What Paul Nelson Conducted

On a brilliant fall day in 1973, Paul Nelson passed me a golden gift that I have prized ever since. A small group of Poli Sci 101 students had gathered to discuss Plato’s entertaining, maddening book, The Republic. Before coming to Middlebury I had never heard of Plato; and here I was, slouched at a table in a Warner seminar room with a dozen other freshmen, mulling the morality of a shepherd named Gyges. I thought of that moment when I heard that this ageless man, this tireless conductor of thought, was actually retiring.

In Book II of The Republic, this cad finds a gold ring that makes him invisible. In short order Gyges hooks up with the queen and, with the queen’s help, murders the king and sets himself on the throne. The story serves as a kind of experiment to see whether social pressure dictates one’s virtue. Can any human, unobserved, anonymous, behave well? (You might say that Gyges foreshadowed both the Internet and Super Pacs.)

Being a late-blooming adolescent, I was less interested in the philosophical question than in the randy queen. The experiment seemed less than pure; after all, not every invisible aspirant to a throne would find such a willing coconspirator. Gathering my courage, I spoke up. “What about the queen? I mean, doesn’t she sort of, you know, spoil the ethical question?”

Paul Nelson frowned.

I blushed.

And then came the gift. “That hadn’t occurred to me,” he said.

It hadn’t? I stared at him, sure he was lying. This bearded sage looked exactly the way Aristotle must have: professorial, probing, peripatetic, impossibly lean. Philosophy whooshed from Mr. Nelson’s mouth as though the ancients themselves spoke through it. And he was ancient himself! Surely he had reread The Republic sufficiently to have memorized it, possibly in Greek. And the queen question had never occurred to him?

In the four decades since, while Mr. Nelson donned the grand title of G. Nye and A. Walker Boardman Professor of Mental and Moral Science, his outward appearance remained unchanged. Many thoughts have doubtless occurred to him over those years, as much from the works of his beloved mentor, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, as from the mouths of tabulae rasae like me. Paul Nelson was the most brilliant listener, showing patient curiosity in the rhetoric of Henry Kissinger, my senior thesis topic. He went on to direct the performing arts series at Middlebury. And he became a scholar of rhetoric himself, spending his last sabbatical in London in the study of 19th-century British sportswriters.

An illiberal mind may ask what a philosopher can glean from the rhetoric of long-dead Limey sportswriters. The answer lies in one golden moment in Warner. For this was Paul’s gift, this is what he conducted: A liberal education comes not so much from the four-year pursuit of knowledge. It comes from welcoming, over a lifetime, the occurrence of thought.

Jay Heinrichs ’77 is the author of Thank You for Arguing and Word Hero.

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  1. How glorious it is to encounter a mind that is open to new and different occurrences. As long as I have known Paul, that has optimized his way of thinking and his outlook on life. You were indeed fortunate to have received this gift from him, Jay. Conduct yourself accordingly.

  2. I never had the pleasure of taking a class with Professor Nelson but have heard a lot of amazing things about him. I wanted to add that the philosophy department at Middlebury is a gem. I took a class with Professor Viner and one with Professor Woodruff in my first year and decided to change my majors from Econ and Math to Phil and Econ. I would really recommend every incoming Middkid reading this take a class with Professor Viner or Woodruff in their first year.

  3. Thanks for this wonderful little tribute. My classmates and I still talk about what a pleasure it was to be in one of Paul’s classes.

  4. I was in Prof. Nelson’s first-year seminar, “Good and the Thought of Good.” It was a foundational, formative class for me as a student and as a human. I teach university classes now myself and aspire to be half as good a teacher as Prof. Nelson. He was old-fashioned in the way he addressed us (always by last name, which is how the fifteen of us addressed each other for four years when we passed each other on campus), but always so open, young, and playful in discussions. I admire his mind and intellect, but even more, like the author of this piece, I admire his openness to learning. He has no fear of being wrong and he loves discussions

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    (disagreements!) for building up new ideas together. As I stand in front of classes now and feel that pressure to “know the answer,” I try to remember that figuring out the answer together with students is an incredible gift.

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