“The new gods” (E. M. Cioran)

The Hudson Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, 20th Anniversary Issue (Spring, 1968), pp. 39-52. Translated by Frederick Brown.


Whoever finds it interesting to consider the unfolding pageant of irreducible ideas and beliefs would do well to fix his attention on the first centuries of the Christian era. There he will find the very model of every kind of conflict encountered, on a reduced scale, at any given moment in history. There is good reason for this: never before or since have men hated more. All due credit goes to the Christian–feverish, uncompromising, expert from the outset in the art of detesting, whereas pagans were left with only one weapon they knew how to wield: scorn. Aggressiveness is a trait the new men and new gods have in common.

9780226037103If a freakishly well-mannered person, never visited by fits of peevishness, wanted to learn how to be peevish, or at least find out what purpose it serves, the simplest thing for him to do would be to read several ecclesiastical writers, beginning with the most brilliant of the lot, Tertullian, and ending with, let’s say, the venomous but insipid Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, whose tirade against Julian the Apostate makes you want to convert to paganism on the spot. Not a single virtue is vouchsafed the Emperor: with undisguised satisfaction the author discounts his heroic death in the war against the Persians, claiming he was killed by “a barbarian, a jester by profession, who traipsed after the army to help soldiers forget the trials of war with his banter and sallies.” No elegance, no effort to appear worthy of such an adversary. What makes his attitude the more unpardonable is that he had known Julian in Athens when as young men they attended the philosophical schools.

There is nothing so loathsome as the tone assumed by defenders of a cause which, though seemingly foiled, has really gained the ascendancy; they gloat just thinking of their triumph, yet at the same time cannot help but turn their very fears into threats. When Tertullian, sardonic and quaking, describes the Last Judgment, which he calls “the grandest spectacle of all,” he imagines the last laugh he will have contemplating a heap of monarchs and gods “uttering horrible moans from the very bottom of the pit.” This compulsion to keep reminding pagans that they were doomed, they together with their idols, was enough to exasperate even the most equable minds. Christian apologetics, which is a running libel camouflaged as treatises, represents the Summum of bilious literature. It is only in the shade of worn-out divinities that one can take a free breath… [Pdf]