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Why Murder Philosophers?

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Costica Bradatan is a philosopher who thinks about Levinas, failure, philosophers who had to die to make their points, philosophy as the art of living, Munch’s skeleton arm, the essays of Montaigne, philosophy in the flesh, Simone Weil, Thomas More, Plato’s artistic genius, why anyone should bother to murder philosophers and why philosophy when done well is a serious joke. Go have a laugh…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Costica Bradatan: What made me interested in philosophy? The beginnings are particularly ironical. The year was 1989 and the place was a communist country, well behind the Iron Curtain. I was eighteen, finishing high-school and on my way to joining the glorious working class as a factory worker. And I wanted to do something next to impossible in my situation: getting into the Law School, for example. That was then an undergraduate major. Among the things they devised to spice up one’s life in a society like that there was a peculiar university-admission requirement. To pass the Law School’s entrance examination you had to memorize, to the minutest detail, two voluminous textbooks. Very much like the “Imperial Examination” – the memorization tests the aspirants to public service posts had to take in old China. The subjects-matter were two disciplines the regime had taken to heart: philosophy and political economy. You see, I learned Marxism the proper way: by trying to get along in a Marx-inspired dictatorship.

I had to be able to reproduce verbatim every single sentence, every single paragraph in those two textbooks: hundreds of pages of dogmatic, poorly written, regime-backing, ass-kissing literature. I had to memorize tables and graphs, quotes and political speeches, everything. Of course, the whole thing was immensely farcical. Others might feel crushed, humiliated or resentful. But I don’t. In a way, I am grateful because that absurd memorization – along with the much larger absurdity in which I was living – got me acquainted with a fantastic philosophical topic, one that means much to me now – namely, the human existence as farce.

3:AM: So did you get into the Law School in the end?

CB: Yes, I went through the meat-grinding and got in. Soon enough, however, I had to get out because I didn’t really like the legal stuff. That’s how I got back to the first thing, the one I needed to memorize in order to get in. Something happened to me as I was chewing up all that stuff. Sometimes we end up falling in love with our tormentors. That’s how I became interested in philosophy. Meanwhile, the regime had collapsed, and the farce had changed its name.

3:AM: You’ve cited Levinas on why philosophy knows about failure. Why is Levinas important to you?

CB: Levinas is a fascinating figure, and scholars of his work, which I am not, can easily make a case for his importance. I am currently writing a book on failure – provisionally called In Praise of Failure – and Levinas once made a very insightful comment, which has inspired me. He said that “the best thing about philosophy is that it fails.” There would be something oppressive and potentially totalitarian about a philosophy that succeeds, as he puts it, to “totalize meaning.” For some, Levinas’ statement may sound scandalous, but I for one think there is something very profound in it.

3:AM: For you failure reveals something about ourselves that philosophy helps us to understand. So what do you mean by failure in this context and what does philosophy say about it that means we should care to understand?

CB: You are right, failure can be very important. I think that because of our culture’s obsession with success, we miss something important about what it means to be human, and deny ourselves access to a deeper, more meaningful layer of our humanity. A sense of what we are in the grand scheme of things, an openness towards the unknown and the mysterious, humility and reverence towards that which transcends and overwhelms us, the wisdom that comes from knowledge of one’s limits, the sense of personal redefining and self-fashioning that results from an encounter with a major obstacle – these are some of the rewards that a proper grasp of failure could bring about.

As I see it, failure stems from a certain ontological arrangement in which we find ourselves. This is a failure “by design,” an ontological deficit that comes from our being human and therefore defined by impermanence, imperfection, and death. Take the failure of your car’s brakes. That can be a metaphysical experience. Failure reveals just how close we always are to not being at all. When you experience failure, should you pay enough attention, you can see the cracks in the fabric of being. And how, from behind, nothingness itself stares at you.

This kind of failure cannot be “fixed” – you have to learn how to live with it. And living with failure can be a unique experience. For failure can, once it has been digested properly, help us look at ourselves with different, better eyes, allowing us a glimpse into our darker side, the place where our vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and shameful acts come from. This can be a sobering, but also a redeeming experience. We may return from there healed, bringing with us the realization that not only can we live with failure, but we can also flourish; not only doesn’t failure kill us, but it can help us live more meaningful lives.


