“It was the hemlock that made Socrates great.” —Seneca
“Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death.” —David Buckel
On an early spring morning in 2018, when the stars were still out and Manhattan glowed in all of its wasteful wattage across the East River, a 60-year-old retired lawyer named David Buckel made his way past the Grand Army Plaza and the Brooklyn Museum down to Prospect Park. In those hours before the dawn, Buckel dug a shallow circle into the black dirt, which investigators believed he made to prevent the spread of the fire he was about to set, having understood that our collective future would have enough burning. The former attorney paused to send an email to The New York Times—it read: “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result—my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves”—doused himself in gasoline, and lit a match. Buckel was pronounced dead by 6:30 a.m.
As a civil rights attorney, Buckel’s life was one of unqualified success—an early supporter of Lambda Legal, he’d fought doggedly for LGBTQ rights not just in New York, but in seemingly inhospitable places from Nebraska to Iowa. As a human being, his life was defined by companionship and love—raising a daughter with his husband of 34 years alongside the girl’s biological mother and her wife. And as a community member, his life was committed to stewardship and responsibility—rather than using wasteful fossil fuels he walked several miles every day to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where, in retirement, he organized the center’s composting program. By all accounts Buckel’s life was centered around justice, both personal and ecological, which should go to some length in explaining his death on April 14, though the philosopher Costica Bradatan reminds us that wherever “self-immolators are going they are not asking anyone with them: their deaths are fierce, but remain exclusively their own.”
With some incongruity, I thought about Buckel’s sacrifice as I sat by my apartment complex’s pool on a hot New England summer day (they seem hotter and hotter), welcoming my 35th birthday reading Bradatan’s poignant, provocative, astute, moving, thoughtful Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers. A philosopher at Texas Tech University, as well as an honorary research professor at Australia’s University of Queensland, Bradatan has in his role as religion editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books consistently proven the utility of philosophical and theological ideas when it comes to the art of living. In Dying for Ideas, Bradatan examines those who sacrificed their lives for ideas through a “purely secular martyrdom” (though one of his subjects was a saint): the deaths of thinkers for whom the nature and impact of their executions “confers a discrete sublimity upon these philosophers’ gestures. It is great to die for God, but it may be greater to die for no God.” Like the women and men Bradatan writes of, from Thomas More awaiting his beheading in the Tower of London’s turret to the anti-Soviet dissident Jan Patočka tortured in a Prague investigation chamber, Buckel had lived his life, and his death, for an idea. In Buckel’s death, Bradatan might argue, we see not just suicide, but an argument about life, where what “we feel toward the person performing [self-immolation]…is in fact a complex mix of fear and respect, of fascination and repulsion, attraction and revulsion, all at once.”
What Dying for Ideas clarifies is that we must not look away from the pyre; we must consider these deaths that often turn out to be the “threshold where history ends and mythology begins,” as Bradatan writes. Buckel attempted a sacrifice similar to those of the Buddhist nuns and monks who’d self-immolated themselves during the Vietnam War, people of incomparable bravery and detachment whom Buckel had long admired. In short, the attorney wished to turn his body into a candle “helping others to find the right direction,” as Bradatan might have put. As we perhaps approach our own collective martyrdom, measuring the rising tide and warmth alike, there is a pressing wisdom that we must grapple with, what the medievals called the Ars morienda, the art of the good death. Can we notice the warmth of Buckel’s auto de fe amidst the escalating temperatures, or do such flames recede into the apocalyptic heat?
Morbid thoughts to have in the sunniness of a Boston June, listening to a “’90s Hits” Spotify playlist. Yet in the hazy days of the Anthropocene, it’s hard not to feel the uncanniness that acknowledges Buckel’s life and death lived with authenticity, while the rest of us wait for the ice caps to melt listening to Radiohead and Soundgarden on our smart phones. While taking a break from Bradatan’s astute readings of those martyrs like Socrates, Hypatia, and Giordano Bruno who died not for God or country, but rather for philosophical ideas, I paused to scroll through my Twitter feed, only to come across a Vice article titled “New Report Suggests ‘High Likelihood of Human Civilization Coming to an End’ Starting in 2050.” That’s the year that I’ll be (theoretically) “celebrating” my 66th birthday. If I hadn’t paid attention to why Buckel died when it happened, it would behoove me to take notice now.
Dying for Ideas came out three years before Buckel’s suicide, but the glow of his burning body couldn’t help but give off more light by which to read Bradatan’s book. He writes of a death like Buckel’s, that it “does not always mean the negation of life—sometimes it has the paradoxical capacity of enhancing it, of intensifying it to the point of, yes, breathing new life into life.” As Socrates died for the good, as Hypatia died for reason, as More died for faith, and as Bruno died for magic, so Buckel died for the Earth. When scheduling my reviews and writing projects for the summer, I hadn’t intended to necessarily be reading Dying for Ideas on my 35th birthday, but there’s something appropriate in having Bradatan as my Virgil for the date that Dante described in The Divine Comedy as being “Midway upon the journey of our life/[when] I found myself within a dark forest.” Now the dark wood has been paved over, and all of its pollinating insects are going extinct, so for a member of the millennial generation facing the demise of our entire ecosystem and the possible extinction of humanity, both Buckel’s death and Bradatan’s invocation of those who faced their own demise with magnanimity and wisdom hang humid in the air.
