Leon Wieseltier: 'The Wise, Too, Shed Tears'

One of the greatest satisfactions in the history of philosophy is the inconsistency, even the hypocrisy, of the Stoics. For as long as I have studied them, I have quarreled with them. Like the late Tolstoy, they get into your head. The Stoics were meticulous students of human breakability and raised it into a subject for philosophy. Nobody in the West ever pondered more rigorously the actualities of pain. The integrity of their ideal – tranquility of mind achieved by the stilling of strong feelings – is incontrovertible. Who lives too serenely?….

Leon Wieseltier: ‘The Wise, Too, Shed Tears’

How close to the world can one be? How far from the world should one be? Those questions represent two mentalities, two doctrines — the aspiration to nearness, the suspicion of nearness; engagement as a form of strength, engagement as a form of weakness; the hunger for reality, the horror of reality; the nobility of belonging, the nobility of alienation. We begin with the world and we end with it, and we spend our mortal interval ascertaining what to do about the relation, and how to get it right. There are some who draw close because they seek pleasure, or because they seek pain; there are some who fear pain, or fear pleasure, and pull away. Charity, and moral action, demands proximity, but proximity also narrows and deceives and corrupts – and immoral action requires it, too.

Beauty enchants, and absorbs, and overwhelms, but it is not obvious that the dissolution of the self is its highest fulfillment, or that sublimity is our best level. And love – does anything imperil the heart more? Love, the commonplace miracle, is the cradle of anxiety; its fragility casts a shadow over the very happiness that it confers. The truly happy man, it would seem, is the man who lives only in the present and alone, which is to say, the man who is without a father or a mother, a son or a daughter, a lover or a spouse or a friend, which is to say, almost no man, really. A man with a memory is hardly alone. Even solitariness is a kind of social relation, which may be refined into solitude. The world comes with terms…


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