Any views expressed within media held on this service are those of the contributors, should not be taken as approved or endorsed by the University, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University in respect of any particular issue.

Cornel West Lecture 4: History Adagio

Lecture Four took place on Monday 13th May at the Informatics Forum, and was chaired by Professor Lesley McAra, Assistant Principal (Community Relations) and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

Below is a lecture summary, followed by a response by PhD student in English Literature Christopher Chan.

You can watch the Lecture recording on YouTube. At the bottom of this page you’ll find a comment section; we warmly invite visitors to comment and continue the conversation below.


Photograph of John Coltrane being presented an award

John Coltrane

Professor McAra introduced ‘History Adagio’ by reflecting on how the Gifford Lecture series exemplifies one of the critical functions of universities, to be places of convocation and debate, of bringing people together, and bringing expert knowledge and illumination to the world’s most complex problems, to be a positive force for change. It is this sense of unity and sociality that Professor West invoked with his own opening remarks, taking the stage with a ‘genuine smile’ once again offering thanks to those who have shaped the direction of his life and thinking. Continuing the ‘revolutionary piety’ with which he began Lecture One, he thanked his parents Clifton and Irene West, as well as guests in attendance, including ‘third son of Irene’ Tavis Smiley, former college roommates Roberto Garcia and Robert Gerrard, his first TA at Harvard Prof. David Kim, and Prof. Stanley Talbert of Pepperdine. This kind of gathering, West remarked, is like a ‘family reunion’, and these Gifford lectures demonstrate gemeinschaft, a community spirit, that evokes a blues sensibility to shake us intellectually, morally, spiritually and politically – not, he emphasised, as an ‘empty rhetorical gesture, but as a deepening of a very rich conversation that goes back to the legacies of Athens, of Rome, Jerusalem, and Paris, all the way up to Harlem and Hamlet, North Carolina’, the birthplace of John Coltrane.

Last week’s lectures, West recalled, ended on a ‘love note’, the ‘love supreme of Erasmus’. Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly (having begun with philia, friendship) concluded with eros, an ejection of agape, with madness and ecstasy, ‘divine love intertwined with human eros’. Erasmus once said, he continued, that it is ‘better to know less and love more, than to know more and not love’. Such words evoke that which is deep in our hearts, minds, and souls; they implore us to contend with how we ‘fortify ourselves in the battle over paideia’, a philosophical discourse that is not ‘isolated’ nor ‘abstracted’, but is about the very ‘ways of life that provide our structures of feelings and values and virtues’, that empower us to be, in the words of Coltrane, a ‘force for good’. Good, West continued, is a ‘species of truth, not identical but indivisible’ – this is the teaching of the Black tradition, the jazz tradition, of those who ‘believe one is able to, in an egalitarian manner, learn and listen, but also to present and challenge, as we all, as part of human species, come to terms with multi-layered catastrophes confronting us’.

Speaking on paideia and its relation to history, West invoked David Hume, a figure emblematic of the contentious and incongruous views in each of us. In a footnote in ‘The Sceptic’, Hume gave advice to younger generations about how to fortify themselves using the legacies of paideia, tracing the learning of Plutarch, the imagination of Lucian, the eloquence of Cicero (eloquence being a mode of practical wisdom that connects divine to human), the wit of Seneca (who argued that an unexamined life is not worth living, that one who learns how to die unlearns slavery in all its forms), and the gaiety of Montaigne. It is Montaigne, West continued, who best exemplifies the ‘jazz man in the life of the mind’, who understood that words, language, could be a means of shaping oneself, and who as inventor of the genre of essay, demonstrates the synecdochic imagination necessary to relate parts and wholes.

Montaigne, he argued, initiated the tradition of thinkers including Emerson, Pater, Brown, Woolf, and Baldwin, centring a preoccupation with the New World and what it might bring into being. In his essay ‘On Coaches’, Montaigne writes,

Portrait of Montaigne


‘Our world has just discovered another world (and who will guarantee us that it is the last of its brothers, since the daemons, the Sibyls, and we ourselves have up to now been ignorant of this one?) no less great, full, and well-limbed than itself, yet so new and so infantile that it is still being taught its A B C; not fifty years ago it knew neither letters, nor weights and measures, nor clothes, nor wheat, nor vines. It was still quite naked at the breast, and lived only on what its nursing mother provided. If we are right to infer the end of our world, and that poet is right about the youth of his own age, this other world will only be coming into the light when ours is leaving it. The universe will fall into paralysis; one member will be crippled, the other in full vigor. I am much afraid that we shall have very greatly hastened the decline and ruin of this new world by our contagion, and that we will have sold it our opinions and our arts very dear.’[i]

