Leon Wieseltier

Leon WieseltierSometimes you encounter someone who seems to really hit the nail on the head in terms of how they see the world. The brilliance of these moments is that — especially if you tend to be a social outlier — you’re given the gift of knowing you’re not alone. There are people who not only see the world as you do, but see it even more clearly and intelligently than you ever could.

Leon Wieseltier appeared on The Colbert Report last Tuesday (Oct 7), and I was so blown away by his words that I kept rewinding and rewinding so I could write it all down and record here what he said.

I was especially impressed by his ten-word critique of modern society!

magazineWieseltier is a philosopher, writer and critic. He’s been the literary editor of The New Republic magazine since 1983, and he was the guest on The Colber(t) Repor(t) to plug a book, Insurrections of the Mind, a collection of essays from the magazine.

Colbert asked him early in the interview if he had a critique of modern culture, and Wieseltier replied that he did, but it was “very elaborate.”

Colbert challenged him to state it in ten words and — mind-blowingly — Wieseltier did just that. For my money, totally nailed it. Here’s what he said:

“Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.”

ten words

Ten words! Awesome!!

Wow; that’s some serious genius going on there! Colbert was as impressed as I was.

And how many times have I written here about those first two clauses — particularly the latter.

If this blog had a central underlying theme, it would be about the importance of critical thinking — something that seems sorely lacking far too often.

Wieseltier later went on to explain why critical thinking was so important:

“A democratic society, an open society, places an extraordinary intellectual responsibility on ordinary men and women, because we are governed by what we think, we are governed by our opinions. So the content of our opinions, and the quality of our opinions, and the quality of the formation of our opinions, basically determines the character of our society.”

bookThere is a crucial point at the beginning that bears repeating: Living in an open and democratic society does create a burden of intellectual responsibility on everyone.

Because we all have a voice, our opinions shape our world.

Another part that really resonated with me was the clauses about, not just the quality and content of our opinions, but the quality of how we go about forming them.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not all opinions are entitled to be taken seriously.

For example, climate change deniers are entitled to their opinion, but the quality and content of that opinion is demonstrably absurd and cannot be taken seriously by any intelligent person who’s actually looked at any of the data. The manner in which climate change denier opinions are formed is intellectually defective.


Maybe it’s just me, but Colbert seems more relaxed and somehow happier these days.

Corrupt politicians can (and do) spend millions trying to sway your opinion, but if you are educated and capable of critical analysis, all that money goes down the drain.

We complain endlessly about government, but despite all the power that money seems to have, “we the people” can still change things.

If — and only if — we are smart enough to realize when we’re being fooled.

Which is not to say that intelligent, educated people can’t look at the world differently and want it run differently. But an honest opposition of values and views is not what’s happening today. The current environment is one of polarized views and manufactured conflict.

And we the people are losing in every way possible.

Wieseltier sums up the problem of not paying attention rather pointedly:

“And that means that in a democratic society, in an open society, a thoughtless citizen of a democracy is a delinquent citizen of a democracy.”

Indeed. Stamp out delinquency!

Later in the interview Wieseltier makes an important point about the heart (feelings) and the mind (thoughts):

“Human life is never going to suffer from too little feeling. We all feel all the time. We’re mortal creatures; we have hearts.”

Brain BubbleAs I have pointed out here and in various blog comments, feelings are the easy part.

Even animals have feelings.

It’s the mind that raises us above them (and, yes, cultivating and nurturing your mind is harder, but as mentioned above you have a responsibility to do so).

The problem with feelings is that they can deceive us and lead us into error (and temptation). As Wieseltier continues to say:

“The role of the mind is to actually question some of the assumptions and dogmas and prejudices of the heart.”

It’s very common for people to talk about the importance of feelings, particularly of empathy and compassion. These are necessary emotions! Wieseltier himself says that, if we were just brains, or just hearts, we would be monsters.

But we are both.

And that allows us to ground our feelings in rationality (which is different from pure logic, by the way).