Dying for Ideas embodies the French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne’s conviction that “To philosophize is to learn to die.” Bradatan makes the compelling case that to evaluate philosophers in their entirety, you must ascertain not just the rationality of their arguments, but if their lives were consistent with their claims—and that for a few singular philosophers, if their deaths also make their arguments. For philosophers like Bradatan, philosophy is a method as much of a discipline; not merely the realm of logical syllogism, but something that prepares us for the “perilous journey from the agora to the scaffold or the pyre.” If you’ve ever taken an undergraduate philosophy course, Montaigne’s aphorism might not strike you as accurate, for the Anglo-American academic discipline goes a long way to perennially proving Henry David Thoreau’s crack that there are a lot of philosophy professors, but precious few philosophers.
In the American and British academy, the vast majority of university departments tend to orient themselves towards what’s called analytical philosophy, a tradition that rather than engage those eternal philosophical questions concerning the examined life, is rather content with precise, logical anal retention; pleased to enumerate all of the definitions of the word “is” rather than to question how it is that we should live. Fortunately, Bradatan is a disciple of that other contemporary wing, the continental philosophy of 20th-century France and Germany that is still capable of approaching the discipline as “an act of living…[that] often boils down to…learning how to face death—an art of dying,” as Bradatan puts it. He brings to bear not the rigid, rigorous, logical arguments of analytical philosophers like A.J. Ayers, Saul Kripke, and Willard van Orman Quine—men whom for all their brilliance and importance did little to illuminate the philosophical issue of how are we to live?—in favor of the impressionistic and poetic truths embodied by thinkers like Simone Weil, Martin Heidegger, and most of all Pierre Hadot.
The last philosopher has never quite achieved the reputation he deserves in the Anglophone world, his philosophy concerning “care for the self” rather filtered through by more popular disciples, such as the historian Michel Foucault. In Hadot’s estimation, the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece approached their thought not as a means of abstract contemplation, or as a way of producing one more publication for the tenure review file, but rather as a solemn, rigorous, unsparing honest examination and method that served to transform one’s very life. As Hadot wrote in What Is Ancient Philosophy?, there is “No discourse worthy of being called philosophical, that is separated from the philosophical life.” For philosophers in Hadot’s stead, including Bradatan, to approach philosophy as if it were simply the academic discipline that investigates the history of ideas, or with even more futility as a type of logical game, is to abdicate a solemn responsibility. In reducing philosophy to nothing more than just another university department with journals and conferences it’s to reject philosophy as something that can change your life.
Thus do we honor Socrates, that ugly little gadfly who in acknowledging his ignorance was paradoxically the wisest man in Athens. Socrates is Bradatan’s first martyr-philosopher, the most celebrated of men who died for an idea. Such is the power of the event, the forced drinking of hemlock at the hands of an Athenian state that claimed Socrates had corrupted the youths of the city and preached against her gods. He is not an uncomplicated figure, from the detached, calm, almost-absurdly-professorial figure of clean lines and smooth surfaces in French painter Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates, to radical journalist I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates with its revisionist interpretation of the anti-democratic teacher’s death as being in some sense warranted.
What Bradatan does differently is that he reads the death of Socrates itself as an argument to be interpreted—treating the moment of extinction itself as one would a proof. The historical Socrates is himself mute; though he appears in a few scenes of the dramatist Xenophon, and while he is the beguiling central character in the dialogues of his student Plato, no actual writing of the founder of Western philosophy itself exists. Considering Plato’s treatment of Socrates in dialogues like The Republic, The Symposium, The Crito, and The Apology, Bradatan writes that the teacher’s “voice is authoritative, compelling, commanding, almost annoyingly so. Yet his silences—whenever they occur…these silences can be unbearable. This is Socrates at his most uncanny.” With all of the words of Socrates that we have being mediated through the mouth of another, Bradatan rather returns to his death as the ultimate silence, a masterpiece to be read as rigorously as any dialogue of Plato’s.
In Socrates’s willing execution, Bradatan sees a consistency of purpose and a representation of how the philosopher argued we should live our lives. Had Socrates capitulated to the court, had he admitted to wrong-doing and served a lighter sentence, it would be to invalidate his own teaching. Such consistency of purpose is something that united the martyrs he examines, no matter how different their actual thought may have been. Bradatan writes that “With the spectacle of their dying bodies alone they had to express whatever they could not communicate through all their rhetorical mastery…death was the most effective means of persuasion…such a death is a philosophical work in its own right—sometimes a masterpiece.”
