I’ve tried to live every day in the present tense, piecing together the consolations of philosophy from writers choosing to look death in the face and to draw from the encounter the breath of life. The reluctance to do so I take to be a root cause of most of our twenty-first-century American sorrows (socioeconomic and aesthetic as well as cultural and political), and as a remedy for our chronic states of fear and trembling I know of none better than Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers (Vintage). … A professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, Critchley declares his purpose on the first page of the introduction. Absent a philosophical coming to terms with death, we are, he says,
Led, on the one hand, to deny the fact of death and to run headlong into the watery pleasures of forgetfulness, intoxication and the mindless accumulation of money and possessions. On the other hand, the terror of annihilation leads us blindly into a belief in the magical forms of salvation and promises of immortality offered by certain varieties of traditional religion and many New Age (and some rather old age) sophistries.
Where then is the blessing to be found in the wish to live forever? Never before in the history of the world have so many people lived as long, as safely, or as freely as those of us now living in the United States. Never before in the history of the world have so many of those same people made themselves sick with the fears of an imaginary future. We magnify the threat in all the ills the flesh is heir to, surround ourselves with surveillance cameras, declare the war on terror against an unknown enemy and an abstract noun, buy from Bernie Madoff the elixirs of life everlasting. And what is it that we accomplish other than the destruction of our happiness as well as any hope of some sort of sustainable balancing of our account with nature, which, unlike the Obama Administration, isn’t in the business of arranging bailouts?
Absent a coming to terms with death, how do we address the questions of environmental degradation and social injustice certain to denominate the misfortunes of the twenty-first century? Our technologists provide us with new and improved weapons and information systems, our politicians with digitally enhanced sophistry and superstition, but it is from Critchley’s council of dead philosophers that we’re more likely to learn how not to murder ourselves with our fear of the dark.