“I EXAMINE, in a manner that hasn’t been tried before, the philosophers’ dying bodies as the testing ground of their thinking,” writes Costica Bradatan in Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers, a stimulating spiritual journey through an essential topic of human existence, and a reading of the history of human vision about it.
The book deals with an exemplary group of important thinkers (Socrates, Giordano Bruno, Thomas More, Jan Patočka, and others) committed to defend, to the very end, their philosophy not only as a way of thinking, but also, and mainly, as a way of life (art of living) meant to authenticate, in fact, their way of dying (art of dying). If we agree with Albert Camus that suicide is the fundamental problem of philosophy, we are also to accept death as a fundamental issue of human, and not only human, existence.
“Dying for ideas” implies a lifelong work in progress, especially in modern times. Pico della Mirandola saw man as a creature “of indeterminate nature,” allowed by God to be:
neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal so that with freedom of choice and with honor […] thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer […] to degenerate into the lower forms of life […] to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.
Thus might the Greek philosopher Socrates, a thinker and “care for the self” practitioner, be seen as an “old testament prophet” without the mystical aura, still the main source of Western thought; a great challenger to the “over-materialistic and spiritually poor” city of his and our time.
Not leaving us any writing, Socrates is known only through his disciples Xenophon and Plato as a promoter of an unending search for truth through continual questioning. The “Socratic Method” is an exercise in critical thinking.
Like Jesus, but without any other faith than that in the integrity of his being and thinking, not obeying any mystical super power, Socrates believed that philosophy should achieve practical results for the wellbeing of society. He was condemned to death by 280 of 500 Athenian judges, in a humiliated and discouraged Athens that had just been defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.
Claiming to be ignorant, and confused, he kept asking questions of the political and intellectual elite, as well as of the common people, challenging the conventional wisdom about glory and wealth and beauty in order to reach a more valid and consistent truth —one divorced from prejudice and habits. He refused to negotiate with his judges and himself, and saw philosophy not only as a doctrine, but as a way of life and of thinking and of dying.
His death was, actually, as Voltaire said, “the apotheosis of philosophy.” A sacrificial death stronger than death itself. He died for his vision, seeing death as a release of the soul from the body.
Socrates’ long-lasting posterity has been to leave us an open-ended debate, and in May 2012, during the recent Greek crisis, an international panel of judges and lawyers, in a mock retrial, this time in the vulnerable Athens of today, voted evenly five to five on his sentence; rather equivocal, but enough to avoid the death penalty.
“An apprentice to death” is what Montaigne believed the philosopher to be; while more than anything else a teacher of life, in always preparing himself for a meaningful existence, the philosopher thereby prepares as well for its meaningful, unavoidable end.
We may wonder why these martyrs of philosophy were so stubbornly committed to die for their beliefs, firmly convinced of their truth. Why don’t they trust posterity (as Galileo Galilei did) and leave the future to justify them, without necessarily bringing such an extreme proof, the final sacrifice?
It is certainly to honor the noblest and apparently useless profession of thinking, to honor moral integrity.
With this heavily charged topic of death, and dying for a cause, at the core of his research, Bradatan examines the quite iconoclastic example of Paul-Louis Landsberg, who opposed Heidegger’s intense celebration of death, as well as the morbid propaganda of some extreme political and religious movements, past and present.
The work and teaching of Landsberg on the Christian experience, Bradatan writes, is that “there is something profoundly foreign about death”:
What defines us is not our mortality, as Heidegger would want to think, but a thirst for the absolute […] what we come across is not nothingness, but a primordial drive for self-transcendence. This act of affirmation of the self structures our condition, always compelling us to transcend our finitude. In every person aware of his or her uniqueness we find the affirmation of this “unique element that seeks it own realization, an affirmation that involves to overcome temporal boundaries.”
Socrates’ suicide, seen by Landsberg in its splendid “dignity of the act,” is an action with its own reward, part of a series of martyrdoms embodied by Giordano Bruno’s burning at the stake, the horrible dismemberment of Hypatia (a female pagan head of the Platonic school in Alexandria), or Jan Patočka’s death after a prolonged interrogation by the communist police. All these cases overcome, in an impressive and powerful way, “the sense of impasse that philosophy done as a strictly academic exercise could bring about.”
Such sacrifices are not due to an exaltation of death, of its dark radiance and invincible supremacy, but to a heroic belief in the value of humanness, facing its tragic destiny with serenity and self-assurance.
A death-centered philosophy like Heidegger’s does not give you access to anything. Even though he does not use the word, Landsberg comes close to calling such a philosophy “nihilistic.” […] “Death taken to be something final, the physical death taken to be the universal negation of our existence,” he says, is nothing other than “the reflection of a despairing faithlessness, a negation of the person by the person herself.” […]
Ever since Plato, there has been a tradition of “philosophers of the spirit” for whom death carries “a force that seems able to exist independently of corporeal life.”
Landsberg calls such an experience “ecstatic,” but not necessarily religious. The mystical experience of Christianity sees death as a gateway to eternity, because “beyond death,” as Landsberg describes it, “there is the possibility of a Life that is the only one worthy of this name, because eternity is its condition.”
