Princeton professor Robert George spoke in an exclusive interview with The University News on Friday, Sept. 30, about the main influences on his thought, and the role of the Christian intellectual in society.
JH: I want to start with a broader question, what has influenced your views the most?
Professor George: I grew up in a coal-mining area of West Virginia. Both of my grandfathers were coal miners. Also, I grew up in a devout family, a Catholic family, although my father’s family is Eastern Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox. My mother’s family came from southern Italy. My father’s father came from Syria. So, I had the benefit of the influences of both Eastern and Western Christianity. I went away to college when I was 18 years old. I went to Swarthmore College, where the most important thing I think that happened to me intellectually was my encounter with Plato. I was assigned Plato’s dialogue the Gorgias in introductory political theory class and that began a transformation of my thinking and a deepening of my thinking and really put me on a road to my career as a scholar and especially a scholar in the field of political philosophy–legal and political philosophy. The Catholic tradition considered not only as a tradition of faith, but also as an intellectual tradition, the tradition that has been shaped by the Fathers of the Church, especially by St. Augustine, by the Medieval thinkers–Peter Lombard, St. Anselm, especially St. Thomas Aquinas. This tradition has been a profound influence on me and I think has provided for me powerful resources that I have used in my criticisms of secularist and liberal moral and political philosophy.
So, I am very grateful for those influences. So looking at it as a whole I guess I would say the principal influences on my thought have been the classical thinkers, especially the Greeks—Plato and Aristotle–and the Christian tradition both Eastern and Western. And then just the personal experience of growing up where I grew up—in the immigrant family in which I grew up. That gave me a great gratitude to and appreciation of America as a land of opportunity and a land of freedom and stimulated my interest in the foundations of the American republic, which is one of the matters that I focus on both in my scholarship and my teaching. I am very interested in the American founding, the American Constitution, our tradition of constitutional government, and the relationship of American constitutionalism to the broader tradition of Western thought, shaped by both Athens and Jerusalem, by Greek and Roman thought and also by Christianity. So those would be the main influences I would point to.
JH: My next question is has there been significant development in your thought since you wrote Natural Law Theory in 1992?
Professor George: My thought has not changed in its fundamentals. I still believe that the tradition of natural law theory has captured profound truths about how we reason about right and wrong and how we should reason between right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and bad, from a moral point of view. I have dealt with many new issues that have arisen since 1992: The question of embryo destructive research, which was not a major issue in American politics until the beginning of this new century; the issue of human cloning. Again it was not a central issue in our politics or intellectual life, when I began my career as scholar. But it has now become a central issue and central to my own intellectual work. The question of the definition of marriage. It’s remarkable, when one thinks about it, how recently the movement to redefine marriage to accommodate same-sex partnerships arose. This was not something that was even remotely contemplated when I was a college student in the 1970s or a graduate student in the 1980s. It was only really in the 1990s, as recently as the 1990s, when this became a serious issue, and now of course it is a very central part of my thinking. But, in all these areas, I am still drawing on the resources of the tradition of the natural law theory that I began working on really when I was an undergraduate, became interested in when I was an undergraduate, and began working on in a serious way as a scholar, as a graduate student first at Harvard Law School and then at Oxford, where I did my doctorate.
JH: What would you say is the role of the Catholic or Christian intellectual in society?
Professor George: The role of the Catholic or Christian intellectual in society is to be as reasonable as possible and to use the power of the mind to attain truth as best we can and to lay the very best reasons and arguments available before our fellow citizens for their consideration. The Catholic tradition–more broadly the Christian tradition–is a religious tradition, but it’s also a tradition of thought. It’s an intellectual tradition. I think contemporary Catholic scholars and other Christian scholars are heirs to that tradition and should make the best use of the reasons of the tradition that’s available.
I think we should also be very willing to engage with people who disagree us, to engage with people who represent other traditions of thought, including the secular-liberal tradition and be willing to listen as well as to teach—to learn I should say as well as to teach—to listen as well as to talk. To engage people who disagree with us in a civil and respectful way, understanding that in the pursuit of truth we are bound together by a common good, despite our differences of understanding or judgment and that this can be a great service that those of us who are Catholic or more broadly Christian intellectuals provide to our fellow citizens. It’s our way of serving the common good. I’ve tried to do this in the debate about embryo destructive research and cloning, the debate about abortion, the debate about assisted suicide, the debate about marriage. It’s seems to me that it is incumbent on everyone in the debate. But, we who are Catholics and Christians, because of our devotion to respect for human dignity, have a special reason to deal in civil ways–respectful ways–even with those with whom we disagree.
JH: Actually, that was going to be my next question, how to deal with those with whom we disagree. But to get into more specifics, how do interact with your own colleagues, with whom you even teach classes, individuals such as Cornel West?
