The following interview is transcribed from an interview conducted virtually on May 10, 2021.
Hello, Dr. Kambo! Let’s start off with a simple question. Can you tell us a little bit about your background? You’re a professor in philosophy, so I was wondering if you could trace the journey from a chemistry major at Stanford University to a philosophy professor at Hope College.
IHE Fellow Kevin Kambo:
I suppose I shouldn’t make any “science is real” or “I no longer believe in science and that’s why I went into philosophy” jokes. I began as pre-med, but not really “in it to win it” with natural science. And then, something happened along the road to Damascus, and it turned out that I really disliked biology, which is somewhat important for medicine.
I gave up on that path by the end of sophomore year of college. But, during that time, I had met a human biology professor, Dr. William Hurlbut. We met my first week at Stanford and, being an undergrad with a zeal for ethics, I promptly challenged him on moral questions surrounding embryonic stem cell research. And, to my surprise, he said that he was actually disturbed about embryo destruction, and said I should take his course. He is the one who actually got me reading Aristotle for the first time, as well as Leon Kass and Mortimer Adler. And so, as I took more of his classes on my pre-med journey, I suppose I had a Socrates moment and realized natural science is not the way to go.
I turned back to logoi and thought about law school briefly in between undergrad and graduate school at Catholic University of America, working as a paralegal, and then realized that the practice of law was just something deeply uninteresting to me. In any case, I happened to be friends with a former professor of philosophy from Catholic University, David Gallagher, and he strongly recommended Catholic University. I was interested in a program that was small and historically oriented. I took some classes at Fordham University in ancient and medieval philosophy, and I took a course from Dr. Gyula Klima, an analytical Thomist. But then I came to Catholic University, and my first semester, I took “Evil and Neoplatonic Philosophy” with Dr. Matthias Vorwerk.
This was actually my first class in Neoplatonism, and I thought, “this is incredibly interesting.” And then, in the spring semester, I had my first ever Plato class, with Professor John Rist. I thought to myself, I will do whatever it takes to have this man direct my Master’s thesis. I had been thinking about maybe doing bioethics, maybe Thomas Aquinas, and I don’t know what happened, but a class with Rist made me think, “Plato it’s going to be.” I just loved Rist, and he has great reserves of patience. He even agreed to do distance Ph.D. guidance for me, which was fantastic because that gave me an excuse to visit Cambridge a couple of times. So, Plato became my guy, and moral psychology became my field. Dr. Cristina Ionescu and [IHE Fellow] Dr. Bradley Lewis also confirmed these things in my soul. And so, I picked the Philebus somewhat strategically as my dissertation topic, because it was both interesting and a dialogue that not many had written about.
And then, after graduation, I applied to Hope College for an open position in philosophy. I had never heard of Hope College and had never been to Michigan. Out of all the ancient philosophy jobs, it was the one about which I was least enthusiastic. But then, I sent the list of places I was going to apply to to Dr. Ionescu. And, she asked me why I wasn’t going to apply to Hope College. Then, the chair of the Hope College philosophy department emailed her and said, “Do you guys have a candidate?” And she replied to him, copying me in the email saying, “Yes, we have a great candidate, he’s definitely going to apply.”
And I thought, well, okay. I came for an on-campus interview at the end of January that year, around when lake-effect winter should be brutal in Holland, MI, at least for me. I’m from Kenya, so I’m not used to this kind of thing. But, every so often there’s a week where it’s maybe in the forties. That was the week that I was interviewing, and I was here for two days. I met some really impressive faculty and students, including the two founders of the Saint Benedict Institute, which I believe has been an IHE partner for an event or two. One of them, Jared Ortiz, has his Ph.D. in theology from Catholic University, and he is a really fun Augustine scholar. So, I met people whom I liked, and realized there were a lot of Catholic University PhDs here. There are two in political science, and both of them I liked very much. One is from the orbit of [IHE Fellow] Dr. David Walsh. So, in a funny way, right from the first, I had some Institute for Human Ecology or Catholic University overlaps with Hope. I came out here as their ancient philosophy professor, and that’s been pretty fun so far.
