In chronological order, I present for you the ten most interesting, bizarre or otherwise notable philosopher deaths throughout history.
207 BCE: Chrysippus dies of laughter after giving wine to his donkey and seeing it eat figs
Chrysippus died during the 143rd Olympiad (208-204 BC) at the age of 73. Diogenes Laërtius gives two different accounts of his death. In the first account, Chrysippus was seized with dizziness having drunk undiluted wine at a feast, and died five days after. Alcohol poisoning is a fairly unremarkable way to go.
In the second account, he died in a fit of laughter after watching his donkey eat some figs. He cried out, “Now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs,” whereupon he laughed so heartily that he died. His nephew, the stoic philosopher Aristocreon, erected a statue in his honor in the Kerameikos of Athens.
52 BCE: Lucretius kills himself after being driven mad by a love potion
According to Saint Jerome, Lucretius was driven mad by a love philtre, wrote poetry and several books in his lucid intervals, and died by his own hand, leaving his poems and other writings to be edited posthumously by Cicero.
While the Cicero part has been considered credible, the rest is most surely a falsity created by Jerome in response to Lucretius’ anti-religion views.
415: Hypatia is killed by a mob of Christians
Believed to have been the reason for the strained relationship between the Imperial Prefect Orestes of Alexandria (a pagan) and the Patriarch Cyril (a Christian bishop), the female, pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria (a friend of Orestes) attracted the ire of a Christian population eager to see the two reconciled. Allegedly, she was devoted to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she was said to beguile many people through Satanic wiles.
One day in March, 415 AD, during the season of Lent, her chariot was waylaid on her route home (or some say to a lecture theater) by a Christian mob, possibly Nitrian monks led by a man identified only as Peter, thought to be Peter the Reader, Cyril’s assistant. The Christian monks stripped her naked and dragged her through the streets to the newly Christianized Caesareum church in Alexandria, where she was brutally killed. Some reports suggest she was flayed with ostraca (pot shards) and oyster shells, had her limbs mangled and set ablaze while still alive at a place called Cinaron, though other accounts suggest those actions happened after her death.
(Unfortunately, when the library of Alexandria was burned by the Arab conquerors, used as fuel for baths, the works of Hypatia were destroyed. We know her writings today through the works of others who quoted her — even if unfavorably — and a few letters written to her by contemporaries.)
1626: Francis Bacon dies of pneumonia from stuffing snow into a chicken
On April 9, 1626 Bacon died while at Arundel House at Highgate (the home of Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Norfolk, 21st Earl of Arundel), outside London, of pneumonia. An influential account of the circumstances of his death was given by John Aubrey, English biographer. Aubrey has been criticized for his evident credulousness in this and other works; on the other hand, he knew Thomas Hobbes, Bacon’s fellow-philosopher and friend. Aubrey’s vivid account, which portrays Bacon as a martyr to experimental scientific method, had him journeying to Highgate through the snow with the King’s Scottish physician when he is suddenly inspired by the possibility of using the snow instead of salt to preserve meat:
“They were resolved they would try the experiment presently. They alighted out of the coach and went into a poor woman’s house at the bottom of Highgate hill, and bought a fowl, and made the woman exenterate (disembowel) it.”
After stuffing the fowl with snow, Bacon contracted a fatal case of pneumonia. Some people, including Aubrey, consider these two contiguous, possibly coincidental events as related and causative of his death: “The Snow so chilled him that he immediately fell so extremely ill, that he could not return to his Lodging … but went to the Earle of Arundel’s house at Highgate, where they put him into … a damp bed that had not been layn-in … which gave him such a cold that in 2 or 3 days as I remember Mr Hobbes told me, he died of Suffocation.”
This same John Aubrey claimed that Bacon was a pederast and took bribes. He did, indeed, accept a bribe while solicitor general and was fired for his actions.
1640: Uriel da Costa, beaten and trampled by a religious group, then shoots himself
Uriel da Costa (sometimes Uriel Acosta) had been excommunicated, and in 1640 went to the Jewish community and asked for readmittance to the faith. As a punishment for his heretical views, he was publicly given 39 lashes at the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. He was then forced to lie on the floor while the congregation trampled over him on their way out of the door. This left him so demoralized and depressed that he became suicidal.
After writing his autobiography, Exemplar Humanae Vitae (1640, later translated as Specimen of Human Life), in which he wrote about his experience as a victim of intolerance, he set out to end the lives of both his cousin and himself. Seeing his relative approach one day, he grabbed a pistol and pulled the trigger, but it misfired. Then he reached for another, turned it on himself, and fired, dying a reportedly terrible death.
