Richard Flathman, 1934-2015

Richard Flathman, the eminent political theorist who helped create what is sometimes called “the Hopkins School,” has died. I only read one of his books—on Hobbes—and never met him. From afar, he seemed like one of those austere planets around which the rest of us orbit. Bonnie Honig was one of his students. She provides here a more intimate portrait of the man, noting how his reserve made for a place of greater safety, and that behind or beneath it lay the warmth of another sun.

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I co-edited a book about Richard Flathman’s work and have used his work in my research and teaching throughout my career. On the occasion of his passing, therefore, I comment not on his scholarship but on his personal example.

Flathman was a true intellectual, eager to enter and explore the world of any new thinker or writer. He read Proust and Montaigne as readily as Hobbes and Locke. As widely read and accomplished as he was, he was never superior. In fact, he was always an egalitarian. He was quick with a riposte to bring down the smug or the arrogant. He never did that to anyone who was down. He had a keen sense of justice and a fine moral compass. I am sad to say he was a rarity in the academy.

I showed up in Baltimore in the early 80’s very green, completely unprepared and, without realizing it, an outlier. I was the first person in my family to finish college. Going on to graduate studies was seen by my relatives as an act of insanity bound to lead to ruin. Although I had some first rate teachers at Concordia University in Montreal, undergrad study there did not compare with the prominent liberal arts college and research university backgrounds of those around me at Hopkins.  One year at the LSE with Oakeshott and co. had not been enough to change that, though it surely helped me get in to grad school.

It took me a while to understand how much WORK graduate school required. Flathman was my advisor. He watched me and waited.  I never felt judged, though I was encouraged. I flailed a lot (though I did not know it at the time) and he waited.  I was lost, I did stupid things, I got political; he stayed on the surface of all that, never volunteered a comment and, throughout, offered the reassurance of his remoteness.

I left Baltimore at one point to move in with a partner. I came back a few months later when that didn’t work out. I saw Flathman, who knew all about it, and I just said, jokingly, that it seemed like no matter how much I tried to get out of Baltimore, I always ended up back there. He leaned back in his swivel chair and said, “I guess that’s why they call it Charm City.” And that was that. He could have asked about what happened. He could have warned me about putting my studies first. But he didn’t. Eventually I settled in. It took a long time, maybe five years. He was patient.

The first day I was there a 3rd year grad student told me the aim in grad school was not to get A’s but to write publishable papers. I was 22. Flathman made it clear the aim was to read and to learn. So much of what he had to offer was by example.  He opposed professionalization, though he understood the reasons for it. He was, for example, ambivalent about the PhD examinations process. He told me that if the faculty could set exams so that we would prepare for them, and then cancel the exams, they would do that and that would be the best way to proceed. But that would not work more than once, he said.  So there we were.

I heard some people in the program complain about Flathman, that he did not offer the intimacy that some advisors did. He did not hang out, go out for drinks after seminar (his classes were in the morning), or play squash with students. This reserve is precisely what I needed and valued. He had great boundaries. This spelled aloofness to some. To me it spelled safety.

The only time we talked about something personal was toward the end of my time in graduate school. I was on the job market.  I went to a conference. A powerful senior male faculty member approached me improperly and whispered his hotel room number in my ear. It shook me up. I had seen at the same conference a powerful woman political theorist give a great talk. She was formidable. I came back to Hopkins from the conference and went to see Flathman. I did not want to talk about what happened but I needed his guidance. Senior Male was in a position to influence a job I wanted. I told myself that if Flathman was going to advise women grad students, he was going to have to know how to deal with this sort of thing. So I told him what happened with Senior Male. I also told him how fabulous Senior Female had been, and then I mentioned how sure I was that Senior Male would never do to Her what he had done to me. Flathman looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t be so sure.” That was it. He broke the spell with those four words, which aligned me with Her and made Senior Male the problem, not me. (In later years, he would confide to me about how a (not-so-) Senior Female Theorist came on to him!)

When I left Hopkins, I went to see Dick to say good-bye. We had a great talk and then he shifted gears, moving to say some things about our time together at Hopkins. Maybe he had prepared some sort of summing up; I will never know. I interrupted him and said (because I was still an unprocessed asshole), “I don’t do the good-bye thing.” He didn’t blink, waved to the door, and said, with his characteristic abruptness (so jarring and so reassuring at the same time): “OK. See you around.”

When I served as a discussant for the Tanner Lectures in Berkeley, in 2014, Dick came (by then he had moved to the area). He was a great presence. We took time for lunch together and we had a good talk. He had been taking his leave from all of us for a while. On this occasion he said that I had found more in Arendt than he had ever thought was there. There were a few other things like that, that he said. I guess that was us doing the good-bye thing after all.

I loved his reliable reserve, his faith in me, his dry anti-establishment humor, and his finely tuned bullshit detector. He was an incredible person, not larger than life, but large as life.

One Comment

  1. Thomas L. Dumm September 9, 2015 at 10:43 pm | #

    I grieve the loss of Dick Flathman. My last personal visit with him was when he organized a roundtable at Hopkins concerning my book on loneliness back in 2009. Dick had his demons, as do all of us, but he was true to a vision of responsibility in the world of political theory that he embodied, but that he also encouraged us in the younger generation of theorists. I remember a meeting of the APSA in the early 90s in NYC. We went to lunch at a Thai restaurant somewhere in Mnhattan, I remember Stephen White and Linda Zerilli were there (I imagine Bonnie Honig there, but don’t think she was), and he wanted to tell us something important: all of us had had the good fortune to get good jobs in places that would enable us to do research and write and publish. Dick told us that we needed to understand that our good fortune came with an obligation — to use our good luck and fortune to make serious and thoughtful contributions to the project of political theory, to use our positions, not to advance personal ambition, but to contribute to thinking through the human condition in our time (I’m being false to his voice here, I know, but his voice is impossible to mimic). In ther words, we weren’t to rest, but to understand that we must always contribute, always be trying to think about what we were doing as part of a larger project. For such a highly individualistic thinker, this sermon was a surprise, but also an inspiration. I left that lunch committed, and still think about what we do as responding to that call to responsibility.

    He was inspiring in that way, and in many others.

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