I have a related question before I ask you some questions about your involvement as a fellow with the IHE. I’m wondering what you would say to a skeptic who might ask what use there is in studying ancient philosophy and Plato now.
What’s interesting to me about that question is the way you phrased it: why study Plato now? Because “now” means many things. I’ve been thinking a lot about Plato over the last year, both with regards to events in the U.S., in higher education, and in my own personal life. So, I’ll give the most broad and perhaps most applicable answer.
One of the things I liked and just love about Plato and ancient philosophy in general is that you have this sense that philosophy is not cut off from life. And so whether you’re doing the Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, Peripatetics . . . all of these people are concerned about how to live in the world. And, to be able to answer that question, you need to understand the world. And so, I think that recovering the pure form of “philosophy as a way of life” is really important for us today.
One of the things that is nice to see is that often when people talk, whether it’s about national politics or even policies on campus, they sound like Platonic characters, even though they don’t realize it. For example, my school right now is going through a general education curriculum review. One of the questions is “should we have a core, no core, what kinds of requirements should we have, what should we be reading,” etc. And I went to a faculty meeting where a lot of people who, presumably, really care about curriculum were discussing ideas. One of us says, “You know, I’ve never read any Plato, and I’m alright with it.” I remember sitting back wondering, “Do you know I teach Plato?” But also, more importantly: “Do you know you sound like you’ve just walked out of the Meno? It’s remarkable how much people combine easy confidence and ‘not knowing that they don’t know’. And so, I constantly feel as if I am meeting characters from the Platonic corpus all the time.
So, the approach is naturally to do the Socratic thing and say, “Oh, and what do you mean? Why do you say that?” All of a sudden, you are drawn into the current of a Platonic dialogue. In that regard, then, it’s just fun that Plato is perennially relevant because of the way the dialogues play out.
More particularly, I do moral psychology, and I like Platonic ethics because of this insight about the importance of love and desire when it comes to what people do, what people say, and what people see. Too many do ethics by “let’s find the universal principle, and now let’s apply the universal principle to the particular situation.” And off we go. It’s this very odd kind of rationalist, calculated thing.
But Plato is really good on this point: that what people see, what people hear, what people are thinking are so much influenced by what they love. And it’s a much more humane way of doing moral philosophy and paying attention to things that don’t show up when you’re just doing ‘principles and particulars’. I think moral psychology is just way more attractive than many of the ways of doing ethics that are in play today. Even when you hear religious people talking about ethics, there’s this really strong emphasis on duty and “what are the rules.” We’re all probably all poor Kantians at a certain level.
Plato’s idea, on the other hand, is that we should be aiming for likeness to God as far as possible for a human being. I think it’s a much healthier way of approaching moral formation and the moral end, and it’s more attractive. It’s more heroic (this is just channeling John Rist). And it’s a nice precursor, I think, to the whole Christian tradition of deification, both in the West and in the East. So yes, if one can identify oneself, I’m a Platonizing Augustinian, and I just can’t help but see him everywhere and on every level. And I appreciate that Plato is someone who knows his history very well. He is also someone who knows his literature very well, and it shows up in the dialogues. So Platonic philosophy exists on many levels when you read it, and then you realize that’s how you should be today if you’re going to be talking about things intelligently. You should know history, know what the stories people are telling and why, and know what people feel, and so on and so forth.
I completely agree with your first point. In thinking more about political conversations and conversations we have in our culture, it’s interesting to realize that at the heart of every disagreement is a disagreement over definitions. In Platonic dialogues, that is brought to the fore in a very explicit sense. So there’s a way in which Plato gets you to enter into political discourse in a more substantial way than just starting with the political ideologies themselves.
