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On What Reef Wisdom Founders

What is our insomnia but the mad obstinacy of our mind in manufacturing thoughts and trains of reasoning, syllogisms and definitions of its own, refusing to abdicate in favor of that divine stupidity of closed eyes, or the wise folly of dreams.


But books lie, even those that are most sincere. The less adroit, for lack of words and phrases wherein they can enclose life, retain of it but a flat and feeble likeness. Some, like Lucan, make it heavy, and encumber it with a solemnity which it does not possess; others, on the contrary, like Petronius, make life lighter than it is, like a hollow, bouncing ball, easy to toss to and fro in a universe without weight. The poets transport us into a world which is vaster and more beautiful than our own, with more ardor and sweetness, different therefore, and in practice almost uninhabitable. The philosophers, in order to study reality pure, subject it to about the same transformations as fire or pestle make substance undergo: nothing that we have known of a person or of a fact seems to subsist in those ashes or those crystals to which they are reduced.


A part of every life, even a life meriting very little regard, is spent in searching out the reasons for its existence, its starting point, and its source. My own failure to discover these things has sometimes inclined me toward magical explanations, and has led me to seek in the frenzies of the occult for what common sense has not taught me. When all the involved calculations prove false, and the philosophers themselves have nothing more to tell us, it is excusable to turn to the random twitter of birds, or toward the distant mechanism of the stars.


I should say outright that I have little faith in laws. If too severe, they are broken, and with good reason. If too complicated, human ingenuity finds means to slip easily between the meshes of this trailing but fragile net. Respect for ancient laws answers to what is deepest rooted in human piety, but it serves also to pillow the inertia of judges. The oldest codes are a part of that very savagery which they were striving to correct; even the most venerable among them are the product of force. Most of our punitive laws fail, perhaps happily, to reach the greater part of the culprits; our civil laws will never be supple enough to fit the immense and changing diversity of facts. Laws change more slowly than custom, and though dangerous when they fall behind the times are more dangerous still when they presume to anticipate custom. And nevertheless from that mass of outworn routines and perilous innovations a few useful formulas have emerged here and there, just as they have in medicine. The Greek philosophers have taught us to know something more of the nature of man; our best jurists have worked for generations along lines of common sense. I have myself effected a few of those partial reforms which are the only reforms that endure. Any law too often subject to infraction is bad; it is the duty of the legislator to repeal or to change it, lest the contempt into which that rash ruling has fallen should extend to other, more just legislation. I proposed as my aim a prudent avoidance of superfluous decrees, and the firm promulgation, instead, of a small group of well-weighed decisions. The time seemed to have come to evaluate anew all the ancient prescriptions in the interest of mankind.


and what is the act of love, itself, if not a moment of passionate attention on the part of the body?

—Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick

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