Professor George: I do think that one of the best ways we can serve the common good and prosecute our mission as scholars, whether we are Christian or not, whether we are conservative or liberal, is by engaging in appropriate public forums with people who see things differently. What I do not find useful are theatrical debates or what I sometimes call gladiatorial contests. These are entertainments. These are not serious intellectual enterprises. So, I would rarely accept an invitation to simply put on a show, by debating a famous atheist or advocate of some view that I reject. I don’t see that anything is gained. Each side brings a cheering section. The temptation on both sides is to simply score debaters’ points, to treat the object of the exercise as achieving a victory rather than achieving truth. As a disciple of Plato, I believe that the only legitimate object of discourse is truth–it’s not to entertain people, it’s not to show off, it’s not to win power, or prestige or status or office or money. It’s to get at the truth of things. And so I think that forums should be shaped with that objective in mind.
That’s why I think that no place is better than the classroom for serious scholars who disagree about many things, such as Professor West and myself, to engage each other over the course of the semester with students who are willing to do the work of reading texts that shed light on important issues, or give us the occasion for more deeply engaging important issues, where the point of the exercise is not to entertain an audience but to get people to wrestle with difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions and where a deep commonality is experienced between the interlocutors. So, Professor West and I might disagree on an issue, but we find a deep common ground in our mutual desire to get at the truth of the matter, to be corrected if we are wrong or if our argument is poor or inadequate. In that kind of context, where a proper spirit of truth-seeking prevails, one regards one’s interlocutor not as an enemy to be defeated but as a friend who–if he marshals a superior argument–does you a great favor, by moving you from a position that is not true, to a position that is true or gets you closer to the truth than you would otherwise be.
That’s the Socratic school’s spirit. That’s the spirit of Socrates, as he is presented to us in Plato’s dialogues, such as the Gorgias, which had such a profound influence on me. And that’s what I like to do with my colleague Professor West, or my colleague Professor Viroli, or my colleague Professor Stout, or my colleague Professor Sigmund, and many colleagues, with whom I will work together in classrooms or in other forums. Not all of them are people that I teach full courses with. But, I will appear in their classroom, they will appear in my classroom or we will be together at some kind of public intellectual forum that is structured so is not just a gladiatorial contest or an entertainment, that it is a serious intellectual thing.
JH: And more on a personal level, how do you interact with them, given the fact that you maybe disagree on very crucial issues. Is it easy to have a friendship with them?
Professor George: Oh yes, it’s not difficult at all. If the person is honorable, the disagreement is no impediment to friendship. Two honorable people who disagree can be great friends. I have a great love for Professor West. He makes clear in a million ways that he has a great love for me. I recently published a defense for him when he came into attack for statements that he made that were critical of President Obama. And when some people in defending President Obama made attacks on Professor West’s personal character, I believed the first to publish an article very strongly defending his integrity on the basis of my own certain knowledge of what kind of man Professor West is. The article was entitled “The Cornel West I Know.” It was posted on the Mirror of Justice website and then was picked up and reposted in lots of other places. And I’m sure he would do the same thing for me. You don’t have to agree on things and you can even disagree on some very important things and still have not only respect but love for each other. And you can learn from each other. I’ve learned from Professor West. He tells me he has learned from me, even though we haven’t persuaded each other on some very big issues.
And, of course, we do have some common ground–things we do believe in. We both believe in the importance of the life of the mind. We both have the Socratic approach to learning and to teaching. We both believe that the point of argument is truth not victory. We both have a love of great works of the Western tradition. So, in our courses together, we teach Sophocles’ Antigone, Plato’s dialogues, St. Augustine’s Confessions. He’s a man of the left, but he loves to read and teach Hayek as I do. I’m on the conservative side, but I join him in teaching and reading Gramsci–great Italian communist–or Marx. He’s much more sympathetic to Dewey—John Dewey–than I am. But, I love to teach and read Dewey’s book A Common Faith, which we teach. We teach Martin Buber’s I and Thou. We teach C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man. Of course, we both are great admirers of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which is a letter that is in many ways a profound meditation on natural law, which he invokes quite explicitly mentioning Augustine and Aquinas in that connection. So, we have all this common ground, despite our disagreements about economic and social policy.
JH: Not to insist too much on that topic, but what is something that you have learned from Dr. West that you are very grateful for?
Professor George: I had read W. E. B. Dubois’ famous book The Souls of Black Folk on a couple of occasions in the past. But reading it in a course with him was very illuminating, because he could bring out for the students and for me depths and nuances of Dubois’ thought that would have slipped right past me unnoticed. That I thought was a great lesson, a great enrichment of my own understanding of a very important work in American social history. There’s an example of how one can learn from somebody, despite differences. But, even in that book, there was a passage, in which I offered an interpretation that he had never considered before, and that–on reflection–he thought actually was the correct interpretation. So, here was a book that he knew much better than I, a book by a black author, that nevertheless he felt–at least in the interpretation of this particular point—that he had learned something from me.
