He was the greatest professor I have ever known, and I’ve known a lot of them. I’ve just now heard of his passing this January.
I remember a physics class once, and the Russian professor was describing his reaction to textbook merchants touting the features of their latest, umpteenth, feature-packed editions.
“If you really want to make it great,” he would say to them, “Make it cost five dollars.”
Well, Bob Solomon did just that. I don’t know how long he taught his existentialism class, but he compiled the little eponymous blue textbook for it, and it did cost $5, and it’s one of the best damn books I’ve ever owned. Those lectures have been immortalized by The Teaching Company, and are available for sale as CDs or tapes. I can’t recommend them enough.
I remember in a lecture about Kierkegaard, Dr. Solomon drew a tiny stick figure at the bottom of the board, and next to it, towering over it, an enormous circle that one first assumes is going to be a planet. Then he draws a pupil and an iris and the circle becomes a cyclopean eye, staring down at the little man like a bug beneath a microscope.
“This,” he said, “is how Kierkegaard saw his relationship with God.”
It still makes me laugh.
When we read Camus, he talked about the sense of hopelessness as a doctor might describe an interesting pathology. “Everything you do,” he said, “becomes pointless if you think about it long enough. Even teaching. Every teacher has had the experience of a pupil who returns years later brimming with gratitude, and after talking to them for awhile, of realizing that they have completely and utterly missed the point.”
I never got to know Bob as well as I should have. I had the best grade in a class of 60 when I took his course, and the way was open for me. But I was too intimidated and I failed to establish a relationship with him. I asked for a meeting with him to write me a letter of recommendation for law school. He agreed, and then stood me up. He must’ve thought I’d missed the point, too. And at that time maybe I had.
But I quit law school. I never should have gone in the first place. I like to think that if I’d gone back and talked to Dr. Solomon, before he died, he would have been proud of me for realizing on my own that the world has too many damn lawyers in it, already. I like to think that, in the end, I didn’t miss the point at all.