Cornel West & Robert George on philosophy, integrity, and morality – Full interview | VIEWPOINT


Robert: Cornel, it’s such a joy to be with
you here at the American Enterprise Institute in their wonderful new building. The lead gift for the building was given by
Mr. Dan Danielo, who’s a great supporter of AEI and of good public policy initiatives
and of intellectual life, so we wanted to pay tribute to him. Such a delight to be with Arthur Brooks, the
president of AEI. Cornel: It was nice to meet him. Robert: Someone thinks about many of the same
issues that we think about, the importance of human dignity and a founding economic and
public policy initiatives on the principle of human dignity. It’s always so great to be together with you,
where we can continue this wonderful dialogue that we’ve been carrying on in friendship. Cornel: It’s been almost 10 years now. Robert: Almost 10 years, 2007 was the first
time that we… Cornel: We started the other day. Robert: …we taught together. Next year will be our 10th anniversary, my
brother. Cornel: Now, when Andrew brought us together,
was that 2006, you think? Robert: Yeah, it must have been 2006. Cornel: When we first had that dialogue. Robert: Andrew Perlmutter was a student in
the religion department. He had worked with you in one or two of your
courses. He had one or two of my courses and he was
starting a new magazine, the campus magazine. Cornel: Green Light. Robert: The Green Light. Cornel: It came from F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby. Robert: I think that’s right. Yeah, I think that’s very appropriate for
Princeton. Cornel: Yes, yes. Robert: One of the features of the magazine
was going to be an interview of one professor by another professor. And so for the inaugural issue, they invited
you to be the interviewer and they gave you the right to pick who your interview subject
would be. And you did me the… We didn’t even know each other very well. You gave me the honor of picking me as your
interview subject. I remember Andrew coming knocking on the door
and saying, “Professor George, would you be willing to be interviewed by Professor West?” Of course I said, “Well, I’d be very honored
to be interviewed by Professor West.” I remember the occasion when you came together
with Andrew, he had a tape recorder. One of his old-fashioned cassette recorders
that would be an antique today. He had a photographer with him. I think we were supposed to talk for an hour,
and we ended up talking for four hours. And then I said, “I have to go have dinner. My wife Cindy’s going to be waiting for me,
wondering what happened to me”. You walked me down to my car where I held
my hand on the car latch for about another half hour. Cornel: We had another 30-minute dialogue. We kept going at it. Robert: While we kept going at it. Cornel: I remember. I do recall. I do recall. I said, “Now, I think we’ve got something
special here though,” because there’s no doubt our spirits and our souls resonated. Intellectually, we were just on fire talking
about the great classical and canonical texts. I think… Robert: That’s when we decided to teach together. Cornel: We figured, we’ve got to teach a class
together, a great books class. Robert: Yeah. Cornel: From Plato through Newman all the
way up to Martin Luther King, Jr. Robert: I remember that very well. For the first class, you chose six books and
I chose six books and we decided that we would each choose books that were important in our
own intellectual odyssey. Then after that, we just chose all the books
together for the future seminars that we taught. Cornel: That’s 10 years. Well, nine years now. Robert: Yeah, almost 10 years. Do you remember some of the authors from the
very first one? Of course we had Plato’s “Gorgias.” Cornel: We always started with Plato. Robert: That text, the “Gorgias” had been
very important for me in my intellectual journey. That’s what opened my mind to philosophy when
I was an undergraduate at Swarthmore. You recommended Luther’s “Babylonian Captivity
of the Church”, which I had never read. Cornel: I forgot. I forgot. Robert: Yeah, and only when I read it that
I finally understand how one man, an obscure monk, could turn the whole of Christian civilization
in Europe on its head and cause a revolution, a reformation, because it is such a powerful… Of course, as a Catholic I needed to hear
that. Cornel: It’s coming at you. Robert: That was celebrating the 500th anniversary. I don’t know if I’m celebrating, but it’s
the 500th anniversary of the reformation. But you introduced me to that text and that
shed a lot of light on the history of Christian civilization in the west and how the reformation
actually happened. Let’s see, what else did we read. We read Hayek and we read Marx. Cornel: We could have read Hayek and Marx. Robert: We read Marx’s “Communist Manifesto.” Cornel: We read both. Absolutely. Robert: That’s exactly right. I remember one of the books you chose was
Leo Strauss’ “Natural Right and History.” Cornel: Yes. Classic. Robert: That’s right. Now, people would be surprised about that
because they think, “Cornel West, he’s a big leftist. He’s gonna hate Leo Strauss. Why would he insist on reading Leo Strauss?” But what people don’t know about you, my brother,
is that you got a deep appreciation of the conservative tradition. Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin. Cornel: Eric Voegelin. Robert: Burke. Cornel: Edmund Burke. Robert: Yeah. I’m outing you now in front of all these people. Cornel: No. I tell the world. I tell the world. But you insisted on Martin Luther King Jr. Robert: I did, because I’d been teaching “Letter
from the Burmingham Jail.” It was a very important text for me. And of course it’s important to the history
of the civil rights movement, but it’s actually a work of political philosophy, one that draws
