Ex Nihilo Nihilism

Emil Cioran deplores decay.

Posted Dec 11, 2019

Seinfeld: What’s the show about?

Costanza: It’s about nothing.

Seinfeld: It’s about nothing?

Costanza: Absolutely nothing. Everybody is doing something. We are doing nothing.

Seinfeld: I think you may have something here.

Nihilism is an extreme form of skepticism. In its ultimate form, nihilism asserts that nothing (nihil) exists. Less extreme forms of nihilism assert that nothing can be justified or proven to exist or to be valid. In practice, it is difficult to be a rigorous nihilist for how would one justify the effort of mounting a persuasive argument for nihilism if that argument and its author do not exist either? But this is a metaphysical consideration. As a tough and more realistic form of skepticism, nihilism proves to be valuable in that it forces us to confront our most basic assumptions about existence in general and about psychology and morality in particular.

In the Western tradition it hard to find a pure nihilist. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the existentialists, and the postmodernists have expressed various nihilistic views, but all of them appear to believe in something they feel is worth sharing and promoting. Why, for example, would Kierkegaard care about Christianity, and why would Nietzsche care about inverting conventional values if these inversions are just as nihil as the conventional ones? It seems that nihilism cannot be proven and that true nihilists, ironically, cannot exist.

To my mind, the two writers who come closest to the ideal (in the descriptive sense) of nihilism are Paul Feyerabend and Emil Cioran. Feyerabend (1975) was concerned with the non-existence (and impossibility) of a normative framework for science. An evaluation of his work is a story for another day. Cioran commented on mid-century Western civilization more broadly. Here, I want to make a plug for his shocking first book, A short history of decay, published in French as Précis de decomposition in 1949. I refer to this work as shocking because I was shocked when I read it and I was shocked by the fact that it was recommended to me by a 22-year old student. Thinking along age-stereotypical lines, I figured that in order to appreciate this work one would need to be at least as old as Cioran was when he wrote it, that is, 38.

Decay is a collection of short essays, or notes rather, that are reminiscent of Nietzsche’s style, the style of some of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, and of the style of Diogenes the Cynic. Most of these essays pack their own shocking punch, but reading the book as a whole is difficult because there is no development of any particular thesis. Looking back over this non-linear flow of Cioran’s writing, the reader struggles to extract a pervasive pattern. As most of Western civilization is being rejected, one asks ‘What is left?’ Indeed, we ask ‘Why haven’t we committed suicide?’ Camus (1942) asked this very question, arguing that it was the only philosophical question of any relevance. Camus predated Cioran, but Cioran does not refer to Camus, unless I missed it. Whereas Camus ultimately concludes that Sisyphus, once he realizes the absurdity of his fate, can still be happy. Cioran cannot bring himself to accept this conclusion. We can only hope that he experienced some happiness when he was writing his book. His writing – at least we can say this – is beautiful. 

Two issues that Cioran seems attracted to are suicide and selfishness. The former is optional; the latter is obligatory.

As to suicide, Cioran takes it seriously because he takes human suffering for granted and because he asserts that “no church, no civil institution has yet invented a single argument valid against suicide” (p. 39). Yet, “religions have forbidden us to die by our own hand [because] they saw that such practices set an example of insubordination” (p. 38). Life, according to Cioran, gives rise to delusion or despair. If the former prevails, reason has been defeated by myth and mystery; if the latter prevails, suicide is a rational option “for you were born to hang yourself, like all those who disdain an answer to their doubts or an escape to their despair” (p. 157). Hope is not a solution for it “is a slave’s virtue” (p. 157).

Why did Cioran not commit suicide? He died tragically of Alzheimer’s disease, which robbed him of the capacity to make the kind of decision that would be have been worthy of his philosophy. When he was young, he reports, “Kleist, Karoline von Günderrode, Nerval, Otto Weininger . . . intoxicated [him] by their suicides” (p. 280), but again, suicide is not obligatory. “Man is provisionally exempt from suicide: that is his one glory, his one excuse. But he is not aware of it, and calls cowardice the courage of those who dare to raise themselves by death above themselves” (p. 280). Cioran thus sketches a view according to which suicide commands respect without claiming that it must be committed.

Society and its institutions keep a man (and woman) alive and in a state of suffering. Pitched against these social forces is another, and arguably more powerful, force, namely selfishness. “The man who does not adore himself is yet to be born. Everything that lives loves itself; if not, what would be the source of the dread which breaks out in the depths and on the surfaces of life?” (p. 62). If self-love gives rise to dread, it does not allow us to see ourselves realistically. “If our fellow men could be aware of our opinions about them, love, friendship, and devotion would be forever erased from the dictionaries and if we had the courage to confront the doubts we timidly conceive about ourselves, none of us would utter the ‘I’ without shame” (p. 109). Again, delusion and self-delusion are fundamental to the human condition, and “life is tolerable only by the degree of mystification we endow it with” (p. 109; italics in the original). Uncompromising, Cioran does not spare idols. The “Buddha himself, superior to all the sages, was merely fatuous on a divine scale (p. 158, italics in the original), and Jesus, Cioran claims, should have been able to foresee Torquemada (p. 176). Indeed, Jesus should have been able to foresee Paul, the “epileptic [who] triumphs over five centuries of philosophy! Reason is confiscated by the fathers of the Church!” (p. 119).

As clear as it is that Cioran deplores delusion, despair, and decay, it is less clear what he values – if anything. Is it reason, is it a heroic or tragic approach to life, or is life – ultimately – a show about nothing? As a nihilist, Cioran sets out to focus on the questions rather than the answers. His book is strong tobacco, to use a German phrase. Cioran confronts and challenges, but he does not advise. In this sense, Cioran is a psychologist and a scientist.


It's a sad and beautiful world. - Roberto - 'Call me Bob; it's the same - Benigni in Down by Law

A reader (see reply section) noted that philosopher David Benatar is an influential nihilist, whose work is more systematic, and perhaps clearer, than Cioran's. Benatar argues for antinatalism, or the idea that it is better not to be born than it is to be born. The justification for this argument is that life entails suffering and that the removal of this suffering is morally good. Conversely, the removal of pleasure is not a moral imperative of equal force, nor is the creation of pleasure. This argument, it seems to me, enables a suicidal imperative. Since the argument refers to a person's future, the location of the decision point does not matter. It could be conception, birth, or any point after that. Thus, suicide emerges as a moral imperative. The fact that most of the living find this idea abhorrent might be attributed to cognitive illusions ('I am able to increase my happiness and reduce my pain'), evolved organismic needs ('The will to live'), or moralistic prohibitions against suicide as found in many religious systems. What it is even more unsettling is the apparent implication that homicide too should be a moral mandate. If our neighbor clings to life, she does so only because of illusion, blind biological will, or submission to irrational religious demands. So we should do her the favor of killing her. Clearly, these implications are problematic Benatar provides a nuanced analysis. I highly recommend his clear-headed and humane, if pessimistic The human predicament (2017).

Benatar, D. (2017). The human predicament. New York, Oxford University Press.

Camus, A. (1955). The myth of Sisyphus and other essays. New York: Knopf. Original work published in French in 1942.

Cioran, E. M. (1975). A short history of decay. New York: Penguin. Originally published in French in 1949.

Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against method. London. NLB.


Benatar, D. (2017). The human predicament. New York, Oxford University Press.

Camus, A. (1955). The myth of Sisyphus and other essays. New York: Knopf. Original work published in French in 1942.

Cioran, E. M. (1975). A short history of decay. New York: Penguin. Originally published in French in 1949.

Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against method. London. NLB.