Dead Philosophers: Joie de Mourir

Costica Bradatan, Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

The choice of philosophers to sacrifice their lives for their ideas is lofty and grim. In Costica Bradatan’s book, it is also fun and funny. Dying for Ideas is full of joie de mourir, which as Plato’s Socrates would have put it, is just the other side of joie de vivre. The book is at once heroic and ironic. It empathizes with the philosophers but considers their deaths a theatre play that deserves a critical review. Stylistically, Bradatan, a Romanian philosopher who studied in Durham in the UK and now teaches in Texas Tech, uses what he calls “intermezzi” to comment, often ironically, on the heroic narrative. At the end of the book, following the pathos, there is bathos: Philosophers have become victims often not because they posed a threat to the powers, but because they were entirely harmless and powerless. The power of their acts and texts, their bequest to posterity, was not in themselves, but in the generation of stories told about them after their deaths.

Moral self-sacrifice must be differentiated from unjust one, practiced by kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers. Philosophical self-sacrifice should be distinguished from its religious and political cousins. Bradatan’s method is to consider several paradigmatic cases of philosophical martyrdom and fit the abstract criteria to the philosophical deaths of Socrates, Hypatia, Giordano Bruno, Thomas More, and Jan Patočka: Philosophical martyrdom is individual and rare. Reverence of dead philosophers never develops into a cult. Though philosophers become founding figures of schools of thought, they do not generate institutions. Philosophical commemoration of the death of philosophers does not include the circumstances of their death—philosophers do not drink hemlock cocktails in commemoration of Socrates. When philosophers undertake martyrdom as philosophers, it is not to please a transcendent God or be rewarded in an afterlife. Bradatan concludes that philosophical martyrdom is self-rewarding: “It is great to die for God, but it may be greater to die for no God.”

Bradatan sees no common meaning for the self-sacrifices of philosophers. Some held their beliefs more important than themselves and would not deny them in public even under duress. Some did not distinguish their lives from their philosophy, they “lived in truth.” Some were proud and contemptuous of their judges, considering submission worse than death. Others may have preferred the enhancement of their reputation and the publicity for their ideas through public death to ignominious silence. “[O]ne of the philosopher’s distinctive features, almost a professional deformation, [is] to be stubborn. Stubbornness is also what makes the philosopher a good character in a story, what gets him in trouble and sets the plot in motion, what promises a climax and a fine ending.” (125)

As Bradatan notes, Plato constructed the model for philosophical martyrdom: “a protagonist committed to a certain style of ethical and intellectual life, who is ready to die for the sake of his beliefs; a hostile political environment that does not tolerate certain ideas and behaviors; a crisis that triggers the unfolding of a series of dramatic events; the climax in the shape of a public trial and the protagonist’s confrontation with the representatives of the hostile crowd; finally, the protagonist’s death and the glorious posterity he will enjoy as a result—everything projected against a background marked by collective complicity, unease, and guilt.” (175) Socrates is both the archetypal philosopher and the archetypal martyr philosopher. Whatever we say about philosophers who sacrifice themselves for ideas, it must fit Socrates’ decision to die. Socrates’ model was imitated by later philosophers who followed in his footsteps. The closest act of Socratic mimesis was probably of the Czech dissident philosopher Jan Patočka, who was one of the first spokespersons of Charter 77 and died following police interrogations. He could have foreseen the power of the totalitarian state descending on, yet chose not to remain in tranquil retirement.

Bradatan builds on Foucault’s lectures in Berkeley in 1983 that emphasized the Socratic theme of the philosopher’s duty to tell truth to power. Philosophers cannot be silent. Truth is a revealing, and its revelation is politically risky. Patočka’s concept of care for the soul as life in truth, Heideggerian concept of truth as uncovering (Alethea), and acceptance of the necessary conflict between life in truth and tyranny clearly influenced Foucault. Yet, Bradatan concludes ironically, while the philosopher can only speak the truth, a tyrant has the freedom to choose how to react, killing or ignoring the philosopher and anything in-between. Unlike Patočka and Foucault, Bradatan thinks that revealing the truth prevents philosophers from being democratic politicians, because they cannot make the voters feel good; philosophers in power only manage to make fools of themselves. Irony apart, I can imagine a number of contexts when electorates do prefer to hear the brutal truth rather than be flattered and deceived, especially during an unavoidable crisis. Havel, for example, began his 1990 New Year speech with exactly such telling of the truth, to distinguish himself from his predecessors. Churchill, though not a philosopher, began his premiership with telling his people to expect only blood, sweat, and tears. While some philosophers did make fools of themselves in politics and even more so in power, others made wise contributions to their countries, especially state founders like Masaryk and the American founders.

Alternative ideas about what philosophy is challenge Plato-Socrates and Patočka-Foucault’s concept of the philosopher as a compulsive truth-revealer who lives in truth. Unfortunately, Bradatan does not confront these alternatives. One is Maimonides and Leo Strauss’s distinction between exoteric and esoteric meanings of philosophical expressions. If the deep esoteric truths of philosophers are expressed cryptically so that only select few can understand them, philosophers can express the truth without coming into conflict with power. Another—more academically dominant—view of philosophy is that it is about language, not life. If the purpose of philosophy is just to clear away obscure, obfuscating, and illogical prepositions, or to deconstruct the metaphysical assumptions of language, it is not something that is lived. Philosophy may be about the concept of truth, but not in truth. The philosopher as a language technician has no distinct way of life that could generate conflict with authority. Many academic philosophers who practice this kind of philosophy are too conformist to come into conflict with anybody outside their faculties, and they are proud of their apolitical technical style of philosophizing.

