The Old Professor

A Philosophical Journey


The Old Professor
by Sasan Seifikar

This essay is a tribute to Professor John J. Glanville from the San Francisco State University philosophy department, whom I have known well since 1988 and with whom I closely studied Ancient and Medieval philosophy from 1991 to 1996. He was well advanced in age, his hair was entirely white, and he was still going strong when I knew him. But I have heard through a friend that he is now slowing down a bit and finally reducing his work load. I learned a lot from Professor Glanville. But he was not the only professor from whom I learned much or who left a deep impression on me.

University of California, Davis
One of the first professors who helped me with understanding difficult ideas was Marvin Zetterbaum, a Political Science professor at the University of California, Davis. He was from New York City and from humble beginnings. His father was a cab-driver. Professor Zetterbaum had fought in WWII and was schooled in the great books tradition. He became a student of Leo Strauss and with the encouragement of his friend Allan Bloom, set upon studying the political philosophy of Alexis de Tocqueville. He wrote a few essays on the French political thinker and a book on Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy (1967) which deals with Tocqueville’s concern for the descent of democracy and his ideas on how to strengthen democracy.

Professor Zetterbaum had won prominent teaching awards and this is how I came to take his class. When I registered for classes in 1986 at Davis, I went to some of the departments and asked if they could give me a list of professors who were distinguished or influential in their field. I also went to the university bookstore and picked some classes just based on the books that they were using and reading in the course. At the bookstore, I saw that there was a class on the political theory of Karl Marx who is a very influential thinker and also a kind of mysterious and forbidden figure. This was my first class with Professor Zetterbaum.

I was very curious to find out how Marx and his ideas are treated and portrayed by American professors, I thought that they may be unfair or uncharitable to him. Professor Zetterbaum treated him as a political thinker who took political questions seriously and tried to form solutions to them. Following Strauss, he focused on the young Marx. Like other thinkers Marx was perceived as having some legitimate worries and concerns but his views were also open to criticism and important objections. I liked this class so much that I went on to study the history of political theory with Professor Zetterbaum, starting from Aristotle, covering Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx. I took three upper division courses from him and sat in on a lower division course. Kirsten, my wife, also took two classes from him.

What Professor Zetterbaum had taken from Strauss in his own teaching was not so much substantive but rather methodological and this is one of the things that attracted me to him. Zetterbaum was committed to the close reading of text and avoiding over interpretation. He believed that the works of prominent thinkers were often both powerful and beautiful, and in turn capable of stimulating thought and moving those who engaged them to embrace important political and philosophical questions and issues. He had faith both in the thinkers and in his students. Zetterbaum saw himself as introducing the students to the great thinkers and their concerns. I got a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Davis in ethics and the history of modern philosophy, I took many classes in a variety of different fields and had a number of wise and memorable professors and lecturers, but I connected most with this man. We became close in part because I liked thinking through and engaging the readings and asking questions so I often stayed behind after the class to ask more questions to better figure out what was being read. He enjoyed interacting with students and finding out more about them.

When I was at Davis I was writing for a student run newspaper which was called the Third World Forum and the Editorial Board choose me to serve as the editor, but I had to formally apply for the position to the university and I needed letters of recommendation. I asked Professor Zetterbaum and he wrote a nice letter on my behalf. I also went to see him in 1991 after I got a Master’s degree in Philosophy from San Francisco State University to talk to him and ask his advice about my studies. He was very nice and helpful. Professor Zetterbaum was truly a great teacher. He taught at Davis for thirty years and continued to teach after he was retired. He spoke very softly and he addressed students with respect. His charisma was very subtle and he was very sympathetic. He was also a psychoanalyst and had a practice in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years. Marvin Zetterbaum passed away in 1996.

San Francisco State University
I took a class from Professor Glanville in my first semester at San Francisco State University in the fall semester of 1988. This was a class on the philosophy of Socrates. It was by far one of the best classes I have ever had in my long career as a student of philosophy. This class consisted of reading Plato’s Apology closely, I mean very closely. In fact we spent the entire semester reading it word by word. On the face of it, this would seem like a waste of time and a little silly because this is what kids do in primary school. But we did much more than just reading the text, we analyzed it and discussed everything pertinent to it. As we were reading the Apology, anyone could bring in any concerns or questions they had about the content of the text, the ideas of Socrates, or any other relevant philosophical issues that they wanted to raise.

