It is sweet to do nothing, but only if if the inactivity comes like the caesura in a line of poetry or the punctuation in a sentence of prose or the rest in a piece of music. Inactivity extended stultifies. At least this is true here below. Genesis 3:19 may be read as 'sentencing' us to activity. Enduring contemplative repose comes later.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, tr. R. J. Hollingdale, New York Review Books, 1990, p. 101:
Certain rash people have asserted that, just as there are no mice where there are no cats, so no one is possessed where there are no exorcists.
That puts me in mind of anarchists who say that where there are no laws there are no criminals. That is not much better than saying that where there are no chemists there are no chemicals.
Just as there are chemicals whether or not there are any chemists, there are moral wrongs whether or not there are any positive laws prohibiting them. What makes murder wrong is not that there are positive laws prohibiting it; murder is wrong antecedently of the positive law. It is morally wrong before (logically speaking) it is legally wrong. And it is precisely the moral wrongness of murder that justifies having laws against it.
And yet there is a sense in which criminals are legislated into existence: one cannot be a criminal in the eyes of the law unless there is the law. And it is certainly true that to be a criminal in the eyes of the law does not entail being guilty of any moral wrong-doing. But the anarchist goes off the deep end if he thinks that there is no moral justification for any legal prohibitions, or that the wrongness of every act is but an artifact of the law's prohibiting it.
"Self-control is infinitely more important that self-esteem." (Dennis Prager)
Delete 'infinitely' and you have an important truth pithily and accurately expressed. With self-control one can develop attributes that justify one's self-esteem. Without it one may come to an untimely end as did Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, who brought about his own death through a lack of self-control.
Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral. (Bertolt Brecht)
Loosely translated, "First feed, then scruple."
Something similar in Horace. Quaerenda pecunia primum est; virtus post nummos. (Horace, Epistles I, 1, 53) Money is to be sought first of all; virtue after wealth. Or, loosely translated, cash before conscience.
Emmanuel Lasker, Die Philosophie des Unvollendbar, 1919, p. x:
Aber eine harte Kindheit macht einen starken Mann.
But a hard childhood makes a strong man.
In the '80s I read a chunk of Lasker's Philosophy of the Incompletable and concluded that the grandmaster of chess was not one of philosophy. But I didn't read much of it and it was a long time ago. Now available in a paperback reprint via Amazon.com. I am tempted to take another look.
Too many in philosophy and other fields confine themselves to the horizon of the contemporary. Explore, get lost, discover.
A marvellous sublunary trinity: chess, philosophy, and a cigar.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, tr. R. J. Hollingdale, New York Review Books, 1990, p. 204, Notebook K, Aph. #84:
To call a proposition into question all that is needed is very often merely to fail to understand it. Certain gentlemen have been all too ready to reverse this maxim, and to assert that we fail to understand their propositions if we call them into question.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, tr. R. J. Hollingdale, New York Review Books, 1990, p. 223, Notebook L, Aph. #67:
If we did not remember our youth, we should [would] not be aware of old age: the malady of age consists solely in our no longer being able to do what we could do formerly. For the old man is certainly as perfect a creature in his own way as is the young.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, tr. R. J. Hollingdale, New York Review Books, 1990, p. 162, Notebook J, Aph. #168, hyperlink added!
As soon as he receives a little applause many a writer believes that the world is interested in everything about him. The play-scribbler Kotzebue even thinks himself justified in telling the public that he administered a clister [an enema] to his dying wife.
My referrers' list points me to this post whence I snagged these two delightful quotations:
The pipe draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher, and shuts up the mouth of the foolish; it generates a style of conversation, contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected.
William Makepeace Thackeray
A pipe is the fountain of contemplation, the source of pleasure, the companion of the wise; and the man who smokes, thinks like a philosopher and acts like a Samaritan.”
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
The name 'Bulwer-Lytton' rings a bell doesn't it? You guessed right: it's the same Bulwer-Lytton who penned, in prose of purple, the opening sentence,
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
"Duty has the virtue of making us feel the reality of a positive world while at the same time detaching us from it." (From Journal Intime)
This is a penetrating observation, and a perfect specimen of the aphorist's art. It is terse, true, but not trite. The tip of an iceberg of thought, it invites exploration below the water line.
