“Possessed by Beliefs,” “Memes,” and “Mental Microbes”

According to the Rumanian philosopher/poet, E. M. Cioran, all of us are “possessed by beliefs.” Even sadder is the fact he points out that “It takes just as much effort to unseat an idol or an ideology as it does to enthrone it in the first place.” So, weʼre all apparently wasting our lives and our time. Cioran is like Ecclesiastes taken to the max. Hereʼs some quotations:

E. M. Cioran, Rumanian philosopher/poet:

"Possessed by Beliefs," "Memes," and "Mental Microbes"

In itself, every idea is neutral, or should be, but man animates ideas, projects his flames and flaws into them; impure, transformed into beliefs, ideas take their place in time, take shape as events …whence the birth of ideologies, doctrines, deadly games.

A human being possessed by a belief and not eager to pass it on to others is a phenomenon alien to the earth… Look around you: everywhere, specters preaching, each institution translates a mission; city halls have their absolute, even as the temples — officialdom, with its rules — a metaphysics designed for monkeys… Everyone trying to remedy everyoneʼs life: even beggars, even the incurable aspire to it: the sidewalks and hospitals of the world overflow with reformers. The longing to become a source of events affects each man like a mental disorder or a desired malediction. Society — an inferno of saviors! … (from “Genealogy of Fanaticism” in A Short History of Decay)

The compulsion to preach is so rooted in us that it emerges from depths unknown to the instinct for self-preservation. Each of us awaits his moment in order to propose something — anything. he has a voice: that is enough. It costs us dear to be neither deaf nor dumb…

From snobs to scavengers, all expend their criminal generosity, all hand out formulas for happiness, all try to give directions: life in common thereby becomes intolerable, and life with oneself still more so; if you fail to meddle in other peopleʼs business you are so uneasy about your own that you convert your “self” into a religion, or, apostle in reverse, you deny it altogether; we are victims of the universal game…
(from “The Anti-Prophet” in A Short History of Decay)

Consider the polemics of each age: they seem neither motivated nor necessary. Yet they were the very life of that age. Calvinism, Quakerism, Port-Royal, The Encyclopedia, the Revolution, Positivism, etc…what a series of absurdities…which had to be, what a futile and yet fatal expense! From the ecumenical councils to the controversies of contemporary politics, orthodoxies and heresies have assailed the curiosity of mankind with their irresistible non-meaning. Under various disguises there will always be pro and con, whether apropos of Heaven or the Bordello. Thousands of men will suffer for subtleties relating to the Virgin and the Son; thousands of others will torment themselves for dogmas less gratuitous but quite as improbable. All truths constitute sects which end by enduring the destiny of a Port-Royal, by being persecuted and destroyed; then, their ruins, beloved now and embellished with the halo of the inequity inflicted upon them, will be transformed into a pilgrimage-site…

It is no less unreasonable to grant more interest to the arguments around democracy and its forms than to those which took place, in the Middle Ages, around nominalism and realism: each period is intoxicated by an absolute, minor and tiresome, but in appearance unique; we cannot avoid being contemporaries of a faith, of a system, of an ideology, cannot avoid being, in short, of our time.
(from “The Decor of Knowledge” in A Short History of Decay)

The great philosophical systems are actually no more than brilliant tautologies. What advantage is it to know that the nature of being consists in the “will to live,” in the “idea,” or in the whim of God or of Chemistry? A mere proliferation of words, subtle displacements of meanings. What is loathes the verbal embrace, and our inmost experience reveals us nothing beyond the privileged and inexpressible moment.
(from “Farewell to Philosophy” in A Short History of Decay)

Ideologies were invented only to give a luster to the leftover barbarism which has survived down through the ages, to cover up the murderous tendencies common to all men. Today we hate and kill in the name of something; we no longer dare do so spontaneously; so that the very executioners must invoke motives, and, heroism being obsolete, the man who is tempted by it solves a problem more than he performs a sacrifice. Abstraction has insinuated itself into life — and into death; the “complexes” seize great and small alike. From the Iliad to psychopathology — there you have all of human history.
(from “Faces of Decadence” in A Short History of Decay)

Also, decades before Richard Dawkins spied his first “meme” (check out www.memecentral.com), the British author and wit, Logan Pearsall Smith, wrote about “mental microbes”:

But how is one to keep free from those mental microbes that worm-eat peopleʼs brains - those Theories and Diets and Enthusiasms and infectious Doctrines that we catch from what seem the most innocuous contacts? People go about laden with germs; they breath creeds and convictions on you as soon as they open their mouths. Books and newspapers are simply creeping with them - the monthly Reviews seem to have room for little else. Wherewithal then shall a young man cleanse his way; how shall he keep his mind immune to Theosophical speculations, and novel schemes of Salvation? Can he ever be sure that he wonʼt be suddenly struck down by the fever of Funeral or of Spelling Reform, or take to his bed with a new Sex Theory?
(from “Microbes” in All Trivia)

At The Club by Logan Pearsall Smith

“Itʼs the result of Board School Education—”
“Itʼs the popular Press—”
“Itʼs the selfishness of the Working Classes—”
“Itʼs the Cinema—”
“Itʼs the Jews—”
“Paid Agitators!—”
“The decay of Faith—”
“The disintegration of Family Life—”
“I put it down,” I said, “to Sun-Spots. If you want to know,” I went inexorably on, “if you ask me the cause of all this modern Unrest—”

Whatʼs Wrong

They talked of satiety and disenchantment, of the wintry weather, of illness, of Age and Death.

“But what really frightens me most in life,” said one of them, “what give me a kind of vertigo or shiver, is — it sounds absurd, but itʼs simply the horror of space — the dismay of Infinity, the black abysses in the Milky Way, the silence of those eternal spaces.”

“But Time,” said another of the group, “surely Time is a worse nightmare. Think of it! the Past with never a beginning, the Future going on for ever and ever, and the little Present in which we live, twinkling for a second, between those abysses.”

“Whatʼs wrong with me,” mused the third speaker, “is that even the Present eludes me. I donʼt know what it really is; I can never catch the moment as it passes; I am always far ahead or far away behind, and always somewhere else. I am not really here now with you. My life is all reminiscence and anticipation — if you can call it life, if I am not rather a kind of ghost, haunting a past that has ceased to exist, or a future that is still more shadowy. Itʼs kind of ghastly in a way, this exile and isolation. But why speak of it, after all?”


“Self-determination,” one of them insisted.
“Arbitration!” cried another.
“Co-operation?” suggested the mildest of the party.
“Confiscation!” answered an uncompromising female.
I, too, became slightly intoxicated by the sound of these vocables. And were they not the cure for all our ills?
“Inebriation!” I chimed in, “Inundation, Afforestation, Flagellation, Transubstantiation, Co-education, Co-operation!”

There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end:
Bribery and corruption are common.
Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.
- Message found on a clay table from Assyria, written approximately 2800 B.C.

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