Does philosophy fail in the face of death? Karl White turns to the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran’s life-long meditation on birth, existence and annihilation, asking whether philosophy can save us from the despair of our final hour or whether its limits lie at the very edge of our own mortality.
From its inception the philosophical enterprise has centred on death. Philosophy teaches us how to die, declared Socrates. According to him, we are pretending to be wise when we fear death, as we know nothing about it, and it could, contrary to all our instincts, be a blessing. Philosophy also has endeavoured to palliate our fears by reiterating endlessly a reminder of our mortality: it attempts to elevate us above the quotidian to make our death seem nothing exceptional; it urges on us a kind of modesty, where we must remember that we are pledged to death, a constant memento mori (which translates literally as ‘Remember to die’). Does it succeed in any of these goals? According to the Romanian thinker E.M. Cioran the answer is a resounding and deathly no, for according to him “nature has been generous to none but those she has dispensed from thinking about death”. Faced with true catastrophe, philosophy can ultimately be only a meditation on its own failure and impotence when confronted by the reality of our extinction.
Cioran is the anti-philosopher of philosophy. He decries and scorns the attempts of professional philosophers to circumscribe and contain the rawness of experience and the aporias of life with categories, definitions and moral imperatives. Cioran instead records with inimitable style, irony and black humour the twists and turns of his sensations, rages and disappointments and most powerfully the impotence of both reason and philosophy to cope with and contain death’s invisible and limitless force. While man is in his eyes a puppet of fate and forces beyond his control, philosophy, as a discipline that endeavours to contain existence through the judicious use of reason, is but a mockery and comic example of human hubris. Death and silence will have the last words.
Cioran began his philosophical life as an enthusiastic vitalist in the Nietzschean tradition, espousing a life-affirming ethos with little care for form or logical argumentation. Nevertheless, his preoccupations were still those of the more traditional philosophers whom he scorned, not least in his fixation with death. But whereas Socrates described philosophy as a form of training for the end and met death with a serene poise and grace, Cioran found that reason and wisdom are impotent in the face of annihilation, largely due to the same reasons that drove so much of 19th century anti-foundational thought: the primacy of biology, the destabilisation of language and the historicism of all ethical systems.
For Cioran, reason seemed a weak superstructure erected on the irrational force of life itself and to crown this unknowing was the inescapable approach of death and non-existence. If philosophy struggled to make sense of life, what could it possibly offer on death? Such anti-Enlightenment forces drove Cioran to feel himself divided from common humanity, due to his intense awareness of the inevitability of annihilation: “When consciousness becomes independent of life, the revelation of death becomes so strong that its presence destroys all naivete, all joyful enthusiasm, and all natural voluptuousness…Equally empty are all man’s finalizing projects and his theological illusions.” There was simply the raw experience of life itself and the mind’s weak and fumbling attempts to make sense of it, all in the knowledge that one day there would be no life and no mind and no thoughts.
Try as we might to maintain a dignified attitude in the face of death, for Cioran a genuine and unadorned contemplation of our mortality leaves us without motivation and meaning. Greek Naturalism and Roman Stoicism held no appeal, nor was a Nietzschean overcoming possible. After the war Cioran re-fashioned himself as a sardonic aphorist and cynical commentator on human affairs. In many ways he became the anti-Sartre. Whereas the latter preached freedom, possibility and emancipation, Cioran produced volume after volume that dwelt immovably on human bondage, entrapment and finitude. All ideologies were bankrupt, freedom a lie, violence and hatred the natural human condition, and to end it all was the blank cul de sac of death. Cioran had previously found all attempts to contain and neuter the fact of our dissolution to be highly suspect, but now he would relentlessly re-iterate the impotence of thought when faced with annihilation.
On occasion, however, he was tempted to use a version of Epicurus’ method of coping with the thought of death, declaring: “I think of so many people who are no more, and I pity them. Yet they are not so much to be pitied, for they have solved every problem, beginning with the problem of death.” Yet such braggadocio was fleeting. Try as he might, Cioran could not help but admit the hopeless reality. Philosophy attempts to neuter the force of experience by trading in generalities, but by its denial of the truth that each individual must die their own death with no guidance it only renders itself a mockery. “She meant absolutely nothing to me. Realizing, suddenly, after so many years, that whatever happens I shall never see her again, I nearly collapsed. We understand what death is only by suddenly remembering the face of someone who has been a matter of indifference to us.” No stoical reflection can cope with the reality that all must one day die.
The impotence of philosophy in the face of death was intimately connected to Cioran’s other central tenet: that while death was a fearful catastrophe, the inescapable tragedy was having been born in the first place. Life itself is fleeting and uncertain, full of frustration and disappointment. We know not what we are to do nor why we should do it. Death is one of the few certainties. “We do not rush toward death, we flee the catastrophe of birth, survivors struggling to forget it. Fear of death is merely a projection into the future of a fear which dates back to our first moment of life.” Death is only because birth was.
A frequenter of graveyards, Cioran had an epiphany that captured this iron chain of birth and annihilation: “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.” The sequence of birth, life and death is an unshakeable unity from which there is no escape. Cioran returns to the Sophoclean insight that the best thing of all is never to have been born.
In an attempt to cope, Cioran flirted for decades with Buddhism, seeing in its attempted abnegation of the self a way to come to terms with both the trauma of life and the terror of death, but such self-erasure was foreign to a temperament that, however obsessed with death and non-existence, was always extremely lively. Furthermore, Cioran knew he was inescapably a part of the Western philosophical tradition, proponent of a Faustian individuality that set the philosophical ego at the centre of everything. Buddhism was too foreign a fantasy of escape for a deracinated westerner.
He framed this feeling in a more discursive form that was also designed to finally dissolve the Epicurean consolation: “Why fear the nothing in store for us when it is no different from the nothingness which preceded us: this argument of the Ancients against the fear of death is unacceptable as consolation. Before, we had the luck not to exist; now we exist, and it is this particle of existence, hence of misfortune, which dreads death. Particle is not the word, since each of us prefers himself to the universe, at any rate considers himself equal to it.” Never-having-been-born is not the same as the non-existence that follows life and death. The two are qualitatively different, in spite of their quantitative identity in nothingness. We are attached to ourselves and our messy lives, no matter how much frustration and disappointment we may encounter. Giving up the ghost is not something philosophy can help us with. Death will never be welcome.
The Ancients are no good; to think about death is not to experience it – to believe one is not afraid of it only shows one has not yet met it: “Man accepts death but not the hour of his death. To die any time, except when one has to die!” Hunt and all as he did through the works of the philosophers, the mystics and the sages, Cioran could only conclude bitterly that “metaphysics leaves no room for the corpse”. Philosophy, such as it is in all its weakness and impotence, is a game for the living. The dead do not philosophise and they cannot hear the platitudes of philosophers who have yet themselves to die.
For Cioran there was no consolation, only an endless meditation on the same topic: “Each time I fail to think about death, I have the impression of cheating, of deceiving someone in me.” After decades of thinking, brooding and writing on the topic, Cioran was compelled to admit defeat. He had suspected at the beginning of his philosophical journey that thought was helpless in the face of death. A lifetime of thought had confirmed it: “For years, in fact for life, to have meditated only on your last moments, only to discover, when at last you approach them, that it was of no use, that the thought of death helps in everything save in dying!”
Work Cited The Trouble with Being Born Anathemas and Admirations Drawn and Quartered The Fall into Time