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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Won me over in the end, 18 April 2011
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This review is from: Illness (The Art of Living) (Paperback)
Speaking as both a chronically ill person and a doctoral researcher in arts and health, I was keen to read this book as a kind of primer on philosophy and illness. I also wanted to see what paradigms Carel (who suffers from a rare lung disease) may suggest via her world of "altered ability" as some of the passages about her exhaustion and diagnosis are achingly and depressingly familiar to me. Can philosophy help me? The reader is in for a surprise with the line the author takes us around her world-view of illness. At least half this book wrestles with death. Before you read the book you may have some assumption that it will be about a soft and reflective view of illness. A kind of tonic. Carel's approach to her illness is augmented by a philosophy that pulls no punches here, which is why I liked it. I only signed on to read about illness! But here, illness and wellness are inexorably linked with mortality. Here, through philosophy we may `learn to die' in order to overcome both our topical maladies and existential ones.

While the academic tone often sometimes comes across as `justifying' academic terms and writing, (when a lay approach would be able to cut many words from the text) it is nonetheless not a heavy book where the reader/sufferer has to slice through a huge thicket of terms in order to get to a basic point. It's quite a short book that many ill people could read. It's 150 pages. It took me three days - which is pretty good given my own cognitive difficulty.

The main argument of the text is that anxiety about our impending death has no rational foundation. Once accepted and lived in the present moment, some kind of freedom can arise. What struck me, as an ex-card carrying Buddhist was that the ideas of Epicurus cited here - and the unmentioned philosophy of the historical Buddha or the subsequent schools of Buddhism - these are unbelievably close. In fact, I wondered why there was no mention of Buddhist philosophy at all in the text - perhaps because that simply wasn't the author's area/subject or through a fear that this would place this book in the more lightweight self help industry. Or maybe `philosophy' with a capital P lives only in Greece....

Either way, I felt it was a shame, especially since a great deal of the book talks about mindfulness and living in the present moment. I think - although I may be wrong, that the Buddha's teachings predate the teachings of Epicurus - but what I found interesting was that there was a "four-part" cure from Epicurus to counter fear and suffering, which I found to complement the "four noble truths" and the "noble eightfold path" - but maybe that's another book altogether. And maybe I am bringing unnecessary baggage to the table.

So, Death underpins the rhetoric of the book and it makes sense - any form of freedom from any malady can only be a "finite freedom" or a "bound freedom" on this earth and in these bodies - when death is a hundred percent effective. The main area of philosophical boxing occurs when the author pits philosophers Epicurus against Heidegger. Carel favours the appropriate intellectual (and maybe even kind) logic of Epicurus, and combines it with her `phenomenological' or `embodied' account of her sickness. She aims to fuse the two accounts in order to provide a sense of wholism. It's a technique, which when I first started reading the book really irritated me. As I say, it was as if the academic approach of naming processes like `phenomenology' was just paying lip-service to the fact that this is an academic argument with a lineage. It felt like reading a PhD at times. Maybe it was one.

But in the end, I left the work wanting to know which philosophers had the best ideas about how to combat illness and it left me looking at the bibliography wanting to know more about Epicurus and logical arguments about anxiety, illness and existential terror. It's actually a great book and for me has been an excellent introduction into philosophy as a tool, to facilitate a form of adaptation when faced with the slough of despond illness can bring.
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Location: Edinburgh, Scotland

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