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Costica Bradatan is a Professor of Humanities in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, and an Honorary Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Queensland. Francesco D’Isa talks with him about the philosophies of life and death.
You support the idea of a philosophy as a way of life, following a path that comes down to us from the Stoics to Nietzsche, from Ignazio of Loyola to Montaigne; but I could also add a bunch of Eastern thinkers from Laozi to Nagarjuna. Much of contemporary philosophy seems to have lost this dimension, becoming a cold game that only academics can play. Why is that, in your opinion?
Costica Bradatan portrait photo by Bram Budel
One of the reasons is that living philosophically is much harder than doing philosophy academically. All you need for the latter is a certain measure of intelligence, a set of sophistic skills, and a lack of inhibition. You don’t even need to be a particularly learned or erudite person, as used to be the case with previous generations of philosophers. Among today’s mainstream philosophers, especially in the English-speaking world, the ignorance of things literary, historical, cultural, or artistic, is sometimes breathtaking. What’s even more fascinating is that most of these philosophers feel just fine being like this; indeed, they take it as a sign of broadmindedness and a lack of complexes. But to live philosophically is a different matter altogether. It requires so much more than sheer intelligence: it takes honesty, courage, humility, patience, character. To live philosophically, you need to be ready to use yourself as a guinea pig, which is not always pleasant. You also need the courage to face the unflattering truths you may discover along the way – the truth, for example, that when all is said and done you are nothing but a superficial, vain and insufferable person; and that not in some rhetorical sense, but in a profound, real, overwhelming sense. That may well happen, and, if you are honest, you have to face it. It’s the kind of truth that can drive you mad or to suicide. That’s living philosophically for you, and it explains why doing it cannot be so popular among today’s philosophers.
Another reason is that this kind of philosophizing as a way of life defies our whole system of life: it goes against the way in which human life is administered, organized, and even lived in modern societies. You cannot properly classify, quantify, and label a way of life, nor can you administer it bureaucratically. How are you going to ‘rank’ these philosophers? How are you going to find their ‘impact factor’? How are we going to determine the ‘funding algorithm’ for what they do? And if you can’t do that, then they have no place in our world.
In your book Dying For Ideas (2015) you write that “It is telling that, at its most radical, when it comes to its final test, philosophy has to abandon its ordinary routines (speaking, writing or lecturing) and turn into something else: performance, bodily performance… In Dying for Ideas I examine, in a manner that hasn’t been tried before, the philosophers’ dying bodies as the testing ground of their thinking. So these philosophers choose a path that leads them to dying ‘eloquent’ deaths, which are subsequently constructed as a culmination of their philosophical work.” Later in the book you analyze this concept through the lives of famous philosophers who died for or in line with their ideas. You suggest that death can be a philosophical argument, even if it’s not expressed linguistically. Sometimes it works, but maybe the effort to escape one language simply places us in another one. Is death different in this respect?
In a fundamental sense, yes, death escapes language; or, to put it another way, death takes place in a space beyond language. We can of course talk about our fear of death, about our feelings and anxieties, about the death of others, and so on – but death itself, in an important sense, defies language. You see that, for example, in Leo Tolstoy’s novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). Tolstoy, without a doubt, is one of the most gifted and insightful writers, and yet not even he can venture to go there. He never takes us inside his hero’s death. His book is about many things: Ivan Ilyich’s life, his family, his career, and his friends, his sickness – it’s about everything except the death of Ivan Ilyich! Death shows up at the end, and only very briefly, as if to signal the impotence not only of the writer but of language itself to express it. So what we have at the conclusion of the book is a live literary performance of the failure of language to capture death. That, I think, is one of the greatest merits of The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s an act of humility that makes his book even more profound.
Things may be different in music, in art, or in religion, or in poetry, because poetry is so much more than just language. Or in ordinary life. We don’t really need to talk about everything. About the most important things we should perhaps keep quiet. That may be the best way to approach death.
You speak about ‘offensive martyrdom’, such as with WWII kamikaze pilots and religious terrorists. But what about the ‘philosophical murder’ committed by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky? Can murder be a philosophical performance?
What a beautiful question! That example is definitely a philosophical performance, but one that is only imagined by Dostoevsky. Your question reminds me of a book I would like to write one day: a history of all the great philosophers who never existed in flesh and blood, but were imagined. It may turn out that this history is more interesting and more lively than the history of actual philosophers! You mentioned Raskolnikov, but Dostoevsky also created the underground man, Ivan Karamazov, and Kirilov, who commits ‘logical suicide’ in The Possessed because he is convinced that God cannot exist. And unlike most of today’s philosophers, Dostoevsky’s philosophers are no cowards: they put their philosophy into practice, their bodies on the line, and they pay the price for doing so – they kill, commit suicide, have encounters with the devil, and go mad. They have depth and brilliance and guts, even though they don’t have physical existence.
I’m intrigued by the relation between dying for ideas and free will. Most of the deaths you write about, like Socrates, Hypatia and Bruno, are not completely a matter of choice, even if their circumstances fit perfectly with the dying philosopher’s ideas. In the same way, some biographical events seem to be written by the invisible hand of an omniscient narrator in order to adapt the thinkers to their own thought – Nietzsche’s madness, the attempted murder of Spinoza, Wittgenstein’s refusal to accept a vast inheritance, maybe even Heidegger’s Nazism. If philosophy is a ‘performance’ and a ‘way of life’, is it also a collective work?
The invisible hand must be our minds, for we fundamentally need stories and heroes, and we need these heroes to behave in a certain fashion, following certain rules and patterns of storytelling. Hypatia is an excellent example: we know very little about her life, and even less about her death. [She was a neoplatonist mathematician who was killed by a mob incited by a Bishop in Alexandria in 415 AD, Ed.] And yet we have kept telling and re-telling her story for centuries, every time with new details, with another emphasis and a novel message. Each generation tells its own version of this story: Hypatia the anti-Christian, Hypatia the feminist, Hypatia the dissident, Hypatia the Enlightenment figure, Hypatia the atheist, Hypatia the fighter for the liberation of women, and what not. So, yes, like everything else, these philosophers come to play a role in the stories we tell ourselves. And these stories are as vital as the air we breathe, for we can make sense of something only to the extent that we can put it into a story.
Facts cannot change, but stories can. Could dying for ideas be also a final effort for philosophers not to change their minds anymore?
By dying, then, these philosophers have finally made up their minds! I don’t think I can put it any better than that. Excellent! Thank you!
• Francesco D’Isa trained as a philosopher and visual artist. His latest novel is La Stanza di Therese (Tunué, 2017). Publishing director of L’Indiscreto, he writes and draws for various magazines and his works have been exhibited in art galleries in Italy and abroad. www.gizart.com
• This is a translation by the author of part of an interview first published in the Italian magazine L’Indiscreto.