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.