Professor Robert Solomon, RIP


You hear about those teachers, those classes, that just change the naive freshman’s ( or senior’s ) life in movies and stories. Bob Solomon did that for me, fundamentally, powerfully, and indelibly. While there was no “captain my captain” moment, Solomon was the kind of teacher that you learned so much from, it’s hard to imagine your life having been the same had he not been in it.

To my great sadness, he has left this world. I left a comment over at Austinist with some surface recollections.

I had the pleasure of taking 18th Century German Idealism ( Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, gateway to Nietzsche ) and his legendary Existentialism class while at the University. I knew his reputation was good, but I didn’t realize what an amazing teacher he was. I had dropped the 2nd symbolic logic class ( not to my taste ) and was looking for a lecture that could take another add / dropper. That was 18th century. I was behind about 2 weeks in the reading so I took to reading the material with a fine grained comb. When I came to his office hours with a laundry list of the finer points about Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason he assured me that such depth wasn’t necessary, but that it was important to understand that the Kantian / Newtonian / Mechanical world view was about to be challenged: by both Hegel and the looming French Revolution / Terror.

His cadence, his eyes, the moustache, I suppose it all made him a bit larger than life. But he never was unapproachable and he would take the opinions or quotidian questions of the undergraduate with the same absorbed in thought consideration that he accorded the learned.

But as I said, he seems to have changed the younger me so substantially, that I can’t think of how some of my best and favorite conversations would have happened without the background he taught me. I recall being at a party with Alfredo Garcia and remarking off-handedly that the philosophy project was effectively over after Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: if all argumentation is just fodder for that system, and that system can absorb all critique, what’s the point?

And to hear Solomon wax on the topic of love from an existential point of view, God that was pure Nietzschean poetry. Existentialism is rooted in a challenge: God’s eye is watching you with all of His furious intensity ( Kierkergaard ) or life is arbitrary and undefined and absurd ( Camus ) or there is only Being against not-Being ( Sartre / Heidegger ). In spite of these forces which could grind your little heart and soul to dust, why be moral, or even, why be at all? Existentialism says that the doing, the effect, the passion, the purity, the impeccability wherewith you act is all you very well may have, so do it, do it well, and display the beautiful fire that is your being, your soul, your you-ness.

Solomon would often repeat that existentialism was a “bit of a downer” in popular conception, as he saw it, nothing could be further from the truth: Existentialism was a gauntlet thrown down to the apathetic to change the world for the better ( or, arguably, worse ) and to love fully. To ask the pretty / shy / too-cool girl at the record store for a date, to dare to kiss a beautiful girl you don’t know well, to converse, to drink, to be merry. To feel pleasure and virtue run through your veins, to feel knowledge enrich your life: this was life itself, the life worth living, the eudamonaic life Socrates searched for.

As Solomon told this story you could feel the 200 young faces light up with dreams and hopes and aspirations. It was the best sermon delivered to the Church of the Cyncial Doubters. It was the thing, I daresay, that led to the most hook-ups within the philosophy department undergraduate class too. How could you not want to be beautiful, and free, and in touch, and intimate with another soul after that, or to write a novel, or to dream? He didn’t deliver this lecture passionately, but as that door opened we came out an altered mass.

And what can you do for a man, who surely forgot your name and year as you washed into the tide of bodies and people. For someone who changed your world, but that you didn’t keep in contact with (for this is the strange situation of the professor )? His Nietzsche-scholar wife has requested donations to OxFam instead of flowers ( he was ever so charitable ). I will do this.

In the comments section at Austinist where I learned the news I saw this comment:

This is absolutely awful timing. As a philosophy minor at UT, I was finally signed up for Solomon’s Existentialism class this spring, and I’ve been looking forward to it for a few years now. The man is legendary in the UT philosophy department.

I then saw my chance to pay tribute: to share the stories of Solomon or by Solomon that I remember to those who will never have the chance to hear those great stories from the man himself. Here they are…

Posted at Austinist

Story 1: Philosophy as a life changer

Solomon told a wonderful story (other students feel free to correct my memory, it’s been a decade…) about how a young medical student in Michigan saw a flyer on campus for a brown-bag session about Nietzsche. The naive young man attended the session and heard things about love and passion and that fearsome sturm und drang that lay behind Nietzche’s writing. That afternoon the student changed his major to philosophy and thus would-be Dr. Solomon MD became the beloved Dr. Solomon who so changed my life, and so many others.

Story 2: Music as Philosophy

In the 18th c. German Idealism class the Enlightenment as zeitgeist and Kant are the groundwork for the Hegellian heart of the class. I’ll never forget the day Solomon came in with a small stereo and played a bit of Mozart (Eine Kleine Nachtmusik if I’m not mistaken). “This is Kant”, he intoned, continuing: “Order, reason, balance, control.” He stopped the sample. “And this…", the Hand of Fate opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony filled the wide lecture room on the south end of Waggener Hall, “is Hegel: Passion, Spirit, the Napoleonic spirit.”

My heart shot up to my throat. I could see the march of the Napoleon through the remains of the Holy Roman Empire and understood just how very real art and philosophy both were. It was one of the most sublime moments of my education.

Story 3: Personal Anecdote: Job Interview

In October of 1999 I was invited to interview in Silicon Valley with my employer. I caught the last direct flight from Austin to SJ and lo, who was in 1st class, but the Dr. and his wife. He smiled as we recognized each other from class. I asked where he was off to, and it was Stanford ( I believe ) to lecture on the nature of Love. “You?", he asked. I said I was to interview with a company in the valley. He smiled paternally, as I think, he blessed my choice of being a philosopher-businessperson headed to the (then) very go-go capitalist mecca of the universe. As a teacher of business ethics, I think he was glad that I was of the mindset to do things morally while doing great things. I daresay this is the Platonic philosopher-king of our age.

Story 4: Book sales

Solomon said that he felt a bit sketchy about making kids buy his books ( I said he was an ethicist ) and getting royalties. As a means to assuage this issue, a festivity was planned at the end of the semester where said royalties ( and I dare say a good bit of Solomon charity money ) were commingled for a bit of a festivity. I had only had one other teacher try to engage the unwashed masses of students outside of the classroom, and Solomon’s doing this was his trip to the agora, his way of staying close to his students’ hearts and minds.