Bradatan’s admirable chapter on Landsberg is followed in this highly instructive and interesting book by an “intermezzo” on Cervantes’s Don Quixote (“one the finest books on faith ever written”). In terms of the biblical definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” Cervantes writes a kind of “art of the impossible,” a faith “that comes with a good measure of doubt.”
The chapter is complemented by a brilliant analysis of Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal, in which Death plays a chess game with a certain Antonius Block, who has returned from the Crusades. Block is a “man without God” but constantly tormented by issues of faith, always divided between “things hoped for” and “things not seen,” by the contradictions between wishing to believe and the inability to do so. Bradatan suggests a new, original interpretation of this film, emphasizing that it represents the “meaningful deed” — that the “sheer gesture of opposing death” is an “end in itself,” and has a “redeeming meaning.” Bradatan sees hopelessly challenging death as “the wisdom of Sisyphus,” despite the predictable end, because “all is nothingness,” and as “the faith-cum doubt mix drills deeper and deeper in Block’s head,” he realizes, “In our fear we make an image, and that image we call God.”
The fact that the last words of the film are the same as Jesus Christ’s on the Cross (“it is finished”) makes the conclusion of Bergman's film “at once bold (bordering on the blasphemous) and open-ended.” And “playing chess with Death,” writes Bradatan, “gives life a redeeming meaning.”
The idea of “dying for ideas” has often been related to martyrdom.
Fighting dogmas — religious or secular — always involves danger, and always requires the presence of an audience to confirm the terrible spectacle of martyrdom. The coliseum audience has been replaced in our time, through the modern mass media, by a much larger one.
During our short-lived enthusiasm in 1989, after the collapse of the European communist regimes, we faced an abundant production of slogans about the “end of History” and the “death of ideology.” These proved to be new childish exercises in illusion. Nothing ends before the end of humans and humanness — so ideas, ideals, ideologies will continue to exist, and Cain will continue to kill Abel, whatever forms such murder takes.
Not surprisingly, soon after the collapse of European communism, which followed the collapse of Nazism, we were aggressed by the fanaticism of another totalitarian vision, a religious one, the brutal crimes of some volunteer soldiers of the Koran. In strong contrast to early Christianity and the teaching of Jesus, these so-called martyrs exercise a cruel disobedience of the biblical commandment “thou shalt not kill.”
A radical question for any martyrdom is what kind of cause it serves. It is still a wonder that in Jesus’s time, when Israel was crowded by religious sects and the Jewish diaspora was crowded by rabbis who claimed, all around the world, to be God’s chosen sons, the Sanhedrin — the Jewish Supreme Court — very rarely condemned anybody to death, maintaining that if such an extreme decision was made in unanimity, it should be automatically annulled. A quite wise form of judgment! It seemed suspect, for these judges, that an entire group might agree with such an extreme, irrevocable decision about the life of any human being, since life was granted by God and not by humans.
In the same period, Jesus’s teaching suggested that if someone strikes you on the right cheek, you should turn to him the other also. Difficult but not impossible to obey, such an inoffensive appeal contradicted arrogant, shameful aggression, and refused to answer any aggression in the same disgraceful vein, choosing, instead, dignity and stoicism: “More is being gained from being crushed than from the crushing,” as Simone Weil, a Jewish follower of Christianity, put it.
The pagan Roman Empire kept very busy with repression and the killing of believers, killing Jesus and many thousands of the first Christians, martyrs of new faith. Afterward, martyrdom was glorified for centuries by the Church and by political autocracy in many nonreligious forms — and heretics, at the same time, murdered.
An outrageous current in Islamic militancy is today again killing “infidels,” which means, in the end, a barbaric war against the entire world. It is more and more obvious that we have different types of martyrs and martyrdom. And to judge martyrdom requires, in fact, that we take account of the “cause” for which such a final sacrifice takes place, and the method by which it takes place.
Hitler, Mussolini, Antonescu, and Zelea Codreanu (the Romanian military dictator and the “Captain” of the mystical Romanian fascists) were also martyrs of their Cause, as were Bukharin and Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg for theirs, and bin Laden and several of his and ISIS followers for theirs. Between the “predatory martyrdom” promoted by these self-appointed messengers of Allah and the peaceful, nonoffensive martyrdom of Socrates and Jesus is an abyss.
Jan Palach set himself on fire in the Prague Wenceslas Square in January 1969, to protest the Soviet military invasion; the “smallish man with shopping bags in hands” stood “in front of a column of moving tanks in Tiananmen Square”; the young Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi triggered, in December 2010, through his silent self-immolation, the Arab Spring; and the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc killed himself in 1963, also through self-immolation, to protest the persecution of his fellow Vietnamese Buddhists — there is a great gulf between these men who died for ideas and the many current suicide bombers who kill themselves while taking hundreds of innocent victims along with them, all around the world today. The difference is between dying for ideas and killing for ideas.
“The way in which a man experiences Socrates is fundamental to his thinking,” Karl Jaspers warned us. Also, we can add, fundamental to his fellows and to his society in its entirety. Bradatan’s highly intelligent and challenging book is an exemplary scrutiny of the life of the human mind, the human soul and body, with its so many old and new debates and disputes, not only philosophical, on this central, old-new issue of death.
Norman Manea was born in Romania in 1936. His works include the novels The Lair and The Black Envelope and the memoir The Hooligan’s Return.