I had the chance to see Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel this past Thursday – he had been invited to keynote at a campus conference. Almost two decades ago I saw him speak at a convocation at Wake Forest University while I was studying there as an undergraduate, and I was mesmerized by the force of his persona and the quiet forcefulness of his address. Then, Wiesel seemed energized by President Carter’s public commitment to global human rights, and concerned to make sure that Carter’s talk wasn’t diluted in the practice of our diplomacy. While the issues remain, the locales change: shall the nation send its athletes to compete in the Soviet-hosted Olympic games, or (today) to Beijing? what is to be done about genocide in Cambodia, or (today) Darfur?
I was struck by the degree to which aphorism operates as the engine of his public address. Faced with an impossibly broad topic, I assume one of his choosing (which had him thinking aloud about the nature of a moral society and the basis of collective hope), Wiesel moved from one proverb to the next. Some are familiar to students of Wiesel – “the opposite of life is not death, but indifference,” “one can live without love, but one cannot live without hope” – and others reflect what one might consider a sort of collective folk wisdom, such as the talk’s originary idea that “a society cannot be moral but must be.”
My point is not to criticize. The elaboration of suggestive aphorisms underwrites his lectures with both a substantive profundity and serves as an invitation to deliberate on the meaning of public life and its ethical foundations. And, to be frank, they enable him to lapse into ambiguity when he finds it necessary, since the paradoxes they often express can be a retreat away from taking provocatively specific stances on issues that are important but for him a potential distraction. And while the journeys they initiate can sometimes seem to lead into dead ends (I’m not even sure what he means when he says “my main fear is that my hope not become another’s despair”), in the hands of this gifted world-historical ethical icon they never seem trite or forced.