His text humanises all of us, ‘cracked vessels that we are’, West argued, by revealing the barbarity of the Europeans, subverting the imperialist trope of the savagery of indigenous peoples. So too does it conceive of a relation with nature that is not premised on extraction, domination, in which nature is a resource ‘in reserve’. Montaigne’s work is prophetic, prescient, even as it is not entirely accurate, and it is in this distinction between registers that we can find a relation to history that helps us to confront the present. Whereas accuracy is scientific, concerned more with observing what happens, rather than intervening in order to reshape it, a prophetic register is connected to agency, and intervenes to authorise a different future. Montaigne was concerned with the nature of time’s passing, its contingency, and our own temporal nature, and this is why Vico built upon him. Vico, West argued, established the ‘major line of demarcation’ in the European philosophical tradition, because the greatest contribution of the Age of Europe’s modern period was that of ‘historical consciousness’.

Through historical consciousness we recognise that our dogmatic ways of thinking and being ‘have a history’, ‘are contingent upon every modern human being’, and thus the foundations of everything we take for granted ‘begin to erode’. To recognise this contingency all the way through history is to recognise the capacity to intervene, to make the world a better and fairer place.

Vico, West noted, doesn’t go ‘all the way down’ this path; his thinking is haunted by another philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan does reach this understanding that the true is self-same with the made, that history is a story of contingency. Hobbes recognised that what is true is open to revision and transformation, has a historical lens, a notion West opposed to that of truth which ossifies, renders static, and resists historical consciousness. The existential questions revealed by this intervention are what traditions ‘we will hold on to’, and what structures of feeling and value we adhere to: what will we select to ‘constitute the wind in our backs’, to ‘serve us to be forces for good in this historical view of the world?’. These questions, West remarked, are as urgent today, 80 years after the Age of Europe ended, as the Age of America too appears to be in its nadir. Vico’s reading of Hobbes draws a connection to what Thrasymachus presents in Plato’s Republic: ‘might makes right, power dictates reality’. We need a vision larger than this Hobbesian ‘nightmare’, a turn away from corruption that is historically aware, that attends to contingency and catastrophe to empower us to change, to act.

Frontispiece of Vico's The New Science

The New Science

Certainly, Vico gives us a sense of how the ‘nature of institutions is identical with their nascence’: they replicate the conditions that exist when they themselves come into being. This, West described, is the foundation of historical analysis, the way of thinking that Nietzsche and Foucault developed into genealogical analysis. This is a model of knowledge that is ‘deeper than history’, because the ‘talk about history itself is too connected to a god talk’, is too concerned with constructing harmony, unity, structure to establish a cohesive narrative. ‘What if history itself all the way down is contingency, is accidental – to be understood in a Hobbesian model as psychological’, as ‘fearful, suspicious, distrustful’ and fixated on ‘power and wealth’. This, West remarked, ‘sounds a bit like 2024’. The role of philosophy, for ‘lovers of wisdom’, is to find the courage to ‘pursue truth, beauty, and goodness’, and for those of the Christian tradition to pursue God.

West next quoted at length from a letter Vico wrote to Father Bernardo, a text written one year after his New Science that reveals how he too wrestled with his vocation and this pursuit of truth. ‘My texts have fallen on barren ground, I avoid all public places so as not to meet the person I sent my text. And if I cannot avoid them, I greet them without stopping. Because if I pause, they give not the faintest sign they have received my text, and thus they confirm my belief, that it has gone forth into a desert. […] I begrudge the labour to all other poor works of my mind and would like that only this one would survive me, for the others were divined for me to win higher chairs in the university, which by judging me unworthy of it, has tacitly commanded me to labour at this work alone […] therefore by this work I feel myself close upon with a new man, I no longer wince upon the things that once guarded me to be well my hard lot, and to denounce the pervasive corruption of letters that has caused this lot, [which has] strengthened me and enabled me to perfect this work […] so that I am no longer troubled by any fear of death.’

Such words exemplify the Vico who was rendered invisible, whose work was prohibited by the Catholic church, and remained undiscovered until 1824 – the Vico who was picked up by scholars such as Erich Auerbach and Edward Said to greatly influence twentieth century thinking in the wake of the Age of Europe’s end, and the genocidal regimes that marked its demise.

Portrait of Giambattista Vico

Giambattista Vico

To come to terms with the New World, as these thinkers have tried to do, is to attend to lived experience, and to seek out different ways of engaging that don’t fall back onto old paradigms and hierarchies. While mobilising all the resources available to him, West remarked that we need to balance our understanding of the Ages of Europe and America with the voices of Asia, Africa, and indigenous peoples globally; we need people who know, as much as those who make it their calling to know. We need, he continued, to make understanding our vocation, much like Vico, Weber, and Socrates. This is the example put forward by the ‘blues women and jazz men’, who found ‘unbelievable joyous freedom’ even when the racist logics of European and American modernity positioned them as socially, politically, and economically inferior. The jazz tradition is that of a people ‘culturally and spiritually tied to truth telling, justice seeking, joy sharing, and wounded healing that unleashes itself into the world’.

