My friend John Bremer died this past November. He was 88, and lived a remarkable life. I loved him fiercely. When I heard the news from his daughter, I chanted a requiem aeternam, and proceeded to polish off an excellent bottle of red wine. I had just finished a tutoring session when I received the call, and was nearing the end of The Iliad with several students. As I stood at the top of the steps that lead to my front porch, wine glass in hand, I thought about the Rowan (Ash) tree John kept near the center of his backyard in Ludlow, VT. Given John’s great love of Hellenism, and the text I was working with, it thus happened that while looking at the tree in my front yard, I had the bizarre and lingering urge to pour out the glass of wine in my hand as a libation to Apollo. (As I mentioned, John was a staunch Hellenist: he kept a statue of Pan in the corner of his dining room –with little R.A.F. tokens strewn about it– where an icon or a statue of Christ or a saint might be within an Orthodox or Catholic Christian home; I didn’t pour the libation, as my devotion is elsewhere.)
I don’t place emphasis on these religious elements arbitrarily. When I arrived at Cambridge College in 2005, John was one of my first teachers. He was one of several former St. John’s tutors and students there, together with Harvard professors, making my experience effectively a colony of these two schools for the years I attended (most of the faculty in question left shortly after I graduated, one of them to eventually run Kaplan in Oceania). I took at least one, if not two, courses with John every semester after that, for the next three years. I was introduced to John through an Introduction to Philosophy course together with a Classics of Western Civilization course. John had us focus on Plato and Aristotle in the Intro. Phil. course, and during the Classics course, at one point we covered the Peloponnesian War. I can’t remember whether there was something in our sources about the relationship of the gods to the War, or whether a student spontaneously brought up a question about the relationship between divine providence and the course of history. Either way, in response to questions asked in this direction, John said (paraphrasing Napoleon Bonaparte) “God is on the side with the biggest guns.” I was younger, and couldn’t sort his identity, but it seemed to only allow one of two likely resolutions, so I caught him after class, on the way to the elevator, and I asked: “Are you an atheist or a Catholic?” John replied with emphasis: “I am a Hellenist!” John was very iconoclastic in this way. (Though he had the most magical Irish cross next to the side entrance of his home in Vermont.)
It was to this home in Vermont that we took our first trip with our daughter, just a few days shy of one month after she was born. She had barely been out of the house before that. Thinking back together, my wife and I are reasonably sure that she hadn’t even been baptised yet. Our daughter has never known a world without John, whom she always called “JohnBremer”, as though that were his first name (when younger, everyone else was always only a single-word title or a single first name to her). Trips to visit him have been at least semi-annual for her since she was born. She has little trinkets that he gave her, like a big magnifying glass. She never forgot who gave them to her, and would often remind me and my wife “JohnBremer gave this to me!” When we finally told our daughter about his death, over a month after it happened, she was frightened, and sad. For days and days after we told her, she would remind us regularly, with a sad urgency, “do you remember the bad news?”
One of our first trips up was in 2007, before our daughter was born, for John’s 80th birthday party. His daughter, the consummate hostess, entertained; someone bought him an MG. I still remember the small crowds eating and chatting in the house, the sunlight on the lawn and the driveway, John’s grandson grilling food on the porch, the conversation and the banter round about the car, and John’s joy. I should reiterate that it was John’s eightieth birthday. That is to say, I met John about halfway through the winter of his life, when he was “at the threshold”, as Socrates, following a metaphor found in Homer, described the aged Cephalus (Κέφαλος) in The Republic (which John always called by its Greek name, “The Polity” (Ή Πολιτεία). Nonetheless, John had more youthfulness in the winter of his life than nearly any youth I’ve met in his or her springtime. When my wife thinks of youthfulness, she thinks of John. She says that he always felt younger than she. His spirit was (most often) invincible (though he had his moments). This is no surprise; John was enamored with Plato’s Socrates. We usually tie our joy to external circumstances, to the realm of flux and becoming; through the dialogues, however, Socrates has a stable joy, not tied to the realm of becoming, because he loves the beauty of being, which is stable. Aging does not matter so much, apparently, when one is a lover of wisdom, of what is abiding and holds sway. There is a moment at the beginning of The Republic when Socrates asks Cephalus a question — effectively, ‘What is it like to be so old that you’re nearly dead?’ John’s answer to me on this point was, unsurprisingly, far better than Cephalus’ response to Socrates. “When I was young, I fought in a war, and traveled the world, I taught Morris dancing; I expected that I wouldn’t enjoy getting older, but now that I am, I have gone more places in my mind than I ever did with my body,” and he found the horizons opened to his mind to be more enjoyable. When he began to have hip problems, he was worried that he’d never walk or dance again (I believe he never again did the latter, though he walked seemingly fine after a time, and, as he gleefully reported, “without pain”). Before this resolution, however, he took the worrying prospects in good cheer, certainly because of the horizons opened to him in thought.