If the world were literally a dream, there would be no need to act in it or take it seriously. One could treat it as one who dreams lucidly can treat a dream: one lies back and enjoys the show in the knowledge that it is only a dream. But to the extent that I feel duty-bound to do this or refrain from that, I take the world to be real, to be more than maya or illusion. Feeling duty-bound, I help realize the world. It is an "unfinished universe" in a Jamesian phrase and I cannot play within it the role of mere spectator. I must play the agent as well; I must participate whether I like it or not, non-participation being but a definicient mode of participation. In a Sartrean phrase, I am "condemned to be free": I am free to do and leave undone, but my being free does not fall within the ambit of my freedom.
And to the extent that I feel duty-bound to do something, to make real what merely ought to be, I am referred to this positive world as to the locus of realization.
But just how real is the world of our ordinary waking experience? Is it the ne plus ultra of reality? Its manifest deficiency gives the lie to this supposition, which is why great philosophers from Plato to Bradley have denied ultimate reality to the sense world. Things are not the way they ought to be, and things are the way they ought not be, and everyone with moral sense feels this to be true. The Real falls short of the Ideal, and, falling short demonstrates its lack of plenary reality. So while the perception of duty realizes the world, it also and by the same stroke de-realizes it by measuring it against a standard from elsewhere.
The moral sense discloses a world poised between the unreality of the dream and the plenary reality of the Absolute. Plato had it right: the human condition is speleological and the true philosopher is a transcendental speleologist.
The sense of duty detaches us from the world of what is by referring us to what ought to be. What ought to be, however, in many cases is not; hence we are referred back to the world of what is as the scene wherein alone ideals can be realized.
It is a curious dialectic. The Real falls short of the Ideal and is what is is in virtue of this falling short. The Ideal, however, is only imperfectly realized here below. Much of the ideal lacks reality just as much of the Real lacks ideality. Each is what it is by not being what it is not. And we moral agents are caught in this interplay. We are citizens of two worlds and must play the ambassador between them.
Nicolás Gómez Dávila (1913-1994) is an outstanding aphorist of a decidedly conservative, indeed reactionary, bent. What follows are some of his observations on the Catholic Church of the Second Vatican Council. I found them here thanks to Karl White. I've added a couple of comments in blue.
The phenomena of the decay of Catholicism are entertaining; those of Protestantism dull. (p. 191)
Tongues of fire didn’t descend upon the Second Vatican Council, as they did upon the first assembly of the apostles, but a stream of fire – a Feuerbach. (p. 245)
If one were to translate Ludwig Feuerbach's name into English it would come out as Firebrook. (Of course, one does not translate proper names; at most one transliterates them.) Feuerbach was an important influence on Karl Marx. He is famous or notorious for the notion that God is an unconscious anthropomorphic projection. Man alienates himself from his best attributes by unconsciously projecting them, in maximized forms, upon a nonexistent transcendent being.
A single council is nothing more than a single voice in the real ecumenical council of the Church: her complete history. (p. 265)
Popular Catholicism is the target of all progressive anger. Popular faith, popular hope, popular charity exasperate a clergy of petit bourgeois origin. (p. 266)
For the left-wing Catholic Catholicism is the great sin of the Catholic. (p. 248)
Catholics have lost that sympathetic capacity of sinning without arguing that sin doesn’t exist. (p. 274)
The problems of man can be neither exactly defined nor even remotely solved. Whoever hopes that Christianity can solve them ceases to be a Christian. (p. 285)
Add 'here below' at the end of the first sentence, and then the aphorism is true.
The progressive Catholic is only active in zealously seeking for whatever he can still hand over to the world.
Better a small church with Catholics than a numerous one with Rotarians. (p. 334)
Today’s Church is so nice as to exclude everything from the revealed traditions which public opinion condemns. (p. 319)
The current pope prays for that progress which Bury – its historian – called the “substitute for Providence.” (p. 319)
The thing that exasperates today’s Christian about the Middle Ages is Christianity. (p. 319)
The new liturgists have abolished the sacred pulpits in order that no scoundrel can assert that the Church intends to compete with the secular ones. (p. 319)
Catholics don’t have the slightest idea that the world feels betrayed by the concessions made to it by Catholicism. (p. 325)
The progressive clergy crowns the towers of the church of today not with a cross but with a weathervane. (p. 325)
Only the Catholic on the brink of losing his faith is outraged by the Church’s dazed state, sent by Providence.
