A Letter of Sympathy

Shelly Kagan also teaches a class called DEATH.

To: the freshman who showed up to the senior and grad philosophy seminar on Derek Parfit, taught by professors Shelly Kagan and Stephen Darwall

From: Cora Lewis

Hey, it was worth a shot.

I’ll admit I didn’t catch your name, or even a real good look at you, sitting as I was with my body bent into its most space-efficient contortion on the carpeted floor of Loria seminar room 360, my back against the wall, intimately close to a pair of perspiring law students. But there was a moment there, right after you stated your class year, before the laughing and the exchanged looks and the under-the-breath “not-on-your-life”s, when I thought maybe, just maybe, these heavyweight profs would reward your shoot-the-moon attitude with a spot in “Recent Ethical Theory.” No such luck.

For what’s it’s worth, when senior philosophy majors were asked to raise their hands at the end of class, Professor Kagan, whose online lecture “Death” has been seen by about a zillion people in China*, squinted over at me and asked, skeptically, “You’re a philosophy major?” (To be fair, I was abroad in Oxford all last year, and I never sent in a headshot for the friendly bulletin board of philosophy majors in Connecticut Hall, so there was no reason he should have recognized me. I’m an unknown in New Haven, let alone China.)

But this isn’t about me, or the variety of embarrassments to be found in the first day of class. My aim in this letter is mainly to reiterate that tired but true claim: 90 percent of success is showing up — except, that is, when it comes to shopping period, in which case it’s probably best to wise up and figure out which classes you have a reasonable probability of getting into.

Still, this was the adage I tried to follow when I sent a shot-in-the-dark email to the reclusive Derek Parfit, the philosopher the Kagan-Darwall seminar focuses on. Some context: Parfit’s most recent works, two tomes on ethics sweepingly titled “On What Matters,” published in 2011, clock out at a manageable 1,440 pages. They comprise a light read that claims to have created a triple-threat principle that solves some of the major conflicts between different schools of ethical thought. And Parfit is a fellow at All Souls, a graduate school at Oxford that once boasted an entrance exam with a single-word prompt – students would sit down and write an essay riffing on a single concept, like “Justice” or “Reality.” “Pretension.” “Exclusivity.”

Mr. Parfit graciously wrote back to me in May, though he said he preferred not to meet in person, and we exchanged a short set of emails, in which I mainly flailed about attempting to ask reasonably informed questions about his life’s work. He politely corrected my sometimes-bungled readings. But his most frequent strategy was to refer me back to quotations from his works, such as this one — a few of his concluding lines, and some wisdom to tide you over until you make it into those senior seminars:

“Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea … What now matters most is that we avoid ending human history. If there are no rational beings elsewhere, it may depend on us and our successors whether it will all be worth it, because the existence of the Universe will have been on the whole good.”

To put it another way, nameless, faceless freshman: It’s all on you. Keep showing up.

*I don’t actually know how many people have seen this course, but, according to Chinese National Radio: “Kagan lectures the students while sitting on the podium with legs crossed and wearing jeans and sneakers. His image, resembling that of an ‘immortal’ in Chinese mythology, has made him a ‘star’ closely followed by the youth in China.”