John ran the Institute of Philosophy. He was always happy to speak and lecture, if he were invited to do so, and he would aim to stimulate people to the Socratic ideal of education when he did, but he really wished to participate in more intimate settings, where there could be a conversation. Following Plato, John’s habits of dialogue almost always appeared to suggest that truth is not the kind of thing that might be had by simply declaiming: the truth is public, but also universal, and requires a collaborative spirit to clarify the questions and by seeing whether the answers had can geometrically apply in all cases. Truth is public, and can be had in common, revealed in true discourse among the lovers of truth. The project has no end, and requires as many generous-spirited and energetically truth-desiring participants as is possible.
It is no surprise, then, that when John would be thinking about any topic, he wanted to share it, to talk about it. He was very communal in that way. A question may begin at any single “where”, and run out to the furthest reaches of being, should it not be interrupted, only to return to the original question with understanding and clarity. This is the exitus-reditus of the world: all things have their beginning in the exit, and all things return to their origin — though ideally, they return with a greater yield, and the “ignorant” single question from which the discussions come and the “unknowing” answer to which they return are not the same kind of ignorance, nor is the single question the same after the dialogue. In June of 2011, he came down to lead a group of us, who had been reading through Late Antique Neoplatonic texts (mostly Pseudo-Dionysius, and Eric Perl) through Plato’s Meno for two days. The last e-mail correspondence I had with John before he died, on the 11th of September, 2015, was also about the Meno. It is fitting, then, that the Meno was also one of the first texts we read together in 2006.
There were clouds that would gather in John at times. At times, he would indicate a kind of sternness in his judgments of others, a severity, that was very much unlike his usual kindness, and which I have often seen –always in far more developed forms– among men who grew up during World War II (John was in the R.A.F.; hence the R.A.F. tokens about the Pan statue) — especially men who had difficult relations with their fathers, as John had (he made several trips to Ireland toward the end of his life — in part to lecture to college students there, but also to reconnect with his deceased grandfather, as a way of circumventing this poor relationship with his father; I took several trips to VT to help him sell books to finance these trips). Usually this sternness of his was expressed in relation to people whom he thought were unteachable, and who not only had caused harm, but had such a character as to continue in persisting to cause harm. These were presumably, like the sophist Thrasymachus, deemed to be unteachable, after John thought that they had proved themselves so (though John was willing to begin a conversation with anyone, and never, so far as I know, wrote anyone off completely — just as Socrates was willing to converse with sophists, and never willingly broke off the conversation unless another had done so, due to their own tyrannical character). As noted, it always seemed to be a severity in evaluation, and never wrath or contempt. This severity could be visited upon people very close to him, leading to cold spells where John would not be heard from, or return calls, for days, weeks, or even months. He was aware of this severity, though, and took aim at it, to be mindful of it, and not let it have its way. In a paper he wrote and sent to me in 2011, he noted that he “suspects” that:
for ordinary folk, [their] character comes [before their intellectual positions]. The most obvious example would be in terms of authority. All children are subject to authority and they learn from the way authority is imposed upon them and from the people (usually parents) who do the imposing. It does not matter whether the imposition is harsh and cruel or gentle and kind for, whatever it is, it is learned by the child and carried into adulthood. If I may cite my own personal history, my family’s exercise of authority (not noted for its toleration) taught me a view that it has taken many years to un-learn. Rationally, I can see its injustice and inappropriateness, but emotionally and in terms of conduct, I can easily follow the age-old family pattern — and against my intent and wish very often. It requires constant vigilance. [“Platonic Interpersonal Relations”]
John was aware of the clouds.