3:AM: So your new book is about philosophy as an art of dying. You ask a question there – what kind of philosopher does one have to be to die for an idea? Now I’d say unlucky – but what do you say?

CB: Yes, my latest book is called Dying for Ideas. The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury, 2015) and in it I explore the situations of those philosophers – such as Socrates, Hypatia, Giordano Bruno, Thomas More, and Jan Patočka – who had to die to make their points. They turned their dying bodies into means of philosophizing, the public spectacle of their endings into vivid illustrations of their arguments. These people put their bodies “on the line” in the most literal sense of the word. What kind of philosophers are they? I suppose they are the committed kind. They take philosophy more seriously than they take themselves. These people seem to think that philosophy is not just about hairsplitting and logic chopping, but should be embodied in the philosopher herself. It should be about a transformation that the philosophizing causes in the philosopher and, implicitly, in the world around her. That’s why I come to say in this book that, ultimately, the locus of philosophy, the place where it dwells, is not the philosophical book or the academic paper, but the body of the philosopher. Philosophy is word become flesh.

3:AM: You link your thesis with the idea of philosophy as the art of living – but is that something contemporary philosophers see themselves as doing? Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche maybe, but these days?

CB: You’re right, philosophy as an art of living is not as popular as it used to be, but this is definitely our loss. Here in the West at least, because Asia is different in this regard. On the other hand, you have to put things in perspective. Within the big scheme of things, a lost century or two is not really that much.

3:AM: So what’s important in what Montaigne is saying – and how does Edvard Munch and his skeleton arm help us understand this?

CB: Montaigne says that death’s power over us comes from its “strangeness,” from that when it strikes it usually finds us unprepared. That’s why we need to devise spiritual exercises whereby we make death a familiar presence in our lives – “domesticate” it, if you will. Here’s one recipe that he proposes: “let us frequent [death], let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. At every instant let us evoke it in our imagination under all its aspect.” So we have to bring death into the midst of our existence, show it hospitality, give it shelter and take good care of it. That’s important if we are to train ourselves to die a good death. “Let us never be carried away by pleasure so strongly,” says Montaigne, “that we fail to recall occasionally how many are the ways in which that joy of ours is subject to death or how many are the fashions in which death threatens to snatch it away.” And here he inserts a fabula, an exemplary story about the ancient Egyptians, which he must have borrowed from Herodotus. In “the midst of all their banquets and good cheer,” Montaigne says, Egyptians “would bring in a mummified corpse to serve as a warning to the guests.”

To illustrate Montaigne’s point, in my book I discuss a lithograph that Munch did in 1895. He called it Self-portrait with Skeleton Arm. Munch may have never read Montaigne’s Essays, but he arrived at pretty much the same insight. Here he offers quite a striking representation of himself, yet what’s really startling is not the style, nor the quality of the execution, but an extraordinary detail that arrests the gaze of the viewer and becomes the inescapable focus of the whole work: the painter’s right arm and hand are depicted in skeleton form, just like they will look after his death. Munch does here what Montaigne says we should all be doing: he brings death into the midst of his existence, accepts, and “domesticates” it. He “mummifies” his own arm and hand, and brings them to the party, as a warning for us, his guests.

3:AM: What do you mean by the first layer of the philosopher’s encounter with death – can you give an example to help us grasp the idea?

CB: In the book I make a point that death comes in layers; you experience death differently depending on how close to it you are. When you are young you tend to take a rather abstract approach to your mortality: death is nothing but a “philosophical problem” to solve, some theoretical issue to consider. In this context, I discuss three philosophical works on death: Michel de Montaigne’s Essais (1580), Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (1927), Paul-Louis Landsberg’s Essai sur l’expérience de la mort (1936). They wrote these books when they were relatively young, and when death was not impending, but rather a “possibility.” What’s distinctive about such an approach is that it is naïve and sophisticated at the same time. It’s naïve because the philosopher speaks of death without having had the experience of its threat or imminence. And it’s sophisticated because it’s naïve; the philosopher takes her time to explore death in great detail, to look at it from different angles and to discourse about it with subtlety because she can afford it. Death is nowhere in sight and the philosopher doesn’t have to struggle with it herself. Not yet.