St. Thomas Aquinas: an Orleaniste of theology? (p. 350)
Aggiornamento is the sellout of the Church. (p. 363)
The progressive Catholic collects his theology from the garbage can of Protestant theology. (p. 363)
Intending to open her arms to the world the Church instead opened her legs. (p. 363)
Instead of a theology of the mystical body the theologians of today teach a theology of the mystical masses. (p. 363)
Today it is impossible to respect the Christians. Out of respect for Christianity. (p. 379)
A striking one or two sentence formulation taken from a wider context is not an aphorism, strictly speaking. But I'm in a loose and liberal mood. So I present for your consideration and delectation the following sentence from Paul Ludwig Landsberg (1901-1944). It is from his essay "The Moral Problem of Suicide," translated from the French by Cynthia Rowland and bound together with "The Experience of Death" in a volume entitled The Experience of Death (Arno Press, New York, 1977). The sentence occurs on p. 69.
Temptation is an experience of the difference between the vertigo of power and the decision of duty.
"No man speaketh safely but he that is glad to hold his peace. " (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Chapter XX.)
Excellent advice for Christian and non-Christian alike. Much misery and misfortune can be avoided by simply keeping one's mouth shut. That playful banter with your female student that you could not resist indulging in -- she construed it as sexual harrassment. You were sitting on top of the world, but now you are in a world of trouble. In this Age of Political Correctness examples are legion. To be on the safe side, a good rule of thumb is: If your speech can be misconstrued, it will be. Did you really need to make that comment, or fire off that e-mail, or send that picture of your marvellous nether endowment to a woman not your wife?
Part of the problem is Political Correctness, but another part is that people are not brought up to exercise self-control in thought, word, and deed. Both problems can be plausibly blamed on liberals. Paradoxically enough, the contemporary liberal promotes speech codes and taboos while at the same time promoting an absurd tolerance of every sort of bad behavior. The liberal 'educator' dare not tell the black kid to pull his pants up lest he be accused of a racist 'dissing' of the punk's 'culture.'
You need to give your children moral lessons and send them to schools where they will receive them. My mind drifts back to the fourth or fifth grade and the time a nun planted an image in my mind that remains. She likened the tongue to a sword capable of great damage, positioned behind two 'gates,' the teeth and the lips. Those gates are there for a reason, she explained, and the sword should come out only when it can be well deployed.
The good nun did not extend the image to the sword of flesh hanging between a man's legs. But I will. Keep your 'sword' behind the 'gates' of your pants and your undershorts until such time as it can be brought out for a good purpose.
"As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and complete narcissistic moron." – - H. L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920 (Via Bill Keezer, via Keith Burgess-Jackson)
The great and glorious day is come, my friends, and we finally have the president we deserve. God help us.
According to Snopes, the above quotation is not verbatim, but it is accurate in the main. See Snopes for context.
I am a foe of misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression. Have I ever done any of these things? Probably. 'Suffering' as I do from cacoethes scribendi, it is a good bet that I have committed one or more of the above. But I try to avoid these 'sins.'
This morning I was reading from Karl Menninger, M.D., Whatever Became of Sin? (Hawthorn Books, 1973). On p. 156, I found this quotation:
Our youth today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.
At the bottom of the page there is a footnote that reads: "Socrates, circa 425 B. C. Quoted in Joel Fort, The Pleasure Seekers (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)."
I was immediately skeptical of this 'quotation.' In part because I had never encountered the passage in the Platonic dialogues I have read, but also because the quotation is second-hand. So I took to the 'Net and found what appears to be a reputable site, Quote Investigator.
. . . was crafted by a student, Kenneth John Freeman, for his Cambridge dissertation published in 1907. Freeman did not claim that the passage under analysis was a direct quotation of anyone; instead, he was presenting his own summary of the complaints directed against young people in ancient times.
FALSE APHORISMS are not as rare as one might think. More significant than Wilde's, on account of its influence, is Marx's dismissal of religion as "the opium of the people." For this implies that religion is adopted purely for its ability to soothe the wounds of society, and that there is some other condition to which humanity might advance in which religion would no longer be needed. Both those implications are false, but they are boiled into a stock cube as tasty as any that has been seen on the intellectual menu. How many would-be intellectuals have dissolved this cube into their prose and given their thought, in the manner of Christopher Hitchens, a specious air of wisdom?
