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… [+]