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A Philosophical Life

Detail of Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, by Rembrandt (1653) (Public domain / Metropolitan Museum of Art)

No, Aristotle is not my latest guest on Q&A. Neither is Homer, whose bust Aristotle is looking at. But I have a friend of Aristotle, so to speak: John Hare. Professor Hare is an eminent moral philosopher — a professor at Yale — who has thought and written about Aristotle a lot.

For our Q&A, go here. Professor Hare is a genial, marvelous guest.

He quotes Aristotle at the very beginning of our conversation. I asked something like this: “You can carry on your work more or less normally during the pandemic, right?” The answer:

“Aristotle said, the chief benefit of friendship is that you can do philosophy together. Philosophy is not best done all by yourself, in the cave. It’s best done with other people. Though I can communicate on Zoom, or read an e-mail, I miss conversation — in-person conversation — with my philosophical colleagues.”

Professor Hare has been talking philosophy for a long time. “My father wasn’t really interested in us as children until we could talk philosophy with him. In his view, that was the age of six, the age of reason.”

I think of a Winnie-the-Pooh title: “Now We Are Six.”

The Hare children’s father was R. M. Hare, an important philosopher at Oxford.

John Hare is a modest fellow, but I tease him out about his education. “I’m part of the last generation to have had a classical education, in the old-fashioned way. I started Latin and Greek at six and by the age of twelve I was reading nothing except those languages. I had read a large part of classical literature by the time I went to college.”

He did not have sciences, he says — but he scrambled to acquire them.

From high school, he was graduated darn early. Then he went to India. Why? “Because the Beatles did.” But of course! “This was back in the ’60s, and I wanted to learn how to meditate. So I went to teach at a high school in Kashmir, and I apprenticed myself to a master who taught me how to meditate, although he wanted me to sit on the ground to do that.” This was uncomfortable for the young Englishman — “but I learned a lot.”

On returning to England, he went to Balliol College, Oxford, and then, for his doctorate, Princeton. Why America? In part, to make his own way, in his own setting — a setting apart from his father’s Oxonian one. And in part to study with Gregory Vlastos (born in Istanbul in 1907 to a Scottish mother and a Greek father). Vlastos had said that Plato’s basic failure was a failure in love. “I wanted to find out what he meant by that.”

But what would Plato say? How would he answer that charge? Wouldn’t Professor Hare like to talk to him? “I think I will,” he says. “I think we’ll meet in heaven.”

There are four philosophers who mean a lot — an extra lot — to Professor Hare. In chronological order, they are Aristotle; Duns Scotus; Kant; “and then my father, whose voice I hear all the time in my ear.”

John Duns — commonly known as Duns Scotus, or just Scotus (no, we’re not talking about the U.S. Supreme Court) — was a Scotsman who lived in the 13th century and just into the 14th. He meant a lot to Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet (1844–89), who would mean a lot to young John Hare. At Balliol, Hare lived in the same room as Hopkins. He read every word of Hopkins. And this led him to Scotus.

Professor Hare has taught Americans for a long time — 45 years? I ask him a funny question (and a not-funny one): How are we doing? Are we doomed? He chuckles, of course.

“Students have changed in America since the ’70s. One great cause of this is the Internet. This has made it harder for students to concentrate for long periods of time.”

Oh, man, he’s speaking directly to me. I once read books. Then I read articles. Then blogposts. Now I’m down to tweets. What’s next?

“The accessibility of information is extraordinary now.” But “the best thoughts take time. Take reflection. Take concentration. And take books. So you can’t have those thoughts if you’re flitting from one little leaf to the next, one flower to the next, for the nectar. You don’t get the thoughts if you do that.”

Oh, there’s a lot more in this rich, though relatively brief, conversation. You’ll love John Hare. My Q&A with him was one of the most pleasant interludes I’ve had in months. Again, go here.

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