The way of life aspect of ancient philosophy is also extremely attractive. In that mode of doing philosophy, we are much closer to the truth about human nature, where we are presented to each other and to ourselves as wholes. Our intellects are not split apart from our prudential acts and from our loves.
I would just add one quotation to what you said about why studying Plato in particular is important. Dr. Timothy Noone, I think, gave one of the best answers to this. He said once in a class on Scotus’s metaphyiscs that whenever he wants to understand the depth of a philosophical question and how tricky it is to understand, he goes back to Plato.
When a person like Dr. Noone says that, you’re like, “Whoa, okay. That’s something to pay attention to.”
Yes, Dr. Noone saw that at the heart even of high medieval scholastic debates about metaphysics, therein lies the Platonic impulse to keep digging into these perennial questions. And I think that’s one reason why Plato is so valuable: you can’t really do philosophy properly unless you have a love for the truth and a desire for contemplation at the core of your research. This takes me to my next question: what is your current research about?
This summer, I will be working on two things that are on my mind, and they both have Platonic roots. One has to do with liberal education, which is on my mind very much because right now we’re all trying to figure out what to do about higher education, especially those of us in the liberal arts. I am working on what I hope will be a book chapter on memory. I’m essentially saying that Plato is right or Socrates is right in the Republic when he says that education is about turning the soul. My aim is to point out that few people talk about this today. The liberal arts conversation today begins maybe with the Trivium for many people, if you’re niche you’ll bring in the Quadrivium. Others think liberal education will make you a good citizen or make you fit for democracy or something like that. And let’s not get started on the ‘critical thinking’, ‘lifelong learner’ gestures.
And then you have those who claim liberal education is done for its own sake. I agree to a point, but often don’t know what that means sometimes. So I want to say: let’s actually focus liberal education much more tightly than that and say, “Plato’s correct that we are about changing or transforming or turning the soul, but what does that mean?” And I would like to study that in different aspects. What does it mean to turn memory around? What does it mean to turn reasoning around? What does it mean to turn perception around, and so on . . . so, in the summer, I’ll start on memory because I think that’s obviously one of the big themes in the Platonic dialogues. What I want to more or less argue is that part of what liberal education does is a formation of memory. And that’s part of the reason why I myself ended up in philosophy. There’s a part of me that feels there are certain things that should not be forgotten either by myself or just people in general, and I want to be a bearer of these things and pass them on.
That’s a very good impetus for teaching, right? In teaching, you want to better yourself as a teacher because you’re aware that the only way you can teach is if you remember important things well enough to pass them on.
That’s exactly right. So, I want to look at the Symposium and the Phaedo parallel to each other. John Rist always reminds me that the Symposium and the Phaedo are a diptych. One of the things that strikes me about them, and I think Seth Benardete talks about this too, is how you have different levels of memory for both dialogues, and you have two instances of (and this is to your point about teaching) teaching in each. At the ‘bottom’ of the Phaedo is Anaxagoras, and at the ‘bottom’ of the Symposium is Diotima, both teachers, one of whom is apparently successful and one of whom is unsuccessful.
How to remember and not get bound simply to what has been told to you is an interesting problem, especially as a teacher. These are things you have to hold in your soul somehow, and yet, we can’t make them idols. So, I want to study memory and the liberal arts as one avenue towards recapturing a good understanding of education, and then the other avenue is refutation in the Phaedo. This topic is something that came from class with Dr. Ionescu, and I’ve just been sitting on it for almost three years now. There’s a passage of the Phaedo where Socrates says that there are different kinds of death, and the philosopher not only desires death, but deserves death. And that was interesting to me. What does it mean to deserve death?