Professor Glanville encouraged discussion and questioning and was welcoming of all perspectives and views even if they were critical of Socrates. This is because even though he loved Socrates, he loved philosophy and reflection even more. I remember that Professor Glanville tested us on the intricacies of the trial of Socrates, on the formal and informal charges, on whether we thought Socrates answers the charges adequately, and on the care of the soul. I remember also the class was unusually diverse, we had a few older folks and a few women; one of them was a nice Iranian woman named Jasmine. She was a graduate student in Anthropology and just sitting in the class. There was also an erudite older and balding man with a thick East European accent and a white mustache who would often read the lines of Socrates. The effect of this entire project was coming to know Socrates very well. This was inevitable because we kept discussing various central themes of his thinking and his life. So no matter what one’s final conclusions were about Socrates and his views, one walked away from the class with the feeling that one had come to understand a great and very influential mind and a philosopher whose life figures more prominently in his thoughts than other thinkers.

I wanted to write my thesis with Professor Glanville but he was on sabbatical leave the following year. So I wrote it under the supervision of Professor Jim Syfers who was the head of the philosophy department at the time and also an expert in ancient philosophy. Professor Syfers had many useful insights and was very helpful. During this time I also came to know Jacob Needleman who is also a professor of philosophy at SFSU. He sat on my thesis committee. Professor Needleman is another very unique teacher and a prolific writer. If I remember correctly, he studied abstract ideas and received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale but his focus shifted to the Wisdom Tradition during his early teaching years in San Francisco during the late 60’s. Professor Needleman teaches classes on the philosophy of religion, world religions, mysticism, the Old Testament, American values, and the meaning of money at SFSU. He was interviewed by Bill Moyers for his program on The World of Ideas.

Professor Needleman was very nice and welcoming of everyone. He also knew a lot about Islam and the Islamic tradition. He had been to Iran before the revolution and was generous towards us. He attracted every Iranian student that came through the philosophy program and beyond. This is because he knew Rumi and his methodology was very often just telling stories from the Wisdom Traditions and discussing them with students. He was familiar with many different wisdom traditions, such as Buddhist, Hindu and the Native American traditions. I took three of his classes which dealt with contemporary religion and spirituality. Kirsten and one of her friends took his Old Testament class.

What made Professor Needleman unique was his extraordinary personal charisma and his ability to inspire and move students, which brought many of them to him, irrespective of what he was teaching. Whereas many philosophy professors are good at teaching you about the material, few are good at kindling and sustaining the interest of students. The most significant insight that I gained from him was that one can have spirituality and religion without being rigid and a fundamentalist, and without postulating heaven and hell or a punishing father-figure god. Mostly because of what happened in Iran after the revolution, at the time I only saw the bad and the negative things in religion and equated it with hypocrisy and brutality. But I was still interested in some of the questions and issues surrounding religion and spirituality. Professor Needleman’s teachings pointed to the rich traditions and diverse interpretations that exist in all religions. He was able to show that you can find stories and thinkers in all traditions that stress inclusiveness, tolerance, sympathy and the oneness of humanity.

One of the most popular religious stories which he tells often likens being on a spiritual path to climbing a mountain. Many people from various sides of the mountain are trying to climb it to reach the top or get close to it. But they set out on different paths because one side of the mountain is rocky, another is covered with trees, and yet another is a barren hill and so on. When the seekers set out on their journey upwards and they hear of what the others are doing and the paths they are taking, they dismiss them as wrongheaded and setting out on mistaken paths because they only know their own path and only trust the terrain they are familiar with. But when some of the seekers get higher up the path and look back down, they can finally see that the various paths lead to the same mountain top. In other words, it is a rookie mistake to focus on difference and think of others as mistaken merely because they are from a different religion, irrespective of what they believe and how they treat others. What strikes me about the story is how well fitting it is for a multicultural society in which various ethnic groups live together and want to live in peace with each other.

