A Short, Animated Introduction to Emil Cioran, the “Philosopher of Despair”

It is admit­ted­ly a gross over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, but if asked to sum­ma­rize a crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence between ana­lyt­i­cal Anglo-Amer­i­can philoso­phers and so-called “Con­ti­nen­tals,” one might broad­ly say that the for­mer approach phi­los­o­phy as think­ing, the lat­ter as writ­ing. Con­trast, for exam­ple, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Bertrand Russell—none of whom are espe­cial­ly known as prose stylists—with Michel de Mon­taigne, Kierkegaard, Niet­zsche, or Albert Camus. While the Eng­lish­men struck out into heady intel­lec­tu­al waters indeed, the Euro­peans brought the full weight of their per­son­al­i­ties to bear on their inves­ti­ga­tions. They invent­ed per­son­ae, wrote lit­er­ary apho­risms, and often wrote fic­tion, dra­ma, and dia­logue in addi­tion to phi­los­o­phy.

Sure­ly there are many excep­tions to this scheme, but on the whole, Con­ti­nen­tal thinkers have been loos­er with the laws of log­ic and more inti­mate with the rules of rhetoric, as well as with their own emo­tion­al lives. But per­haps one of the great­est exam­ples of such a philo­soph­i­cal writer is some­one most of us have nev­er heard of. After watch­ing this short School of Life video intro­duc­tion on Roman­ian-French philoso­pher Emil Cio­ran, we may be per­suad­ed to get to know his work. Cio­ran, says Alain de Bot­ton above, “is very much wor­thy of inclu­sion in the line of the great­est French and Euro­pean moral philoso­phers and writ­ers of max­ims stretch­ing back to Mon­taigne, Cham­fort, Pas­cal, and La Rochefou­cauld.”

Cos­ti­ca Bra­datan describes Cio­ran as a “20th-cen­tu­ry Niet­zsche, only dark­er and with a bet­ter sense of humor.” Called a “philoso­pher of despair” by the New York Times upon his death in 1995, Cioran’s “hair-shirt­ed world view res­onat­ed in the titles” of books like On the Heights of Despair, Syl­lo­gisms of Bit­ter­ness, and The Trou­ble with Being Born. Though his deeply pes­simistic out­look was con­sis­tent through­out his career, he was not a sys­tem­at­ic thinker. “Cio­ran often con­tra­dicts him­self,” writes Bra­datan, “but that’s the least of his wor­ries. With him, self-con­tra­dic­tion is not even a weak­ness, but the sign a mind is alive.”

Like Niet­zsche, Cio­ran pos­sessed a “brood­ing, roman­tic, fatal­is­tic tem­pera­ment” com­bined with an obses­sion with reli­gious themes, inher­it­ed from his father, a Greek Ortho­dox priest. The two also share a pen­chant for pithy apho­risms both shock­ing and dark­ly fun­ny in their bru­tal can­dor. De Bot­ton quotes one exam­ple: “It is not worth the both­er of killing your­self, since you always kill your­self too late.” For Cio­ran, Bra­datan remarks, writ­ing phi­los­o­phy was “not about being con­sis­tent, nor about per­sua­sion or keep­ing a read­er­ship enter­tained.” It was a per­son­al act of sur­vival. “You write not to pro­duce some body of text, but to act upon your­self; to bring your­self togeth­er after a per­son­al dis­as­ter or to pull your­self out of a bad depres­sion.”

Cio­ran put it this way: “Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would nev­er dare con­fide to any­one.” In his the­mat­ic obses­sions, lit­er­ary ele­gance, and per­son­al invest­ment in his work, Cio­ran resem­bles a num­ber of writ­ers we admire because phi­los­o­phy for them was not a mat­ter of ratio­nal abstrac­tion; it was an active engage­ment with the most per­son­al, yet uni­ver­sal, ques­tions of life and death.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Arthur Schopen­hauer and How We Can Achieve Hap­pi­ness Through Art & Phi­los­o­phy

An Ani­mat­ed, Mon­ty Python-Style Intro­duc­tion to the Søren Kierkegaard, the First Exis­ten­tial­ist

Niet­zsche, Wittgen­stein & Sartre Explained with Mon­ty Python-Style Ani­ma­tions by The School of Life

How Did Niet­zsche Become the Most Mis­un­der­stood & Bas­tardized Philoso­pher?: A Video from Slate Explains

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Rao says:

    Hap­py to see Cioron intro­duced. Occi­den­tal philoso­phers of his genre have so much In com­mon with ancient Indi­an thinkers who con­sid­ered life as a mere bub­ble and birth as an acci­dent .Mere VIBHUTI ‚a sort of cloak (to fool our­selves)

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.