Tribute to a late mentor: How a teacher activated philosophy

The spirit of my teacher exhorts me to be an activist for balance and moderation. I hope many others will join in this.

MEMORIES OF a mentor from college. (photo credit: REUTERS)
MEMORIES OF a mentor from college.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
My undergraduate professor of Greek and one-time academic adviser in classics, William Mullen, died very suddenly earlier this month, and his passing sent me reeling toward greater urgency in the work I do every day guiding students in philosophy, literature and writing.
I say that without exaggeration or hyperbole.
Although my eventual scholarship ended up being broader than classics per se, from my sophomore year through the first half of my fall semester as a senior, my concentration in ancient Greek language and texts shoved me out of bed at 4 a.m. to vie with homework made up of the original periodic sentences of Demosthenes, punning and incantatory and keening piles of half-lines that form Homer’s epics, and the cadences and ideas of Sappho, and Meleager, and Herodotus, and Thucydides. And Plato and Aristotle, and many more. Bill was an endlessly thoughtful and purposeful coach, mentor and guide to this stuff.
One autumn morning at Bard College in upstate New York in 1988, 29 years ago this month, I was mentally sawing through Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the dining commons with a lexicon, grammar and a little half-forbidden decoder book of ancient verbs, Tutti Verbi Greci, between mouthfuls of granola. Arriving at class mostly prepared, the vexing, militant discipline I needed to get through the course pushed out of me almost involuntarily the kind of question my own students ask me today: “What makes Aristotle so important?” Mullen – who was known for dressing conservatively out of respect for both his subject matter and his students – replied with hardly a pause, “I think he’s the most intelligent human being who ever lived.”
I’ll never forget that statement. It struck me about as hard as news of Bill’s death did a few weeks ago. A life-changing sentence. A challenge, blessing, curse and invitation all at once.
Shortly after this news I found myself telling my own students in the Western philosophy survey course I teach that as the years go by, I am increasingly amazed at how much Aristotle’s appraisal that true virtue is the middle way (Mesótēs estín hē aretē) between the extremes of excess (áriston) and lack (phaulótēs) steers many of my decisions throughout the day. I think this is something that came from poring over these writings with students year in and out. For his own part, Aristotle was humble about his framework for ethics, calling it a “rough sketch” that would “hold for the most part.”
Bard College, my undergraduate alma mater, preserves the Oxbridge tutorial model, in which students are mentored by professors, one-on-one or in small groups of no more than five or six at most, in just under half its courses. Bill came to Bard (where he turned the classics department into a flourishing one) in the mid-1980s after previously teaching at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland – a school which, like Bard, is rooted in both the tutorial model and the Great Books approach, in which students encounter the entirety of classic texts as the core of their education. This close mentoring combined with lecture-discussion has proven itself to me to be a good way to help students navigate the relationship between a personal and individualized path through life and a shared community unfolding in real time that demands well-tuned psychosocial skills.
Another decisive moment for me working with Mullen was a conversation in which he challenged my perception of myself as someone resigned to the idea that his writing far outpaced an ability in public speaking.
“Why do you accept that status quo? Any strong writer can be a strong speaker, too.
Why don’t you aim for both?” Judging from how insistent I am these days on including public speaking as a key piece of each of my courses, I can’t help but conclude that it was Bill Mullen’s living example as a model mentor and enthusiastic orator in a polis –the ancient Greek model of a community both metaphysical and social-political in nature – that shaped this ever-growing priority. My goal each day is to hold a candle, at least, to the example provided by Bill and my other mentors.
The best teaching, one could argue, is a sort of time release capsule. It may pack its medicinal punch days, months, or years after a lecture or discussion. I realize now, nearly three decades after leaving Bard, that Bill shaped much of the core of my thinking – as both a person and teacher – in ways I never realized. At Bard, historically a place where largely left-wing thought has held sway (this is somewhat less true today), Bill was the exception. Over the years he fostered a fruitful teaching exchange with the United States Military Academy at West Point, and four years ago, it was his great honor to serve for two semesters as a distinguished visiting professor at the United States Air Force Academy.
I come from a family with elements of both Sixties activism and the military, and only very recently has it dawned on me how Aristotle’s middle way has helped me sort out all of these disparate threads. And Bill’s – Bill’s middle way.
The puzzle pieces come together. Because Mullen never hit students over the head with his own politics, I remember being surprised several years ago to see Bill defend in writing from multiple attacks an op-ed piece penned by Prof. Donald Kagan of Yale – a fellow classicist but also one of the central figures of the neoconservative movement – whose stance it was that America had little in common with the corrupt democracy-turned-tyranny that Athens devolved into during the Peloponnesian War.
I’ve since gathered that historically minded scholars with backgrounds in classics are more likely to have a conservative political outlook – conscious of how rarely the light of democracy makes an appearance in the more often dark and oppressive sweep of human centuries. I have recently learned that Bill was also a rare resource at Bard for those few students there reluctant to disclose out loud their desire to pursue a career in the military.
Mullen, an expert in, among other things, the poet Pindar (who was famous for his odes celebrating hero-victors in the Olympics), embodied and celebrated in his own modern life the classical ideal of “mens sana in corpore sano” (a healthy mind in a healthy body), and in fact excitedly had buttons printed up with that Latin slogan when a new gymnasium opened on the campus. His own athleticism could not be separated from his devotion to all things beautiful and the branch of philosophy that centers on that, aesthetics.
His study of Pindar inferred from the meter of the bard’s odes the movements of choreia, “the singing and dancing of citizens in a chorus,” and his dedication to the good life extended to the fine meals he served up guests from his kitchen. The Greek intuition linking truth and beauty was something Bill stood for and lived.
As Bill noted many years ago, Aristotle closely linked ethics as a broader field to political thinking. The twentieth century German-Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss called political philosophy the “rightful queen of the social sciences.” As the world moves into cascading and frightening uncertain times, we need an activated humanities – what I am calling these days an “activist moderationism” – to help bring a balanced perspective to conflict in the service of diplomatic relations and stability worldwide.
Strauss located the poles of Western thought in the cities of Jerusalem and Athens.
In a famous treatise named for these two cities, he stated, “Confronted by the incompatible claims of Jerusalem and Athens, we are open to both and willing to listen to each.”
Tikkun Olam,” the commandment for Jews to repair the world, need not be lost in a mishmash of undiscerning pluralism, a malady Strauss warns against. I am moved that Bill’s death has prompted me to revisit Strauss, since Mullen’s own dedication to promoting study of the guiding ideas from Greek, Hebrew, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese sources which made up the so-called Axial Age (about 800-200 BCE) never once decayed into a facile equation of what are very distinct views.
The two original inscriptions at the oracle of Delphi, “know thyself” and “be moderate” are useless as mere ideas and only meaningful if internalized and set in motion. The spirit of my teacher exhorts me to be an activist for balance and moderation. I hope many others will join in this.
The author is professor of English and philosophy at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Connecticut, where he also leads the Action Humanities initiative. The views expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily represent those of his college.