Body of Work: The Dying Philosopher




[…] a mob executed the deed on a day in March 415, in the tenth consulship of Honorius and the sixth consulship of Theodosius II, during Lent. Hypatia was returning home […] from her customary ride in the city. She was pulled out of the chariot and dragged to the church Caesarion, a former temple of the emperor cult. There they tore off her clothes and killed her with “broken pits of pottery” (ostrakois aneilon). Then they hauled her body outside the city to a place called Kinaron, to burn it on a pyre of sticks.

— Socrates Scholasticus

 

HERE THEY ARE. The mob and the philosopher. The mob against the philosopher. Or, better still, the mob and, soon enough, no philosopher at all. Hypatia (c. 350–415) was the head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria, where she taught philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. What is particularly striking in the few surviving accounts of Hypatia’s execution is the resounding silence that envelops her during the final moments. She never says a word or sketches a gesture. She doesn’t do a thing. It is as though it doesn’t even occur to her to try to oppose her aggressors. Passivity embodied. Just look at her: abused, molested, stripped of her clothes — a lady past her prime left naked, encircled tightly by a group of young males, all laughing, all hormone-crazed, and God-intoxicated. They can do whatever they want with her, place their hands wherever they please; she is nothing now but a thing for them to handle. Most likely they don’t rape her, which is convenient: they can still tell themselves that theirs is a holy mission. Yet their abstinence renders the whole thing even more erotically charged.

At last, the circle breaks and Hypatia is placed firmly on the track to her annihilation. There must be some cooks among the young Christian fanatics — for they leave the signature of their trade on Hypatia’s ending. The slaughter strikes as professional, everything is done comme il faut; her flesh is first tenderized (with “broken pits of pottery”), then slowly fire-roasted. She is properly processed and done away with. All is performed methodically; the steps follow a certain order, as if there were a standard procedure to follow when disposing of annoying philosophers.

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Because of a death sentence or imminent mob execution, other philosophers — Socrates, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Jan Patočka — found themselves in a unique position: masters of speech and dialectics, they were no longer allowed to open their mouth. Lovers of argumentation, they were now silenced by sheer force — should they attempt to argue, their arguments were countered with blows. What was left to them, then? Their own bodies. If they didn’t want to be completely silenced, they had to do with their dying flesh what they could not with all their sophisticated methods and rhetorical mastery.

The scene of the philosopher’s death is a reminder that what is most precious — our life — is also the most fragile, and that when times are “out of joint,” the fragile items get broken first. Hypatia dragged like a doll of rags around the city of Alexandria and then thrown into the fire is, in a way, the icon of philosophy itself. No matter what philosophers say — and they talk big and stand tall whenever they can — philosophy turns out to be something supremely fragile — precarious, powerless, and ultimately dispensable. In the grand scheme of things, to speak as philosophers do, to do philosophy, really amounts to nothing. Or almost nothing.

Yet this “almost” is more than enough. For some philosophers, philosophy is worth not only living but also dying for. It cannot be nothing.

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Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) was what we call a compulsive talker. Many Italians are, but Bruno’s case was even more serious: he was Neapolitan. Derision, biting irony, bad-mouthing, sarcasm, the sophisticated curse, the bawdy language — this was Bruno’s natural manner of address. A modern scholar, Ingrid Rowland, speaks of “Bruno’s rich repertoire of Neapolitan curses,” which is a nice academic way of moving on. If there were a rating system for philosophical writing, much of Bruno’s work would be rated R; there are fragments in Il Candelaio (The Candlemaker), for instance, that would make even a seasoned madame blush. Nothing escapes his terrible mouth; he refers to some of his teachers as asini pedanti (“pedant asses”) and, always the philosopher, comes up with the notion of asinità as a metaphysical concept. Bruno almost turns the invective into a philosophical method.

Now, try to imagine Bruno, on a very early February morning, in 1600, on his way to the stake, which was being prepared for him in Rome’s Piazza Campo de’ Fiori. Picture him carried there on the back of a mule, as was the custom. Not many details have been preserved about Bruno’s final hours, but one piece of information has somehow survived: that his tongue had to be immobilized. A chronicle of the time (Avviso di Roma, 19 February, 1600) succinctly records: “On Friday they burned alive in Campo di Fiore that Dominican brother of Nola, a persistent heretic; his tongue was immobilized [con la lingua in giova] because of the terrible things he was saying.”