on many of the other works that we were reading. It draws on Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas
Aquinas. It’s an explication at a popular level, it
wasn’t just for scholars, an explication of the tradition of natural law. And as you know, I’ve devoted my career to
the idea of natural law theory, which goes back through the middle ages and the Christian
period, back all the way to Plato and Aristotle and to the Roman philosophers and jurists. So King is a kind of synthesizer and summarizer
in the context of the civil rights struggle of these treasures of civilization that give
us reason to believe that there are standards above the merely human law, moral standards,
principles of natural law, under which the human law always stands in judgement. Cornel: Absolutely. Robert: That’s how we can judge human law
to be good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust. If it weren’t for those standards, as King
points out, then there would be no saying that Hitler was wrong or Hitler was bad, or
that Mother Theresa is good. Cornel: That’s right. Robert: We’d be left in a kind of swamp of
relativism and ultimately nihilism. Cornel: One of the things that we had been
able to experience together is the awakening and coming alive of the minds, hearts and
souls of the students. Robert: That’s the joy. Cornel: For freshmen, the juniors, and seniors,
and sophomores. Robert: That’s the joy of teaching, yeah. Cornel: Also, I get a chance to observe you
in the classroom, as such a masterful teacher weaving these ideas and arguments. I mean, you reflect on the “Communist Manifesto”
and the students wonder, “We thought Professor George was conservative.” Oh no, the critique is there, but let’s put
forward the strongest version of the argument that you see in this text. Robert: Well, right back at you brother, because
you do exactly the same thing. Cornel: I try to. I try to. Robert: That’s right, and I think that’s what
teachers ought to be doing. When we approach an important text, whether
we agree with it or we don’t agree with it, the first we should be asking is, “What is
to be learned from the mind behind that text?” I think about that with Nietzsche all the
time, Nietzsche haunts me. Cornel: Yes, and for good reason. Robert: Because I deeply, profoundly, disagree
with him and yet I recognize the power of his intellect and the power of his arguments,
and I know I’m not entitled to my position until I have a good answer for Nietzsche. In reading Marx, I want to present it in its
most favorable light, even though I reject it utterly, but we did it, I think, the way
you should do it. And we always do it the way you should do
it. We presented Marx but we also presented Hayek. So students got to see both positions, the
profound critique of communism that you have in Hayek along with the case being made for
communism by Marx himself, or Marx and Engels in that case, in the “Communist Manifesto”. Cornel: Absolutely. You know I think one of the things that brings
us together is this fundamental commitment to looking at the world through spiritual
and moral ends, so that even at disagreements about policies, with our politicians and so
forth that, I think in the end, there is a deep similarity in terms of our commitment
to the least of these, a commitment to the orphan and the widow and fatherless and motherless
and poor. Robert: We’re both deeply rooted in the prophetic
tradition of Judaism and of course as we’re fellow Christians, so of course, the first
question we always wanna ask about, for example, a policy will be the impact on the poorest,
the weakest, the most vulnerable members of the community. Cornel: That’s right. Robert: Now, conservatives and people on the
left would have different policy prescriptions, but they’re fundamentally about means and
not about ends if you believe in the principle of the profound, inherent and equal dignity
of each other. I remember that they… Cornel: Reaching out their mogul day. Robert: The family. Cornel: Absolutely. Robert: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. The other we recognize, and this was pointed
out in the dialogue we did this morning for the American Enterprise Institute, the public
dialogue that we did… I think I noted that Camus, to take an example,
someone who was not a Christian, who was not a theist, who was not a believer, nevertheless
recognized that the project and challenge of leading human life was fundamentally a
spiritual project and challenge. It was a search for meaning, a search for
transcendence. Camus, although not a believer, was willing
to engage the great existential questions because he knew that the human person was
not reduceable to merely material things or mere appetites or feelings or emotions. He recognized a spiritual element of the human
being that could never simply rest, that was always reaching out for something transcendent,
something beyond. He didn’t find it in the God of classical
theism where I would find it and where you would find it, we as Christians. Cornel: Right, absolutely. Absolutely. Robert: But nevertheless, he knew that that’s
what the quest was. He knew that the quest was a quest for… Cornel: It’s fascinating because you and I
had no idea that 10 years later, we would be living in the age of Trump. Robert: Yeah, that’s for sure. Cornel: No idea. And so, on the one hand, you figure, okay,
in the Republican party, you’ve got a number of candidates. And you make your choice as Democratic party,
you got a number of candidates, you make your choices. You and I chose candidates that didn’t win
in the primary, and then we had to choose are we going with the two candidates that
in our view, don’t meet the criteria of integrity? Robert: We were in the same position, because
