Philosophy is an intellectual pursuit, but it takes on a physical nature when philosophers die for their ideas.

Suppose there is a manner of doing philosophy that, strictly speaking, doesn’t involve writing and speech-making, lecturing and teaching—indeed, a form of philosophizing that doesn’t even need language. Suppose, further, that this kind of philosophizing is all about performance, bodily performance. Philosophers have exhausted all their usual approaches, and now have to put their bodies on the line. The situation doesn’t lack irony: an essentially logo-centric discipline finds itself one day in a state where words are useless and arguments futile; no matter how persuasive the philosophers, they will convince no one unless they decide to abandon lecturing and arguing and turn their own flesh into an argument. This is precisely the limit-situation on which I focus in my latest book, Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers.

Socrates was among the first to learn, from personal experience, what the situation entails. His failure to make his fellow Athenians see the worth of his philosophical project, as evidenced especially by his trial and death sentence, must have persuaded him not only that there is a limit as to what language can do for philosophy, but also that the philosopher, if he is not to betray his vocation and himself, needs to take philosophizing beyond that limit. There is a point, Socrates must have realized as he listened to the death sentence the Athenian jury pronounced against him, where philosophy, if it is not to lose face, has to use something stronger than words to do its job. And what is stronger than words, in such a situation, is the philosopher’s own death. By the means of his dying body—and the public spectacle of his death—Socrates communicated to his audience beyond his mastery of the Greek language.

His intuition turned out to be right: by dying the way he did, Socrates accomplished something unique. He managed to solidify a meaningful link between his work and his biography. In the absence of a “philosophical death,” not only would Socrates’s life have lacked a defining feature, but his work, too, would have been incomplete. Indeed, without a body of written text, it is hard to imagine how his name would have survived in a discipline that, from inception, has been defined by writing.

A Matter of Practice

The message Socrates was sending as he was drinking the hemlock is rather simple, but tremendously powerful: you need to embody your philosophy. Primarily, philosophy is not an academic exercise but a matter of practice; it is not something you talk about but something you do. To philosophize is to cause a change in yourself, to act upon yourself as if you were some lump of raw material in need of a firm shape. Philosophy is not sheer production of knowledge; its function is not to inform but to form us. Its ultimate object is a project of self-realization, the philosopher’s self-fashioning. The place where philosophy dwells, then, is not the academic text, nor the philosopher’s speech, but the philosopher’s body. Philosophy lives with us. Yet, it hardly dies with us.

Indeed, philosophy thrives when the philosopher chooses to die, as a matter of consistence, with his beliefs. Socrates’s death was only the beginning of a tremendously influential posterity, which, in the absence of any written work, is nothing short of miraculous. Hypatia, too, has been a very influential figure, even though nothing has come down to us from her. Giordano Bruno is rarely read today but is thought to be one of the greatest Italian philosophers of all time. What makes these figures “great,” I argue in Dying for Ideas, is the manner of their death. Not only does this particular type of death not annihilate its victims, but it makes them stronger.

Perpetual Outsiders

These philosophers’ ways of life, their being perceived as “out of place” in society, the dramatic build-up that leads to their singling out, the distinct sense of “crisis” that pervades the communities in the midst of which they emerge, then their violent ending—all of these call for a Girardian reading of the event of their death. From René Girard’s perspective, they all bear “victimary signs.” Committed as they are to “straight talking” (parrēsía), to leaving nothing unquestioned, these philosophers are usually incapable of establishing strong ties with others. They remain perpetual outsiders to their own communities; they don’t allow themselves to recognize and cultivate those strong bonds of complicity that keep society together. It is telling that these philosophers’ remarks often come across as “acidic”; no bonds can stand the corroding effect of their parrēsía. And in times of crises they become easy targets because their philosophy has made them fundamentally vulnerable.

Girard’s theory of the “scapegoat mechanism” explains not only why martyr-philosophers are killed, but also why they become so influential after their death: by dying the kind of death they die they are made “sacred.” They become “founding figures” because their annihilation was caused by what Girard calls a “founding murder.” Due to the powerful mix of guilt and shame that remains in the collective memory, the tradition processes these philosophers’ deaths along the lines of myth-making. We end up elevating them to a mythical status and make them part of our mythic imagination.

Myth and Reason

This may explain why we tend to misinterpret what these philosophers did or said or who they were while they were alive. We regard Socrates as the “founder” of Western philosophy. This is not entirely true, as there were other philosophers before him. Tellingly, we call them “pre-Socratics.” Hypatia is often seen as having founded the tradition of women in philosophy, even though there certainly were women philosophers before her. She is also associated with the foundation of philosophical feminism (at least two feminist journals bear her name), even though, since her work has not survived, it is difficult to tell exactly what was feminist about it. The death of these philosophers simply “blinds” us. Our reception of them is not strictly rational; it’s tinted by mythology.

The case of martyr-philosophers points to an important fact: the formation of intellectual and philosophical traditions is not governed by strictly rational patterns but sometimes by forms of mythic thinking and imagination. Typically, we tend to think that myth and reason are opposites and that one subverts the other. This may be a simplistic picture, though. Sometimes myth complements reason: myth-making and mythic imagination can bring to philosophy a level of depth and sophistication that reason alone cannot secure.

Note: Dying for Ideas was researched while I was a Distinguished Guest Fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. This essay draws on a research report originally published in the DNIAS Newsletter.