This jazz-soaked philosophy demonstrates paideia as a mode of spiritual formation and education, the ability to be ‘organised to sustain a threat against the status quo’ that divides us. This, West remarked, is what we don’t find in Vico’s work: while he offers a ‘powerful analysis and diagnosis’ towards the catastrophe of his time, ‘where is the fight back?’. In our present moment, as we witness the rising death tolls in Gaza, we ‘must keep track of the fight back’: this series of lectures, West continued, is as much about that resistance, about ‘trying to shatter provincialism and narrow parochialism’, to empower a plurality of voices in the model of the NAACP’s anthem for Black Americans, to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’.

The jazz tradition is that of a people ‘culturally and spiritually tied to truth telling, justice seeking, joy sharing, and wounded healing that unleashes itself into the world’.

What, West continued, might follow if we took seriously Vico’s words? First and foremost, he tells us that imagination and memory are the same thing, and that there are three forms of thinking that interlink in how we make sense of the world: memory (reason, knowledge), fantasia (imagination and the conception of futurity, as demonstrated in the blues tradition), and ingegno (the application of those ideas into action). As we wrestle with ‘how forms of paideia emerge historically’, we must contend with catastrophe as a form of silence towards those who suffer. We must break the silences of those who refuse to speak up on the realities of their day, the hatred and violence that surrounds them: the challenge we face is recognising and enacting the value of truth telling and justice seeking, so that we may then imagine and implement other ways of being.

Turning to the conclusion of Vico’s text, West read an excerpt from its final pages: ‘For it is by religions alone that the peoples do virtuous works through their senses, by which men are efficaciously moved to perform them, while the maxims reasoned by the philosophers concerning virtue serve only for an eloquence good for kindling the senses to do the duties of the virtues. This is the essential difference between our Christian religion (which is true) and all the others (which are false):  in our religion, divine grace makes for virtuous works with a view to an infinite and eternal good that cannot fall under the senses, and as a consequence, it is with a view to this that the mind moves the senses to virtuous actions’.[ii]

Vico’s parting message is one directed towards what West named a ‘body memory’, the deepest experience of ‘visceral, bodily, corporeal realities’ informed by the ‘wounds, bruises, scars they’ve had to come to terms with’. They mark an eloquence to move people, to turn the soul as Plato described as the foundation of paideia; faith, West remarked, cannot be merely based upon rational arguments, but the morality and conviction of one’s actions.

Vico’s closing arguments reveal that ‘unless one has a historical consciousness of what has gone into the molding and shaping of who you are, unless you have some relation and connection to the best inside of you, so that you can deal with the worst inside of you, given that civil war taking place in the battlefield of one’s own soul, you’ll never be wise’.

This is why, in the wake of a blues tradition and a jazz-soaked philosophy, one can’t talk of isolated figures but of polyrhythmic collectives: our ways of thinking and of living are connected to community and traditions that come before us. The risk is that in our present moment, we have lost the balance between these warring selves, that the best of us ‘that has been transmitted to us’ has become ‘so weak and thin’ that we lose the hope needed to build upon it. ‘What a moment to be alive, full of unbelievable despair’, West concluded, ‘and yet at the same time to muster courage to say that despair can never be the last word’.

What a moment to be alive, full of unbelievable despair, and yet at the same time to muster courage to say that despair can never be the last word

[i] Montaigne, M. E. “On Coaches”. The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame. Stanford UP, 1958, pp. 685-698.

[ii] Vico, Giambattista. The New Science, translated by Jason Taylor and Robert C. Miner. Yale UP, 2020.


Response by Christopher Chan:

Etching of Erasmus bordered by floral pattern


As with his previous lectures, Professor Cornel West commences this Gifford Lecture, “History Adagio”, by noting how he is blessed to be sharing here. He expresses warm gratitude to many, present or not, who have supported him and thus become an important part of his life. That includes his family members, friends, and many of his previous colleagues. He notes the wonderful community spirit that overflows within and beyond the lecture theatre: the lectures are much like a family reunion. So there is the formal process of lecture-giving and knowledge exchange, but there is also something beyond that which uplifts our mind and heart, or even our soul. I cannot represent all of us who were in attendance listening, but I personally feel that I am equally blessed, and I am sure, based on our audience’s prolonged round of applause at the end of the lecture, that there is a significant number of people, if not all, who have listened to this lecture feeling blessed too.

