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Thursday, February 27, 2014

the moraliste and the ethicist

Here’s a couple of sentences from Cioran’s Thinking against Oneself: “Assaulted by the malediction attached to actions, the violent man only forces his nature, only goes beyond himself, in order to return furious, as an aggressor, trailed by his enterprises, which come to punish him for his having instigated  them. No work fails to turn against its author: the poem will crush the poet, the system the philosopher, the event the man of action.”
This is the voice of a moraliste. A moraliste is an expert in generalizations that are rooted in his exacerbated sense of the world as a place where he tests himself, and fails – taking each failure as a mark left by the world on his hide, and worth studying for that reason. The ethicist, on the other hand, is an expert in generalizations that are, ideally, not suppose to make contact with his personality at all. From the ethicist’s point of view, the moraliste is carelessly and unforgiveably unconcerned with the truth of his generalizations, and is thus an untrustworthy and perverse guide to conduct. For the moraliste, the ethicist derives truths from cases that are so thin and so abstract, so lacking human meat and gusto, as to be caricatures. There is no investigative surprise in such work: it has the quality of fables composed by a bureaucracy.

The moraliste’s problem with the truth is that a too close adherence to it – which presumes success in its pursuit and capture – creates mere sententiousness; while a too intense sensitivity to the failure to discover the truth leads to unending paradox. Both sentiousness and a too facile way with paradox lead to tedium – primarily, in the life of the moraliste himself. Cioran, who began his literary career as a partisan of fascism and an admirer of Hitler and apparently changed his mind in 1940, when he managed to migrate from Romania to France, was the violent man whose work turned against him. And in the work he did after that repentence, the work for which he is known, the work in French, the tension is always between the feeling that fascism gave him – which he identified with youth and energy – and the feeling that the repentence gave him – which he identified with old age and nihilism. Thus, his life and work was an endless political cold turkey. The leveling impulse, as he saw it, of the ethicist who dismisses exhilaration and elevates the rules, enraged him, for that way lead to the crippling of high spirits and the impulses, generous or horrible, of life; and at the same time he had visible proof that the only social order he could really live in either had to cage hatred, violence, bigotry, and hysteria or collapse.    

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