FIRST THINGS, May 2009
You can trace, through the history of philosophy, a line of aphorism”that odd, somewhat disreputable method of doing philosophy as a kind of bastard poetry. Maybe even as a kind of magic: truth as something to be summoned by careful incantation and the weird precision of a witch’s spell.
It starts with Heraclitus, of course, and the deliberately obscure metaphysical assertions that either began as aphorisms or, left as fragments from his lost essays, ended up that way: Time is a child moving counters in a game , and The way up and the way down are one , and We both step and do not step in the same rivers . Epicurus, perhaps, did philosophy in this epigrammatical way. Diogenes and Marcus Aurelius certainly did. And then there are all the half-lost Greeks: Sophists, ÂEpicureans, Atomists, Cynics, Skeptics, and Stoics, together with occasional Presocratics and random Neoplatonists and stray Peripatetics”the long parade of ancients whose words survive only in the scraps and slivers that make them sound like maddened masters of philosophical concision.
Revived in the Renaissance, this method of doing philosophy by dictum and adage would flower particularly among the French: the civilized Montaigne, the polished La Rochefoucauld, the God-haunted Pascal. Spinoza did a little of it, from time to time. Nietzsche’s aphorisms would raise the method to a high art form in the nineteenth century, and Wittgenstein’s zettel would return it in the twentieth century to the pure philosophical density with which it began in Heraclitus.
Interestingly, you can also trace a line of pessimism through the history of philosophy, and it would weave in and out to touch this line of aphorists at a surprising number of points. Perhaps none of them quite reach the grim perfection of Samuel Beckett’s image of existence as the brief fall from a bloody womb to a splattered death”of human life as a woman giving birth while she squats astride an open grave. But it’s there, often enough, in the senseless physical universe perceived by the ancient Cynics and Skeptics and even some of the Stoics. It’s there among the Epicureans, too, for all that they demand the pursuit of pleasure: “From the heart of the fountain of delight,” as Lucretius points out, “there rises a jet of bitterness that tortures us among the flowers.”
Strip out the passages on grace, and you can find as bleak a vision”in fact, a bleaker vision”in Christian philosophy, from St. Augustine on. “Imagine a number of men in chains, all under the sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others,” Pascal would write. “This is the image of the human condition.”
And what is much of nineteenth-century philosophical pessimism but Christianity without the possibility of redemption? “Against the palpably sophistical proofs of Leibniz that this is the best of all possible worlds,” Schopenhauer insisted, “we may oppose seriously and honestly the proof that it is the worst of all possible worlds.”
Here’s the curious thing, however: Both these lines, the aphoristic and the pessimistic, reach something like their pinnacle, their unsurpassable peak, in the works of a Romanian-born French writer named Emil Mihai Cioran. He was the greatest genius of aphorism in the history of philosophy, and he was the greatest monster of despair… [+]