Finally, Wieseltier explains why the combination is so necessary:

“The important thing is that we have reasons for those beliefs, and that we articulate those reasons, and that we can defend them.”

[Incidentally, the emphasis in the quotes is mine. You can watch the interview at Colbert Nation to see if I respected his intent. I believe I did.]

fireplaceOn a final note, perhaps it’s just me, or perhaps it’s somehow related to the imminent end of the show, but The Colber(t) Repor(t) has seemed much more enjoyable to me recently.

I wrote a while back that it came in second compared to The Daily Show, but lately they’ve been neck-and-neck.

I still love The Daily Show as much as I always have, so either I’ve mellowed on the aspects of Colbert that (very slightly) annoyed me, or he’s toned it down somehow.

It’s the interviews I usually had the most problem with, and I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve seen for weeks now.

NC mottoTwo last comments. Colbert has a fireplace above which are the Latin words: “Videri Quam Esse.

I looked it up, and the usual phrase is “Esse quam videri” — “To be, rather than to seem (to be).”

According to Google Translate, the reversed version translates as: “How to be seen.” Cute!

It turns out to be the official motto of the state of North Carolina. And while Stephen Colbert was born in Washington, D.C., his TV persona, Colber(t), claims South Carolina as his home (and Colbert, the real person, did grow up in Charleston). Not sure if there is meant to be a connection there or not.

Lastly, the new Robert Plant album, Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar, sounds delicious!

I most love music with strong rhythm and melody! Plant was the guest last Thursday (Oct. 9) and performed a couple cuts off the album. Check it out!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

30 responses to “Leon Wieseltier

  • reocochran

    You know I was just talking about Patty Griffin, including Robert Plant’s input and collaboration with some of her music on a post! Then I had a dialogue with someone, found out, investigated that they ‘broke up.’ The song, “House of Love,” (on Robert Plant’s album) is written due to their breakup. You may wish to listen to Patty Griffin’s album mentioned on my quartet post, she is more Texan, of course… I discovered her a couple years back on “Austin City Limits.” It is strange how we connect and disconnect, isn’t it? Smiles for the fun we share at times. Thanks, W.S. for being there when my blog was new, too.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’m not usually super big on Country or Western, but there have been a few that I’ve found I liked — typically rock cross-overs of some kind. I have three of Lucinda Williams’ albums, and I’m a definite fan of Little Big Town (who are a strongly Fleetwood Mac-influenced country rock band). I’ll add Patty Griffin to the list of people to check out — I’m guessing I can find her on YouTube.

      Yeah, you and I are two of the few still standing among those bloggers I know who started around the time we did. Your blog obviously has connected with many — I’m a more difficult taste to acquire, no doubt! 🙂

  • Doobster418

    Great post, Wyrd. I, too, thoroughly enjoyed that Colbert interview with Leon Wieseltier. The guy impressed me in the same way he did you. I record both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on my DVR each night (because I can no longer stay awake that late) and watch them the next day. Like you, I watched that interview multiple times (although I didn’t transcribe the content). I was so impressed with Wieseltier, what he had to say, and the way he said it. And, like you (and Colbert) I was quite astounded at his off-the-cuff, succinct, 10-word, critique of modern culture. Remarkable.

    I am a fan of both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and I’m going to so miss Stephen Colbert when he leaves his show. I wish him well as Letterman’s replacement, but it’s not going to be the same. He’s so good at being Stephen Colbert, the pundit.

    I agree with you about Robert Plant, as well. And I’m envious of his hair.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Wieseltier’s (centrist) hair is a completely different matter! 🙂

      What I’d like to know about those ten words is, did he just wing it and happened to nail it, or does his mind really work that clearly and that rapidly? What I mean is, was he hoping to be (about) ten words, or is he that good? I’m in awe of minds that work that fast — I know mine isn’t!

      I kind of tired of Letterman years ago. Even Ferguson got old, and I liked him a lot more than Letterman. (I just don’t care much for the robot, and I actively dislike the whole “horse” thing. Cheap laughs.) It’ll be very, very interesting to see what Colbert does at the helm of The Late Show!