JH: Changing the subject a little, what advise would you give to UD students just from what you know about UD students, what you have seen, and the potential that there is here?
Professor George: Well, I was quite overwhelmed by the size of the audience at my lecture, by the number of students who turned up. As we walked into the room, and when I saw the throng of students, I turned to Professor Rosemann and asked whether some professors had made attendance at my lecture mandatory as part of their philosophy courses. And he said, “No.” None had. All the students were there of their own free will because of their interest in philosophy. Well, of course, this makes a philosopher’s heart leap to think that there are that many young people who are interested in coming out to hear a lecture, a pretty heavy duty, pretty abstract lecture—which they knew had to be a pretty abstract lecture–in philosophy. So, this is a great testimony to the University and to the culture it has created and to the students themselves who sought out a university with that culture.
So, I want to say to Dallas students: Keep it up. Keep up that love of philosophy, that love of learning for its own sake. Never instrumentalize your education. Never think of education just as a stepping stone to social advancement or career enhancement. Those things will come, and they’re fine. But, they are not fundamentally what their education is about, not at a place like Dallas. It’s the intrinsic value of knowledge and learning for its own sake that is what a Dallas education is about, and you really need to keep that in mind. Pursue knowledge for its own sake. Pursue what you are interested in and fascinated by and what you love. If Shakespeare captures your attention, then devote yourself to the study of Shakespeare. Don’t think that that’s a luxury that you can’t afford, because you need to be training for a career in business or a career in law. I don’t want to denigrate career concerns. They are legitimate for many students as a financial reality. You have to keep an eye on that kind of thing. But, Dallas gives you an opportunity to learn what–in the words of Matthew Arnold–is the highest and best that’s been thought and said by the greatest minds in literature, philosophy, art, the sciences. And Dallas gives you the opportunity to enter into that great conversation and to learn from the greatest thinkers of history, from Plato to Madison. Grab it, seize it. It’s a wonderful opportunity. You should consider yourself very fortunate. Don’t fail to squeeze every possible advantage out of it. Take every opportunity to learn all that you can, to absorb all that you can.
JH: On that similar note, looking more towards the future, how can we contribute to public debates on questions of marriage and pro-life issues?
Professor George: First, understand the truth of these matters as deeply as you can. So, study the nature and basis of the dignity of the human being, so that you can appreciate as deeply as possible the value of human life on all stages and conditions. Similarly, study so that you understand the reality of marriage as deeply as you can. It’s not something that we can afford any longer simply to just take for granted. Because the nature—whether there is such a thing as the nature of marriage—has been put into question in our society, it’s important that we understand it deeply. We have to study it. We can’t just take it for granted. We have to learn. And then, young people have to be ready, willing, and able to take what they’ve learned into the public square in their roles as citizens, in their role as civic leaders, to make the case for the inherent and profound and equal dignity of all members of the human family, without respect of age, or size, or stage of development or condition dependency. To make the case for marriage as the conjugal union between husband and wife: the one flesh communion that we find in Genesis 2, but it’s also articulated by pre-Christian thinkers such as Plato. And for religious liberty and the rights of conscience, which are very much under attack today by powerful forces that would compel Catholic and other pro-life physicians and health care workers, for example, to implicate themselves in abortions by referring for abortions, or in some cases participating in abortions, or performing abortions, or dispensing abortifacient drugs. Or under threat, in the domain of marriage, where anti-discrimination laws are being used to punish people who refuse to participate in or go along with same-sex unions if they are wedding photographers, or caterers, or town clerks, or what have you. We need to be able to defend people’s rights of conscience, people’s religious liberty. And that means we have to have as profound an understanding as possible of the nature of those basic rights and liberties.
A Dallas education because it is so philosophically deep will almost uniquely fit students out for public advocacy on behalf of the most important causes. Well, it seems to me that a responsibility comes with that and that’s a responsibility not to remain silent or not to hide one’s light under a bushel. It is to speak up and to speak out and to stand up. And to be willing to take the risks of advocating positions that in the elite sector of the culture are considered heterodox.
JH: This just occurred to be as a follow-up question: How do we balance that drive for public advocacy in matters that run counter to the culture we’re in with a possibility to also be accepted in that culture?
Professor George: Earn your acceptance among those who disagree with you by virtue of the power of your arguments, by your moral seriousness, and by your civility and good will. My own experience as a professor at Princeton, as someone who has served in governmental commissions as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, as someone who has operated in the elite sector of the culture, is that you must never allow yourself to be intimidated. You must never allow yourself to be marginalized. You must make your voice heard, even if it meant being stigmatized or losing career opportunities. You still need to do the right thing. But, I myself have found that if you speak up and show your courage, if you make powerful and compelling arguments that make people in the other side at least worry about their own positions, if you show evident civility and good will, that you will not be victimized, you will not be marginalized, you will not be stigmatized. You will be accepted.