People have always dabbled in a little philosophy. Everyone, at some point, ponders the big questions. Why are we here? What is truth? What happens after we die? Philosophers are just people who spend their time really trying to get to grips with such matters by spending their lives studying and thinking about questions like these.
So, we often expect philosophers to live sedate lives of contemplation, probably dying of old age with a book in their hands. Alas, sometimes a philosopher meets such a bizarre end that you have to wonder whether they really had figured out this “living” business.
Here are ten philosophers with strange and unusual exits from life.
Empedocles was one of the great philosophers of the 5th century BC. He is remembered today for positing the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water as the building blocks of all that exist. His deep understanding of the universe was matched by his skills as a public speaker and his practical advice. When a violent wind kept knocking down the crops of a town, he had the skins of donkeys stretched out on poles along the top of a ridge to deflect the air. The crops were saved, and Empedocles gained the nickname “the wind-stayer.”
The constant praise of the people around him seems to have gone to Empedocles’s head, though. It seems he either began to believe himself to be a god or wanted others to think that. So he hatched a cunning but suicidal plan.
One night after dinner with his disciples, he slipped out of the house while they were sleeping. He hoped that his followers would assume he had been taken up into heaven. How could Empedocles get rid of his own body, however, to make the ruse believable? He climbed the volcano at Etna and threw himself into the crater filled with lava. When his fans awoke, they were utterly convinced the philosopher was now with the gods. Empedocles’s plan had worked.
Except… a little while later the volcano erupted, and one of Empedocles’s bronze sandals was thrown out of the crater and his real fate was revealed. That, at least, is the story. Some even in antiquity questioned whether bronze footwear could withstand the flames of a volcano.
9 Alan Turing
Alan Turing is a hero to many. His work on early computers helped Great Britain to crack the Enigma code which the Nazis were using to encrypt messages in the Second World War. Turing is also known as the father of computer science for his theoretical work that projected what computers might be capable of if they were more powerful than the ones he was working with. He was known in his day as a brilliant logician, and his proposed Turing Test for the ability of computers to fool humans into believing they are also human has sparked huge debates about the nature of consciousness.
Turing was also a gay man and has been adopted as an icon of LGBT rights. It was his homosexuality that many think brought about his death thanks to his treatment at the hands of the government of the day.
After a burglary, Turing made a report to police that revealed he had a male lover. Despite his heroic work during the war, Turing was faced with imprisonment for an act of “gross indecency.” Instead, he took the offer of “medical” treatment involving the injection of hormones to cause chemical castration. Understandably, this and the side effects left him terribly depressed.
His housekeeper found the thinker dead in his bed aged just 41 with a half eaten apple by his bedside. An inquest found he had killed himself by consuming an apple laced with cyanide. Some have questioned whether he really meant to die or whether it was simply an accident.
It was only 13 years after Turing died that homosexuality was partially decriminalized in Britain, and he was finally pardoned in 2013. His face now graces the £50 note.
8 Zeno of Elea
If you know any ancient Greek thought experiments you probably know the one about Achilles and the Tortoise. It shows that if a tortoise is given a head start in a race against a swift runner then the tortoise will always remain in front. This is because by the time the runner reaches the point where the tortoise started the tortoise has moved on. By the time the runner reaches that point the tortoise has moved on again. With each step the runner gets close to the reptile, but never quite catches him. This is one of Zeno’s paradoxes.
Zeno was, through paradoxes like this, attempting to prove that how we generally conceive the world is wrong. He thought that motion of any type is impossible. Our senses just trick us into the idea that things are changing. You might expect someone like this to die of doing nothing but Zeno did change one thing.
Zeno plotted to overthrow a tyrant of one of the Greek cities. He was caught and brought before the ruler. After refusing to give up his accomplices the philosopher told the tyrant he had something to say that must be kept secret. When the tyrant offered him his ear, Zeno bit it viciously. He refused to release the ear and had to be stabbed to death before he let go.
Another version of his death has Zeno biting off his own tongue and spitting it at the tyrant before being stoned to death.
7 Francis Bacon
Sir Francis Bacon was one of the great statesmen of 17th-century England. He had served under Elizabeth I but rose to true power under her successor James I. Despite the many calls on his time, Bacon still found time to become the father of the modern scientific method by writing books about empiricism. He described how knowledge could be gained by experimentation.
Bacon found himself cast out of office in 1621 when he was charged with corruption. He was found guilty and fined the colossal sum of £40,000. Bacon took this in fairly good spirits and retired from court. At least he would have time for more science.
It was an experiment that killed him. One day while riding through the snow, he came up with a brilliant idea—perhaps cold could preserve food. He stopped his coach and bought a chicken. Once it was killed and gutted he clambered about gathering snow to stuff it into the chicken. After his exposure to the cold, he developed pneumonia which killed him. The invention of the frozen meal would have to wait several hundred more years.
Hypatia of Alexandria was one of the last great pagan philosophers. Belonging to the neoplatonist school, she was a public teacher of not only philosophy but mathematics and astronomy to the upper classes of the city. People would travel to Alexandria just to be taught by her, and the Roman prefect of the city, Orestes, would ask for her advise. However, the early fifth century was not a good time to be a prominent pagan, let alone a prominent woman.
