Wisdom and revolt: E.M. Cioran on the impossibility of Taoism

The only minds which seduce us are the minds which have destroyed themselves trying to give their lives a meaning.

These are the words of the Romanian existentialist E.M. Cioran, written in the opening chapter of The Temptation to Exist (1956). Susan Sontag, in her introduction to the work, describes the author as unable to withhold admiration from what is extravagant, willful, extreme.” Indeed, it was a desire for delirium and madness, not peace, that inspired Cioran. Between serenity and blood,” he writes, it is toward blood one finds it natural to incline”

A philosophy that revels in madness and chaos is antithetical to major currents of contemporary Western culture. Far removed from 20th century existentialism, many of the dominant ideals of our culture focus on self-help and self-improvement in the pursuit of a balanced, harmonious life.

The interest in and adoption of eastern philosophies like Taoism and Buddhism since the end of World War II speaks to the desire of many to cultivate an inner peace, to silence the noise of an endlessly busy world. Keeping a meditation practice is no longer esoteric, with millions using meditation apps for guidance.

In The Temptation to Exist, these Taoist ideals of calm detachment are subject to Cioran’s biting and insightful criticism:

Try as we will to take the cure” of ineffectuality; to meditate on the Taoist fathers’ doctrine of submission, of withdrawal, of a sovereign absence, to follow, like them the course of consciousness once it ceases to be at grips with the world […] — we shall never succeed.

Cioran offers an alternative existentialist vision of the human condition. Despite a pessimism and misanthropy that outweighs even that of Schopenhauer, Cioran’s criticisms of eastern thought contain valuable insights into the human condition and the limits of our possibilities.

The Temptation to Exist, first published in 1956, is a collection of short essays written during Cioran’s time in Paris, a city that would become his home and intellectual heartland. Moving from his native Romania years earlier, Cioran came to adopt the French language and engage deeply in the literary culture of post-war France. Writers like Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir were his contemporaries, each meditating on themes of meaning, void, and freedom.

While other existentialists proposed solutions to the crisis of meaning, Cioran remained a fervent pessimist and misanthropist. In The Trouble with Being Born, he writes of his own birth as fortuitous, a laughable accident” (p.6). In the following passage, he writes: To have committed every crime but that of being a father.” Humanity was a parasite in the eyes of Cioran, worthy of contempt, not praise.

Despite his profound cynicism, there exists a Nietzschean reverence for struggle in Cioran’s work that one can’t help but be moved by. Indeed, Cioran is a deeply Nietzschean thinker; he is Nietzsche without the hope of self-overcoming. Cioran viewed Nietzsche, along with Baudelaire and Dostoevsky, as masters in the art of thinking against oneself”. To think against oneself, to divide oneself from one’s being - what could be more antithetical to the ideals of Taoism?

In Thinking Against Oneself, Cioran highlights the tensions that exist between the realities of the human condition and the ideals of Taoism. Taoism, argues Cioran, is an unachievable philosophy, a metaphysical vision simultaneously fascinating and impossible. It’s in these tensions that Cioran’s critique unfolds.

One such tension is between passivity and action. Passivity in Taoism is an ideal to aspire to. Clinging to the phenomena of the sensory world leads to suffering and is antithetical to the goal of living in accordance with the Tao. As written in chapter 12 of the Tao Te Ching:

Numerous colours make man sightless.
Numerous sounds make man unable to hear.
Numerous tastes make man tasteless.
Racing and pursuing game make man’s heart violent.
Valuing rare things make man worry about their safety.
Therefore, the wise concentrates on the belly and not on the temptations of the senses.
Thus, he abides in the one and forgoes the other.

Yet racing and pursuing the phenomena of the senses are to Cioran inescapable realities of the human condition and principal aspects of Western modes of thought and being. According to our Chinese again,” he writes, only the detached mind penetrates the essence of the Tao; the man of passion perceives only it’s effects. […] We attack and we struggle; therefore we know only the effects of the Tao.”

While this struggling and attacking may make man’s heart violent”, and therefore be rejected by the Taoist, Cioran argues that almost all our discoveries are due to our violences, to the exacerbation of our instability.” It is in the world of action, suffering, time, and history that Cioran places the human spirit, not in detachment, passivity, and peace.

When reading Cioran’s critique, one is reminded of Nietzsche’s challenge in The Gay Science:

Live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourself!

Interestingly, despite his resistance to Taoism, the Romanian does not altogether reject the value of Taoist insights and metaphysics. In fact, Cioran pessimistically concludes that the wisdom of Taoism and the spirit of existential revolt are twin poisons: Unfit to assimilate them naively, we find neither one a formula for salvation.” In his view, there is no escape from this trap, and we are doomed to our condition.

We are sufficiently clear-sighted to be tempted to lay down our arms; yet the reflex of rebellion triumphs over our doubts.

Despite his pessimistic conclusion, one finds a degree of comfort in Cioran’s recognition that the ideals of Taoism are unattainable. Rather than viewing our internal turmoils, our longings, our struggles, our thinking against oneself” as neurotic failures of self-actualization, Cioran opens the possibility of finding beauty in the chaos. Our suffering is transformed into a virtue. One recognizes something profoundly human in Cioran, something grounded in time, becoming, revolt, and the perennial struggle to give meaning to a meaningless universe.

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