My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Sunday, February 5, 2012


As one might expect, the medical nightmare I have been living through for the past six weeks has prompted in me some funereal thoughts about what meaning, if any, my life has had.  A Miami University law professor referred to me several days ago as a "grand old man," which gave me pause.  I have spent most of my life thinking of myself as a rambunctious young whippersnapper.  I fear that ship has sailed.
The deepest meaning of my life is to be found in my sons, Patrick and Tobias, and Patrick's son and daughter, Samuel [six] and Athena [three and a half].  As my father lay dying in a New York hospital, I said to him, "You have been a better father to me than your father was to you.  No man can be asked to do more.  I will try to be a better father to my sons than you were to me.  I love you."  I hope Patrick and Tobias can say the same to me when my time comes.
My life has been given unity and shape by my love for Susie, and her love for me.  She saved me by agreeing to rejoin me in mid-life.  I hope we will have many more years to enjoy the delights of Paris.
And then there are all those books.  Good lord, what a great fuss I have made over them as each one has dropped from my sleeve onto the page.  Most have already been forgotten, and the rest soon will be, with perhaps one exception.  In 1964, as I was about to begin a full-scale crushingly expensive psychoanalysis [$25 an hour, but then, my salary as a senior Columbia professor was only $11,000 a year], Arthur Danto offered me a $500 advance to write an eighty page essay on Political Philosophy for an ill-conceived Harper & Row publishing venture.  Twelve months later, I wrote the essay between summer school classes at Columbia, and five years later still it finally appeared as a slender volume, with a title stolen from Mark Twain's lovely literary essay, "In Defense of Harriet Shelly."
In Defense of Anarchism has taken on a life of its own, and will, I imagine, outlive me.  It is pleasant to imagine that some graduate student, decades or even generations from now, will become curious about whether the author of that tract ever wrote anything else, and will find his or her way to one of the books of which I am fonder.
But despite all that scribbling, I have never thought of myself as a writer.  Rather, if asked what I "do," I would unhesitatingly say "I am a teacher."  I remember so many of the thousands of young men and women who passed through my classes during my fifty-three year career as a university teacher.  Indeed, I can recall them more clearly than some of the books I have written!  The great radical poet, novelist, philosopher, social critic, educational theorist, and city planner Paul Goodman wrote movingly and insightfully about the erotic component of true teaching, and I believe that he was right.  I have loved my students like surrogate children, even when they have not reciprocated the affection.  I always revealed a good deal about myself in my classes, and was repeatedly puzzled, but not dissuaded, by student evaluations that said "talks too much about his family."
Genesis 3:19 has it about right:  "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."  It is enough if I live for a brief moment in the memories of my sons and my grandchildren and my students.


heydave said...

Hoping to be a better parent to our kids can be scary indeed, but so worth the effort.

Hey, keep writing!

Jerry Fresia said...

Your openness and honesty are remarkable and appreciated. It was either in 1974 or 1975 that I sat in on a few of your classes at UMass. I and others were encouraged to do so by Bill Connolly. I don't have the slightest recollection about what the formal focus of the class was, but I do remember your humor and some funny stories about your family. One had to do with how you were going to figure out to have one of your sons return home with the very same cake that he was obligated to bring, to whatever event it was. There was also a story about monkeys who, after generations of manipulation, would run away from a bunch of bananas being lowered to them in the jungle; the thrust of the story was that it was a metaphor for ideology. And Paris? I think it may be the best city in the world. And now your blog. All in all, quite an impressive contribution, apart from your fathering. And now that I have you here, I often wonder what your thoughts might be on Leonard Bertsein's lectures at Harvard (1973), "The Unanswered Question." I think they are among the most well crafted and thought provoking lectures ever. Cheers...and thanks.

skholiast said...

I certainly pray that your medical mystery is solved and solved satisfactorily. But your meditations on mortality remind me of the Socratic injunction that (I mis-quote from memory) all philosophy ought to be a meditation upon and preparation for death. Thank you for this. I never got to sit in a lecture hall with you, but I did find the blog because of Anarchism. And I keep reading, so I hope there will be more to read.

Rob said...

Do you know the book 'Tuesdays with Morrie?' It is an account of a series of meetings between a retired sociology prof and a former student. The Prof has a terminal illness and the book is his exposition on how to live, as he accunts it to his former pupil. It is pertinent for me as I'm having this conversation at the moment with my 82 year old 'uncle'.

James Schmidt said...

A lovely post! As for the fame of In Defense of Anarchism, you may be amused (or appalled) that it is listed in the bibliogaphy of one of those ridiculously over-priced editions of conference papers that Germans love to produced. The conference was devoted to the work of the notoriously long-winded German philosopher Christian Wolff. That you should be confused with him boggles the mind!

James Schmidt

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. My one small claim to fame, and I am subsumed. Oh well. Considering Christian Wolff's elation to Kant, the confusion is not all bad. There used to be a radio sports commentator in Boston named Bob Wolf. Now that was a confusion I could relate to.

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