The clouds always seemed to pass, however, and they seemed to pass rather quickly. John laughed often, a great, hearty laugh that came from his chest, the chest of a man who seemed to love the world, and life, and people. Smiling was frequent, and spontaneous. When he was not doing these two things, his eyebrows were often raised, and one could be sure that he was either quite interested in something that he was to inquire about, was about to tell one something interesting, or both. It was the face of one who always wished to seduce others into learning, to put motion in their souls. “It doesn’t really matter how a soul begins to move — it only matters that it does begin to move”, he said to me once, thoughtfully. One might think of the scene of the Allegory of the Cave in Book 7 of Plato’s Republic, where there are motionless, chained slaves –motionless and chained since birth– at the bottom of a cave, chained souls, “like ourselves”, who have no direct contact with one another, and are witness to a shadow puppet show all their lives, mistaking this for reality. ‘What would happen if one of these were released, and compelled to stand upright, and turn around, and look at the light?’ Plato asks of these released souls. They might be compelled to stand up, but they do all this, as the text says, “φύσει” [515c], “by nature” — motion is natural to the soul, moving up out of the cave and to the light is natural (indeed, it’s the only place one has to go once one “stands upright”), whereas immobility, slavery, is unnatural. John wanted to prompt other souls into motion.
He was full of wonder. On one trip to Vermont, John and I were walking across his drive to his garage, to look at or to get something that was out there. I looked up at the night sky, the moon exploding across it with a brightness that seemed augmented by so many silver strands of cloud, which dared not draw too close to her and violate the moon’s sphere. I had been reading Science and Poetry by the fantastic Mary Midgley, and lamented, “isn’t it awful to look up and see, not a goddess, but a rock?” “I’m sorry,” he began with his customary, invitatory beginning, “why should we say that she’s not a goddess, simply because she’s a rock?” John’s sense of wonder always opened up questions, even when the positions that he took seemed like they were simply bait for the kind of motion mentioned above. (John was not simply a polytheist, mind you: once, when we were talking about Zeus in The Iliad –it was likely the same day– he said that these gods lived “within the text”. On another occasion, in class with him years earlier, we were talking about the presocratic text from Thales, cited by Aristotle, “all things are full of gods”, “πάντα πλήρη θεών είναι” [see Kirk, Raven, & Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, Second Edition, p.95]. John mentioned that this meant that everything had a kind of life, and shimmered — not that there were literally spirits or fairies in everything.)
He was also quietly funny, and even the most stock jokes became somehow puckish and charming on his lips. As one might guess by his delight in receiving an MG for his birthday, John loved English nostalgia, even if he preferred the States (after hearing about the death of an actor from the Harry Potter movies, and learning that large knife fights were not unheard of in England, I asked him once about why that might be: “in England, people are not accustomed to governing themselves the same way as they are in the States”, he answered — of course, the question of self-regulation is key to a true understanding of justice in The Republic). It always seemed that the elements of English nostalgia that he delighted in took on a sparkle because of his sense of humor, rather than he being tickled by them. The English tea company PG Tips makes pyramid tea bags; John once mentioned, with an impish grin, that they were sometimes called “PG tits” in the U.K., likely because they could be taken as polygonal, PG-rated versions of, well, tits. Likewise with the common R.A.F. complaint about American soldiers in Europe: “There were three problems with them, we would say: they are over-sexed, over-paid, and over here!” These became endearing when John said them. (It is no surprise that one of the first things he said in that first semester at Cambridge College was about jokes: John was in love with Plato’s Socrates, who is very often quietly funny, and not so much with Aristotle. “There is only one joke in all of Aristotle”, he told me then. I can’t recall the joke, but it was about women.)
This humor was the only reason that he was able to endure overly-loquacious people like me, and, certainly, the reason why he would charm the women he would meet. He was a gentleman. John seemed to magically summon a certain flirtatious twinkle from the women around him, and to enjoy it: it is likely that his great humor was the only reason that so many situations weren’t oppressive for him, and why much of the company he found himself in was tolerable and even enjoyable.