Bruno’s last verbal performance was so overwhelming, so unbearable, that the officers of the law in charge of the execution could no longer wait for the flames to do their job; they had to silence him first. Just imagine Bruno: one of the finest masters of the Italian language, someone who could use language superbly to weave up a philosophical argument, just as he could use it expertly to win a competition in Neapolitan cursing — just imagine him reduced to such a condition that any use of language whatsoever was out of the question.

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You may wonder: What on earth was Bruno saying that so much offended the ears of those soldiers, monks, and passersby who chanced to be in the marketplace on that early February morning? The account we have only mentions bruttissime parole (reprehensible words), which could mean anything from ordinary vulgarities to unheard-of blasphemy. However, what he was saying must not have been that important. After all, those were people who had heard much worse in their time; the latter half of the 15th century had not been exactly a paragon of gentleness. What, then, was the reason? Between the lines of the cryptic chronicle something else can be read: somehow the solemnity of the moment, the proximity of death and the shared awareness that his spirit had not been broken, rendered Bruno’s speech uncannily powerful. His rhetoric became suddenly efficacious: his words stroke those around him like blows, and blows were returned: his language caused violence. Bruno’s tongue was immobilized for the same reason someone’s hands are cuffed: it was no longer safe to leave it free. Bruno the talker had become no laughing matter.

[Bruno’s] last known act, as the eyewitness Gaspar Schoppe reported, was to turn his head away from the crucifix put before his eyes when he mounted the stake. Bound, with his tongue stopped (probably by a leather bridle, possibly by an iron spike), he could do no more than launch what Schoppe called “a fierce expression,” and that expression in that public place must have read as contempt for the crucified image as well as for the Church his executioners claimed to represent.

— Ingrid Rowland

This image of Giordano Bruno muzzled, a Bruno rendered “speechless” in a manner at once literal and unspeakably brutal, is something worth dwelling on a bit. Just take a closer look: the man is on his way to the scaffold. The eight years of imprisonment, the transfer from Venice to Rome, the prolonged interrogations and possibly torture — that shows. You can tell the Inquisition had processed him as best they could — these were people who knew how to get the job done. They may not have broken Bruno’s spirit, but the philosopher was now a wreck: crushed, packed on the mule’s back, his body seriously weakened, his hands tied. And yet, in spite of all this, he needed to have his tongue immobilized.

Rarely have we seen more convincing praise for the power of the spoken word! The world could not find anything better to oppose the philosopher than a fist in his mouth. As I read it, the “fierce expression” of Bruno’s gaze was not an expression of powerlessness, nor of defeat. On the contrary: just a few feet away from the stake, minutes shy of his execution, Bruno must have felt victorious. What a lousy counterargument they had made, what a candid admission of defeat!

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Sir Thomas More, you are to be drawn on a hurdle through the City of London to Tyburn, there to be hanged till you be half dead, after that cut down yet alive, your bowels to be taken out of your body and burned before you, your privy parts cut off, your head cut off, your body to be divided in four parts, and your head and body to be set at such places as the King shall assign.

— from Thomas More’s death sentence

The image of Bruno rendered speechless transcends his particular circumstances and plays an iconic function for any discussion of philosophical martyrdom, before and after him. Nothing can convey the notion that philosophy — despite, as I say, its fundamental fragility — comes sometimes to be a public threat better than the image of a muzzled thinker. The image also suggests, obliquely, that the philosopher’s final battle is to be fought in an unfamiliar place; the victory — if that will be — will be victory in what might seem, for philosophy, to be a foreign land: the body.

There is irony here, of course. In Western philosophy, the body has for most of the time been looked down and deemed inferior to the mind, the spirit, or the soul. Some way or another, the body has been relegated as the mind’s “other,” the domain of “the flesh,” of the uncontrollable instincts and passions. Philosophical enmity toward the body may have started with Socrates himself, for whom the body was something to be “mastered,” kept firmly reined in by the rational faculty. To this day philosophers look at Socrates’ death, his own martyrdom, as a perfect example of philosophical mastery of the body; he died so serenely, the story goes, because he knew how to keep his body under control. Even though a handful of philosophers of Socratic inspiration (Diogenes of Sinope and Epicurus, for instance) sought to treat the body rather as a close friend, the dominant paradigm for the next several centuries would be set up by Socrates’ most famous disciple, Plato, for whom the body serves only as an unpleasant, temporary shelter for the soul. The former is literally the “tomb” of the latter, a place from which it has to escape as soon as possible. Plotinus, probably the most important of Plato’s many followers, would later be “ashamed” of having to live in a body. Rooted in Platonism, the Fathers of the Church did not change much the philosophical status of the body, nor did the medieval philosophers who came later. For the influential Bernard de Clairvaux, for example, the body was “nothing but stinking sperm, a sack of excrement and food for worms.” As late as the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne, citing Seneca, could still say that “contempt for one’s body is sure freedom.”