Permit me a quibble. Should we call a striking formulation lifted from a wider context an aphorism? I don't think so. An aphorism by my lights is a pithy observation intended by its author to stand alone. Accordingly, Marx's famous remark is not an aphorism. The wider context is provided here.
Henry Thoreau was once asked whether he had read a newspaper account of a local suicide. He replied that he didn't need to; he understood the principle. This anecdote comports comfortably with an observation Henry David makes somewhere in his journal:
I have discovered the aphorisms of Stanislaw Jerzy Lec via a reference in a book by Josef Pieper. Here are a few that impressed me from More Unkempt Thoughts (Curtis Publishing, 1968, tr. Jacek Galazka), the only book of Lec's I could easily lay hands on.
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. (9)
Why can't you believe in paradise on earth when you know there is hell on earth? (10)
When they blow the horn of plenty this loud, it must be empty. (15)
In him there is a void filled to the brim with erudition. (18)
Do not greet people with open arms. Why make yourself easier to crucify? (19)
Take good care of yourself: Property of the State. (22)
Cannibals prefer men who have no spines. (28)
To keep fit fame needs the massage of applause. (31)
Ladies, do not complain about men: their aims are as transparent as your clothes. (36)
The strongest brakes fail on the path of least resistance. (37)
Percussion wins every discussion. (38)
You cannot rely on people to remember, or, alas, to forget. (42).
In some countries life is so open you can spot the Secret Police everywhere. (42)
Not every shi- can age gracefully and become valuable guano. (48)
When men a dangerous disease did 'scape Of old they gave a cock to Aesculape Let me give two, that doubly am got free From my disease's danger, and from thee.
Ben Jonson (1753?-1637) from Epigrams and Epitaphs (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 27.
At the very end of the Phaedo, having drunk the hemlock, Socrates is reported by Plato as saying to Crito, "I owe a cock to Asclepius; do not forget to pay it." (tr. F. J. Church) Asclepius is the Greek god of healing. Presumably, Socrates wanted to thank the god for his recovery from the sickness of life itself.
Nietzsche comments at the the beginning of "The Problem of Socrates" in The Twilight of the Idols:
Concerning life, the wisest men of all ages have judged alike: it is no good. Always and everywhere one has heard the same sound from their mouths -- a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness of life, full of resistance to life. Even Socrates said, as he died: "To live -- that means to be sick a long time: I owe Asclepius the Savior a rooster." (tr. W. Kaufmann)
At any given time I am reading twenty or so books. One of them at the moment is Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1964-1980, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2012. In the midst of a lot of stuff, there are some gems. Here is one:
Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that. (512)
The last line is the best. There is something plebeian about argument. The thought is pure Nietzsche. See "The Problem of Socrates" in Twilight of the Idols (tr. Kaufmann):
Section 4: Socrates' decadence is suggested not only by the admitted wantonness and anarchy of his instincts, but also by the hypertrophy of the logical faculty . . . .
Section 5: With Socrates, Greek taste changes in favor of dalectics. [. . .] What must first be proved is worth little. Wherever authority still forms part of good bearing, where one does not give reasons but commands, the dialectician is a kind of buffoon . . . . Socrates was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously . . . .
Whether or not argument is plebeian, it has no place in an aphorism. As I put it:
An aphorism that states its reasons is no aphorism at all. But the reasons are there, though submerged, like the iceberg whose tip alone is visible. An aphorism, then, is the tip of an iceberg of thought.
Aphorisms and poems have this in common: neither can justify what they say while remaining what they are.
The Sontag-Nietzsche view seems to be that one needn't have reasons for what one aphoristically asserts; mine is that one should have them but not state them, leastways, not in the aphorisms themselves.
Addendum, 4:30 PM: That indefatigable argonaut of cyberspace, the ever-helpful Dave Lull, librarian non pareil, friend of bloggers and the just recipient of their heart-felt encomia, sent me a link to a post by James Geary entitled Susan Sontag on Aphorisms.
Geary rightly demolishes the silly conceit of another blogger who, commenting on Sontag, characterizes aphorisms as "the ultimate soundbitification of thinking." That is truly awful and deserves to be buried in the deepest and most mephitic nether regions of the blogosphere.
But Geary says something that contradicts my claim above that argument has no place in an aphorism:
And aphorisms are arguments. That’s why they are so often written in declarative or imperative form. An aphorism is only one side of the argument, though.