That establishes an intriguing connection to the idea of madness from Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly discussed at the close of the last lecture, as Professor West reminds us. That form of madness and ecstasy is exemplified in divine love “intertwined with” human eros. Erasmus says towards the end of his magnum opus, we discover, that “he that’s violently in love lives not in his own body but in the thing he loves; and by how much the farther he runs from himself into another, by so much the greater is his pleasure”.[1] That, we perceive, is a positive, cherishable form of madness Professor West has alluded to time and again, a self-sacrifice in want of the other. Professor West then brings our attention to the wonderful line in Enchiridion: “It is better to know less and love more than to know more and not love” (62). The context of this line is the pursuit of Christ for Christian believers, but Erasmus’s original contains something also useful for atheists expected to be among the audience of the Gifford lectures: to love more, “[y]ou will be deprived of sensual pleasures, but you will enjoy inner pleasures, which are more gratifying” (60). This in turn links back to the frequently-emphasised idea of paideia which, for Professor West, offers us “structures of feelings”, “values and virtues”, a “force for good” as John Coltrane puts it. The humans, Professor West reminds us, comprise a “species for truth” as expounded in the previous lecture.

Portrait of David Hume

David Hume

Professor West’s invocation of David Hume and his exposition of the series of great philosophical minds in “The Sceptic”, in relation to the conception of paideia, is apt in the present time when there are serious challenges that confront the human species. Professor West, we may recall, is asked more than once during the lectures about how we can come to terms with the ongoing stringent catastrophes in the globe. David Hume thus writes towards the end of “The Sceptic”:[2] “We are informed by Thucydides [who receives a mention by West], that, during the famous plague of Athens, when death seemed present to every one, a dissolute mirth and gaiety prevailed among the people, who exhorted one another to make the most of life as long as it endured. The same observation is made by Boccace with regard to the plague of Florence.” One possible interpretation of Thucydides and Boccacio’s lesson is that it may not be useful to let melancholic thoughts dominate us. Hume further concludes that “such is the disorder and confusion of human affairs, that no perfect or regular distribution of happiness and misery is ever, in this life, to be expected” and postulates that “[a] gloomy and melancholy disposition […] is sufficient alone to imbitter life, and render the person affected with it completely miserable”. The invocation of Montaigne after Hume by West, as the best “candidate for jazz man”, is then very apposite: there is a positive emotion of revolt in the language of Montaigne who writes not like Hume who sounds like standing beside human beings pondering their affairs as an observant philosopher. “Of Coaches” will speak powerfully for itself.

Professor West’s mention of Vico’s letter to Father Bernardo as the background to the composition of The New Science is important both for understanding the work and for enlivening our mind. Vico was not well-received when his book first came out around 1725, but that does not prevent the posterity from learning how great he and his work is. Why was Vico so confident? It may be associated with the three principles on which the work is based as explained by the author: “So, after the first principle of divine providence and the second of solemn matrimony, the universal belief in the immortality of the soul, which had its beginnings in the institution of burial, is the third of the three principles on which this Science bases its discussions of the origins of all the innumerable various and diverse institutions of which it treats” (10). The importance of Vico’s “historical consciousness” as explained by West can be seen, we notice, in the Italian philosopher’s understanding of the difference between the works of Herodotus and Thucydides: “Herodotus, called the father of Greek history, whose books are for the most part full of fables and whose style retains very much of the Homeric […] But Thucydides, the first scrupulous and serious historian of Greece, at the beginning of his account, declares that down to his father’s time (and thus to that of Herodotus, who was an old man when Thucydides was a child) the Greeks were quite ignorant of their own antiquities, to say nothing of those of other peoples” (7). Professor West’s explanation of the three types of feelings connected to divine providence at the close of Vico’s work reads thus in the original: “providence, through the order of civil institutions discussed in this work, makes itself palpable for us in these three feelings: the first, the marvel, the second, the veneration, hitherto felt by all the learned for the matchless wisdom of the ancients, and the third, the ardent desire with which they burned to seek and attain it” (426). It is perhaps for these reasons that we can associate ourselves with the swing of music repeatedly emphasised by Professor West, who thus leaves his final aphorism for the lecture: “Despair must never be the last word”.

Works Cited

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Praise of Folly. Translated by John Wilson, 1668,

Hume, David. “The Sceptic”, Hume Texts Online,

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Translated by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, Cornell UP, 1984.

[1] My edition is John Wilson’s 1668 translation of Erasmus, accessible here:

[2] The version I have consulted is from Hume Texts Online, retrievable here:

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Report this page

To report inappropriate content on this page, please use the form below. Upon receiving your report, we will be in touch as per the Take Down Policy of the service.

Please note that personal data collected through this form is used and stored for the purposes of processing this report and communication with you.

If you are unable to report a concern about content via this form please contact the Service Owner.

Please enter an email address you wish to be contacted on. Please describe the unacceptable content in sufficient detail to allow us to locate it, and why you consider it to be unacceptable.
By submitting this report, you accept that it is accurate and that fraudulent or nuisance complaints may result in action by the University.