For some modern philosophers the mind was in charge of the body in the same manner a pilot is in charge of his ship (Descartes), while for others (the empiricists, for example) the body was an instrument — sophisticated, no doubt, but still an instrument — through which the mind gathered information about the world. Things would change significantly only in the 20th century, when phenomenologists (Merleau-Ponty, for example) would place the body (the “flesh”) at the center of their philosophizing. Similarly, recent thinking about “embodiment,” “situatedness,” “embodied cognition,” and the like, tends to give the body a new dignity in philosophy. Yet, this hasn’t been enough to successfully replace the “Platonic paradigm” that has dominated the thinking about the body for so many centuries.

So, here they are, the soon-to-die martyr-philosophers: speechless, powerless, deprived of everything they had or were, with only their dying bodies to express themselves. What’s worse, these are enemy bodies, bodies they have held in contempt, and considered unworthy of philosophical attention. Body-haters left to the mercy of the body itself.

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The body is the site of the most curious of unions: that between the most familiar and the most foreign. On the one hand, my body represents what is closest to me — in fact, I am my body, it is precisely my body that determines who I am. My thinking is somehow “situated” in my body. My face, my voice, my breath, my gait, all of which form my unique signature in the world, would not be possible in the absence of a body. My body is the visible shape of my self, it is my presence. On the other hand, I cannot help noticing, at closer inspection, the profound foreignness of my body: the animal that it is, its purely biological nature, something I will never be able to change or control. Through my body the cosmos irrupts with all its force, with its thick materiality and inflexible laws; there is nothing I can do except to go with the cosmic flow, become my own body’s enchained slave.

There are countless instances when the body reveals itself as otherness — when one falls sick or reaches old age, for example. I also discover my body as something that I am not at the moment when I can no longer endure pain. Whenever that happens, something raw, savage, un-human has come to inhabit my body: a reminder that my body is not me.

And thus, for the martyr-philosophers, the extreme difficulty of their position; as they hit the limit they learn just how much of the process remains out of their control. How are they going to master something that is, at the level of the body, impossible to conquer? They fly into the situation with boundless determination and idealism, but they do so like blind pilots.

Where does the strength, where does the weakness come from? I don’t know. One does not know. No one has yet been able to draw distinct borders between the “moral” power of resistance to physical pain and “bodily” resistance.

— Jean Améry

Historically, courage, bravery, and heroism have been defined in relation to our capacity to endure pain, actual or potential, physical or psychological. Someone is courageous when she maintains her position even at the prospect of experiencing something painful. Her courage turns into bravery when, subjected to pain, she does not cave in. Finally, with the open disregard for pain, heroism emerges. The hero is someone who faces pain head-on and doesn’t seem to care; the more pain she endures the more heroic she is.

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This is, roughly speaking, the wild territory where martyr-philosophers conduct their business. Their peers are no longer scholars, writers, and thinkers, but people who die for their faith (martyrs in the narrow sense), for their country, self-immolators, “fasters unto death” such as Mahatma Gandhi, hunger strikers, kamikaze pilots, and suicide-bombers. Just like these other artisans of death, the martyr-philosophers use their dying bodies to generate and disseminate a message that is stronger than anything that language can carry.

Such a message, which is not written down anywhere — indeed, it’s unwritable — is processed rather viscerally, without much thinking. Faced with the terrifying spectacle of their self-sacrifice, we intuit that, by doing what they are doing, these people cut themselves off from ordinary humanity and place themselves in a space that can be assimilated with the “sacred” (originally, that’s what sacer means: something “cut off,” “set apart”). Before their radical gesture we are horrified and fascinated at the same time, equally repelled and fascinated by it, which is the hallmark of a religious experience. On the brink of life, these artists of dying put themselves in a “sacred” mode of being, they set themselves apart.

Such a story shouldn’t have a happy ending, but strangely it does. For what you get at the end is not a dead body, but something totally different: a mythical figure. In a certain sense, Socrates, Hypatia, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Jan Patočka are more alive today than they were in their lifetime. Thanks to the extraordinary manner of their death, to the “sacralization” they went through, as well as to our irrepressible need for mythical heroes, these philosophers have come to have a significant hold on us: they shape our ethical concerns, inform our thinking, and inhabit our imagination. Their written work — if it exists at all — does not matter as much as the work of their annihilated flesh.

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Costica Bradatan is the author most recently of Dying for Ideas. The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury, 2015). He serves as the Religion/Comparative Studies Editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books.


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