Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dying For Ideas


I also have a review in The Australian today, of Costica Bradatan's Dying For Ideas: The Dangerous Ideas of the Philosophers.

In 'Live by the words, die by the sword', I examine Bradatan's notion that death can be the performance of philosophy:
Drawing on examples including Socrates, Hypatia, Giordano Bruno and Simone Weil, Bradatan argues that the destruction of the body can be welcomed, and in some cases encouraged, by what he calls the ‘‘philosopher-martyr’’. This often involves seeing death not simply as the end of being, but as a becoming: one becomes fully good, just and beautiful by leaving behind (or pulverising) one’s carnal lumps. 
This idea was expressed most elegantly by Plato in middle dialogues such as Phaedo, but has a long history. What makes Bradatan’s interp­retation especially illuminating is his attention to the performance and reception of death. For 16th-century Catholic politician Thomas More to ­become a philosophy-martyr, for example, it was not enough to simply oppose Henry VIII, then cease breathing in bed. He had to die voluntarily and publicly at the hands of his persecutor: by beheading in his case, though he was first threatened with hanging, evisceration and castration. Bradatan argues that More had to transform himself into an appropriate victim. Recognising the king’s authority as he rejected royal dictates; whipping himself, fasting and wearing a hair shirt; writing a dialogue to convince himself of his own divine mission — these rites helped Thomas the mediocre politician become More the sacrificial symbol of defiance. 
Bradatan also reveals how these ends can be inconsequential without storytellers who transform death into denouement, and without responsive audiences. Socrates had Plato and Xenophon; More his son-in-law: each made execution the last scene in new tale of heightened moral virtue. The storyteller had to ‘‘kill the live, contradiction-riddled person of the philosopher’’, Bradatan writes, ‘‘and remould him into a ... literary character’’. Receptivity is also vital. The horrifying but entrancing suicides of burning monks only wounded the consciences of those already abraded with some guilt.
Dying For Ideas will be fascinating for philosophers, psychologists and historians and, more generally, anyone curious about that inescapable possibility: death. (It is also handsomely designed and bound -- Bloomsbury have done a schmick job.)

Incidentally, Bradatan is very much alive, and in Australia right now, speaking about his ideas.

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