“A Portrait of Civilized Man” – CIORAN

Our determination to banish the irregular, the unexpected, and the misshapen from the human landscape verges on indecency : that certain tribesmen still choose to devour their surplus elders is doubtless deplorable, but I cannot conclude that such picturesque sybarites must be exterminated; after all, cannibalism is a model closed economy, as well as a practice likely to appeal, some day, to an overpopulated planet. However, it is not my intention to bemoan the lot of the man-eaters, though they are mercilessly oppressed, though they live in terror, the great losers of today’s world. I grant the fact: their case is not necessarily an excellent one. Moreover they are dying out: a hard-pressed minority, bereft of self-confidence, incapable of pleading their own cause. Quite different is the situation of illiterates, a considerable group attached to their traditions and privileges, tyrannized with a virulence which is quite unjustified. For after all, is it an evil not to know how to read or write? In all honesty I cannot think so. As a matter of fact, I believe that when the last illiterate has vanished from the earth, we can go into mourning for man.

The interest civilized man takes in the so-called backward peoples is highly suspect. Unable to bear himself any longer, he busily unloads on them the excess evils which overwhelm him, urges them to sample his miseries, begs them to confront a destiny he can no longer face alone. Brooding over their good luck in not haying “developed,” he envies them with all the resentment of a failed desperado. What right have they to hold themselves apart, outside the process of degradation he himself has endured so long and from which he cannot manage to extricate himself? Civilization, his fabrication and his folly, seems a punishment he has inflicted on himself-now it is his turn to inflict it on those who have hitherto escaped. “Come share its calamities, be partners in my hell” – that is the meaning of his solicitude, that is the basis of his indiscretion and his zeal. Oppressed by its discontents and even more by its “benefits,” he will not rest until he has imposed them on those fortunately exempt. This was his behavior even in the days when, not yet “enlightened” nor tired of himself, he indulged his greed, his thirst for adventure and infamy. At the height of their power, the Spaniards must have felt oppressed as much by the demands of their faith as by the rigors of the Church. The Conquest was their revenge.

If you try to convert someone, it will never be to effect his salvation but to make him suffer like yourself, to be sure he is exposed to the same ordeals and endures them with the same impatience. You keep watch, you pray, you agonize-provided he does too, sighing, groaning, beset by the same tortures that are racking you. Intolerance is the work of ravaged souls whose faith comes down to a more or less deliberate torment they would like to see generalized, instituted. The happiness of others never having been a motive or principle of action, it is invoked only to appease conscience or to parade noble excuses : whenever we determine upon an action, the impulse leading to it and forcing us to complete it is almost always inadmissible. No one saves anyone; for we save only ourselves, and do so all the better if we disguise as convictions the misery we want to share, to lavish on others. However glamorous its appearances, proselytism nonetheless derives from a suspect generosity, worse in its effects than a patent aggression. No one is willing to endure alone the discipline he may even have assented to, nor the yoke he has shouldered. Vindication reverberates beneath the missionary’s bonhomie, the apostle’s joy. We convert not to liberate but to enchain.


CIORAN, E.M. “Civilized man: a portrait”, The Fall Into Time. Transl. by Richard Howard with an introduction by Charles Newman. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1970.


FULL TEXT: “A Portrait of Civilized Man“, The Hudson Review, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 1964), pp. 9-20. transl. by Marthiel Mathews.

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