At the time, Professor Needleman was also a partner in a business venture called Audio Literature which produces spiritual books on cassettes and CDs. I worked for this outfit for two years as a production worker and general clerk. I mostly worked while listening to the various tapes on a cassette player that I would bring to work with me. The company produces a lot of spiritual poetry, such as the poetry of Kabir and Rilke; they cover all the world’s major religious traditions and many smaller and less known ones. This was truly a job with fringe benefits.

After getting a Master’s degree in Philosophy from SFSU in June of 1991, I stayed there and decided to pursue a degree in classics and to learn Latin and ancient Greek. I had already taken courses on Greek tragedy and comedy, I loved Homer and knew the poetry of Horace, but there were many gaps in my knowledge of the classical world that needed to be filled in. I also hoped to maybe find out more about Ancient Persia. It is during this time that I was able to take many classes from Professor Glanville and become close to him. Professor Glanville is a Thomist and he loves Aristotle. But he also has a mastery of the entire spectrum of ancient and medieval philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from Notre Dame University in 1950 and had done a lot of post-graduate research. He studied with renowned scholars such as Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. I wanted to study classics so that I may study the Greek, Roman and Medieval philosophy with him and also to immerse myself in the classical culture because there is so much wealth and beauty there. I went a little overboard and did just that.

For the next few years, in order to gain the most that I could I focused completely and singularly on the Ancient cultures and simply cut off myself from the contemporary world and the mainstream American culture. For years I lived in San Francisco largely out of touch with popular films, TV shows, bands, and sports events. In a sense I went underground. I got rid of my television, stopped following the popular culture, and stopped reading the news papers. I only went to cultural events that pertained to the ancient worlds. In other words, I mostly went to movies, plays, museum exhibitions and lectures which dealt with ancient philosophy, literature, art, and so on. During this period when someone would ask me if I had read some particular contemporary book, I would respond by saying I only read books that are at least 2000 years old. I would not recommend this approach to everyone but it may be fitting for some people.

The hardest thing to give up was reading the papers because I was for many years a complete News junkie, reading about current events everyday in the newspapers and following many issues and subscribing to political journals, such as Nation, Mother Jones, and World Press Review. I used to start the day by going to the university library and reading the morning papers for a couple of hours. I was also a political activist for many years but during this period of my life I stopped because I became a little skeptical and a little cynical about what can be achieved by political activism and decided to try my hands at directly helping people who need it. So I got a job as an academic tutor helping students in public schools who were having learning difficulties and who were often troubled and were disruptive, making it hard for others in the class to learn anything. My job was to get their focus and try to teach them math and writing in small groups. It was also to try to inspire them to want to achieve something and graduate from high school.

Meanwhile I began taking upper division and graduate classes from Professor Glanville and because he saw that I had some competence and a lot of interest soon I started to grade papers for his lower division classes. Every year he offered a graduate class on a different thinker, such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Plato, or someone else, or on a different period of ancient thought such as Philosophy of Late Antiquity or Early Mediaeval Philosophy. I took all of these classes and his lower division courses including his classes on the history of Christian thought which dealt with the attempts to synthesize Greek philosophy and Christian thought. Once I had learned some Latin and Ancient Greek, I also began reading old texts with him in their original language, such as the first books of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I got to know many thinkers and schools of thought in his classes, of which the most interesting were sometimes the ones on the periphery who resisted the Masters. The best thing was having a chance to have conversions with Professor Glanville on various philosophical issues. He was old but very sharp and he carried his age lightly. He was always open and eager to talk and he knew a lot so he could always bring in some insightful perspective on the subject at hand. He had many of Aristotle’s various insights always within his reach, such as, the view that it is foolish to seek the same level of certainty and precision in politics or ethics as we can find in mathematics or logic because there are various levels of certainty and demonstration in different fields of knowledge. One of the things that I liked about him was that even though he loved Aristotle, he would not think of treating him as infallible and he knew well where some of his shortcomings were, the worst of which is probably his extensive scientific attempts to provide justification for the inferiority of women to men which led him to false and ridiculous conclusions about how human reproduction takes place. Professor Glanville believed that reflecting on how Aristotle, unlike Plato, had gone so wrong on this issue can help us with not making the same kind of mistakes.

