Patrick Riley (1941-2015)

I have drunk quite a bit of wine tonight at a university occasion. I ought to be preparing a document for a meeting I have tomorrow about my academic probation. But instead I am going to pour myself a bottle of beer, and write about my dear friend Patrick Riley, the news of whose death reached me this afternoon.

When I was a graduate student at Harvard almost twenty years ago, some of us were entertained in an affectionate kind of a way by the mismatch between what the professors who supervised us were interested in researching, and their personalities. Michael Sandel—who always seemed awkward in any kind of social encounter—taught about the distinctive virtues that were bound up with community living. Seyla Benhabib—whom even the cleverest among us found not a little intimidating—was committed to a vision of a society where interpersonal communication was undistorted by relations of asymmetrical power. Harvey Mansfield was writing a book on manliness. But there was someone on the fringes of that world whose academic commitments dovetailed perfectly with everything we knew about him. Patrick Riley taught at Wisconsin-Madison, but he lived in Cambridge, Mass. (and therefore had a complicated commuting schedule), and he was often to be found in emeritus professor Sam Beer’s office in the basement of the Littauer Building. And Patrick was writing on Leibniz’s vision of justice as universal benevolence, or of justice as the charity of the wise—and there was no better advertisement for universal benevolence than Patrick himself.

Patrick had a distinctive relationship with technology. When his old student and my then flatmate Sankar Muthu got a job at the New School for Social Research in New York City, I ended up taking his congratulatory telephone call at home, because the rotary dial phone he was using was sufficiently old-fashioned that it was unable to connect to Sankar’s office extension number. He was only ever an erratic email correspondent—with his email address an AOL address based on what he said was an archaic spelling of Leibniz’s name. But he was a master of the fax machine, and used to send faxes years after everybody else had stopped. A classic fax from Patrick started life as a piece of Harvard Government Department headed paper. A photocopied snippet of something—an obscure bibliographical reference from a midcentury French source, perhaps—would be pasted onto the middle of the page. The letter would be typed on his old machine around the pasted snippet. The whole thing would be annotated by hand. And then the collage would be fed into the fax machine and sent to its destination. A fax from Patrick was a thing both rich and strange, and always quite wonderful to receive.

I owed a lot to Patrick, at the start of my career. I basically inherited him from my friend Sankar. Sankar had been an undergraduate at Wisconsin-Madison, and had gone on from there in 1992 to Harvard to work on Enlightenment political thought with Patrick’s old teacher Judith Shklar. But Shklar died around the time Sankar arrived in Massachusetts, and Patrick was willing to serve on his dissertation committee for the project that eventually became Enlightenment against Empire. Then, when I was looking to assemble a committee a few years later, for my dissertation project on Stoicism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I asked him to join Richard Tuck and Pratap Bhanu Mehta in supervising me, and I never looked back. Patrick was visibly delighted that I was interested in working on this kind of thing, and my goodness, it made a difference. And when I spent too long trying (and failing) to land a job in the Winter of 1999-2000, and I sent the text of a job talk I had given in Philadelphia to Patrick, in order to try to show that I’d actually been doing something over the previous few months, he stunned me by asking if it could be rewritten for inclusion in the Cambridge Companion to Rousseau that he was editing, since he’d long felt that it needed one more paper on the foundations of Rousseau’s political philosophy, and in my work on Stoicism and Augustinianism, he thought perhaps he’d found it. And getting that piece in the publication pipeline was, I am sure, instrumental in me landing a teaching post in Oxford later that year.

After moving back to England, I didn’t see Patrick especially often at all. But he would turn up from time to time, usually unexpectedly. There were various projects in Europe he would visit—a Leibniz project in Hanover, a natural law project in Bologna—and he would often be passing through England en route, travelling from Heathrow to Exeter to visit Iain Hampsher-Monk’s seminar, or to Oxford, where he would stay at the Galaxy hotel on the fringes of Summertown, and the first thing I would know about his visit would be when he knocked on the door of my college rooms. The last time I saw him in Oxford, I remember eating sausages at the Rose & Crown on North Parade. And the last time I saw him full stop was in Cambridge, MA in the Spring of 2012. I hadn’t been in Boston for years, but Josephine was giving the Balmuth lectures at Tufts University, and on a glorious April morning I had breakfast with Patrick in the café at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. What I remember from that conversation was filling him in on our mutual friend István Hont’s declining health, a topic of interest to Patrick not only because of his great admiration for a fellow dix-huitièmiste but also because he was himself a diabetic who was wrestling with not dissimilar health problems. And in the end, it sounds as if they met their ends in similar ways. Both men had a fall—István in 2013, Patrick just now—and were taken to hospital where they subsequently died, István at 65, Patrick at 73.

What a fine scholar he was. There were various books: Will and Political Legitimacy, Leibniz’ Universal Jurisprudence, the Cambridge edition of Fénelon’s Telemachus (which, when I read it at home on the sofa in a single sitting one Sunday afternoon, resulted in a torn rotator cuff and a great deal of pain), and The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau. But for me, and I am sure for many others, the book by which I will remember Patrick is his 1986 study of The General Will before Rousseau, an exploration of the vocabulary of généralité in French thought—first in theology, then in what we might with only mild anachronism call sociology, then in political theory—going from Arnauld to Pascal, to Malebranche, to Bayle, to Fénelon, to Montesquieu and beyond, a real tour de force, and a book that only Patrick could really ever have written. He gave me a copy when I defended my dissertation in 2003, and that book has just become an even more precious possession than it has been heretofore.

There is lots more to say about Patrick— about his family, especially his splendid wife Joan; about his teachers (Michael Oakeshott—with whom he corresponded for decades—, Louis Hartz, Judith Shklar, John Rawls, Sam Beer, and others), to whom he was devotedly loyal; about his politics (insofar as I could work them out, a kind of Left Hegelianism). I am sure many things will be said in the days ahead, by those of us who loved him. But it is late here in Cambridge, England, and so I shall stop.

Patrick Riley, ave atque vale.

6 thoughts on “Patrick Riley (1941-2015)”

  1. Thanks so much for the lovely recollection, Chris, which so beautifully evokes Patrick.
    Incidentally, the story of your Cambridge Companion chapter was the first thing I heard about Patrick — and it was an apt introduction to the man. The remarkable thing about him, I think, was that one would expect (well, I would, but perhaps this says more about me) benevolence applied universally to grow rather thin — but he managed to be intensely as well as widely benevolent.
    (And, for what it’s worth, over the last few years he described himself to me as a “left Kantian”; but then he also applied that label to Marx, so it seems to cover a fair amount of ground.)

  2. I’ve just heard about Patrick’s death from Sankar, who sent me here. This is beautifully done and perfectly fitting; thank you for it.

  3. Since there are so many Chicago people here, perhaps one further thought. I was thinking about Patrick earlier this week, as it happens. Geneviève Rousselière was here in Cambridge to give an excellent paper on the famous disagreement between Kant and Constant about telling lies to murderers, and when I heard she was off to be Assistant Professor at Wisconsin-Madison, I thought how excellent it was that the Madison tradition of taking Rousseau seriously was being renewed.

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