In the last week of March, we lost both Robert Goheen '40 and Robert Fagles - humanists and Princetonians who did much to shape our community.
By the time I came to Princeton in 1975, Goheen had departed. In retrospect, it's clear that he carried out a revolution. He transformed an excellent men's college with higher aspirations in a few disciplines into a coeducational university that strives for excellence in all fields. But I took this new Princeton for granted, as the young do. It was only after years here that I came to know Goheen a little bit, and to learn from others something of what he had done for the University.
Bob Fagles, by contrast, was a very active presence in my Princeton from the start. Friends who had junior positions in the comparative literature department talked about the courtesy, kindness and wisdom with which he was building the new department. Students who took courses in comp. lit. or majored in it told stories of what it meant to study with a professor who loved literature without reserve and devoted himself with extraordinary modesty and warmth to teaching students how to bring both passion and critical attention to the act of reading. As an occasional staff member in humanities courses, I came to know his translations - especially those of the Greek tragedians and the Iliad - and to appreciate the way that he could make these ancient, alien, ferociously powerful texts come blazingly alive for contemporary students.
What makes me think about them together now, though, is not so much what they achieved, great though that was, as what they shared. In the early decades of the American university system, professors didn't receive job offers. Instead, like ministers, they were "called" - and like ministers, many of them saw the positions they accepted as callings rather than mere jobs. They stayed at the same universities for decades; they did the soul-destroying administrative work; they built departments and curricula and acted as mentors to students and junior colleagues. Naturally, they cherished hopes and ambitions of their own. They sought fame of the modest kind that academics can win: as writers and teachers. But they also saw themselves as serving institutions, working to realize purposes larger than themselves.
Goheen and Fagles were rooted, in this once-normal way, in a place and a a community. They came to Princeton young: in Goheen's case, as a freshman; and in Fagles', as a young instructor. They stayed for decades. And though they cherished Princeton, they could see its faults and never lost the desire to make it better: in particular, to make it live more consistently by its own humanistic ideals. Commitment to an institution, in their terms, required being informed and critical - in a way that's hard to imagine in an age of hyper-mobile academics.
The two men had other qualities in common. All of us like our subjects, but Goheen and Fagles somehow embodied the great texts that they studied. I once heard my friend S. Georgia Nugent '73, a distinguished scholar who serves as president of Kenyon College, explain how she decided to study Greek and Latin. As a newly hatched freshman from Florida, raw and ill informed, she had no idea what she wanted to study. But then she heard Goheen address her class. She had never heard anyone speak with such clarity, such power, or such love of learning, and when she found out that he was a classicist, she knew that she had to become one too - even though she was far from certain what a classicist actually did for a living.
I had the good fortune to see Bob Fagles carry out a very similar kind of magic. With his usual generosity, he agreed to address the high school seniors who came to Princeton for its first Humanities Symposium. Frail, low-voiced, but erect as always, he talked thrillingly about what it meant to translate Homer and read aloud passages in which the violence and power of the ancient poem came back to life. Like Goheen's speech to the Class of 1973, Fagles' speech proved life-changing for more than one of the symposiasts who heard it. If we're going to preserve the humanities, we'll need new generations of humanists who live their work in this way - something hard to do in an analytical, unsentimental world.
Finally, Goheen and Fagles shared something as precious as it is rare: a particular way of dealing with others. Another great humanist who worked in Princeton, Erwin Panofsky, loved to tell this story: "Nine days before his death Immanuel Kant was visited by his physician. Old, ill and nearly blind, he rose from his chair and stood trembling with weakness and muttering unintelligible words. Finally his faithful companion realized that he would not sit down again until the visitor had taken in a seat. This he did, and Kant then permitted himself to be helped to his chair and, after having regained some of his strength, said, ‘Das Gefühl für Humanität hat mich noch nicht verlassen' - ‘The sense of humanity has not yet left me.' " Courtesy, as Kant practiced it, meant something more than simple manners: It meant adhering to the principles that make human community possible, in the teeth of the weakness and decay that affect all men and women in the end. Goheen and Fagles were both men of courtesy, in this distinctive - and humbling -sense, one that finds little obvious place in our brusque, hurried lives.
Goheen and Fagles have left us great examples. I hope that we can use them as creatively as they used the ancient traditions that they did so much to preserve.