It appears that Geary is confusing a statement with an argument. Consider Nietzsche's "Some men are born posthumously." This is a declarative sentence but certainly no argument. An argument requires at least one premise and a conclusion. To argue is to support a claim with reasons. Nothing like this is going on in the one-sentence aphorism just quoted.
Theodor Haecker, Journal in the Night, tr. A. Dru, Pantheon, 1950, p. 172, entry #579 of 10 September 1941:
A year ago today the official propagandist, Fritsche, talking on the wireless, said of the bombing of London: 'Once upon a time fire rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrha, and there only remained seventy-seven just men; it is very doubtful whether there are seventy-seven just people in London today.' I already know many reasons why Germany will not win the war. Fritsche's speech is one.
Concluding punctilious postscript: I added a hyperlink to (Dru's translation of) Haecker's text. That bit of contextualization enriches and thus modifies the sense of his text. Worth noting if not worth worrying about.
Paul Brunton, Notebooks, vol. 9, Human Experience, p. 126, #520, emphasis added:
Politicians -- more interested in their own careers than in sincere public service, ambitious to gain their personal ends, unwilling to rebuke foolish voters with harsh truth until it is too late to save them, forced to lead double lives of misleading public statements and contradictory knowledge of the facts, yielding, for the sake of popularity, to the selfish emotions, passions, and greeds of sectional groups -- contribute much to mankind's history but little to mankind's welfare.
Dead on in substance, but also stylistically instructive. A good example of how to write a long sentence. Interesting because most of the content is sandwiched between the dashes. The thesis flanks the dashes with the supporting considerations between them.
Few read Brunton. But I read everything, ergo, etc.
How to disentangle profundity from puffery in any obscure formulation? Clear thought stops short, a victim of its own probity; the other kind, vague and indecisive, extends into the distance and escapes by its suspect but unassailable mystery.
Excellent except perhaps for ‘victim,’ which betrays Cioran’s mannered negativism. Substitute ‘beneficiary’ and the thought’s expression approaches perfection.
Indolence saves us from prolixity and thereby from the shamelessness inherent in production. (133)
An exaggeration, but something for bloggers to consider.
To be is to be cornered. (93)
Striking, and certainly no worse than W. V. Quine’s “To be is to be the value of a variable.”
Nothing makes us modest, not even the sight of a corpse. (87)
Cioran hits the mark here: the plain truth is set before us without exaggeration in a concise and striking manner.
Conversation is fruitful only between minds given to consolidating their perplexities. (163)
Brilliant. Philosophy, as Plato remarks (Theaetetus St. 155) and Aristotle repeats (Metaphysics 982b10), originates in wonder or perplexity. Fruitful philosophical conversation, rare as it is and must be given the woeful state of humanity, is therefore a consolidation and appreciation of problems and aporiai, much more than an attempt to convince one’s interlocutor of something. Herein lies a key difference between philosophy and ideology. The ideologue has answers, or thinks he has. And so his conversation is either apologetics or polemics, but not dialog. The philosopher has questions and so with him dialog is possible.
Time, accomplice of exterminators, disposes of morality. Who, today, bears a grudge against Nebuchadnezzar? (178)
This is quite bad, and not become of its literary form, but because the thought is false. If enough time passes, people forget about past injustices. True. But how does it follow that morality is abrogated? Cioran is confusing two distinct propositions. One is that the passage of time disposes of moral memories, memories of acts just and unjust. The other is that the passage of time disposes of morality itself, rightness and wrongness themselves, so that unjust acts eventually become neither just not unjust. The fact that Cioran’s aphorism conflates these two propositions is enough to condemn it, quite apart from the fact that the second proposition is arguably false. A good aphorism cannot merely be clever; it must also express an insight. An insight, of course, is an insight only if it is true. Nor is an aphorism good if it merely betrays a mental quirk of its author. For then it would be of merely psychological or biographical interest.
There is no other world. Nor even this one. What, then, is there? The inner smile provoked in us by the patent nonexistence of both. (134)
A statement of Cioran’s nihilism. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, it is self-contradictory. It cannot be true both that nothing exists and that an inner smile, a bemused realization that nothing exists, exists. So what is he trying to tell us? If you say that he is not trying to tell us anything, then what is he doing? If you say that he is merely playing at being clever, then I say to hell with him: he stands condemned by the very probity that he himself invokes in the first aphorism quoted supra.
