- Sheldon Wolin’s the Reason I Began Drinking Coffee
I was a freshman at Princeton. It was the fall of 1985. I signed up for “Modern Political Theory.” It was scheduled for Mondays and Wednesdays at 9 a.m. I stumbled into class, and there was a man with white hair and a trim white beard, lecturing on Machiavelli. I was hooked. There was just one problem: I was not—still am not—a morning person. The lectures were riveting, but I had to fight my tendency to sleep in. So I started drinking coffee. I would buy a coffee at the Woodrow Wilson School cafeteria and head downstairs to one of the so-called “bowls,” where Wolin was lecturing. And proceeded to work my way through the canon—Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, along with some texts not often read in intro theory courses (the Putney Debates, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, and for a last hurrah, The Wealth of Nations)—under the guidance of one of the great readers of the twentieth century. After class I would head for Firestone Library. I would read whatever we were reading that week in class. I would follow along, chapter by chapter, with Wolin’s Politics and Vision. Even though many of the texts we were talking about in class do not appear there, or, if they do, they are glossed by different interpretations from the ones Wolin was offering in class: the man never stood still, intellectually. I would get my second cup of coffee.
Like many of his students, I knew the day of Wolin’s death was coming. In October of last year, my friend Antonio Vazquez-Arroyo, a professor of political theory at Rutgers, Newark, and the student of a student of Wolin, [End Page 164] sent me a video of an interview the journalist Chris Hedges had conducted with Wolin.1 From Wolin’s Wikipedia page, I gathered that he was 92.2 He looked in the video exactly as he did in 1985. Even sounded the same. The one clue that I had of his advanced age was that it seemed as if he had lost or was losing his sight. I immediately thought of those opening passages in Politics and Vision, where Wolin talks about how critical vision is to the political theorist and the practice of theoria.3
And now he is gone.
In the months and years to come, there will be many texts of appreciation and tribute. Wolin taught generations of students, and their students are now teaching other students. At CUNY, where I teach, we are always swimming in his seas: Robyn Marasco, at Hunter College, was the student of Wendy Brown and Nick Xenos, both of whom were students of Wolin. John Wallach, also at Hunter, and Uday Mehta, at the Graduate Center, were both students of Wolin. Alyson Cole, who is the chair of the political science department at the Graduate Center, was a student of Hanna Pitkin, who was also Wolin’s student. There is probably no more powerful a demonstration of Wolin’s vision of political theory as a tradition of continuity and innovation, as a transmission across time, than these students of students of students.
While many of these tributes and appreciations will focus, and rightly so, on the political side of Wolin—as mentor and participant and commentator on the student movements of the 1960s, particularly at Berkeley; as leader of the divestment movement at Princeton in the 1970s and 1980s; as searching public critic of technocratic liberalism, market conservatism, and the American security state, in the pages of the New York Review of Books and his wondrous though short-lived journal democracy; as a theorist of radical or “fugitive” democracy—I want to focus here on the way he did political theory. Less the substance than the style.
The first thing to note about Wolin’s approach is how literary it was. Wolin read The Prince as if it were a novel, identifying its narrative voice, commenting on the construction of the characters who populated [End Page 165] the text (new prince, customary prince, centaur, the people), examining the structural tensions in...