In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the character Tomas is an inveterate womanizer, a man who takes notes on the particular physical differences, however minute, of the women he seduces. He is light, and free, and must find some difference to be able to distract himself from the boredom of it all. One of his conquests, the naive Tereza, manages to spend the night with him, although he had never spent the night with a lover, as it was one of his cardinal rules that he “should exclude all love from his life.” And here she was, asleep, holding his hand, linking herself to him, clutching on, weighing him down, and “an aura of hitherto unknown happiness” finds him. So much so that they both begin to look forward to sleeping together, of sharing a bed and invariably holding hands; the narrator says, in a poignant line, that “I might even say that the goal of their lovemaking was not so much pleasure as the sleep that followed it.”

He’s happy as he loses his lightness, as he becomes heavy, and real.

But is it worth it? Kundera opens the book by referencing Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal return and its heaviness, asking if heaviness or lightness is preferable.

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground.… The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

As I look at the way we are now, I see a people who wish to be light, free from the weightiness of responsibility, limits, duties. We want sex without fertility, food without calories, endless consumer goods without (observable) environmental degradation, religion without law, divorce without fault, mobility without loneliness, bodies without aging, entertainments without limits. We want our freedoms to be endless and without cost, allowing us to float free from now this to now that, casting off identities and  responsibilities like old clothes discarded.

Of course, to those who are unbearably light, nothing is more repugnant than weight, but we are in our very natures called to weightiness, for we are moral agents, responsible for all.

Whether you think of the text as Holy Writ or mere literature of the past, the early chapters of Genesis indicate to us with bracing clarity the choice before us now. The human emerges from the dirt and yet is somehow responsible for the dirt, capable of tending, keeping, filling, and ordering the very dirt from which he is. The human is told to build, till, improve, cultivate–to husband (in the old sense) the cosmos as its responsible priest. And yet he is to exercise this creativity within the limits of fidelity, for he is steward and not Creator, always dependent, and obligated to be responsible.

How will we make our world and ourselves? Will be we unbearably free, infinitely light, using our creative capacities to cast off our responsible nature and soar into the beyond? Or will we be heavy, using our skill to tie ourselves into the loam from which we came, hoping to be faithful to obligation, duty, and the task of responsibility? Will the tapestry we weave have substance, or just the play of newness, with the shuttle undoing all that has been created before?

I want to be heavy. I want my children to be heavy. I want my life to be one of creative fidelity, finding new ways to be obligated and woven into the fabric of the world and the lives of my lover, my children, my neighbors, and friends.

And yet, weight is difficult to bear, especially for those of us weaned in an age of the insufferably light.

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R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell lives and gardens (or at least watches his children garden) just outside of Philadelphia in Havertown, a place where Sinatra, baseball games, and cigar smoke waft from his neighbors' porches onto his own. If Philadelphia had colder and longer winters, as this Canadian thinks natural and fitting, it would be almost perfect. The fact that his four children and wife live there (almost) redeems the overly warm weather. He directs the philosophy program at Eastern University, in St. Davids, PA. He also co-directs the Agora Insitute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good, a research center devoted to understanding and sustaining the virtues and institutions of human flourishing. The author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God's-Eye View, and the forthcoming (with Steve Cone) Authentic Cosmopolitanism, he writes and teaches on Thomas Aquinas and contemporary Thomism, Bernard Lonergan, natural law, decent life, and the liberal arts.


  1. Be specific. FPR publishes dozens of essays of this “O Tempora, O Mores” whine, without ever stating flatly one identified thing to which the writer objects. “Food without calories?” Do you mean we want to eat something that tastes good without becoming obese? That could mean advocating for more farmer’s markets selling really fresh fruits and vegetables, more safe bike lanes, better meals and exercise programs in elementary school, or it could be a vague expression of irritation that contemporary life doesn’t punish everyone with misery, and that those of us who are not wealthy white males can actually have a moment of life without misery. My money is on the latter sentiment.