The effect of studying ancient and mediaeval philosophy and Greek and Roman literature, history and civilization was marvelous and tremendous as can be expected. Any philosophy student, student of literature, poetry, art, or anyone who loves and works with ideas would of course gain a lot from immersing themselves in the ancient world and returning to the ancients as a source of inspiration. What this often does is to allow one to look at the contemporary world from perspectives which are not from the contemporary world. I think that just as Scholasticism, which brought a torrent of new ideas, was generated by the integration, combination, and encounter with the Greek texts that were kept in the Islamic world, anyone can probably generate new insights, values, and lines of criticism by incorporating and assimilating some of the ideas, the worries and concerns of the ancients. This was one of the main reasons that I set upon studying the ancient world and philosophy.

In fact some of the most interesting thinkers and works in ethics and political theory in the 1980’s and 1990’s were inspired by the revival of ancients and confronting them with contemporary issues and ideas. It used to be the case that in most beginning ethics courses students were introduced mainly to Kant and Mill and their respective views on ethics. These philosophers obviously have a lot of insights and make a lot of sense. But they are a little too abstract and hardly discuss character, the good life, or other relevant ethical concepts. Now Aristotle and virtue theory which centers on the sort of qualities a person ought to cultivate in order to become a good person and be happy, is also brought in to provide more diversity and address the neglected aspects of modern ethics. Similarly with the decline of the Soviet Union and Marxist analysis, some scholars in political theory also began to look at the ancients to find perspectives from which to criticize contemporary political institutions and concepts.

During these years Professor Glanville was my guide and teacher. Like all good teachers he touched many students and effected their hearts and minds. He was old school, but flocks of students would enroll in his classes to get some benefit from the ripe wisdom of this man and then go on their own way. Professor Glanville is truly like a farmer that plants trees which serve the next generation. He has to content himself with the fact that he will not see all the effects of his works.

Professor Glanville trusted me, helped me with getting some teaching experience and recommended me for teaching some critical thinking classes. Teaching these classes was an invaluable learning experience for me. We were so close at the time that I was fortunate to get to know Professor Glanville’s family a little and he also knew Kirsten well. We would sometimes give him a ride home after our night classes. I brought him some Iranian sweets a couple of times, chickpea cookies, rosewater nougats and that sort of thing, and he liked them a lot and found them to be exotic and exquisite. When I left San Francisco to pursue a Ph.D. degree in philosophy at Nebraska, I hoped that I would maybe teach Ancient philosophy one day. But without his companionship, my interests eventually waned and became focused elsewhere.

As I wrote in the beginning, there have been many good professors from whom I have learned a great deal and with whom I have had a productive intellectual relationship. Here I have only mentioned a few of them and focused on a unique one in particular. Moreover with regard to these few professors I have only scratched the surface and have not included all of my recollections and memories of them and of their teachings and wisdom. But I regret even more that I have had to leave out others and have not given them their due. Perhaps one day I will write a more full account my philosophical journey and make up these deficiencies.

University of Amsterdam
It is perhaps worth mentioning that I have not connected well with all of those with whom I have studied and taken classes. I ruffled some feathers when I was a student at the University of Amsterdam from 2000-2002 where I found that some in the philosophy department and the institutions connected to them instead of teaching philosophy preach the ideology of nationalism.

While studying there, I quickly noticed that they do not offer classes on the history of philosophy, on any of the great philosophers of the past, on ethics and ethical concepts or on epistemology or metaphysics. Moreover the idea of giving arguments or justifying one’s views and the eternal philosophical questions were mostly alien to them. I also noticed that in some of the classes, many of the assumptions and views that are usually identified as central to the theory of nationalism are presented as true, self-evident and non-problematic. These claims have to do with the limits of reasoning, impartiality and essentialist assumptions about cultures and they are too complex to get into here. But they are usually presented along with other claims which do not bear on nationalism in many different contexts under the banner of postmodernism. However the implication of these ideas in ethics and politics for social exclusion and racism are never discussed or taken seriously. I was esteemed and thought to be someone with potential until I tried to point these things out and criticized these ideas.

