Today I learned Bill Placher has died. Bill Placher was one of the most influential men in my life. I am overcome with grief. I met Bill my freshman year at Wabash College. I took courses with him in Ethics, ancient Greek philosophy, Dante‘s Divine Comedy, Enlightenment philosophy, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. He became my college advisor. He guided me through my major. He encouraged me to study abroad and advocated the unconventional approach of my direct enrollment at Universität Tübingen in Germany.
My sophomore year Bill thrust the novel, Hyperion, into my hand and challenged me to interview his classmate, Dan Simmons.
Fall of my junior year, Placher taught a seminar on Dante’s Divine Comedy. The seminar met once a week, on Friday afternoon. There were 27 students in the class. This was twice the usual size of a Wabash seminar. The first week I remember Bill commenting on the class size, “Who could have anticipated there would be this many of you wanting to talk about Hell late on Friday afternoons.” It was a testament to Placher’s influence.
When I returned to Wabash after my year abroad I would often spend evenings with him at his home. We would talk about our respective experiences — he had studied abroad in Aberdeen, Scotland when he was a Wabash student. A byproduct of those evening meetings was my education into the wonders of scotch whisky. The distinct smoke-filled flavor of Islay’s Laphroiag was Placher’s favorite malt.
We reprised this tradition of evening conversation whenever I would return to Crawfordsville. I had the opportunity to return the favor when he took a sabbatical at the University of Chicago in 2000-2001.
I still organize my academic library by the principle Bill first showed me. I recall walking into his office one afternoon to discuss a paper I was writing and looking for some secondary literature to help me make my point. I had a couple of particular books in mind. Placher was on the phone when I entered but encouraged me to browse his bookshelves. I began looking and it occurred to me that these books were shelved in an entirely unfamiliar way. He had hundreds of books on his shelves. Philosophy, theology, religion, literature. At first impression the collection seemed entirely haphazard, random. And I was put off by that conclusion. It did not make sense given what I knew about him otherwise. Something structured his library — I just hadn’t struck upon the organizing principle. Eventually I arrived at what seemed a likely conclusion and set about finding the texts I had originally sought. When Bill finished his phone call I tested my hypothesis. “Are your books ordered historically?” I asked. He revealed his own quiet grin and admitted as much. We talked at length about how that came about and I still lean heavily on the lesson I learned from the experience: that history and knowledge is a conversation. To set these books in a historical order is a way to physically place these texts in conversation to one another.
In some cases, the interlocutors are close: Kant‘s awakening from his dogmatic slumbers in response to reading David Hume. In others the interval between episodes in the conversation take place across generations. Aquinas responding to the Church with references to his friend, Aristotle. This quirky principle struck me as clever, subtle and sound. We do not live or write or think in a vacuum. To organize the greatest symbols of that task in such a way that celebrates the continuous conversation of thought underlines Bill Placher’s sublime brilliance. — This was a recurring theme in his life and his teaching: to encourage conversation. I doubt there was something he loved more than intelligent conversation.
I am using these encouragements, challenges and academic anecdotes to illustrate how Bill Placher embodied the spirit of the liberal arts: to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely. These are not easy tasks, and often we hamper our own ability to accomplish them.
Bill wrote to this point in his 2007 text, A Triune God:
We human persons are always failing to be fully personal. As persons, we are shaped by our relations with other persons. Yet we always deliberately raise barriers or cannot figure out how to overcome the barriers we confront. When those we most love come to die, or in the dementia of old age are no longer able understand what we may most want to say to them, we realize how much there was in our hearts that we never shared with them. When we best articulate our ideas, we cannot escape the feeling that there was something there we never quite captured. When we most rejoice in sharing with someone different from ourselves, difference nevertheless scares us. The doctrine of the Trinity, however, proclaims that true personhood, however impossible its character may be for us to imagine, involves acknowledging real difference in a way that causes not fear but joy.
Relationships built upon honest interaction, typified by sincere conversation, celebratory of differences, relishing the new, the other and confronting these truths of life without retreating into the dark caves of fear– these are lessons I hope never to forget. Ideals by which I strive to live my life. I draw these principles in part from my time with Bill Placher. And I am left with exactly that realization he wrote of: there is so much in my heart that I never shared with him.
I will leave it to others to catalog Bill Placher’s accomplishments. They are not insignificant, but his influence upon me was not defined by what he wrote or where he studied or what awards he won. His influence and inspiration are defined by who he was, how he lived– how he spoke. And so I redouble my efforts to live in a way guided by his quiet, clever teachings and wit.