Cornel West & Robert George: Best friends, opposing views | VIEWPOINT

Cornel West & Robert George: Best friends, opposing views | VIEWPOINT

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Robert: 2007 was the first time that we… Cornel: We started the other day. Robert: …we taught together. Next year will be our 10th anniversary, my
brother. Cornel: Now, when Andrew brought us together,
was that 2006, you think? Robert: Yeah, it must have been 2006. Cornel: When we first had that dialogue. Robert: Andrew Perlmutter was a student in
the religion department. He had worked with you in one or two of your
courses. He had one or two of my courses and he was
starting a new magazine, the campus magazine. Cornel: Green Light. Robert: The Green Light. Cornel: It came from F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby. Robert: I think that’s right. Yeah, I think that’s very appropriate for
Princeton. Cornel: Yes, yes. Robert: One of the features of the magazine
was going to be an interview of one professor by another professor. And so for the inaugural issue, they invited
you to be the interviewer and they gave you the right to pick who your interview subject
would be. And you did me the… We didn’t even know each other very well. You gave me the honor of picking me as your
interview subject. I remember Andrew coming knocking on the door
and saying, “Professor George, would you be willing to be interviewed by Professor West?” Of course I said, “Well, I’d be very honored
to be interviewed by Professor West.” I remember the occasion when you came together
with Andrew, he had a tape recorder. One of his old-fashioned cassette recorders
that would be an antique today. He had a photographer with him. I think we were supposed to talk for an hour,
and we ended up talking for four hours. And then I said, “I have to go have dinner. My wife Cindy’s going to be waiting for me,
wondering what happened to me”. You walked me down to my car where I held
my hand on the car latch for about another half hour. Cornel: We had another 30-minute dialogue. We kept going at it. Robert: While we kept going at it. Cornel: I remember. I do recall. I do recall. I said, “Now, I think we’ve got something
special here though,” because there’s no doubt our spirits and our souls resonated. Intellectually, we were just on fire talking
about the great classical and canonical texts. I think… Robert: That’s when we decided to teach together. Cornel: We figured, we’ve got to teach a class
together, a great books class. Robert: Yeah. Cornel: From Plato through Newman all the
way up to Martin Luther King, Jr. Robert: I remember that very well. For the first class, you chose six books and
I chose six books and we decided that we would each choose books that were important in our
own intellectual odyssey. Then after that, we just chose all the books
together for the future seminars that we taught. Cornel: That’s 10 years. Well, nine years now. Robert: Yeah, almost 10 years. Do you remember some of the authors from the
very first one? Of course we had Plato’s “Gorgias.” Cornel: We always started with Plato. Robert: That text, the “Gorgias” had been
very important for me in my intellectual journey. That’s what opened my mind to philosophy when
I was an undergraduate at Swarthmore. You recommended Luther’s “Babylonian Captivity
of the Church”, which I had never read. Cornel: I forgot. I forgot. Robert: Yeah, and only when I read it that
I finally understand how one man, an obscure monk, could turn the whole of Christian civilization
in Europe on its head and cause a revolution, a reformation, because it is such a powerful… Of course, as a Catholic I needed to hear
that. Cornel: It’s coming at you. Robert: That was celebrating the 500th anniversary. I don’t know if I’m celebrating, but it’s
the 500th anniversary of the reformation. But you introduced me to that text and that
shed a lot of light on the history of Christian civilization in the west and how the reformation
actually happened. Let’s see, what else did we read. We read Hayek and we read Marx. Cornel: We could have read Hayek and Marx. Robert: We read Marx’s “Communist Manifesto.” Cornel: We read both. Absolutely. Robert: That’s exactly right. I remember one of the books you chose was
Leo Strauss’ “Natural Right and History.” Cornel: Yes. Classic. Robert: That’s right. Now, people would be surprised about that
because they think, “Cornel West, he’s a big leftist. He’s gonna hate Leo Strauss. Why would he insist on reading Leo Strauss?” But what people don’t know about you, my brother,
is that you got a deep appreciation of the conservative tradition. Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin. Cornel: Eric Voegelin. Robert: Burke. Cornel: Edmund Burke. Robert: Yeah. I’m outing you now in front of all these people. Cornel: No. I tell the world. I tell the world. But you insisted on Martin Luther King Jr. Robert: I did, because I’d been teaching “Letter
from the Burmingham Jail.” It was a very important text for me. And of course it’s important to the history
of the civil rights movement, but it’s actually a work of political philosophy, one that draws
on many of the other works that we were reading. It draws on Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas
Aquinas. It’s an explication at a popular level, it
wasn’t just for scholars, an explication of the tradition of natural law. And as you know, I’ve devoted my career to
the idea of natural law theory, which goes back through the middle ages and the Christian
period, back all the way to Plato and Aristotle and to the Roman philosophers and jurists. So King is a kind of synthesizer and summarizer
in the context of the civil rights struggle of these treasures of civilization that give
us reason to believe that there are standards above the merely human law, moral standards,
principles of natural law, under which the human law always stands in judgement. Cornel: Absolutely. Robert: That’s how we can judge human law
to be good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust. If it weren’t for those standards, as King
points out, then there would be no saying that Hitler was wrong or Hitler was bad, or
that Mother Theresa is good. Cornel: That’s right. Robert: We’d be left in a kind of swamp of
relativism and ultimately nihilism.

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