In one of my classes in which nationalism was a major theme but never mentioned in words, once we were told that we were going to read a Jewish thinker and I assumed that finally we were going to get a different view and perspective on the issues. But I was wrong and this fellow stressed the uniqueness of Judaism and his conclusion was underlying the importance and the advantage of the idea of ‘one state, one religion and one people’. Later in this class the social vision of Carl Schmitt, a top Nazi thinker, and his friend and enemy distinction was presented, without much discussion or criticism, as a true description of the relationship between the different ethnic groups that exist in all societies. Schmitt’s political theory was presented as political realism and as capturing how things are naturally in the state and how they ought to be because any change would mean changing the natural order of things. Oddly enough this was a philosophy of religion class in which values such as sympathy, love, peace, tolerance, and opening ourselves and our hearts to others were never even mentioned, let alone advocated.

I eventually discovered that among some of the people in the department and the institutions associated with it, Schmitt is regarded as a very astute and insightful thinker and he is one of the main sources of inspiration in their thinking about politics, ethics, sociology, culture, and even religion. But I learned that while he is taught as such among the Dutch students, this is hidden from the visiting scholars and foreign students. I was told this is so because they are not from Netherlands, they do not know the particular circumstances here, and they will likely misunderstand why he is given such prominence, i.e., cultural differences.

Importantly, the enmity for the other which is at the heart of Schmitt’s views is no longer directed at Jews since there are so few of them left here. Moreover, those who promote this new nationalism, now and 60 years too late, claim that Judaism is in fact part of Western Civilization and therefore the Jews are not the other any more. So who is then ‘the other’ or the enemy if not the Jews? The only reasonable conclusion, and everything that those who deploy these ideas say suggests this, is that the aim of using such nationalist and Nazi ideas, assumptions, and views in their classes is to galvanize their students and the Dutch people against Islam and Moslems, and in particular against the Moroccan and the Turks who live in Netherlands among them. Many of whom are born in the Netherlands and have Dutch citizenship. In other words, the central and covert pillar of their teachings is promoting fear, hostility, partisanship and racism towards Muslims, both inside and outside the Netherlands.

This new nationalism was brewing here before 9/11 and it reflects some of the same themes which can be found in Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Some of the most populist and racist contemporary Dutch politicians such as Pim Fortuyn, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Rita Verdonk, and Geert Wilders have come to prominence mainly by invoking the family of ideas which surround the ideology of nationalism which are taught in classes and given intellectual backing by these closet nationalists. The people who try to promote these views in the university do not call it nationalism and have to be secretive about it, because strictly speaking promoting nationalism, ethnic hatred and discord is against the stated principles of the University of Amsterdam and it is against the law and the constitution of the Netherlands. Yet people can get away with it and they do, in part because large segments of the Dutch population agree with these views and sentiments.

I found everything about what they were teaching to be distasteful and contrary to everything I believe and hold dearly. Their lack of transparency and deception of other scholars was worrying and disturbing. Their ideas were quite nasty, mean and not kosher. No matter how charitable one is, it is hard to think of a nice interpretation of them and to sugar coat them in any way. I had never met anything like these views while studying philosophy in the US for many years and at different institutions. So I spent much of my time engaging these ideas, writing about them and criticizing them. I wrote a paper showing the similarities between these nationalistic ideas and attitudes and the concepts and perspectives that are held by Islamic fundamentalists and suggested that they both seem to emerge out of similar global forces and circumstances. I wrote a paper trying to show how these ideas are in contradiction with the ideas of universal respect and equal moral worth. I also wrote a paper criticizing the political theory of Michael Walzer who is one of the only American philosophers whom the new Dutch nationalists wholeheartedly embrace for obvious reasons, i.e., the echo effect.

It was not so hard for me to connect with people who were skeptical about these ideas, but those who promoted them were unresponsive and would not engage me or my ideas, despite the fact that I was ready to engage them. This was in part because they found out that I know how to argue and they did not have many words nor could give convincing explanations.

