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Powell’s Q&A: Peter J. Steinberger

Describe your latest book.
I am a political philosopher by training and profession. All of my previous books have been scholarly monographs written not simply for an audience of scholars but a pretty narrow audience of scholars at that. I have now written something completely and entirely different, namely, a book — The Problem with God: Why Atheists, True Believers, and Even Agnostics Must All Be Wrong — that's intended for a general readership and that's on a topic about which I am truly an amateur. It's not at all a "spiritual" book — that's not my thing — but it's nonetheless a very personal book in that it puts in writing some thoughts I've had for a very long time, indeed decades. From the perspective of this particular amateur, the so-called God debate of recent years seems to have missed something both pretty obvious and pretty important, maybe even staggeringly important. It's something I've been looking for in literature, but it just doesn't seem to be there. So I thought I'd write it up, throw it out into the world, and see what happens.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
The most interesting job is the one I've had now for 36 years: being a teacher/scholar at Reed College. Many people who know something about Reed think of it as one of the better liberal arts colleges in the country. But many people who know Reed intimately, i.e., from the inside, think of it rather differently. For them, Reed is a kind of miracle. There's really nothing quite like it. I've been able to spend virtually my entire professional life with a student body composed primarily of young people who are not only pretty smart but also don't want class to end, get angry if there's not enough reading or if they find the reading too easy, think scholarship is about the coolest thing in the world, and are concerned less about doing stuff than about figuring stuff out. For a pointy-headed intellectual like me, this is pretty close to paradise. Every single day in class, without exception, is interesting, and often deeply so.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Consider the opening line of Gold Coast, by that strange genius Elmore Leonard: "One day Karen DiCillia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca." Any book that starts like that can't be bad.

How do you relax?
I play squash — which is one of the greatest games there is — four or five times a week. I play — or rather play at — jazz piano, in a decidedly modern, boppish vein. (Modern jazz has always been an important part of my life.) I cook dinner pretty much every night, which I love to do; and then I eat what I cook, which I also love to do. And there's really nothing more fun than hanging out with my wife. But I do have a confession: teaching and writing is also deeply and profoundly relaxing to me. Strange, but true. You might say my whole life is one big exercise in relaxation — especially since I quit playing golf about a dozen years ago. Golf is the opposite of relaxation.

Why do you write?
It's relaxing (see above) and I do enjoy the craft aspect of it. But mostly, I like to engage in conversation about ideas, and writing — along with reading — is an important part of that. Not many people have read my stuff, but a few have, and when they do — and when they respond, whether with me or against me — it's one of the things that makes life worth living.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
I wear penny loafers exclusively. Either black or cordovan. Don't care which. Been wearing them exclusively since high school. Why? No laces.

Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
By now it's a tired cliché, but the best series is The Wire — and in my opinion it's not even close. My wife and I have seen the whole thing, all five seasons, three times now.

On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
Outside. I am a sun worshipper — which makes living in Portland interesting, no?

Five political philosophy books:
Since I'm an amateur with respect to religion but do have some background as a philosopher of politics, I'll recommend what might well be the five best political philosophy books of the post-war period. Though very different from one another, they are certainly five books that have been tremendously important to me.

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt
Natural Right and History by Leo Strauss
Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays by Michael Oakeshott
A Theory of Justice by John Rawls
The Theory of Communicative Action by Jürgen Habermas

÷ ÷ ÷

Peter J. Steinberger is the Robert H. and Blanche Day Ellis professor of humanities and political science at Reed College, where he also served as dean of the faculty from 1997 to 2010. He is the author of The Idea of the State, The Concept of Political Judgment, Logic and Politics: Hegel's Philosophy of Right, and Ideology and the Urban Crisis, and his essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Idea of the State (Contemporary... New Trade Paper $56.95
  2. The Problem with God: Why Atheists,... New Hardcover $36.25
  3. The Theory of Communicative Action:... New Trade Paper $34.95
  4. Theory of Justice Revised Edition Used Trade Paper $22.00
  5. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays Used Trade Paper $8.00
  6. Natural Right and History Used Trade Paper $11.00
  7. The Human Condition
    Used Trade Paper $10.00
  8. Gold Coast New Trade Paper $14.99

Peter J. Steinberger is the author of The Problem with God: Why Atheists, True Believers, and Even Agnostics Must All Be Wrong

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