- Dying of Laughter? A Review of Costica Bradatan, Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers
What kind of book is Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers? Although in Costica Bradatan characterizes his book its opening pages as “an exercise in an as yet uncharted ontology: the ontology of ironical existence,” those who might expect a phenomenological or even deconstructive inquiry into the ontological status of irony, existence and, above all, their coming together, will be disappointed (4, my emphasis). As its subtitle, The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers, suggests, Dying for Ideas inscribes itself within a doxographical tradition that extends back to Diogenes Laertius’s Vitæ philosophorum—a genre better suited to the narration of anecdotes about the lives of philosophers than to the construction of any theory of being. Indeed, given Bradatan’s endorsement of Pierre Hadot’s call to rethink philosophy as an “art of living,” the ontology that could be read out of Dying for Ideas would be an ontology that understands being directly from the ways in which philosophers have lead their lives philosophically (26).
Although such calls to return to a more “practical” understanding of philosophy as a “way of life” have become commonplace in recent years, Bradatan’s contribution to this recent turn in philosophy could be located in his characterization of philosophical praxis as coinciding with a form of existence that would be constituted by irony. And if, for Bradatan, the philosopher’s life is “ironical existence at its best”—thus providing the exemplary being that the task of sketching out an ontology of ironical existence requires—this most excellent form of irony can only be gleaned, in turn, from the ways in which exemplary philosophers, such as Socrates or Thomas More, died for their ideas (200). This explains why it would be somewhat misleading to characterize Bradatan’s book as a doxography. For Bradatan clearly intends for his book to exceed the purview of the merely anecdotal and move into the terrain of the more dignified genre of philosophical hagiography, if not even of martyr passions:
Human beings have been dying “for a cause” for as long as they have been around. They have died for God or for their fellow-humans, for ideas or ideals, for things real or imaginary, reasonable or utopian. Of all the possible varieties of voluntary death, the book you’ve started to read is about philosophers who die for the sake of their philosophy.(4)
If philosophy is ultimately an “art of living,” and if death constitutes the “culmination” of life, then it stands to reason that the death of those philosophers who not only thought philosophically about death but actually died for their philosophical ideas may have something interesting to tell us about the philosophical status of existence, of death, and of irony. Unfortunately, Bradatan’s book not only fails to make a convincing case for granting this privilege to philosophy’s martyrs, but also does not tell a compelling story about their martyrdom, taking these deaths as an occasion to rehearse unexamined ideas that are philosophically bankrupt.
Bradatan structures his philosopher’s hagiography around the metaphor of the “layers” of death. This choice of metaphor is never interrogated or justified, and Bradatan himself admits that talking of death as having “layers” may be an “oversimplification” (40). Although he suggests that there could be multiple layers of death, his book only focuses on two, which are simply distinguished as “the first” and “the second” layers, and which also provide the titles of the book’s second and fourth chapters—which together constitute almost half of the entire volume. As their numerical ordering suggests, the movement between these two layers is progressive. Inverting the typical platonic schema, the book goes from the abstraction of the first layer to the concretion of the second, where the first layer of death presents us with the abstract or theoretical encounter with finitude that characterizes the lives of those philosophers who, as it were, have no skin in the game of life and death because they...