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.

9 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.

  4. Happened to come across this post after wondering via Google what had come of my former independent study advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Patrick T. Riley. I am sad to learn of his passing.

    Twenty seven years ago, a roommate of mine recommended Professor Riley’s Intro to Political Theory class. I’m glad he did. Because Professor Riley was a force of nature in his lectures, a revelation. I was hooked.

    But on a more note, Professor Riley was the only undergraduate professor who I recall demonstrating a genuine interest in me as a person and in my intellectual development. And I found it remarkable that he could be so brilliant and yet so unassuming.

    Although I failed to stay touch after graduation, I cherished the time that he and I spent together in his small office at the top of the stairs in North Hall, his supportive nature, and all the insight he provided into political thought. I particularly loved how he’d quote from memory whole passages of Kant, Rousseau and Nietzsche, among others. And how, without missing a beat, he’d pop out of his chair mid-sentence to grab a book from the bookshelf, flip it open to a precise page and read aloud with passion and purpose. Then, when he finished, he’d look up, his eyes would grow wide, and he’d raise his fuzzy eyebrows up and down as though he was letting me in on a secret.

    Once I talked him into making a lunch run for a shrimp po’boy sandwich at a restaurant near the state capitol, where I worked, the Blue Marlin. He gushed about how much he enjoyed the off-campus meal, and how nice it was to take a breather, away from the snake pit of interdepartmental politics.


  5. I just learned today of Patrick’s death, which saddens me even though it has been more than a decade since my four years of post-doctoral study under him. I extended my formal education, which was already distended, because of the richness of the man’s knowledge and the quality of (and, yes, humor in) his lectures. I attended every lecture of every class he taught during the four years, and even repeated one class so I would have all of the 12 or 14 books read.
    Others have written on his scholarly accomplishments and even some of his ideas, so I need not get into those except to say that he and I had a conversation about his emphasis on relating theorists to each other ideationally in his lectures, and, moreover, focusing on the thought of other scholars rather than coming out with his own theory. My own inclination is with the latter, but Patrick showed me the great value of the former.
    Patrick and I also discussed practical matters, such as why his chair was blocking any formal post-doctoral arrangement out of spite for Patrick, and why his chair had made fun of Patrick to a journalist, who in turn wrote that Patrick’s participation in the department was limited because he “takes his carriage back to Cambridge” every weekend. Patrick sat on a table in the small room of his social-contract seminar, looked at me in hurt astonishment, and said, “My own chair did that to me.” I instinctively, perhaps out of caritas sapientis seu benevolentia universalis, provided emotional support by replying, “The problem is UW, not you,” and, “As I see it, your feelings make sense.” I supported him in his decision to go to the chancellor on the matter. Neither of us thought it would make any difference, but that the effort would be laudable. It would also confirm how corrupt the university was.
    Given the mob-like politics (according to a state legislator) and ressentiment (or envy) ensconsed at the university, I readily understood why Patrick lived so far away and maintained a relationship with Harvard. I was not surprised at all that Patrick retired from Wisconsin as soon as he could and decamped to Harvard. Inevitably, whenever I wore my Yale sweatshirt to 0ne of Patrick’s large survey classes (I didn’t own any UW clothing), he would bring up the matter of the rivalry. In actuality, we were on the same side in the true rivalry with Wisconsin.
    In charity, he created the “legal fiction” of my post-doc (I would register for 1 credit of independent study just often enough to maintain campus access), told me that none of the scholars on that campus were doing research on my caliber, and hand-wrote a letter of recommendation indicating that I was proficient to teach political theory at the graduate level even though political economy had been the closest in my masters and doctoral studies. I regard his recommendation as my best and most valuable even though it is useless practically speaking. I count my studies under Patrick as an extension of my Yale education, and therefore as worthwhile even though my student years took up too much of my youth.

  6. I have just learned of Patrick Riley’s death only yesterday. What a loss. I had the good fortune of being a student of Patrick when I entered the program at UW-Madison and woiund up taking as many courses courses as I could with him. I was there to study Russian/Ukrainian politics, which I finished in 1986. But many was the time I thought of moving over to Political Philosophy. So much I learned from him! Of particular interest to me was the writings of Michael Oakeshott (who I later found came up on a philosophy prelim), but I really was thankful for his discussing Vauvennargues with me, and many others.

    I lost track of him as I moved back to Washington, DC, but the stories about him and the knowledge him give stayed with me. I called him on occasion with a question that I had, and he was always able to help. Imagine my surprise, when my son wanted to go into philsophy, and came to me with a “simple” question: what was the categorical imperative”? I looke at him an replied, “I was taught that by Patrick, but I don’t think I could do it justice. Why don’t we call him and get the best answer I know of.” So I set about, again, tracking his number because I knew he would not be “on the web”.

    And then I found he had passed. I told my son of this misfortune, but we still had his writings. So he could get an answer, but not delivered in his wonderfully enteraining that captivitating so many of us.

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