This humor is also the reason why he could see all of life as a learning opportunity. Certainly his love of Plato either birthed this in him, or fanned the flame of this native element. John had recently divorced from his third wife (his second wife –so far as I know, his longest marriage– died, sadly). I don’t know the details, but my impressions were that the divorce was ugly. It left John with feelings that he was not accustomed to. “Can you recommend any movies about revenge?” he asked me one day. Rob Roy came to mind. I asked him whether he wished to live a revenge fantasy. “No,” he replied, “I simply have these feelings, and I wish to understand them.” Transitioning from a divorce is difficult, but he treated it as an educational opportunity. Transitions in general are difficult, though, and this is a lesson I learned from John. (For years, I’d seen how Asperger’s children struggle with transitions, but I didn’t understand until I met John how general the difficulties with transitions are.) This he told me once during his brief occupation of the endowed chair set up for him at Cambridge College: “Transitions are a great administrative problem.” I asked him what he meant. “Do you know what frogmen are?” I admitted that I didn’t, and had never heard of them. “They were soldiers trained to infiltrate enemy lines by scuba gear. However, once they reached the shore, they would need to transition from their scuba gear to regular camos, and this left them vulnerable.” He saw an entire group of frogmen, once, get mown down by machine gun fire while they were on a beach, and changing. “So you see, Gregory: transitions are a great administrative problem.”
This humor also gave him the fortitude –some would malign it as stubbornness– to return to the creature he had formed so many years ago, Cambridge College, and to teach there, after experiencing what he once described to me as a revolution, among some of the teachers he had hired, to remove him.
Now that John has passed, I am furiously searching for every artifact of conversation I can find: class notes, e-mail exchanges, drafts of papers, a few unfinished manuscripts, and books and articles he’d given me that I haven’t read. Some of the books and articles are his, and contain much that is explicitly autobiographical. So now that John has come to his end, I return somewhere to his middle. There is something about conversations that are remarkably open-ended in this way. When we covered The Iliad together, John’s first comment to me was that “the goddess could begin anywhere, really; but she was asked to begin here, at this conflict”. There was something about the freedom of the intellect that it could consider things from any angle it chooses, really, and begin inquiry anywhere: this freedom was a key part of our humanity for John. As noted above, in the Platonic dialogues, when someone asks a question –a real question– it is something like the One, unfolding into a Myriad of other questions, and returning to the original — unless the discourse is interrupted. The questions can begin anywhere. They never end. I am not sure I will be done with my conversations with John, ever.
I owed –and owe– John several pieces of writing that I promised him, but never sent him. Eventually I’ll get to writing them, and when I do, I’ll post them here, for
When thou dost purpose aught (within thy power),
Be sure to do it, though it be but small;
Constancy knits the bones, and makes us stowre,
When wanton pleasures beckon us to thrall.
Who breaks his own bond, forfeiteth himself;
What nature made a ship, he makes a shelf.
[George Herbert, The Temple]
In his book, The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis (a love of John’s; John wrote a book on his poetry) wrote about one of the Greek words for love, philia (φιλία), that it indicated a love of two people side-by-side, looking at the same object. John gave birth to a love of Plato and the Greeks in me that grows powerfully with each passing year; while he was alive, we spent thousands of hours together, side-by-side, looking at things commonly loved. Naturally, then, when I was puzzled about something in Plato’s Republic the other day, I suddenly wanted to call John, trusting that he had an answer. I was flying down Storrow Drive, and realized I could not call him. I started crying –bawling, really– so hard that I could only see for a brief moment every time I would wipe my eyes. Storrow Drive moves very fast; I was worried that I would surely crash. The loss of those we love is great. I believe it was Rahner who said that “in this life, all of our symphonies go unfinished”, and the same is true of our conversations.
The arrest of our conversations does not mean that all of our horizons are cages, however. There was one visit the three of us took up to see John, when he began to have some trouble with his eyesight, the specifics of which I can’t recall (the issue was resolved, and I can’t recall the specifics of that, either). He was sad about the possible loss of vision — it would mean that he could no longer read or write. “I’m not sure I would want to live anymore, if I couldn’t continue my work”, he admitted to my wife and me as we sat down eating at one of the fairs we were attending. My wife and I were very concerned, but John didn’t seem depressed at all, only a bit sad about the prospect of a life without being able to engage with the things that he loved so much. I offered him some kind of exhortation to take heart, and said something about the inherent undesirability of death.
John smiled, looking both surprised at my comment, and almost amused by it. “Oh,” he replied with humor, and a quite optimistic tone, “I’m sorry, but I’m not at all sure that death is the end.”