3:AM: You say there’s another layer, a concrete one, where death is so real its breathing down your neck. This isn’t the second layer, this is what you call philosophy in the flesh. Can you sketch out the ideas here?

CB: This is a key-moment in my story. The philosopher gets in trouble, finds herself in a situation where she has to choose between betraying her philosophy to stay alive, on the one hand, and dying to save it, on the other. The martyr-philosopher obviously chooses the latter. From here on – silenced as she usually is – she has to use her body as a means of philosophizing. And this in a much deeper, more radical sense than what we normally call “embodied thinking.” For the martyr-philosopher uses her dying body; the situation is of such a unique nature that the philosopher no longer thinks through her body, but against it. The body is no longer something to live with, but something to overcome, re-signify, and destroy in the process. That’s why, at this point in my story, I study the philosophers’ performance alongside with those who embark on projects of a similar nature: religious martyrdom, “fasting unto death” (especially Mahatma Gandhi), self-immolation, and suicide-bombing. Who would have thought that creatures as ethereal as philosophers would ever end up in such company?

3:AM: Simone Weil is part of this story, isn’t she? Can you say why she fascinates you

CB: She is indeed part of my story, but not because she was a martyr-philosopher. She was not, at least not in the sense of my book. What fascinates me in Weil’s case is the unique relationship she had with her corporeity. She starved herself to death in 1943, but in a sense she worked on her “dematerialization” project for as long as she lived: she took her factory job as an unskilled labor to be a rehearsal for death, she mortified her body as a matter of routine, slept in unheated rooms, lived like a nun, worked herself to death, and in the end she stopped eating. Her whole biography was permeated by what may be called an “ontological shame”: there is for her something impudent about our sheer existence, about our wanting to be. “Our sin,” she writes, “consists in wanting to be… Expiation is desiring to cease to be; and salvation consists for us in perceiving that we are not.” That’s where she talks of “de-creation,” by which she means making “something created pass into the uncreated.” In my book I suggest that there is a key to understanding Weil’s death, and that she hid it – not always very well – in her own work. I simply felt compelled to use her notion of “de-creation” in order to make sense of her starvation to death.

3:AM: Ok, so having worked through the first layer and the material body you turn to death’s second layer. Can you say what you mean by this? Is it a metaphysical or epistemological second or something else?

CB: It is rather an “existential” second. This is when death is no longer a theoretical “possibility,” but something terribly concrete: the capital sentence that’s been written down already; the hangman on his way; the fire of the stake that has been lit; the torture instruments that are being readied for the job. Thinking about death and coming to terms with your mortality under such circumstances is very different from meditating upon death as an abstraction, as a “possibility of the Dasein.” For death that’s already on its way and death that’s just a possibility are two different deaths. You see, under such circumstances philosophy is no longer about settling theoretical debates, winning arguments, and scoring points, but it’s all about performance: to philosophize is to act upon your body in a decisive manner, to discipline the weakness of the flesh, to overcome the fear of annihilation of the animal inside you and to muster all the courage you can so that you die with some dignity. That’s precisely what Socrates, Boethius, and Bruno must have done in their prison cells. Or Thomas More in the Tower of London.


3:AM: Thomas More is one of the heroes of this section. What’s he given us?

