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Remarks on the Occasion of the Retirement of Frederick Sontag

By Jay David Atlas
Peter W. Stanley Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy

At the President’s Reception for the Faculty, 6:00 PM, May 8, 2009, Claremont, California

My introduction to Pomona College, its faculty, and my future colleagues took place at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street in New York City when I was interviewed in the Autumn of 1971 by Frederick Sontag.[1] Fred had already taught at the College for 19 years. I had never been in California. I knew just two facts about California. The second fact was that in 1961, Newsweek had rated Pomona College the 10th of the Top Ten Liberal Arts Colleges in America.[2] So half of my knowledge of California was about Pomona College. Fred found that a promising start. He did not ask me a single question about philosophy proper. He wanted to know how I would teach an introductory course in philosophy. He wanted to know why I thought that philosophy of language was interesting. He wanted to know whether I would miss teaching graduate students. He was friendly, engaging, and curious. Then he gave me a copy of the college catalog, and I left to catch my train to Princeton, but he had made Pomona College interesting.

Fred had a talent for picking philosophy faculty of intellectual merit and teaching skill and a similar talent for picking out students of social skill and capacity for practical action. When I arrived at Pomona, the Philosophy Department had two Yale Ph.D.'s, a Harvard Ph.D., and a Columbia Ph.D. It was a department that Fred had constructed jointly with one of the most distinguished historians of philosophy in the United States, W.T. Jones, a Princeton-trained philosopher, friend of Alan Turing, and author of the standard academic History of Western Philosophy, used by generations of graduate students to review for their general examinations.

As a philosopher of religion, Fred had little in common with me, whom he probably thought, at frustrated moments, was the re- incarnation of the Logical Empiricist Rudolf Carnap. When he gave me a copy of one of his many books, this one on the Problem of Evil, which he inscribed “For Jay – who joins in the battle with the Devil,” I politely did not point out the linguistic ambiguity: Whose side was I on? But that inscription captures for me something that I only slowly learned about Fred.

In my first years, those bizarre Neo-Platonic interpretations that Fred forced on Plato’s texts in his classroom insulted my scholarly sensibilities, but I eventually realized that philosophy for Fred was, besides his Christian faith, a source of transcendence, and the teaching and learning of philosophy was a path towards redemption. It was intellectual, but, more importantly for Fred, it was personal. It changed lives, particularly those of his students, and it redeemed them. For decades Fred was the faculty advisor to the Kappa Delta fraternity. To you and me, the 20-year-old drunk jock was just a 20-year-old “junk drock,”[3], but to Fred, it was the pupa of the 40-year-old Captain of Industry, member of the Board of Trustees, rich, successful, responsible, philanthropic, and devoted to his alma mater. Fred thought that “all saints have a past, and all sinners have a future.”

Fred believed in accomplishment: the bigger, the better. Write more books; travel more miles; live more comfortably; have more fun; do more good. His enthusiasm sometimes outreached his logic; I once saw two 500-page manuscripts on his worktable, the first titled “All about God,” and the second “More about God.”

Though he was an imperfect man, as his God knows, there is a Sontag Gate at an entrance to Pilgrim Place, the Claremont retirement complex for Christian missionaries, in gratitude for his work on their behalf, and there is the Sontag Greek Theater at Pomona College, a gift from grateful alumni. He did write more books than any of his faculty colleagues. He served on the faculty longer than anyone in the history of the College. He raised more money from alumni than any faculty member in the history of the College. He stopped teaching only when his body forced him: It was an unreasonable stubbornness.

Fred is intuitively insightful, charitable, energetic, persistent, and Christian, though sometimes theatrically: testifying in a law court in defense of the deranged philosophy student who had stuck a pen-knife in his neck, nearly killing him. A religious Romantic! But he leaves the College having made it a humane place for hundreds, thousands, of students in 57 years of teaching. He has not lived a paltry life. He has transcended us and himself.

JD Atlas
Claremont, California
May 8, 2009

 

(1) Later I learned that he had written one of my teachers and asked for a name of a promising graduate student for a position at Pomona College. The teacher was Princeton Professor of Philosophy Richard Rorty–not then as famous as he would become and, like Fred, a product of the Yale Philosophy Department. Rorty obliged, so I found myself, once again, in the chill of the dying twilight hurrying to the Algonquin, where my aunt had often met me during my student years for a light supper before a night at the theater.

(2) The first fact was that a gifted acquaintance at Amherst College had been born in Los Angeles.

(3) That was a verbal joke for the bibulous among us, but never mind.

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