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Sunday 6 October 2013

Fighting Philosophers

The cover story in the April 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction was called “Fighting Philosopher”. While it’s not a great story, it’s a great title. Philosophers are notorious for spending all their time sitting and thinking, so the idea of them getting involved in any kind of physical activity, let alone fighting, goes against the stereotype.

I was reminded of this story by a recent item on the BBC website: When philosophers attack! – “Two men were waiting for a beer at a store in the southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don. Somehow, the subject of the philosopher Immanuel Kant came up. Discussion morphed into argument, argument descended into fisticuffs... One of the combatants pulled out a pistol, and shot the other one several times with rubber bullets before running away. He was later arrested and has been charged with causing serious bodily harm.”

Kant was the archetypal philosopher: deep thinking, meticulously precise and (to most readers) impenetrably obscure. One of his most famous notions is the Categorical Imperative – the idea that human beings have an unconditional duty to behave in a morally correct way. This duty overrides all other considerations, and includes the usual moral injunctions such as “Thou shalt not kill”. And lying is out, too.

A French philosopher named Benjamin Constant wasn’t so sure about the “unconditional” nature of Kant’s imperative. What if a would-be murderer, searching for his victim, asked you where that victim was? If you knew the answer, should you tell the truth, which would indirectly lead to the victim’s death? Kant said yes, you should tell the truth even if it leads to someone else committing a murder – moral actions are an end in themselves, irrespective of the consequences.

Kant’s bizarre assertion was the inspiration for a murder mystery set in an Oxford college – Death at the President’s Lodgingby Michael Innes. It’s also referenced in an equally bizarre essay by Thomas De Quincey entitled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”. Much of the essay is concerned with the unlikely topic of the assassination of philosophers: “It is a fact that every philosopher of eminence for the two last centuries has either been murdered, or, at the least, been very near it; insomuch, that if a man calls himself a philosopher, and never had his life attempted, rest assured there is nothing in him; and against Locke's philosophy in particular, I think it an unanswerable objection (if we needed any), that, although he carried his throat about with him in this world for seventy-two years, no man ever condescended to cut it. As these cases of philosophers are not much known, and are generally good and well composed in their circumstances, I shall here read an excursus on that subject, chiefly by way of showing my own learning.”

Of course, this is all nonsense – a product of De Quincey’s rather peculiar imagination. He was a contemporary of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and had a similar interest in chemically induced states of consciousness (De Quincey’s most famous work is Confessions of an English Opium Eater).

In the real world, philosophers just aren’t the sort of people who get assassinated. Or are they? A few years ago an academic came up with the theory that Descartes was murdered by a Catholic priest who wanted to silence his heretical pronouncements: “French philosopher was killed by arsenic-laced holy communion wafer” (this photograph of the memorial to Descartes in the Palace of Versailles comes from my recent visit to France).

Getting back to the subject of “fighting philosophers”, these are even less common in the real world than assassinated philosophers. The only example I could find was a biggie, though. Plato was arguably the greatest of all the ancient Greek philosophers, and one of the most influential thinkers in history. But according to his biographers he started out as a wrestler, and some say that “Plato” (meaning broad-shouldered) was his wrestling nickname. Wikipedia, with its usual po-faced sincerity, includes Plato under Category: Ancient Greek wrestlers.

Plato was an exception, and most philosophers are pacifistic by nature. The archetypal example is Archimedes, who was stabbed to death by a Roman soldier because he was too engrossed in a diagram to recognize the threat that was looming over him. The situation is even mentioned in the blurb to the Astounding Science Fiction “Fighting Philosopher” story: “Archimedes was the philosopher who wouldn’t bother to fight the Roman soldier and had his philosophical work terminated permanently”.

Wikipedia, in its effort to make sure the world knows everything it ought to, has a helpful article on Deaths of philosophers. Unaccountably, however, it misses out what must be the coolest philosopher-death of all (or the grossest, depending on your point of view). Arius was an early Christian theologian who spoke out against the doctrine of the Trinity. When he died in 336 AD, he was at least 80 years old. An eyewitness account of his death suggests it was a truly spectacular event: “As he approached the place called Constantine’s Forum, where the column of porphyry is erected, a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels: he therefore enquired whether there was a convenient place near, and being directed to the back of Constantine’s Forum, he hastened thither. Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious haemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died.”

I’m not convinced that, under the natural course of events, it’s really possible to defecate one’s own liver. But the opponents of Arius’s theology didn’t believe his death was natural – they promptly declared it a miracle!

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