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The Motivational Cioran

1,097 words

Translated by Guillaume Durocher

Translator’s Note: Emil Cioran is notorious as perhaps the most pessimistic philosopher of all time. Nonetheless, I was able to find some aphorisms of his which I would consider inspiring. These are translated from Emil Cioran, De l’inconvénient d’être né (Paris: Gallimard, 1973).

Any overcoming of desire empowers us. We have all the more control over this world as we take our distance from it, when we do not commit to it. Renunciation confers limitless power. (44)

A work exists only if it is carefully prepared in the dark, with the care of an assassin contemplating his attack. In both cases, what counts is the will to strike. (51)

Detachment cannot be learned: it is written in a civilization. One does not tend towards it, one discovers it in oneself. That is what I thought when reading that a missionary, after eighteen years in Japan, could not count more than sixty converts all in all, and what’s more, they were old. And they escaped him at the last minute: they died in the Nipponese fashion, without regrets, without suffering, as worthy descendants of their ancestors who, to harden themselves during the struggles against the Mongols, let themselves be imbued by the nothingness of all things and by their own nothingness. (62-63)

Do we have the right to be mad with someone who calls us a monster? The monster is alone by definition, and solitude, even infamy, presupposes something positive, a rather special appointment, but an appointment nonetheless, undeniably. (91)

“An enemy is as useful as a Buddha.” That’s quite right. Because our enemy watches over us, he prevents us from letting ourselves go. By raising, by divulging the slightest of our failings, he leads us straight towards our salvation. He does everything to make sure that we are not unworthy of the idea he has of us. Our gratitude towards him should also be limitless. (96-97)

We get a grip on ourselves, and we commit all the more to being, by reacting against nay-saying, corrosive books [livres négateurs, dissolvants], against their noxious power. These are, in short, books that fortify, because they summon the energy which contradicts them. The more poison they contain, the greater their salutary effect, as long as we read them against the grain, as we should read any book, starting with the catechism. (97)

The greatest service we can render an author is to forbid him from working for a time. Short periods of tyranny would be necessary to force him to suspend his intellectual activity. Freedom of expression without any interruption exposes talents to a mortal peril. It forces them to spend themselves beyond their means and prevents them from accumulating sensations and experiences. Limitless freedom is a crime against the mind. (97)

I like to read books as a housewife does it: by identifying with the author and the book. Any other approach makes me think of a dismemberer of corpses [dépeceur de cadavre]. (112)

Lucidity without the corrective of ambition leads to the doldrums. One needs to be supported by the other, that one fights the other without defeating it, for a work and for a life to be possible. (116)

For our actions, or simply for our vitality, the pretense of lucidity is as dire as lucidity itself. (116)

If your hardships do not make you grow, and do not put you in a state of energetic euphoria, but rather depress and embitter you, know that you have no spiritual vocation. (123)

A monster, as horrible as he may be, secretly attracts us, pursues us, haunts us. He represents and enlarges our advantages and our miseries, he proclaims us, he is our standard-bearer. (125)

The bothersome or hurtful questions we are asked by the ill-bred; they irritate us, trouble us, and can have the same effect on us as certain Oriental techniques. Why would some crude, aggressive stupidity not spark enlightenment? It’s at least as good as a whack to the head with a stick. (133)

My mission is to suffer for all those who suffer without knowing it. I must pay for them, expiate their unconsciousness, the luck they have in not knowing the extent to which they are unhappy. (134)

I will only fully admire a dishonored – and happy – man. There’s someone, I will think, who does not care about the opinion of his peers and who draws his happiness and consolation solely from himself. (135)

It is loved ones, among all others, who are most keen to question our merits. The rule is universal; Buddha himself did not escape it. It was one of his cousins who worked hardest against him, and only secondly against Mara, the devil. (137)

To defeat a panic attack or a stubborn worry, there is nothing like imagining your own burial. An effective method, accessible to all. To not have to resort to this too often during the day, it is best to feel its benefits just as you jump out of bed. Or otherwise to only use it in exceptional moments, like Pope Innocent IX, who, having ordered a painting in which he was represented on his deathbed, would glance at it every time he had to make an important decision. (139)

When enough time passes, nothing is good or bad anymore. The historian who judges the past is doing journalism in another century. (158)

Must one despise one’s century or all centuries? Can we imagine Buddha leaving the world because of his contemporaries? (159)

In periods of sterility, we should hibernate, sleep night and day to conserve our strength, instead of spending it in mortifications and rages. (174)

The empty time of meditation is, in truth, the only full time. We should not be embarrassed in accumulating vacant moments. Vacant in appearance, actually full. To meditate is the supreme leisure, the secret to which has been lost. (180)

To go to the furthest edges of one’s art and, more still, of one’s being, that is the law of whoever considers themselves to be, even in the slightest, elect. (184)

Be wary of euphemisms! They worsen the horror that they are supposed to cover up. (191)

If I do not deny my origins, it is because it is better, in the end, to be nothing at all than an imitation of something. (195)

One teaches philosophy only in the agora, in the garden, or at home. The university chair is the philosopher’s grave, the death of all living thought, the chair is the mind in mourning. (216)

To express oneself, to work, in any area, is due to a more or less concealed fanaticism. If we don’t consider ourselves to be charged with a mission, to exist is difficult; to act, impossible. (224)

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4 Comments

  1. Gramscioran
    Posted January 4, 2019 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

  2. BroncoColorado
    Posted January 3, 2019 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    The philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius would approve!

    • Guillaume Durocher
      Posted January 4, 2019 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Cioran was also a fan of the Marcus Aurelius, preferring him to Nietzsche!

      • J. Goodlow
        Posted January 5, 2019 at 7:11 am | Permalink

        This is very interesting, as I remember reading one of his essays in The Temptation to Exist that was pretty much a Nietzschean praise of madness and European imperialism… I don’t know when these aphorisms were written, but I’m guessing he must have cooled off later in life.

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