Christianity was becoming the dominant force in the Roman world at this time. A new bishop of Alexandria called Cyril was stirring up trouble with the local Jewish population, and when Orestes attempted to calm the situation, Cyril struck back. His order of clerics, the Parabalani, started a riot. Orestes and any associated with him became targets.
In AD 415, Hypatia was dragged from her carriage by a Christian mob. They dragged her into a church and accused her of witchcraft. She was stripped naked and killed by having her flesh stripped off with either oyster shells or broken roof tiles.
Cyril was made a saint.
Heraclitus is not the easiest philosopher to understand. He liked to give his teachings in short phrases that encouraged deep thought. Sayings like “All things change” and “We both step and do not step into the same rivers; we both are and are not” make us question the nature of identity. Even ancient commentators found him tricky to read. He was known as “the Black” and “the Obscure.” He was a difficult patient as well as a difficult philosopher.
Heraclitus began to suffer from dropsy, which is the accumulation of fluid in the body. Instead of just telling his doctors this and asking for help, he gave them a riddle. “How do you make a drought after wet weather?” His doctors couldn’t determine what he needed, so Heraclitus decided to cure himself.
Knowing that warmth could drive off water, he decided to get as warm as possible. Laying out in the sun would help but would not be enough. Rotting manure also gets hot. So he decided to combine the two. Heraclitus was buried under dung in the hot sun. He did not receive his cure, however. Trapped there under the manure, he was attacked by dogs and eaten.
4 Kurt Godel
Kurt Godel was one of the greatest logicians that ever lived. His work shook mathematics to its core when in 1931, he posited his Incompleteness Theorem. While mathematicians had always thought that they could build complete mathematical models from axioms, this theorem destroyed the possibility by showing there would always be statements within the model that can never be said to be either true or false. Mathematics could never be completed.
One of his favorite sayings was, “First, the world is rational.” His brilliant abilities with logic make his death even more tragic because, at the end of his life, his rationality abandoned him. After one of his friends was murdered, Godel became obsessed with the idea that he might be poisoned. The only person he trusted to make his food was his wife, Adele. When she was taken to the hospital for several months, the logician could not eat anything at all. He died of starvation. At the time of his death, he weighed just 65 pounds (29kg).
3 Diogenes of Sinope
Diogenes of Sinope is legendary among philosophers for actually living the philosophy he taught. His main goal was to show his fellow Greeks just how much their lives were governed by social norms. So he set out to break as many of them as possible. Some were trivial—like being seen eating in the street. Others were a bit more shocking. When he was seen masturbating in the marketplace and challenged on his rude behavior, the philosopher simply remarked that “he wished it were as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing an empty stomach.” For behavior like this, he became known as the Cynic, from the Greek word for dog.
His death was as unusual as his life, though no one agrees exactly how it happened. Some said he became tired of living and simply held his breath until he died. Others claimed he died of a bad stomach after eating a raw octopus. Others say he died in a way fitting to his cynic nature.
While trying to divide up an octopus between some dogs Diogenes was feeding, one of the animals bit him deeply on the foot. The wound killed him. Over his grave was set a marble column with a statue of a dog on it.
The Stoics were a school of philosophy that taught that living in accordance with virtue was the key to living the best life. They had a reputation for being a stern and uncheery bunch because having control of their emotions allowed them to remain clear headed and make sound judgments. This makes the death of Chrysippus particularly ironic.
Chrysippus of Soli lived in the 3rd century BC and wrote huge amounts about the theory and benefits of Stoic philosophy. He is said to have written over 700 works in his lifetime. So if anyone knew the need to control emotions, it was him.
One day while he was at dinner, an old woman was passing by with her donkey. Suddenly the donkey got loose and came over to the table and ate the figs Chrysippus was about to have. He found this amusing and said to the woman, “Why don’t you give him some wine to wash down the figs!” He was so tickled by the situation that he began to laugh. And kept laughing. In fact, he laughed so much that he died on the spot.
Philosophers can be very clever people, but sometimes they don’t know when to shut up. Anaxarchus lived in the 4th century BC and was one of a number of thinkers who accompanied Alexander the Great on his conquest of Asia. Anaxarchus was one of the few people who dared to ridicule Alexander’s pretensions of divinity. He got away with his barbed comments with Alexander, but not everyone appreciated them.
One day at dinner with Alexander, the philosopher commented that everything on the table looked great; the only thing lacking was the head of one of the defeated Persian leaders. One of the Persians at the table, Nicocreon, took this personally. Note that Nicocreon eventually left to govern Cyprus. When Anaxarchus later fell into Nicrocreon’s power after Alexander’s death, the ruler decided to get back at Anaxarchus.
Nicocreon commanded that the philosopher be taken to a large pit and pounded to death with large iron pestles. Even now, Anaxarchus could not resist making one more comment. “Pound, pound the pouch containing Anaxarchus; you cannot pound Anaxarchus.” Nicrocreon was apparently unimpressed with this philosophical point. He had Anaxarchus’s sharp tongue cut out before continuing the pounding.