What is the point of death?

Costica Bradatan, Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers

Bloomsbury, 238pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781472529718

reviewed by Stuart Walton

To pose the question, 'What is the point of death?', has become inseparable from nightmare visions of a world that nobody would be allowed to escape. While research continues in both scientific and metaphysical sectors into the possibility of extending life indefinitely, the socialised life that one would be extending goes on deteriorating in itself into something unliveable, in which the unifying aspect once looked for in communism has finally arrived in the form of environmental degradation and overcrowding. We shall soon need another planet, it is said, where the better angels of human nature can begin again, while the malevolent residue, which could then be transcended, is left behind here.

The hope for immortality, which the positive religions made into a reward for enduring present misery, was born out of the pathos of death itself, because death not only brings respite from the suffering that generally precedes it, but also extinguishes the flame of consciousness that has proved itself courageously adept at disregarding the demise of the body. What is the part of the individual that ought to live on past the dissolution of the physical integument? How might its own vital principle survive death's release?

Ever since Socrates accepted the verdict of the Athenian court in 399 BC, the idea of a noble death, a spirited relinquishing of life as nothing special in itself, in the secure belief that what one has said and done will endure beyond it, has been sewn into the lining of the heroic soul. Military heroes accept death for one greater cause or another, to spare their comrades the same fate, or because their own sacrifice will bring an end to conflict. In these cases, though, death is literally the occupational hazard, unstated in the employment contract. For philosophers, who are expected to think these issues into a state of definition, the exemplary death becomes part and parcel of the body of thought for which they have been responsible.

That at least is the premise of Costica Bradatan's vigorous consideration of the emblematic deaths of a succession of western thinkers: Socrates himself; the fourth-century Alexandrian Neoplatonist, Hypatia, one of the classical world's vanishingly few women theorists; Thomas More; Giordano Bruno; Simone Weil; and the Czech phenomenologist turned dissident activist, Jan Patočka. Their biographies are woven skilfully throughout a complex, shiftingly allusive narrative, and their words on death scrutinised for clues to the ways in which they met their own variously traumatic ends. Bradatan is clear that what the onlooker sees as traumatic may be quite different to those assuming these ends themselves. There is nothing of the final recantation rumoured to have come from the atheistic Voltaire on his deathbed, but no chance either for the tranquil wisdom of Hume as he passed away.

Bradatan's cast have been driven to their ends by the storms of history, by failing to bend the knee to prevailing civic, confessional or political orthodoxies. Socrates executed himself with poison. Hypatia was torn to pieces by militant Christians in 415. More's sentence of hanging, drawing, quartering, castrating, and whatever else was written in the diabolic statute for treason, was commuted by Henry VIII to simple decapitation for refusal of the Act of Supremacy. Bruno was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600. Weil wasted away in probable self-starvation in an institution in Kent during wartime exile from occupied France, her own existence an insolent superfluity to her while her compatriots suffered under the Vichy regime. Patočka died after extensive interrogation by the secret police in Prague in 1977. Into and out of these biographical strands are threaded the self-immolations of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in South Vietnam in 1963, of the Czech student Jan Palach on Wenceslas Square in 1969, and of market trader Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in 2010. One of the great western monotheisms, meanwhile, was inaugurated through nothing other than a subjectively assumed martyrdom at the hands of state authorities.

Dying for Ideas does these case studies justice in classical fashion, by the assiduous provoking of thought and examining of life, its arguments full of contentious polemic, as is only fitting. The western philosophical tradition was inaugurated by Socrates in the mode of martyrdom, implicitly challenging posterity, from his own weeping comrades onwards, with the notion that there is no point in having ideas unless you are prepared to die for them. That does not, however, preclude the refunctioning of ideas into precisely the means by which you face death, as More did in his final prison notebook, and as one of Stalin's victims, Nikolai Bukharin, accomplished with the writing – and, after his first draft was discovered and destroyed, the painstaking rewriting – of a theoretical work, Philosophical Arabesques.

Bradatan recovers the work of Paul-Louis Landsberg, a German Jewish existentialist killed in the Oranienburg camp in 1944, from historical amnesia, to put the argument, contra the deathly Heidegger, that death is not our ownmost self-fulfilment since it always comes as a shock, precisely because human beings are more than just biological entities. Death has to mean something, both to the one dying and to an official world that now requires his or her death, for it to be offered both as the ultimate gift, and as the threshold of a life beyond the grave. If it didn't, there would not be such a long and enduring tradition of the reverential disposal of mortal remains and the cultivation of memory, as outlined in Thomas Laqueur's superlative recent study, The Work of the Dead (2015). On the other hand, for Simone Weil in her pre-Beckettian despair, '[o]ur sin consists in wanting to be' – in which case, it is hard to know what significance any death can have. This question is exactly the one thrown out of court in the world Beckett depicts, where not even death, on the borderline of which its inhabitants seem endlessly to teeter, retains any meaning.

Heroic deaths take place, for Bradatan, against a background of public guilt and unease, their spectators the compromised survivors of a world that won't tolerate dissension. The very least the great one's execution should do is to prompt the collective self-examination that their corpus of thought, for which they have been liquidated, aimed to bring about. This raises the question as to whether Socrates' recantation, had he obliged the court by delivering one, would have invalidated his philosophy, a question all the harder to adjudicate when there is no writing to consult, or what there is has long since been lost, as in the case of Hypatia.

That in turn makes one wonder whether the significance of philosophy can possibly be measured in inverse proportion to the security of those who expound it. Patočka's view was that if thinking cannot practically stop barbarity, then it has no business prattling against it, a comfortless return to the deadlocked debate between theory and praxis that convulsed the 1968 generation. When there is nothing left of opposition but continuing to refuse discursive assent to the status quo, refusal is the last message that power can be made to hear that it has not subjugated its clients utterly. Silence itself can be a potent weapon against oppression, but when there is no concrete way to overturn it, calling it oppression is better still than remaining mute.

Bradatan's account of these issues is sufficiently brisk in its argumentative pace that it takes a lot of its grounding propositions for granted, when they themselves might profitably have been reflected on, long before we get to the flames of the various Inquisitions. Changing the world, the opening chapter contends, is easier than changing the self, a proposition that would undermine at a stroke the vastly lucrative self-help industry, if it were true. With regard to Plato, we learn that '[t]o be afraid of something, one has first to know what it is', despite the origin of fear itself in fear of the unknown. '[T]he longer one has lived, the more addicted to living one is,' Bradatan states in defence of the argument that martyrdom is easier for the young, and in defiance of the steady stream of clients treated at the Dignitas clinic. 'Again?' gasped PG Wodehouse, awakening to another new morning at 90.

What it all comes down to, unexpectedly enough, is laughter, even if it isn't clear at whose expense the joke has been played. The martyr laughs in the face of death, as More did when joshing with his executioner on the way to the scaffold. 'If you are the first to laugh at yourself,' Bradatan asks, 'what else can death possibly do to you?' Apart from killing you, of course, it also thereby stops you from laughing. The whole disquisition ends with what feels like a hollow guffaw. Philosophers who didn't realise that they were being mocked while they spoke now turn the derision back on the world with the news that 'life is a cosmic joke'. For all your pains, you have died the death of a common criminal or a witch, and thus ironically exposed the whole business as a farce. This is a dreary conclusion to an otherwise suggestive and finely delineated argument.