So, I want to write a little article on how refutation is a form of death and the philosopher does deserve that form of death because he thinks that to be refuted is to be purified. His life, as it were, ends and begins again with every refutation, and Socrates in the Phaedo obviously gets refuted, three times at least–in the context of his execution. And while his interlocutors or his fans are getting more and more depressed, every time Socrates is refuted, he actually becomes more excited and more pleased. His example teaches you a lot about debate, what it means to enter into debate and the kind of philosophical versus sophistic mode. Again, very relevant to today. Either you’re going in to win the debate, or you’re going in hopefully to discover what’s true.
So, those are the two things on my mind that I will be working on this summer. There’s one other little piece on The Merchant of Venice that I want to write, which also goes back to Plato because Plato’s version of punishment for injustice in general is very therapeutic. His view and The Merchant of Venice got me thinking about mercy and how that works. I’ve taught The Merchant of Venice every year that I’ve been here at Hope College, and am developing this idea that there’s an interesting parallel between acts of mercy and the act of creation. That both are about bringing something from a low state into being or restoring it in being, which sounds very Platonic and kind of demiurgical, if we can make up a word. And it plays on ideas in the Philebus about the mind as bringing things from the unlimited into mixture based on the Forms. So, I’m also going to talk about mercy in The Merchant of Venice, probably in light of Aquinas, because I think that what is happening in The Merchant of Venice is very close to how mercy is defined in the Summa Theologiae. Those are probably the three things topmost on my mind that are more academically oriented. And then we’ll see where the rest goes.
So, now I’m going to pivot to some IHE related questions. How did you first find out about the IHE and what is your favorite memory or aspect of the IHE?
One summer, [IHE Fellow] Dr. Knobel, right after my master’s graduation, invited me to her office and said, “We have this new thing starting up, and we’re planning to have an ethics symposium in the fall. We’d like a graduate assistant to help organize it.” I think that’s how I kind of got roped in. At that point it was Dr. Knobel and, obviously, [IHE Executive Director] Dr. Capizzi.
That first program was really fun because we really did not know what we were about as far as clear and distinct organizational structure, but we were committed to having this symposium on ethics. We brought in faculty from the military academies for a conversation on “what does it mean to teach ethics courses”? Dr. Capizzi obviously was there, Dr. Knobel, and then all these military academy faculty. It was just exciting being there and seeing them go at it. It’s funny, because even as graduate students, we don’t get too many opportunities to see faculty discuss things, so that was really formative. Shortly after that, maybe in the spring, Dr. Knobel organized the IHE’s “Can A Feminist Be Pro-Life?” panel. And that was chaotic and fun too. If you have Platonic inclinations, there’s a bit of fun in chaos. Those early days were also invigorating because I don’t even know if I had a proper title, and I felt as if I was doing a bit of everything. I was recruiting people, figuring out how we were going to do the Q&A session, and bribing friends to come and do mock panels.
I also liked the monthly Fellows meetings. Before the “Can A Feminist Be Pro-life?” event, we had one of these meetings and again, it was fascinating because you had the faculty Fellows sitting around a table discussing things. It was a real education to see experts from different areas. [IHE Fellow] Dr. Nora Heimann was explaining to us the different waves of feminism within the U.S. and abroad, and [IHE Fellow] Dr. Knobel was pointing questions about contemporary ethics and feminism in philosophical literature. I think [IHE Fellow] Dr. Gorman changed his mind about three times during this single meeting. It was amazing as a graduate student to see experts debating, discussing, and changing their minds honestly, which is really inspiring and beautiful to watch. So, those meetings were special for me!
We will have to reinstate those meetings next year, post-COVID!
Yes! So, it was just wonderful because there were so many different people from different parts of campus and because the schools are kind of segregated, sort of sovereign nations. It’s nice to see people in TRS, the School of Philosophy, the Business School, and in the arts and sciences all come together and discuss things. I wish we had more of that as a university.
That is definitely a nice expression of the multidisciplinary character of the IHE. My last question is another IHE related question, tying back into your research topics. I’m wondering what projects you’re working on or what projects in the future you see as good collaborations with the IHE.