the question was did Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, either one, reach the threshold of
decency and integrity required to be President of the United States. Cornel: Required for the office. Robert: I’m sure you were under the same pressure
that I was under. You as a former Bernie Sanders supporter,
me as a former Ted Cruz supporter. Cornel: That’s right. Robert: We were under the same pressure to
go along, to join the team, to conform, and we were under the same threats. If you don’t, you’ll be an outsider. If you don’t, you’re excommunicated from the
movement, from the club. And yet, I admire you. Cornel: I was not surprised. I was not surprised, and you stood your ground. Robert: Yeah, as you did as well. Cornel: You stood your ground. Robert: As you did as well. Of course, now, you’ve been doing it for years
as a critic from the left of the Obama administration. I know that you are under tremendous pressure
and criticism for not going along with Obama, for your willingness to criticize publicly
the first Black American president. But, you were willing to do it even though
you knew that it meant you weren’t gonna get invitations to the White House, you were not
going to be an insider, you weren’t going to have the status that you might otherwise
have enjoyed. You weren’t going to be on MSNBC every night
and all that stuff. Cornel: And you would have done the same thing
to the first president from West Virginia, first Catholic. Robert: I like to think I would have. Cornel: Whatever, you know what I mean? Because as a matter, we’re fallible and finite
and fall, so we fall on our faces. But we really tried to the best of our ability,
and this is when we help each other in this regard, to trying to sustain our quest for
integrity, honesty, and decency. It’s a precious quest, and it’s not pure. It’s not pristine, but it has much to do with
how we were raised. It has much to do with the choices we make
in terms of our religious Christian faith. It has something to do with the traditions
that we choose to be a part of, and also how we choose to die, that we intend to be faithful
unto death. Robert: That’s what it’s all about. Think of just how precious integrity is, and
this I try to impart to our young people. I know you do as well. Everything else can be taken from us, our
material possessions can be taken from us. Our liberty can be taken. We may be thrown in jail. I was wondering whether they’re keeping Guantanamo
open for the two of us. Whoever won the election might want to take
advantage of Guantanamo. They can take away your standing in society. All of these things, all of these goods can
be taken away, the one thing that nobody can take away from you is your integrity. The only way you lose it is if you give it
up by your free choices and actions because you value wealth or power, status or prestige,
your influence more than you value your integrity. That’s why I say that the worst form of slavery,
the most abject form of slavery is slavery to self, it’s to be under the control of your
desires and feelings and emotions and unable to control them. The physical slave is in a terrible, unjust
condition. His freedom has been taken away. His family may be separated, sold down the
river. His material possessions are not even his
material possessions, but he can still have his integrity because no master, no tyrant
can take that internal thing away from you, but you can give it up. And, you cannot be in slavery, you can be
rich. You can be powerful. You can be respected and yet have no integrity
because you gave up your integrity. It’s such a precious thing. It can’t be given up for anything. Cornel: That’s a message that is more relevant
now than ever. Robert: Yeah. Absolutely. Because the incentives… Cornel: Market forces have taken over. Robert: The incentives to give up your integrity
are very powerful. Cornel: Very powerful. Robert: We want to be somebody. We want to be respected and we want to be
admired. Cornel: Included, part of the in-crowd. Robert: Part of the in-crowd. The pressure to conform, even where conforming
means abandoning integrity… Cornel: That’s exactly right. Robert: …is very powerful. I think the pressure on young people is the
worst. They’re barely formed. They’re barely adults and this pressure is
bearing down on them to conform in order to get ahead, to stay part of the in-crowd, to
be regarded as sophisticated. But of course, we as Christians, we have the
example of Jesus, who told us, if we want to be his followers, don’t expect power and
influence and wealth and prestige and status. Cornel: That’s right, and pick up your cross. Robert: Take off your cross and follow me. Cornel: No, that’s very real. Robert: It wasn’t supposed to be easy. Cornel: That’s very real. The examples make a difference though when
you think of those in our own life. I have been blessed to meet your father, your
family, and they are exemplars of integrity, so I can part see from whence you come. But then, you chose to follow that trajectory. You could’ve chosen something else. Robert: Examples are important. You’ve had them in your life with your father
and your mother. Cornel: Yes. Robert: Clifton and Irene. Cornel: Absolutely. Robert: We’ve all had them in terms of figures
like Dorothy Day, who both of us admire. Cornel: Yes. Towering figure. Robert: We rely on that. I think this is why saints are important in
the Christian faith. They’re exemplars. Cornel: Those are grand exemplars. Robert: They’re not perfect. They’re made of flesh and blood the way we
are. Stained of original sin just the way we are. Cornel: That’s right. That’s right. Robert: I mean think of… 11 of the 12 apostles,
when Jesus was being tried and persecuted and crucified, they fled. Cornel: They fled. Robert: They fled. Peter was warming his hands in front of the