      I think Plant’s new album is my next iTunes purchase!

  • Doobster418

    Yes, Wieseltier’s hair is definitely another matter. I sometimes wonder if some of the things Colbert asks might have been set up in advance. But I don’t think this was because Colbert seemed genuinely surprised that Wieseltier responded in precisely 10 words. And yes, I wonder if his mind is that sharp and that quick that he nailed it exactly. Way beyond what my puny mind could do. I could probably write a blog post critiquing modern society, but it would take me at least 750 words; probably more.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’ve wondered the same thing about pre-arranged questions. I think most talk show hosts, either themselves or through their “people,” often do select topics of import. Maybe not specific questions, but general areas? I agree, Colbert seemed quite surprised and very delighted at his answer. If he was faking it, it was a very good fake.

      I mean, he counted out the words (and you could hear people in the audience had figured it out and beginning to react) and Colbert even had to ask Wieseltier to repeat the last clause. That almost seems too much to have been a fake, so I’m gonna go with “It was real” for $200.

  • dianasschwenk

    As usual, you have given me a lot to chew on. I like the notion that if we were all mind or all heart we’d be monsters. I agree that the heart and mind work together and are indeed both needed; otherwise why would we have both?
    Diana xo

  • Hariod Brawn

    Interesting article W.S.; though unfortunately the The Colbert Report won’t allow me to view their videos here in England. I’ll go onto YouTube as I dare say there’ll be stuff on Wieseltier there.

    I never quite gelled with the Led Zeppelin blend of musical styles, and I think that Robert Plant continues to have a similar melding of influences in his own material. I did, however, once buy a great guitar off Jimmy Page.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Cool! Very cool!! (And music, like humor, is extremely a matter of personal taste. I don’t often admit it, but Neil Diamond — up to, and including, the Beautiful Noise album — is still a favorite artist of mine. Not tops anymore, but my earliest introductions to rock were the soft, safer artists (I had a sheltered childhood): Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Diamond,… even (and this one makes me shudder now) Bob Denver.

      Sorry about the video. I’m surprised Colbert Nation wouldn’t support viewers in the UK. Now I’m particularly glad I made the effort to write down the best parts of Wieseltier said.

      • Hariod Brawn

        I think Neil Diamond’s well on the right side of the cool/uncool divide; so you’re musical sensibilities remain highly creditable in my book W.S. A lady who used to do my accounts was besotted with him and once paid a fortune to buy a sweaty shirt of his at a charity auction. Quite what she did with it I dared not ask, though she did tell me she had recurrent dreams about her sleeping in a bed between sheets of carbon paper (you remember that stuff?). There’s ‘nowt so queer as folk’ as they say up in Yorkshire. My own early influences weren’t too embarrassing I don’t think, though my bodily impulses arising from the listening thereof almost certainly would have been something like this:

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I admire someone able to enjoy themselves like that in public! Very cool!!

        And I totally remember carbon paper, but I’ve never dreamed about it (nor bought anyone’s sweaty shirt).

      • Hariod Brawn

        My book-keeper’s carbon paper fetish was of course a by-product of her profession – everything in triplicate when it comes to money.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m a big believer in “in triplicate” when it comes to beer… or shots…

        “One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor!”

  • Hariod Brawn

    Oh shame, that video seems to be playing back without the soundtrack. The lass syncs up exquisitely when you can hear it. Maybe there’s a DRM issue in the States or something? Apologies.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I seem to have fixed it. I removed the “playlist” part of the URL, and now there’s sound for the clip! Why removing the playlist would do anything… [shrug]

      • Hariod Brawn

        Oh fantastic, you really are a wizard, a true star W.S. And I agree with your comment about the dancing queen; there’s something rather beautiful about her lack of self-consciousness. I find that video quite spell-binding, and think the guy who put it together is a bit of a genius. If you listen really carefully to the synth fills, you’ll see her hands make little flourishes in time with them. And of course, no-one knows exactly what she was listening to, though it’s very unlikely to have been the dubbed soundtrack of ‘Waiting all night’. Thanks for fixing the gremlin W.S.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, that was a really nice piece of music and image synchronization. I knew the video maker couldn’t know what she was listening to, and it was amazing how well her moves matched some musical flourishes.