I mean the easy one, I think — and you are already doing stuff like this because there was “The University in the Time of COVID” panel series — is that the liberal arts conversation is actually becoming more interesting now. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why. Part of it might be all these classical high schools growing, and there’s just a much larger group of people interested in the liberal arts and there are also more graduate programs for teaching in classical schools. So I think that I would like to do more of that. And if we can make some confessions, I am presently writing a piece on the Idea of a University. I want to flesh out how Saint John Henry Newman’s distinction between the mind and the heart is anti-Platonic, and to my mind, almost clouded. We’ll see how that goes, but I’ll frame my concerns as a Platonic critique, referencing the Gorgias and the Republic. But this is an idea that carries into contemporary Platonists like Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch. We would all say that Newman’s distinction here has been measured and found wanting. I’d love to give a talk to your Saint John Henry Nemwan Undergraduate Fellows on this subject.
And then, speaking about recent political events in the United States, questions on racism have been really interesting to me over the past year, and I’ve found myself compelled one way or another to think about it a lot. It would be nice to see more responses or conversations about it that were better informed by the tradition. I think right now a lot of the conversation, and this goes back to the beginning of our conversation today, is driven by the words that people use. Many of the terms are somewhat idiosyncratic, badly defined, and incredibly rhetorical.
So, the words might be making things worse and confusing, and it would be nice to have a response from within the tradition. And there are not too many Christians doing that right now. I think that at a place like the IHE, you might be able to find people who can do something like that. I was teaching Antigone this semester and, as part of that, we read George Eliot’s really short essay on it. Her reading of Antigone is that people get caught up in these megaloi logoi, which I will translate as “weighty words.” They can’t bear the weight of these words, which commit them to positions that are ultimately constraining. And I feel that’s how the discourse is right now. We’re just burdened with words that are making us blind or making us angry in ways that could be avoidable if we instead maybe took a step back and tried to do this a bit better.
And again, Plato is so good on this point: that people don’t realize until they start thinking through jargon or thinking through cliches that merely rhetorical language can narrow your scope for thought and perspective. And Flannery O’Connor is really good on this point too. You can tell which of her characters are just sort of spouting things that they don’t really understand. So, I feel like I’m living through a Greek tragedy.
Yeah, our age is becoming more and more similar to what might be called the “pre-Socratic” age.
You’re one hundred percent correct! It’s sophists and tragedians running around, which can be dangerous.
Right. Well, this is good. Those were all the questions I had, and you gave such beautiful, complex answers. Very fitting for a Platonist!
But that’s how we roll! Maybe I’ll give a parting shot, returning to why we read Plato. It’s because it is actually incredibly fun. I’m sure some people have fun reading Aristotle, and Scotus, and so on. But reading Plato is sort of like reading a detective novel, say Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie, and this with comedy at times, like a P.G. Wodehouse. There’s a delight in putting the pieces together that I don’t get from almost any other author.
He’s so careful with all of the details in his dialogues. Plato very intentionally places more there than meets the eye on a first reading. But, if you keep reading, you can find those carefully placed clues eventually. The wealth of insight is there if you just keep reading and keep paying attention.
I like the way you said this because yes, you’re rewarded for that. And that’s an achievement of writing to me that’s almost preternatural. The problem with books is that they can’t speak back to you, but with Plato, it’s almost as if it’s a requited love in a way. If you give it attention, there will be a response. There’s a reward, a fruit that’s been put there for you to find, and it’s fun and playful!
Yeah. It really makes you understand what contemplation really is like when you read one of his works: that if you sit attentively with a passage, even if it’s just sort of a very small passage cut off from the rest, and you just read it over and over and over again, truths start to emerge. Well, thank you. Thanks for taking time out of your grading!
Always happy to take time away from grading. Thank you!
Kevin Kambo is a professor of philosophy at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and the IHE’s first former graduate student who is now a faculty fellow.