1936: Moritz Schlick is murdered by an insane student
On June 22, 1936, Schlick, a founder of the Vienna Circle, was ascending the steps of the University of Vienna for a class when he was confronted by a former student, Dr. Johann Nelböck (1903-1954), who drew a pistol and shot him in the chest. Nelbock had twice before been committed to a psychiatric ward for threatening Schlick. Nelbock had his doctoral thesis rejected by Schlick, and began stalking the professor — on at least one occasion, Nelbock sat one row in front of Schlick and his wife at a movie theater, turned around, and stared. Schlick died very soon afterward.
The student was tried and sentenced, but he became a hero for the growing anti-Jewish sentiments in the city. That Schlick was a German Protestant from minor Prussian nobility, and not Jewish, tended to be overlooked. Schlick was characterized in the press as a pivotal figure in disaffected Jewish circles, and the murder was applauded by Vienna’s Nazis, immediately becoming a cause célèbre.
At Nelböck’s trial for the murder of Schlick, besides some allegations of personal injuries, a significant part of his defense was the claim that Schlick’s philosophical arguments had undermined his native moral restraints, a line of thought which Austrian Nazis, asserting Schlick’s Jewish connections within the Vienna Circle, quickly developed and exploited, although not entirely without protest.
Nelböck was found guilty and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, but was paroled after two. He became a member of the Austrian Nazi Party after the Anschluss (the unification of Germany with Austria) in 1938.
1939: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz commits suicide by taking an overdose of Veronal
Shortly after Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz escaped with his young lover Czesława Korzeniowska to the rural frontier town of Jeziory, in what was then eastern Poland. Following the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939, Witkiewicz committed suicide by taking a drug overdose and trying to slit his wrists. He convinced Czesława to attempt suicide with him by consuming Luminal (Phenobarbital), but she survived.
However, the legend does not end there. In 1988, the Polish Ministry of Culture decided to bring the remains of the dramatist home for a proper burial reserved for great figures in Polish literature. The body was exhumed from the hastily made grave in Ukraine. Upon examining the X-ray of the coffin, a Witkiewicz scholar determined at once that the remains in the coffin were not that of Witkiewicz, for the corpse had a full set of teeth, whereas Witkiewicz did not. Nonetheless, the officials proceeded with the elaborate celebration, only to face accusations of scandal afterward. Most of Witkiewicz’s admirers were in fact quite pleased that almost fifty years after his death he was able to practice buffoonery once more.
1971: Richard Montague is beaten to death by a male prostitute
Richard Merrett Montague died violently in his Beverly Hills home on March 7, 1971, and the crime is unsolved to this day. There are arguments that he usually went to bars “cruising” and bringing people home with him. His preference was African-American men who enjoyed rough sex. On the day that he was murdered, he brought home several people “for some kind of soirée”, but they instead robbed his house and strangled him. His body was discovered naked on the bathroom floor by his housemate, John O. Westerdoll. Westerdoll then saw multiple men drive away in Richard’s car.
The only witness, John Westerdoll, died on February 16, 1987 at the age of 58.
1978: Kurt Gödel starves himself to death by refusing to eat for fear of being poisoned
In later life, Gödel suffered periods of mental instability and illness. He had an obsessive fear of being poisoned; he wouldn’t eat unless his wife, Adele, tasted his food for him. Late in 1977, Adele was hospitalized for six months and could not taste Gödel’s food anymore. In her absence, he refused to eat, eventually starving himself to death. He weighed an unbelievably low 65 pounds (approximately 30 kg) when he died. His death certificate reported that he died of “malnutrition and inanition (exhaustion) caused by personality disturbance” while sitting in a chair at Princeton Hospital on January 14, 1978.
Adele died three years later, on February 4, 1981.
1984: Michel Foucault dies of AIDS, due to sadomasochism in San Francisco
Foucault died of an AIDS-related illness in Paris on June 25, 1984. He was the first high-profile French personality who was reported to have AIDS. Little was known about the disease at the time and there has been some controversy since. In the front-page article of Le Monde announcing his death, there was no mention of AIDS, although it was implied that he died from a massive infection. Prior to his death, Foucault had destroyed most of his manuscripts, and in his will had prohibited the publication of what he might have overlooked.
It is still debated whether Foucault knowingly transmitted AIDS to many men through unprotected sex. Sad, too, is his legacy at Berkeley, where he was known among students of the day as “that mad French leather queen who whips anyone who’ll let him at San Francisco gay bath houses.” Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson write in their book Philosophers Behaving Badly, “In the final year of his life, in discussing the risk of AIDS, he said, ‘Besides, to die for the love of boys: what could be more beautiful?’”
Critchley, Simon. The Book of Dead Philosophers Vintage Books, 2008.