    Please, stop the airy-fairy musings, state a position on something that the reader can identify and present evidence supporting your position.

  2. “Food without calories” … wishing misery on the world. Where’s the middle term here? Maybe it is because I am a white male (I am certainly not wealthy), but I do not follow – and neither does your derogatory ad hominem outburst.

    The point here is not to take a stand on particular social issues. Rather, this piece takes a stand on the philosophical problem of identity and selfhood in a world that values freedom from commitments and from obligations. That is no mere cultural criticism complete with statistics or other data to back it up, it is metaphysics with an existential bent – the sort of discourse from which concrete social implications and rational cultural criticism naturally flow. But first thing is first: a philosophical anthropology that challenges the modern shibboleth of the radical sovereignty of the individual.

    That said, if you want to pick Professor Snell’s brain on particular social matters, I can assure you that you will scarcely find another academic philosopher whose thinking on contemporary issues is as thorough, consistent, and well-articulated. It’s just that conveying any such opinion was not the point of this article.

  3. Who gets to impose obligations and commitments? They don’t simply fall out of the sky, do they? This is no analysis of anything; it’s a soft-headed rant about how much modern life sucks because we allow ourselves to make our own mistakes instead of having to endure the mistakes of our ancestors quite as severely. If children move away from their parents, maybe the parents should examine how they treated their kids and why the kids want to escape, instead of wailing about how no one does their chores anymore.

  4. Some of us don’t want any religion at all; laws based on “This is just the way it is, so shut up!” are tyranny. If I wanted to get a glipse of these “heavy” societies, I could look at the Balkans or Iran or Latin America or the Middle East or Africa or pretty much anywhere outside the northwest of Europe and the “lighter” parts of North America and Australia/NZ-where people from the “blessed”/heavy world keep trying to move. Apparently “heaviness” is better observed than lived.

  5. It’s a difficult thing to determine when the grass is greener on the other side, only because it’s the other side, versus when it is indeed greener. Surely the author doesn’t mean to suggest that heaviness comes from “This is just the way it is, so shut up” or from mandates “from the sky.” If he does, he has not reasoned well about the greenness of the grass. It would seem, therefore, that the point of the “ambiguity” (i.e. the lack of specificity, as Karen rightly noted) is due not to laziness, ignorance, wealth, or ethnicity, but rather because the piece intends to raise metaphysical and existential questions that readers are to think for themselves about. Were the author to legislate on farmer’s markets, he would then fall victim to the criticisms of Nixon’s minion.

    But he has not. He has simply provided readers with a suggestion for their next book group and asked them to examine their lives, individually and culturally.

  6. “This is no analysis of anything; it’s a soft-headed rant”

    Given your blatant misunderstanding of the post, the soft-headedness seems to lie somewhere other than with Mr. Snell.

  7. The chimerical unity of weight/lightness is revealed in the phenomenon of gravity: do we have the ability to move because of weight or lightness? Neither/both.

    Do I push or pull the steering wheel? Neither/both.

    Is freedom what we were (actuality) or what we might be (potentiality)? Neither/both.

  8. If by “creative fidelity” you mean “fidelity to the Creator or to His creation”, then, yes, I dig what you’re saying. We is creatures all of us. The only problem I have with the “lightness” metaphor, because it implies “rising”, whereas I picture the opposite direction.

  9. Bravo sir! As there are immutable laws that govern the realm of physics and mathematics, so too, the subject of man.Yet, man is strange phenomena since he can violate his nature. But of course, the mythology of modernity is that there is no human nature to violate: there is no burden or responsibility. Every authority is labeled tyranny, even the authority of nature. There is no purpose and consequently no failure. Just action without consequence. We have murdered the very nature of man. Who will wipe the blood from our hands?

  10. This article changed my life. I don’t know who I’d be had I not read this. I’m not trying to be over-dramatic, it’s just true. This is one of the pieces that taught me how to be happy. This fellow and Wendell Berry, and of course the Beatitudes. I wish this was required reading in high school courses.

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