Everything is nothing, including the consciousness of nothing. (144)
An even more pithy statement of Cioran’s nihilism. But if the consciousness of nothing is nothing, then there is no consciousness of nothing, which implies that the nihilist of Cioran’s type cannot be aware of himself as a nihilist. Thus Cioran’s thought undermines the very possibility of its own expression. That can’t be good.
Will you accuse me of applying logic to Cioran’s aphorism? But what exempts nihilists from logic? Note that his language is not imperative, interrogative, or optative, but declarative. He is purporting to state a fact, in a broad sense of ‘fact.’ He is saying: this is the way it is. But if there is a way things are, then it cannot be true that everything is nothing. The way things are is not nothing.
“It is of no importance to know who I am since some day I shall no longer be” – that is what each of us should answer those who bother about our identity and desire at any price to coop us up in a category or a definition. (144)
This presupposes that only the absolutely permanent is real and important. It is this (Platonic) assumption that drives Cioran’s nihilism: this world is nothing since it fails to satisfy the Platonic criterion of reality and importance. Now if Cioran were consistently sceptical, he would call this criterion into question, and with it, his nihilism. He would learn to embrace the finite as finite and cheerfully abandon his mannered negativism. If, on the other hand, he really believes in the Platonic criterion – as he must if he is to use it to affirm, by contrast, the nullity of the experienced world – then he ought to ask whence derives its validity. This might lead him away from nihilism to an affirmation of the ens realissimum.
X, who instead of looking at things directly has spent his life juggling with concepts and abusing abstract terms, now that he must envisage his own death, is in desperate straits. Fortunately for him, he flings himself, as is his custom, into abstractions, into commonplaces illustrated by jargon. A glamorous hocus-pocus, such is philosophy. But ultimately, everything is hocus-pocus, except for this very assertion that participates in an order of propositions one dares not question because they emanate from an unverifiable certitude, one somehow anterior to the brain’s career. (153)
A statement of Cioran’s scepticism. But his scepticism is half-hearted since he insulates his central claim from sceptical corrosion. To asseverate that his central claim issues from “an unverifiable certitude” is sheer dogmatism since there is no way that this certitude can become a self-certitude luminous to itself. Compare the Cartesian cogito. In the cogito situation, a self’s indubitability is revealed to itself, and thus grounds itself. But Cioran invokes something anterior to the mind, something which, precisely because of it anteriority, cannot be known by any mind. Why then should we not consider his central claim – according to which everything is a vain and empty posturing – to be itself a vain and empty posturing?
Indeed, is this not the way we must interpret it given Cioran’s two statements of nihilism cited above? If everything is nothing, then surely there cannot be “an unverifiable certitude” anterior to the mind that is impervious to sceptical assault.
Again, one may protest that I am applying logic in that I am comparing different aphorisms with an eye towards evaluating their mutual consistency. It might be suggested that our man is imply not trying to be consistent. But then I say that he is an unserious literary scribbler with no claim on our attention. But the truth of the matter lies a bit deeper: he is trying have it both ways at once. He is trying to say something true but without satisfying the canons satisfaction of which is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of anything’s being true.
My interim judgement, then, is this. What we have before us is a form of cognitive malfunction brought about by hypertrophy of the sceptical faculty. Doubt is the engine of inquiry. Thus there is a healthy form of scepticism. But Cioran’s extreme scepticism is a disease of cognition rather than a means to it. The writing, though, is brilliant.
The quotations are from E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered (New York: Seaver Books, 1983), translated from the French by Richard Howard.
Is all production vain and shameless? Perhaps not if one keeps one's productions to oneself. But writing books, articles and blog posts is not just production, but publishing, making public. Is publishing mere vanity and self-promotion?
In given cases it can be. And whether one of those cases is my case is not for me to decide. But surely it would be absurd to claim that all publishing by anyone is mere vanity and shameless self-promotion. Take the books of John Searle. He thinks he has solved the mind-body problem. He has done no such thing. Yet his books are enormously rich and stimulating despite some error and confusion. I am glad he has written his many books and made his contribution to our common ongoing philosophical quest. He has given me many hours of pleasure and elevated thought.
All living is self-asserting. But there is self-assertion and there is self-assertion. Personal assertion in the service of the impersonal truth is more than mere personal assertion. Thereby is vanity substantiated and shamelessness redeemed.