        That said, the mind “fills in some of it.” Quite a few years ago, at a party, a bunch of us put the supposed myth about Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz (which happened to air that night) to the test.

        We found there were places where we all went, “Oh, that was eerie!!” There are points where the connection seems unmistakable. But in general the match isn’t that great.

        But here’s the kicker. Once we got bored of watching Dorothy and Toto, we switched channels, but left the Floyd album playing.

        And random TV and commercials also have points where the connection between image and music is downright eerie.

        I realized then how much of it is your brain making those connections. There’s an ink-blot character to it all. If you re-watch that video with that in mind, you might see what I mean.

        But it’s still a really cool video clip! 😀

      • Hariod Brawn

        Absolutely W.S., the mind incessantly searches out patterns and accommodates perception of them so as to ‘stretch’ actuality to fit its purposes so to speak – the Rorschach effect you allude to. It’s perhaps why you still look 35 when you stare at your face in the mirror – you do, right? Whether the fella who put the video together was aware of this phenomenon or not I’ve no idea, though art, as artists so often seem to say, is largely in the discovery of ‘mistakes’. My use of the word ‘genius’ in respect to the video author was hyperbolic of course; he’s probably just a DJ with a bit of a knack for synchronicity, and as far as I can tell, there’s no time-shifting of audio or frame manipulation of video going on.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh, I only wish I saw a 35-year-old in the mirror, but I know what you mean. The human mind is an amazing pattern-seeking machine. It’s why we see familiar shapes in clouds, and I think it’s part of why a campfire or ocean or forest can fascinate us hours on end. The random patterns in those things never quite resolve into things we can identify, and seeking those patterns amid the always similar — but never quite the same — images is captivating. Computer-generated fractals can have that same attractiveness.

        Interesting point about ‘mistakes’ and art. I once wrote a blog article about how a key aspect of art, in contrast with many sectors of life, is about ‘breaking the rules‘ (whereas day-to-day life requires we follow many rules in order to avoid killing each other). It sounds like you’re talking about much the same thing — metaphorically coloring outside the lines.

      • Hariod Brawn

        You’ll have to get used to my constant exaggeration wyrd one; I do it all the time, I mean like a million times a day. What I meant was that you see a 40 year-old in the mirror; two of them if you’ve had a skinful – do Americans use that term over there, or just declare themselves as being ‘tired and emotional’? Anyhow, I’m heading over now to check out your piece on rule-breaking.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh! “Tired and emotional” is, I believe, a uniquely UK code. We’re much less subtle over here. “Skinful” is, perhaps, more from our era than the younger folks’, but known here.

        Shall I dub thee, Hyperbolic Hariod? XD

      • Hariod Brawn

        Yes, that name sounds fine. I’m always talking bolics. 😉

      • Wyrd Smythe

        LOL – really! That’s a good one!

  • reocochran

    I am from a family of debaters and analyzers, unfortunately we may not always qualify as critical thinkers. I do know my youngest brother and I are the sensitive ones, my artist brother is more of an agnostic, pragmatist and he is in charge of ‘pulling’ any of the rest of our plugs! ha ha!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      An agnostic, pragmatic artist! What kind of art does he do? (Not religious icons, I would assume. 🙂 )

      “Pulling your plugs?” You mean, if you were on life support? That is pragmatic!! o_O

  • Leon Wieseltier on what it means to be human as we navigate in modern times - Wayward Blogging

    […] to express. Regardless, very interesting man to listen to, brought across my radar by my online pal Wyrd Smythe’s blog. Check it out […]

  • Quotes and Quips | Logos con carne

    […] have many, many times referred to Leon Wieseltier and his off-the-cuff ‘do it in ten words’ response to Stephen Colbert’s challenge […]

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