fire and the servant girls says, “Surely, you’re one of this man’s disciples,” and he
said, “I don’t even know the man.” Cornel: No, no, no, didn’t know him. I don’t know him. You’re right. Robert: But, like all of us, they fell, but
then they got up and dusted themselves back up. They might have fallen again. They get up and try again. Fail, try again, fail try again. Cornel: Samuel Baker – “try again, fail again,
fail better”. Try again, fail again, fail. And he’s a lapsed Protestant Christian and
a Catholic. Robert: The role models are terribly, terribly
important. Cornel: But they did make a difference. They really… One of the things we didn’t get a chance to
talk too much about upstairs was I was gonna invoke Emerson and his Representative Men
text, which is representative of persons, what it means to be an exemplar. My little brother Jeff Styles has been thinking
much about this. Again, for his building, for his different
lectures. Robert: Yeah. Of course, Al Rabbatore, our friend and colleague
Al Rabbatore has a book. Cornel: On the American prophets. Robert: On the prophets, American prophets. Cornel: For text. In fact, they are meeting today, Al Rabbatore,
Jeff Styles, Eddie Gloy. And they said, “You must come, brother West.” I said, “No, I wouldn’t mind brother Robbie
at AEI”. I was going to miss that. But the same issue, how do we come to terms
with these exemplars of high quality, of spirit, mind, intellect, courage, in our own times? Robert: Yeah. This is one of the problems that I saw with
our young people with Clinton and Trump, because they were bad role models. Cornel: Yeah. Just not good. Robert: No, I wish president Trump the best. I mean he is now our president. We have to wish that he seeks good ends and
that he succeeds, and I think we need to be prepared to help him if he’s prepared to… Cornel: Yeah, if he’s moving in the right
direction and so forth. Robert: …to move in the right direction
and yet the model, the example that was set, the line, by both them, the simulation and
deception. Cornel: That’s true. Robert: The terrible things that Trump said
about women and Muslims and John McCain. Cornel: Mexicans. What he said about John McCain… Robert: Carly Fiorina. Cornel: I know. I know. Even Ted Cruz. What he said about Ted Cruz’s father. Robert: What he said about Ted Cruz’s father,
yeah. I don’t wanna beat up… I mean he’s our president now. I hope he’s reformed, but the example… Cornel: No, but I mean we’ll see. We’ll see, we’ll see. Robert: If people like this get ahead, that
sets an example for young people about how you get… It was always terrible about the Bill Clinton
administration. It would have been terrible about a Hillary
Clinton administration. I fear it’s gonna be terrible about a Trump
administration, so what young people need is good roles models, models of integrity,
of self-sacrifice, of decency. Cornel: Exactly, exactly. And that’s part of what we were talking about
upstairs, about the spiritual black out. Robert: You should say more about that. Cornel: What it really means to live in a
culture, it’s experiencing the relative eclipse of integrity, honesty and decency, in which
the rule of money, especially big money, carries with it an attendant culture of cupidity,
which is love of money, of mendacity. You can lie and do anything you want to gain
assets to money, and venality in which you sell your soul for money. That culture now is seeping in every nook
and cranny of our souls, and especially the souls of our precious young people. That kind of soulcraft, of those smartness
and dollars rather than wisdom and justice, is very dangerous. I don’t think a Democratic experiment can
survive based on that kind of cold soulcraft. Robert: I think there is a very deep spiritual
problem, but I think it goes deeper than desire for money. I think it’s the desire for the sort of thing
that money gives you in a society like ours: influence, status, prestige, being somebody,
counting, being important. Most people I know, even those who are too
occupied with getting money, and there’s nothing wrong in itself with getting money. I mean what would we do without it? We have responsibilities. We have family responsibilities. And many people, this is a country in which
so many philanthropists have done so many great things with money. Cornel: Well, that’s true. That’s true. Robert: We have reason for great gratitude
and many… Cornel: The Gates family and others have made
philanthropic contributions. Robert: We praised Dan Danielo this morning
for the great building that he gave to AEI. But I think the problem is people needing
to feel as though they matter, needing to feel that they’re important, not understanding
that you’re importance doesn’t have to do with how much influence you have or what your
social status is. The spiritual danger here is nihilism. It’s imagining that unless we gain the status,
the prestige, the influence that people now strive so much for and that money sometimes
brings, or sometimes obtainable in other ways, including by cheating, or by lying or by deceiving,
then we are just nobody. We don’t count that there’s nothing else there. There’s a lack of appreciation of the inherent
dignity of the person and appreciation by the person himself of his own dignity and
his appreciation of the dignity, the inherent dignity of other people. Cornel: Of the other people too. That is a profound spiritual and moral crisis,
profound. Robert: Well, Cornel, we’re gonna have to
wrap up our conversation. We got to get you on the road back up to New
York. Cornel: Yeah. This is good stuff like always, my brother. Robert: Yes. It’s been so wonderful to be with you. God bless you. Cornel: I’m telling you. Good God Almighty though. Robert: Let’s keep it up. Cornel: We will, until death. Robert: Amen.

