Cioran, the philosophy of despair and its ethical implications

In spite of it's singularity, the ideas of Romanian-born philosopher Emil Cioran did not exist in a vacuum. We can argue that it is part of a tradition of negative philosophers—pessimists, even—that is not well known, as UCLA's professor Joshua Dienstag (2009) argues. There isn't a proper school of philosophical pessimism, but Dienstag argues—in his book Pessimism: philosophy, ethic, spirit—that we can view thinkers such as Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Unamuno, Camus and Cioran more or less as members of this tradition.

The fall into eternity, by Raymond Douillet

In Miguel de Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life (2008), the author states that consciousness is a disease that afflicts men. The philosophy of Emil Cioran—who read Unamuno—certainly exacerbates and amplifies this conclusion and sentiment. Consciousness as a disease is the starting point of Cioran's philosophy of despair. Consciousness of what? Of time. Our reason is capable to reflect about what it thinks and has full understanding of the existence of past and future. Cioran's philosophy of despair states that this capacity of ours does not exist without terrible cost, like the knowledge that we exist and that, one day, we will stop existing. Although Cioran argues we're not robots, we operate within the insurmountable limitations of time—and we know this. The future, therefore, is nothing but a past that has yet to come. We are all going to perish, just like other living beings that inhabit this planet, and this knowledge makes us retroactively non-existent.

This knowledge also makes History meaningless. History, according to Cioran, is an adaptation we make in regards to our temporal condition: we invent History and fill it with illusions—religions and ideals of all kinds. In certain moments, Cioran uses metaphors and mythology in order to express his thoughts. One of the expressions he utilizes for the human condition is “the fall into time”. We are beings that came from the eternal nothingness and fell into time when we were born: that is, we live a present that is always fleeting and becoming past. For this reason, we always deposit our hopes in the future. All other animals live in the present—they are adapted to live the present, having been born almost ready for life. They have what they need inside them. Lions, zebras, insects and fish don't need culture, schools and formal learning. They live the present and their fear of death is only instinctive. Animals, even when they're sick, can't have consciousness of time and the knowledge of death like we do—in fact, we have knowledge of this even when we are healthy and happy.

Cioran's philosophy of despair, however, does not see pain occurring only in the human world. In certain aphorisms he express how any kind of consciousness would have benefited from non-existence, even primitive animal consciousness. In his book The Trouble with Being Born, Cioran wrote: “Better to be an animal than a man, an insect than an animal, a plant than an insect, and so on. Salvation? Whatever diminishes the kingdom of consciousness and compromises its supremacy.” (CIORAN, 1998) According to the philosophy of despair the ideal world would be inhabited by rocks—and, if there was life, plants. So, what can we do? What is Cioran's answer to such a terrible diagnosis?

While writing his first books, Cioran used his native Romanian language. Later, he switched permanently to French. Even though his first few works were already incredibly bleak, his answer to the emptiness of human existence was still somewhat vitalist. The admiration that his initial writings have for the spiritual ecstasy of Christian saints is just that: in Cioran's perception, when we look at the phenomenon of spiritual ecstasy—without sticking to the dogmatic cover of religion—the saint would be a kind of being able to leave, if only for a few moments, the time in which we all fell into. The figures of the saint and the mystic would leave human individuation and temporality in the these brief moments. However, after World War II, in Cioran's French phase, even though the diagnosis remained the same—we could say despair became even deeper in his French phase—Cioran saw no exit. There is no salvation for our temporal condition, not even in the ecstasy of saints. All we can try is an art of living that is somewhat close to the non-religious asceticism and resignation we found in Schopenhauer's philosophy.

Schopenhauer's (2014) pessimism gives us small gaps for escaping the conditions we are thrown when we are born, even if temporarily. For Schopenhauer (2015), admiring art, especially music, becomes a powerful ally of men who seek to neutralize the cruel Will to live, even if for a brief instant. The ascetic ideal—for example, Christian and Buddhist monasticism—is even better for Schopenhauer: the ascetic denies the Will to live and works constantly against the passions that make us attached to a world where everything is ephemeral and in which pain, even when delayed, is certain. The knowledge the ascetic has of practicing the denial of the Will to live, even when this denial occurs indirectly—like in the case of monks, who deny the Will to live for religious and dogmatic reasons, not because of philosophical insight—, is a kind of victory within Schopenhauer's philosophy. For Schopenhauer (2014), the aggregate of all life is the cause of so much pain that it would be preferable if the Earth was as empty as the Moon. But in Schopenhauer there is a small, private victory when we deny the will to live, which is the knowledge of this denial. For Cioran, not even a small victory is possible. Nothing can better our condition. We can only administer the total disaster—in part by isolating ourselves as if we were urban monks.