When Bruno was hoisted aloft the burning green wood of Rome’s campo de fiori, he abjured the penitential crucifix presented by the tonsured Dominicans, offering back rather a blasphemous stream of invective in his thick Neapolitan accent, the proud heretic to the very end. And from his execution, though Bruno was himself an advocate for magic, occultism, and hermeticism, the Italian Enlightenment would find inspiration against the forces of Inquisition and superstition that had condemned him; his death becoming a far more potent argument than anything he ever actually wrote. More than a millennium before, and Hypatia made a very different argument after Christian zealots under the command of Alexandria’s bishop Cyril grabbed the Neo-Platonist mystic and mathematician, dragged her through the filthy streets of that cosmopolitan city and ultimately stripped her of her clothes, and then cut her very flesh from her body using either sharpened pottery shards or oyster shells depending on the account. Supposedly Hypatia uttered no words or cries. Hypatia’s silence had its own lessons as a woman in a culture that denies half the population its bodily autonomy, a rational mystic who thought the material world was fallen and an illusion. Though none of Hypatia’s writings survive, she has often been figured as the first feminist, her silent protest even as she was murdered making a powerful argument about the power of obstinate quiet. By contrast, More approached the infinite not with silence, but with wry British humor, the ever ironic and mutable founder of Utopia ascending the scaffold and telling his executioner, “See me safe up, as for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”
All of us will rendezvous with the eternal one day, and most philosophy professors will die in their beds. As Bradatan confesses, “No matter how hard we fight, how graceful our dance, how bold our stance, the end is always the same: total annihilation.” But these philosophers were those whose death was as an apotheosis, albeit accomplished in different ways: from Socrates’s lecturing to Hypatia’s silence, Bruno’s cursing to More’s joking, all in their varied ways confirming Bradatan’s contention that “the point is not to avoid death but to live without fear and humiliation before it comes.” Were that the only critical intervention of Dying for Ideas, it’d be powerful enough, but Bradatan makes his most important (and audacious) contribution concerning the societal importance of such sacrifice.
Drawing on the work of the French anthropologist Rene Girard, Bradatan applies what’s called the “scapegoat mechanism,” Girard’s contention that all of human civilization is propelled by the occasional sacrifice of some kind of innocent agent on whom all of the sins of the culture are imparted. This is most obvious in Christianity, as Girard writes of the “non-violent God who willingly becomes a victim in order to free us from our violence” in Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture. As Christ was supposed to be a sacrifice who died for the world, so Bradatan argues that these philosophers’ deaths functioned as sacrifices for the truth, the radical honesty that Foucault calls parrhesia. The philosopher possesses a radical freedom and powerful powerlessness that is perhaps only matched by that of the jester; she has the agency to confront and compel the truth where others are mired in lies and delusions, and in her sacrifice the philosopher dies so that we may light ourselves out of our ignorance. All of Bradatan’s examples are partisans of parrhesia, and all took leave of this world at moments of profound social and cultural dislocation and crisis. Socrates was sacrificed by a democratic state extricating itself from years of tyranny, Hypatia skinned by a crowd that watched the eclipse of paganism and the ascendancy of Christianity, Bruno immolated upon pyres set by men whose religious certainties were challenged by the scientific revolution, More decapitated as Christendom was fractured by the Reformation, and Patočka tortured by a communist state in which the people no longer had any faith. Bradatan explains that scapegoats are needed in places where “An atmosphere of doom settles in, society is divided, the crisis persists. Everything seems to move in circles, the usual remedies don’t seem to work. Something radical is needed.” What we see in Socrates’s calm disputation or More’s scaffold stand-up act is not simply death, but the sacrifice of parrhesia so that the rest of us may know truth, an example of thinkers whom Bradatan describes as “mystics [who] are God’s traffickers” that “routinely smuggle bits of eternity into our corrupted world.”
So, I return to my phone, skimming accounts of collapsing ice shelfs and flooding river banks, reading articles about how humanity may have less than a few decades left, pushed to the brink by the irrational, insatiable hungers of our economic system and its supporting faith. As analysis, Bradatan offers us a claim about how some brave souls die for ideas, how their sacrifices are meant to illuminate those malignancies that threaten a society in collapse. Women and men like Bruno and Hypatia are set aside from the realm of the rest of us, they are, in the original sense of the word, sacred. It is the action of the sacred that, according to Bradatan, when it “erupts into our lives…its presence is unmistakable, its effects lasting, its memory haunting.” The martyred, these sacred women and men, are separate from us regular folk who are more content to scroll through Twitter by the pool rather than die for an idea. If ever a people needed a holy sacrifice uttering parrhesia on the scaffold, a sacred scapegoat shouting the truth from a pyre, it is our own. In the social media frenzy of orthographically-challenged White House tweets and the hermetic reading of Mueller investigation tea leaves, the media moved on from Buckel’s martyrdom in Prospect Park with disturbing promptness—just another horrific story receding deep into our news feeds, his radical honesty drowned out in the static of so much otherwise meaningless information permeating our apocalyptic age. Perhaps it’s time to listen to him, before its too late.
Image credit: Unsplash/Cullan Smith.