Famed philosopher Etienne Vermeersch dies at 84


Flanders’ most famous scientific philosopher – who spoke out on climate change 30 years ago – has died in Ghent

‘Death is no tiger’

Moral philosopher, author and essayist Etienne Vermeersch (pictured), one of Flanders’ most famous opinionmakers, has died aged 84. One of the greatest intellectuals and free-thinkers of his time, Vermeersch was well-known for his strong opinions on subjects considered taboo, such as euthanasia and abortion.

Vermeersch was born into a Catholic family in West Flanders, but had turned against religion in general and become an atheist by his mid-20s. He studied in Ghent and in 1967 became a lecturer in philosophy and  at the university.

With a focus on the philosophy of science, Vermeersch became a well-known commentator on many social issues. He was an early proponent of abortion rights for women and the right to die. He was one of the first in the country to get a Leif card, which is a do-not-resuscitate order.

Population control

Following a long illness, he used the right to euthanasia last week in Ghent’s University Hospital. “He always said that he wanted to work right up until he died,” said his close friend and fellow philosopher Johan Braeckman. “He couldn’t work much towards the end, and he couldn’t speak very well, but he communicated by writing things down. When he decided to ask for euthanasia, he wrote: ‘I will die thanks to my life’s work’. That was one of the last things he wrote.”

Vermeersch was also famous for his opinions on climate change, which he addressed in the 1980s with the same urgency we see today. He was staunchly in favour of population control to address the problem; he himself chose not to have children. He thought all couples should limit themselves to one or two children – an unpopular suggestion in 1980s Flanders.

As early as the 1970s, he spoke of humane treatment of child sex offenders. “They have a sexual proclivity that they did not ask for,” he said. “They are human beings who have much more need of our understanding than a brutal and blatant dismissal.”

There were centuries and centuries in which I did not live, and there will be centuries and centuries more in which I do not live

- Etienne Vermeersch

While largely considered politically progressive, Vermeersch’s scepticism regarding religion was so complete that he often ran up against opposition among allies, such as when he shared his view that the headscarf worn by Muslim women should be banned.

He was also one of the Gravensteen Group, which was made up of artists and intellectuals wanting to promote Flemish autonomy while rejecting the far-right politics with which this is usually associated.

In 2012, news programme Terzake visited Vermeersch at home to discuss several issues, including globalisation, consumption and religion. Then 78, he revealed that he was not afraid to die.

“There were centuries and centuries in which I did not live, and there will be centuries and centuries more in which I do not live,” he said. “Not being here does no harm. I don’t understand what that is – to be afraid of death. I understand fear – being afraid of a tiger, for instance. But death is no tiger. Death is the end. Period.”

Photo: Etienne Vermeersch received the Flemish Community Honours award in 2016
©Jonas Roosens/BELGA