We can see that the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Cioran both promote a kind of denial of life. In Cioran we also see a sharp criticism of procreation. In The Trouble with Being Born, he writes:

I was alone in that cemetery overlooking the village when a pregnant woman came in. I left at once, in order not to look at this corpse-bearer at close range, nor to ruminate upon the contrast between an aggressive womb and the time-worn tombs—between a false promise and the end of all promises. (CIORAN, 1998)
His disapproval of reproduction was not restricted to women and others. In his notebooks, published posthumously, he wrote: “With what I know, with what I feel, I couldn't give life without putting myself in total contradiction with myself, without being intellectually dishonest and morally criminal.” (1997) Such a statement is not a condemnation of parents for being parents, but of human condition which blindly perpetuates itself, regardless of the total impossibility of a satisfactory meaning for life and the sufferings we go through. For the philosopher of despair, it would have been better if we remained in potentiality. Again in The Trouble with Being Born, he writes:

If it is true that by death we once more become what we were before being, would it not have better to abide by that pure possibility, not to stir from it? What use was this detour, when we might have remained forever in an unrealized plenitude? (CIORAN, 1998)

Such sentiment is echoed in the writing of Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright. In Waiting for Godot, the character Pozzo says: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.” (BECKETT, 2011)

There remains the question: if life is so terrible, why don't we leave it by committing suicide? It is true that both Cioran and Schopenhauer before him did not condemn suicide. On the contrary: both affirm in their works that no church or civil institution ever gave a valid argument against suicide. However, for different reasons, they don't consider it the best alternative. For Schopenhauer, the suicide, by killing himself, tries to assassinate the Will to live inside of him—but the Will to live is the metaphysical driving force that permeates all reality. Suicide does not deny the Will to live, asceticism does. Since Cioran was skeptical of absolute truths, we don't find the metaphysical help of knowledge, therefore, according to him, committing suicide is actually a valid alternative, but it isn't a necessary action, nor is it efficacious. In A Short History of Decay, he writes about how suicide is sort of treasure we all have access to, but we can chose to spend our entire lives without using it (CIORAN, 2012). After we are born, the damage is already done, and suicide doesn't change that—for this reason, killing ourselves become one more futile action against our condition. In one of his most famous aphorisms, Cioran states that: “It's not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.” (CIORAN, 1998)

The works of Cioran express a corrosive, nihilistic and pessimistic philosophy that denies the value of life, something that may be controversial at first sight—or at third, fourth, thousandth... However, those who read him should be cautious and attentive, for this denial is not a homage or incentive to suicide, although he doesn't judge the act from a moral or vitalist perspective. The philosophy of despair denies life, without wishing death. In conclusion, I'll leave you with his own words:

We do not rush toward death, we flee the catastrophe of birth, survivors struggling to forget it. Fear of death is merely the projection into the future of a fear which dates back to our first moment of life. We are reluctant, of course, to treat birth as a scourge: has it not been inculcated as the sovereign good—have we not been told that the worst comes at the end, not at the outset of our lives? Yet evil, the real evil, is behind, not ahead of us. What escaped Jesus did not escape Buddha: “If three things did not exist in the world, O disciples, the Perfect One would not appear in the world. . .” And ahead of old age and death he places the fact of birth, source of every infirmity, every disaster. (CIORAN, 1998)

By Fernando Olszewski

(This post was first published September 13th, 2019 @ Exilado Metafísico)

(This work was also presented at the IX Philosophy Week at the University of Rio de Janeiro State, in 2019)


. BECKETT, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Press, 2011.
. CIORAN, Emil. A Short History of Decay. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2012. Translated by Richard Howard.
. ______. Cahiers, 1957-1972. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.
. ______. The Trouble with Being Born. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998. Translated by Richard Howard.
. DIENSTAG, Joshua Foa. Pessimism: philosophy, ethic, spirit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
. UNAMUNO, Miguel de. Tragic Sense of Life. New York: Dover Publications, 2008.
. SCHOPENHAUER, Arthur. As dores do mundo. São Paulo: Edipro, 2014. Tradução de José Souza de Oliveira.
. ______. O mundo como vontade e como representação. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2015. Tradução de Jair Barboza.