodotus, more than a historian, is a master storyteller who keeps us entertained while giving us his own brand of history. Some of my favorite sections are the tale of Gyges and the magic ring of invisibility, the tale of Solon and Croesus, and the debate between Darius and two other Persian lords about which type of government the empire would have (obviously in Herodotus’ version democracy is the winner).

The Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano, until his death in 1987, was considered one of the world’s experts in ancient historiography. In a 1962 lecture he described the “Herodotean and the Thucydidean Tradition” as a contrast between two models of history writing. As much as Herodotus was called the “father of history”, his was not a model much appreciated at all until periods of reemergence during the Enlightenment, and intermittently since then. Thucydides has always been the model of strong political and military history writing. Momigliano emphasizes that Thucydides intentionally undercut Herodotus this way from the beginning, by putting himself between Herodotus and his readers, and getting the “lying Herodotus” motif off the ground. Herodotus painted a broad canvas with features of culture, religion, anthropology, sociology, geography, mythology, and, to a lesser extent, war (and its traditional mythical, classical, glorious, and heroic–that is to say, pre-modern–manifestations). Thucydides focused solely on the present, with little need for any past history outside of the immediate causes for political and military behavior. For him, like Lord Acton, history is present politics. Herodotus is a humanist and a preserver of civilization, which is a “hedge against human mortality” as Momigliano describes. Thucydides’ central concern is the use of human power by means of politics and war. These are the two broad categories of historiography that still characterize the field of history from its inception to the present day.

One of the skills of mankind, homo sapiens (“wise man”), is to divide the world into patterns and divisions in order to understand things better (or at least more easily). The observation and description of various patterns in the world does not necessarily make them true; in fact, these observations and descriptions can only ever be theoretical and incomplete facsimiles of the real “thing-in-itself”. This goes for every field of human knowledge, as much for philosophy as the natural sciences, as much for psychology as for history. It is rare that we would ever be so bold as to consider any of the various competing theories in any field as “true”; better to consider them variously “true for a certain time, place, or person”, or more “useful” for a particular purpose or need. In philosophy I would not consider anything to have ever been “solved”, and there are things to praise and criticize in the “Platonic” versus the “Aristotelian” view, or in the “Analytic” versus “Pragmatic” view. It seems like there are as many different views as there are people who express them, which would make each one “idiosyncratic” and true for each person’s understanding of things (at least, according to a pragmatist). In psychology, there are obviously still many proponents of either the “Freudian” or “Jungian” schools, or their less venerable rivals. In every field of human thought we find such competing perspectives, methods, and aims. History is no different.

In addition to Herodotean (cultural) and Thucydidean (political) emphasis on history writing, let us spend the rest of this essay mentioning some other various categorizations of history, and what we can take from the reading of history in general.

One debate about history is whether it is an art or a science. Seconding the former, we have Schopenhauer saying “There is no general science of history. History is the insignificant tale of humanity’s interminable, weighty, fragmented dream.” Though not so pessimistic as that so-called “philosopher of pessimism,” many of the great historians’ fame and greatness — Gibbon, Macauley, Durant, Mommsen to a certain extent — rests on their style or “art.” These characterize the more popular, general, and broad surveys of history which must be above all readable and interesting: works of art rather than science. On the other hand, we have various proponents of the science of history, which begins with the philosophical views of Hegel and Marx, appears after World War One with writers like Spengler, and has characterized some of the modern academic and scholarly study of history, such as with Huntington and Fukuyama. Despite their pretenses, I think we would find that no one has yet convincingly proved history (or economics, for that matter, despite Marx, Keynes, and Friedman) to be a science, though the attempt to do so typically makes it more immutable and less interesting. As far as I’m concerned, science can facilitate history writing, especially in regards to archaeology, numismatics, epigraphy, dendrochronology, etc., but the historiography itself is an art.

History has also been seen through the eyes of either its great individuals or as societies writ large. The former case is most purely expressed with biography, from Plutarch, Caesar, and Suetonius onwards. From a certain point of view, the lives of history’s great individuals can illustrate a great deal of the history of a certain time and place. As Harold Bloom points out, “History, to Rilke, was the index of men born too soon, but as a strong poet Rilke would not let himself know that art is the index of men born too late.” This is the traditional view, but it has more recently been superseded in the academic world by cultural or social history, especially from the points of view of previously marginalized groups such as women, minorities, and non-Western peoples and tribes. Surely if our goal is to learn more about a particular society or culture, we would not read “traditional” books like Caesar’s On the Gallic Wars but something more modern (or post-modern) like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Once again, the point is not which is correct or more correct, but which is most useful for helping to understand the past better from all points of view.

Then there the question of whether the historian equates his work with an unalterable “truth”, or whether he admits that it is but one of the various versions or “perspectives” of truth. Whether there is such a thing as absolute truth is an unresolved philosophical argument. Truth is an unintuitively difficult concept to pin down, and the dichotomy in this case is similar to that of science versus art. Let’s take an example: that Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804 is not a fact which reasonable people will dispute–it represents “truth.” But despite those who stopped paying attention in high school, history is not a concatenation of names and dates that somehow embodies everything that ever happened in the foreign world of the past. The key to historical understanding is nuanced interpretation of cause and effect. To use the terms of a grammar debate, history is “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive.” The way in which truth is hard to pin down is not in the facts themselves, but in the perspective used to describe, interpret, and explain the facts which comprises the changeable, imperfect human aspect of history. If we say “the Americans won a victory over the British at Yorktown,” it tells me one single fact, but does little to explain who the Americans and British are and what they represent (as if there were one wholesale Platonic ideal of “Americans” or “British”). History is thus beholden to the historian to give perspective, which is an art and not a science, and interpretation, which depends on the historian’s philosophical or political bent.

Perhaps it is worth mentioning, if stretching the metaphor a bit thin, Isaiah Berlin’s essay on the hedgehog and the fox. The fox is the person who knows many things; the hedgehog knows one thing very well. Written to discuss the merits of Russian novelists (Berlin classifies Dostoevsky as the quintessential hedgehog, and Tolstoy as the fox who wants to be a hedgehog), I think we can roughly describe Herodotus as a fox, while Thucydides is nothing if not a hedgehog.

So what can we take from all of this theory, all these perspectives of history? I think, paradoxically (and hypocritically), the awareness of theories and philosophies of history is not itself an end, but only at best a means to an end for certain readers with a certain intellectual sensibility and too much time. The point of reading history is, to my mind, to enrich one’s mind, raise awareness of our shared humanity, and understand how the past still affects the present.

Studying History makes, or allows, one to think about the world in multifaceted ways, which should be seen as a requisite for living in a multifaceted world. “The past is foreign country: they do things differently there,” according to the writer L.P. Hartley. “History is past politics, and politics present history,” according to historian E.A. Freeman. “ I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past,” according to Gibbon.

As Bertrand Russell wrote in an essay on history, “The man whose interests are bounded by the short span between his birth and death has a myopic vision and a limitation of outlook which can hardly fail to narrow the scope of his hopes and desires. And what applies to an individual man, applies also to a community…I am thinking of history as an essential part of the furniture of an educated mind. We do not think that poetry should only be read by poets, or that music should only be heard by composers. And, in like manner, history should not be known only to historians.

We need not envision history as cyclical or predetermined (something that seems to come with the “scientific” view of history such as Marx and Spengler). Rather the opposite, that by understanding past events and lives we can create a present and future life for ourselves, and world for everyone, that avoids the biggest mistakes of the past. After all, as George Santayana famously warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To not do so would forfeit mankind’s biological and cultural heritage as the “wise men.”

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