In this opinion piece, Costica Bradatan, assistant professor in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, examines how philosophers and thinkers through the ages have dealt with the reality of their own demise:
It happened to Socrates, Hypatia, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Jan Patočka, and a few others. Due to an irrevocable death sentence, imminent mob execution or torture to death, these philosophers found themselves in the most paradoxical of situations: lovers of logic and rational argumentation, silenced by brute force; professional makers of discourses, banned from using the word; masters of debate and contradiction, able to argue no more. What was left of these philosophers then? Just their silence, their sheer physical presence. The only means of expression left to them, their own bodies — and dying bodies at that.
Philosophers, he says, generally follow two patterns. First, they “display a certain contempt toward the body” because most of them spend their lives thinking about matters that transcend their own bodies, their own lives and in many cases, their own generations. Second, many of them tend to gravitate toward unbelief in gods or the supernatural, like Hypatia, so when confronted with their own deaths, they are pushed into what is called a “limit-situation,” whereby they either will hold firm in their disbelief to the end or they abandon them, thus abandoning a life’s worth of thinking. Bradatan frames it thusly:
… it boils down to the following dilemma: if you decide to remain faithful to your views, you will be no more. Your own death will be your last opportunity to put your ideas into practice. On the other hand, if you choose to “betray” your ideas (and perhaps yourself as well), you remain alive, but with no beliefs to live by.
Essentially, the question is this: how do philosophers deal with the natural fear of death that overtakes us all at one time or another. Believers say that faith in seeing their loved ones or being able to live forever in heaven or to meet Jesus, etc., gives them comfort and helps them deal with their own impending exit stage right. But for many philosophers, no such comfort exists, and for some of them, I dare say, gaining personal comfort wasn’t the goal to begin with. Or, in Bradatan’s quotable words:
Tell me how you deal with your fear of annihilation, and I will tell you about your philosophy.
Bradatan also writes about the performance “art” of dying, noting the cases of Socrates, who offed himself before the state could and Hypatia, who was stripped naked by a Christian mob and executed in the Caesarion church using “broken pits of pottery.” The latter’s death, depicted in the movie, “Agora” (I wrote a review of it here) is neither “exquisite,” “passionate” or fascinating, as Bradatan claims, but it does make the point. Hypatia at the time of her death was a scholar of, perhaps 45 years old, who was fascinated with astronomy, math and philosophy. She was the last librarian at the Library of Alexandria and held all the promise of becoming one of the greatest thinkers of her time or any other before religious thugs saw to it that she would meet a grisly demise. All, no less, under the gaze of an absent god, as ever.
Was she prepared emotionally and mentally to meet her end on that day in March 415? Had she considered adopting the relatively new religion of Christianity? Likely not, but certainly these questions must have at least flittered through her mind at one time or another, as it does with all sentient beings destined to exit this world in darkness just as they entered.
So how do we meet death squarely in the face without flinching? Not without a good dose of courage, but Bradatan offers some clues in conclusion:
Perhaps that to be a philosopher means more than just being ready to “suffer” death, to accept it passively at some indefinite point in time; it may also require one to provoke his own death, to meet it somehow mid-way. That’s mastering death. Philosophy has sometimes been understood as “an art of living,” and rightly so. But there are good reasons to believe that philosophy can be an “art of dying” as well.