14 comments

  1. The discussion of integrity reminded me of Tom Lehrer's song, Selling Out by providing a counter.
    Integrity gives one clarity and moral authority, and so one's integrity is not able to be given a monetary value. No matter the price assigned, the two are not commensurable: if one's morality is for hire, it loses its value since it is made common to any who pay instead of keeping its freedom to do what one believes to be right.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BDyFuDxA-I

  2. The discussion of integrity reminded me of Tom Lehrer's song, Selling Out by providing a counter.
    Integrity gives one clarity and moral authority, and so one's integrity is not able to be given a monetary value. No matter the price assigned, the two are not commensurable: if one's morality is for hire, it loses its value since it is made common to any who pay instead of keeping its freedom to do what one believes to be right.

  3. These guys are out of touch. Bernie Sanders? Ted Cruz? These are your paragons of integrity? These guys are snakes like the rest. They put on a show for you, and you ate it up. We're talking about politicians here. The entire job description is lying.

    Trump can be a nasty guy; for sure. But for all his ugliness, and all his faults, he does see people as ends in themselves. You don't realize it, but Trump recognizes the moral malaise of this country. Integrity starts with personal pride. Trump is trying to reawaken the pride of the american people. This is his entire appeal.

  4. West is such a fraud he should have been Clinton's running mate. Shitbird took a 40k speaking fee for what was supposed to be an hour long talk, started 5 minutes late and skipped out 15 early. AEI I normally respect your presenters but letting him on your stage to talk about "integrity" is an insult to anyone who hasn't redefined that word.

  5. Oh my word. I long for this. I long for friendship just like this someday. I long to become a professor, sitting in a room like this, across from a friend with a mutual history and shared memories just like these. I long for this. <3 <3

  6. They parrot everything they've read and try to pass it off as if they're 'intellectual'…. They have no original thought between them.

    Knowledge is not synonymous with intelligence.

  7. As much as I disagree with Professor George, I appreciated this conversation so much — that two people who disagree so profoundly can still have such tremendous (and obvious) respect for each other, simply as fellow human beings, without for that matter sacrificing faithfulness to their own respective beliefs. I was lucky to have been able to study with Dr. West while he was at Union Theological Seminary, and can with zero hesitation attest that he in every way embodies the values he teaches: beyond honesty, integrity, and decency, profound humility, generosity, gentleness, and childlike playfulness. I'm sure Professor George is the same.

  8. If they take your “standing in the society”, that is, you become invisible, you will also become nothing. The dare is, how do you stand in the face of nothingness. But this is an idiotic question only asked by social figures who are something. We the masses are nothings and are forced to live without integrity IN nothingness. But only the social figure is scared of being in the mass of people, and sees their fight in the face of this condition as heroic. I’m sorry, but I don’t see heroism for someone who is nauseated by my condition of social anonymity.

  9. they are close enough to make out. By the way the video just jumped into it without any context of what was going on and why made me question if I was watching adult swim.

Leave a Reply

(*) Required, Your email will not be published