CB: The example of a martyr who was not made out of martyr’s stuff. Locked up in the Tower, More confesses, in a letter to his daughter: “I am of nature so shrinking from pain that I am almost afeard of a fillip.” He knew very well what he was talking about: at the time, torture was often used to extract consent. After all, he had allowed it himself to be used against heretics, just a few years before when he was Lord Chancellor and so fond of interrogating them that he would keep them at his Chelsea home, to have them handy. To extract confessions More would lie or make false promises to his interrogees. All with clear conscience because for him heretics were not people, but the devil’s instruments. More banned and burned books. Indeed, he wrote that heretics should be burned too, should other methods fail. So, if we take all of this into account, what More has given us is not only the example of a persecutor turned martyr, but also a significant sample of historical redemption. To all intents and purposes, his biography has been “purified”; we no longer care of his abuses, we are enthralled by the way he died. His victims have been swept into the background, what really counts is More the victim. A martyr’s death often has this effect.

In the Tower More wrote a number of things, among which A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, a piece to which I pay special attention. Read between the lines, this book is about the transformation More underwent while waiting, alone in his cell, to be executed. Philosophy played a major part in this: for him it became a form of action and self-fashioning. The More who came out to die on the scaffold, dropping witticisms and cracking jokes with the executioner, was a different More from the one who was imprisoned one year before.

3:AM: Performance is a key idea in this, isn’t it – and the Socrates-Plato show the big show. But you have a few startling things to say about it – like that Plato had a hand in murdering Socrates! Can you explain what you’re saying here?

CB: Actually, this has to do more with what happens to Socrates when he gets caught in the whirlwind of Plato’s artistic genius. There certainly needs to be story-telling here: you would die in vain if no one told your story. A martyr needs a faithful disciple to story his deed and to curate his posterity. Yet in Plato Socrates may have got more than he bargained for. For once he is caught in his disciple’s whirlwind, Socrates, the man in flesh and blood, is lost, never to be seen again. Erased from history. So completely and especially so conveniently! For, at the same time, he is replaced with Plato’s fabrication. Like a circus magician, Plato substitutes one with the other. Mesmerized as we are, we end up believing that Plato’s Socrates – the literary character – is the real one. What’s crucial in all this is of course Plato’s literary talent. That’s really a killer – it almost gets out of control, nothing can stand it, not even the master’s master. So he gets sacrificed. A perfect example of literary execution – and take that in whatever sense you like. But I would not go into too much detail lest I spoil the readers’ pleasure.

3:AM: And you ask why, if philosophers are so powerless, anyone should murder them? So what’s the answer to that conundrum?

CB: Right, they are murdered not because they are a threat, but because they are powerless. And therefore vulnerable. One of the important points I make in the book –very close to the end of it – is that holding certain beliefs, not matter how bold, and being determined to die for them as heroically as you can is not enough to get you killed. You may end up beaten, locked-up, exiled, banned or – worst of all – ignored. There are always other ways of dealing with annoying philosophers, apart from killing them.

So whether you die or not depends on something over which you have little control: the state of affairs in the society in which you live. How so? Well, if the philosopher happens to practice his parrēsía and annoy everybody at the very moment when society is going through a crisis – as the heroes in my book seemed to have done – then he may end up in a pool of potential sacrificial victims from which individual scapegoats can be singled out and sacrificed as needed. I use Girard’s theory of the “scapegoat mechanism” to explain the selection of the sacrificiable victim, as you can see. So the philosopher does not really compel his persecutors to kill him. It’s not his boldness that makes him a martyr, just his vulnerability. Which is something he shares with witches, cripples, orphans, prostitutes, and other marginals.

If you find the whole situation ironical, I should tell you that you are absolutely right. This is actually one of the biggest ironies in the whole story. After all Dying for Ideas is an exercise in the ontology of ironical existence.

3:AM: Is philosophy when done well a very serious joke, then?

CB: You said it! A philosopher’s most important achievement, as I see it, is to reach a point where she no longer takes anything too seriously, especially herself. This kind of distance is crucial if one is to understand. That’s precisely where irony comes in. In the book’s post-script – “To die laughing” – I explain how important irony can be if you are not to lose your mind. When, for example, you realize that the whole thing is nothing but a farce, then it’s only irony and self-irony that can save you. Don’t you think?

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?

CB: Sure, here they are:
Plato, Phaedo
Saint Augustine, Confessions
Michel de Montaigne, Essays
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 29th, 2015.