I have learned since then that they had heard these lines of criticisms before from prominent philosophers, but apparently they were not going to give any grounds to this powerless Iranian fellow who is not well connected. After a while it became clear to me that if someone were ever going to convince them that starting politics with making of the other is morally indefensible and that a better starting point is to respect everybody and consider them morally equivalent, this person was not going to be me. I graduated with honors from the University of Amsterdam and I have moved on, while still keeping an eye on these unsavory ideas and seeing how they are being used and developed. But in life you can not win them all and sometimes this is OK.

Rotterdam, Netherlands


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more from Sasan Seifikar

The Journey of A Mind

by Theosopher (not verified) on

A great story about the author's intellectual journey with great professors and in various academic areas. The contrast between his experience in America and Europe is dazzling.

It reminded me of Professor Z. and my memoirs of this great man.

Thanks for sharing your experience Sasan. 



I like it

by asghar62 on

Very interesting article, thanks for sharing.
I always wanted to read and learn more about philosophy, but beside the early years after the revolution in Iran, where you could find some limited translated philosophy books in front of the Tehran university, I never got a chance to follow that aspiration of mine. I end up becoming an engineer. Now after so many years I'm thinking maybe I should start educate myself in the area of philosophy more. I have always loved philosophy.
I'm just wondering why in all western philosophy schools they mostly focus on the Greek and Roman and don't mention the great Persian works? Any idea? 

Sasan, please continue to write about these subjects, I love to read about them.

AmirAshkan Pishroo

Dear Kurush

by AmirAshkan Pishroo on

I know nothing about Russian philosophy, but I know this:

Philosophy in the West is a conversation between Parmenides, Plato, Augustine, Hume, Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and the rest. To be a philosopher in this part of the world is to get in on that conversation.


Sassan/Philosophical journey

by Kurush (not verified) on

We Iranians are scarcely aware of the extent and depth of the indoctrinations we were put through under the Shah. After the fall of Mossadegh, Iran severed its relations with the Soviets. yet again, the English speaking Anglos prevented us from having normal relations with our extremely talented and creative and thoughtful northern neighbors. The Anglo-saxons have deep hatred for the Russians and want everyone else to feel the same. Thus we Iranians grew up not knowing a damn thing about our Russians brothers and sisters and their great civilization. How many Iranians do you know who speak Russian fluently and are will-versed in various aspects of Russian culture and thinkers who are, in my view, superior to their western counterparts? Not very many. Sassan I have read what you have read, Grice, Heidegger, Spinoza, Descartes, Schopenhaur, Kant, the charlatan(Hegel), and the indispensable Marx. But that is half the work. I urge you to read the Russian thinkers, Lavarov, Kireyevski, Khomyakov, Chaadayev, Belinski, Berdyev, and the enfant terrible, Bakunin, just to name a few. As to the Dutch, we are brainwashed into thinking that the Europeans resisted Fascism tooth and nail, that it was imposed on them coercively. Not true. Many in Spain, Italy, France, Holland, the Scandinavia, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Finland embraced Fascism and fought along with Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front. Today, the Europeans have likewise embraced the American variety of Fascism and gleefully participated in 'drang nach osten' again with racist anti-moslem twist. May we now question the western thought or lack of it thereof?


Interesting Article! I would

by Seeker (not verified) on

Interesting Article!
I would like to know the link to the philosophical Audio Books, please.

AmirAshkan Pishroo

What a amazing and amusing

by AmirAshkan Pishroo on

What a amazing and amusing philosophical trip you have had, Sassan.

In respect to philosophical traditions practiced in America and Europe, there are two opposing approaches: Analytic Philosophy (American) and Continental Philosophy (European).

The latter tradition is pretty much anti-metaphysic and anti-epistemology, exemplified in the works of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. But I am not sure if we could reduce it to sheer nationalism.

The European tradition, boiled down to its essence, says that I stand with you as a fellow-citizen, but as a philosopher, I stand by myself, pursuing projects of self-creation which are none of any body's concern.

Please continue to give us your thoughts on these issues.