The death of a philosopher is a one-time performance that cannot be repeated. “Martyrs are martyrs only insofar as they perform their death in the presence, either actual or vicarious, of a receptive audience, there is somebody to tell their story and people willing to listen to it… you would die for nothing if no one told your story. There would be no Socrates, without Plato—no Jesus Christ without the Gospels.” (160) For Bradatan, martyrdom is not the end of one’s body but a performance with cultural, social, and political significance. A martyred philosopher needs “a crafty portraitist to put him in the best of lights: to show him as an individual of exceptional determination, but still a gentle human being; idealistic enough, yet not a fanatic; strong-headed, but not obsessed; a visionary, but not a lunatic.” (170) This can be achieved by writing the story backwards, starting with the spectacular martyrdom and moving back, selecting episodes that prepared the philosopher for martyrdom and leave out anything embarrassing, like Thomas More’s treatment of dissenters and heretics while he was in power. As Bradatan puts it deliberately ambiguously, Plato killed the historic Socrates and managed to get rid of the body.

Philosophers do not seek confrontation and death; they have a philosophical way of life which in some contexts makes them vulnerable, and vulnerability is a necessary condition for persecution. Provocatively, Bradatan claims that philosophers are murdered because they are powerless. Like other marginal scapegoats such as prostitutes and beggars, they could be killed with impunity. Philosophers are dangerous only to themselves. Perceiving them as a political threat is a romantic misrepresentation. The powers that be need raw flesh to scapegoat and philosophers are particularly useful because they appear unthreatening. The irony of the situation is the lack of control of the philosopher over his own martyrdom. It depends on his oppressors’ decisions. Accordingly, “this book should be read as an exercise in the ontology of ironical existence.” (186)

Bradatan attempts to apply Rene Girard’s fashionable theory of scapegoating to philosophy. A scapegoat, according to Girard, unites divided communities by assuming all the guilt. A mixture of gratitude, shame, and guilt leads the sacrificing public to consider the scapegoat sacred. In my opinion, this theory may be applied to Socrates at most, though his death hardly sufficed to heal the social rifts that followed Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars and the rule of the thirty tyrants. In all the other cases of philosophical martyrdom, there was not even the prospect of social unity after the sacrifice of the philosopher, nor did they become sacred. Thomas More, for example, was at the top of the English hierarchy, not a social outcast. His death deepened rather than healed the rifts between Catholics and Protestants in England. He was declared a saint by his church, not by his nation. Likewise, most of the killings of philosophers were pour encourager les autres. Those who came to consider the philosophers martyrs were different from those who participated in sacrificing them. Sometimes, the construction of philosophical martyrdom had more to do with the political interests of new social movements that looked for martyrs than with the ideas of the philosophers themselves. In the case of Hypatia, apart from being a female philosopher with an interest in astronomy who was murdered by a Christian mob, we know nothing of her ideas or even if she chose martyrdom. But she became a feminist philosophical martyr millennia later. Though Giordano Bruno had an active interest in magic and mysticism, he became a martyr for anti-religious enlightenment rationalists centuries later. Though Patočka’s philosophy had more to do with Heidegger’s than with Western liberalism, he became celebrated as a democratic martyr in the context of the Cold War.

There is a tension within Bradatan’s concept of philosophical sacrifice. He prescribes idealistically that one has to live philosophy as if one will have to die for it, though in practice most people are not forced to die for their ideas. Philosophy, following Socrates and Patočka, is something that we live, practice, and exercise. Ultimately, as Socrates put it, philosophy is preparation for death. But if the death of philosophers is a performance and life is a series of masks we wear in a play we try to write, the death of philosophers is not the kind of authenticity-revealing confrontation with finitude that philosophers like Jaspers idealized. It consists of the philosopher wearing yet a final death mask or even the imposition of such a mask by a later storyteller. It is not the kind of authenticity Patočka craved or the final shedding of materiality that Plato’s Socrates longed for. Death is not a revelation of authenticity, not an escape from the theatre of life, but yet another performance.

The greatest danger for Dying for Ideas is from the sacrifice of philosophy as a scapegoat in the culture war that takes place in the Western World today. Over the past century there has been a shift from the perception of philosophy as a way of life and philosophers as people who aspire to live right, through a concept of philosophy as a group of techniques and philosophers as technicians, to the present concept of philosophers as professionals who sell a commodity, philosophy. Once philosophy has become a commodity that academics sell, the social philosophical question has become whether this commodity can generate returns that justify the investment. Recently, Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, who attempts to become America’s next president by capturing the dumb vote, made headlines by advising young people not to take a fifty thousand dollar loan to get a degree in Greek Philosophy (Fifty thousand dollars will not buy you even one year at Harvard, and there are degrees in philosophy and classics, not in Greek philosophy; but let’s not get into that), because, as he put it, the market for Greek Philosophy had been tight for the past 2000 years. A representative of the American Philosophical Association joined this kulturkampf by noting a number of former philosophy students who became multi-millionaires. However, nobody seems to have noticed that both sides agree that philosophy is a commodity and philosophers are professionals that produce and sell it. Never mind that to become a philosopher, a person who lives right and is prepared to die, it is only necessary to pay just 50 dollars and not fifty thousand, to purchase the collected works of Plato and Aristotle and actually read them.

Too often when young people announce their intention to study philosophy, well-wishers ask them what they are going to do with it, assuming it is a commodity that is bought from professionals and should lead to monetary returns. The correct answer is: live right, be prepared to die. Dying for Ideas reminds us of this ancient truth.

Aviezer Tucker

is the author of The Legacies of Totalitarianism (Cambridge University Press 2015), A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence: From Patocka to Havel (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2000).

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