If, per impossibile
, we could become friends with fictional characters, Isabel Dalhousie would appear on my list. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve gotten to know her through Alexander McCall Smith’s novels in his Sunday Philosophy Club series.
A professionally trained philosopher of independent means, Isabel lives comfortably in the tree-lined district of Edinburgh’s Merchiston Crescent. Because she works outside any university or institutional context, she is free of ordinary entanglements of bureaucracy, and free for philosophizing. Isabel does the latter with perceptive insight and responsibility. Although some of her calling is fulfilled as editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics
, most of her philosophical vocation takes shape in dialogue and community with family, friends, and fellow Edinburghians.
McCall Smith portrays Isabel with a range of commendable qualities. Philosophical wonder accompanies her everyday experiences and thoughts, so much so that she occasionally falls into Socratic reveries from which others must call her back. She routinely asks probing questions about her duties to others and unacknowledged motives. Because McCall Smith is an omniscient third-person narrator, we witness in Isabel’s internal dialogue the honesty of her self-judgments along with her gentle and generous views of others.
Isabel’s wisdom-loving moves in many directions. She loves the arts, and her husband, Jamie, is a musician, so she spends ample time reflecting on the nature of beauty, sublimity, reverence, and awe, whether occasioned by Jamie’s concert performances, art gallery exhibitions, or walks by architectural landmarks. Her work in applied ethics invites questions about well-known hard cases, yet the titles of McCall Smith’s novels convey other nuanced matters of moral life that preoccupy Isabel: The Careful Use of Compliments
, The Lost Art of Gratitude
, The Novel Habits of Happiness
, A Distant View of Everything
. In the series’ later volumes, she is mother to two boys, giving rise to all kinds of morally freighted questions about character, education, parental fallibility, intergenerational responsibility, and the like.
McCall Smith presents Isabel within engaging storylines and the delightful setting of Edinburgh. Yet if it’s not ridiculous to say, Isabel seems a better character—or at least a better philosopher—than he’s capable of writing her. Where he sometimes leaves her splashing in the shallow end of the pool, Isabel, as I imagine her, has greater aptitude for subtle, demanding argument than McCall Smith allows. Perhaps at work is authorial fidelity to the novelist’s art, whereby he foreshortens philosophizing in order to escape didacticism. Maybe his short shrifting of Isabel reflects limits of his own understanding. Either way, I give Isabel greater credit, and hold her in higher esteem, than the novels strictly warrant.
Our own ideas can be better than we know, can’t they? When others see greater possibilities within us, and then give the assistance of their encouragement and wisdom, we sometimes come to see more, and to expect more, of ourselves. Happy thought, indeed.
On that note and in these Eastertide days, may the grace and hope of Christ redeem what is lost and call forth what is best in each of us.
Please take note of the following news within our academic community:
• We mourn the passing of William K. Robbins, Jr.
“Uncle Bill” was an advocate of excellence in undergraduate education, a benefactor of causes across the University, and a longtime member of the Honors College Advisory Council. Through the generosity of Uncle Bill and his wife, Mary Jo, Robbins Chapel in Brooks Residential College was built, and Memorial Chapel in the Honors Residential College was renovated, that Christian prayer and worship might abound. Give thanks for Uncle Bill, and please hold Mary Jo and family in your prayers.
• The culminating event of the J. Harry and Anna Jeanes Academic Honors Week took place last Friday. At Academic Honors Convocation
, outstanding majors from over 50 academic departments were recognized. Alumnus Samuel Chen
(B.A. ’09, M.A. ’11) gave a powerful keynote address entitled “What Does Washington Have to Do with Waco?” In addition, the Cornelia Marschall Smith Professor of the Year Award was announced with Richard Russell
, professor of English, as recipient. Hooray for our students, compliments to Sam, congratulations to Richard, and thanks to all the great teachers and mentors behind our students’ success.
• Plans are set for construction of a new home for the Honors College
on Founders Mall. Contractor mobilization begins in mere weeks, followed by interior demolition in Memorial, Alexander, and Draper. Construction will take place over the 2023-24 academic year. In July 2024 we will move into renovated offices, with students occupying refurbished quarters in the HRC. I have begun visiting departments to share plans, elevations, and renderings, and I look forward to further meetings in days ahead.
• In connection with upcoming construction, I’m delighted to announce two recent capital project gifts. The first, in the amount of $1.5 million, comes from the Mabee Foundation
in the form of a challenge grant for The Commons, a new building uniting Alexander and Memorial Halls. A second $2.5 million gift has been made by a Dallas-area family. More information about these gifts is forthcoming. Added to generous support from other donors, these new gifts bring our total capital project fundraising to $7 million.
• Three cheers for William Weaver
, professor of literature in Great Texts, who is being appointed director of the program, effective June 1. Author of Homer in Wittenberg: Rhetoric, Scholarship, Prayer
(OUP, 2022) and two other books, and owner of a long record of admirable teaching and mentoring, William follows Phil Donnelly
in the director’s role. Thank you, Phil, for your dozen years of admirable stewardship and service, and congratulations, William, on your new role.
• Congratulations to Jeff Hunt
, senior lecturer in classics and director of the University Scholars Program, on publication of his new translation of book one of Philo of Alexandria’s De vita Mosis
(Baylor University Press, 2023). Lauded for its “accessible and illuminating” translation, and for its “sizeable introduction” with “even-handed conclusions,” Jeff’s work offers readers a fresh encounter with a great Hellenistic philosopher of the first century.
• Congratulations also to Scott Moore
, associate professor of philosophy in Great Texts, on publication of a new edition of Petrarch’s Life of Solitude
(Baylor University Press, 2023). Called “a marvelous volume,” a pathway “to a deep humanity and sociability,” and a resource for “deeper connections to others through the virtues and joys of friendship,” Scott’s introduction and notes help readers recover Petrarch’s timeless wisdom for our distracted and despairing age.
• Baylor Connections
, a weekly podcast broadcast locally on 103.3 KWBU-FM, recently featured the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core’s Colleen Zori
, senior lecturer, and David Zori
, associate professor of anthropology. Click here
for their absorbing interview with Baylor Connections
host Derek Smith about the San Giuliano Archaeological Project, just north of Rome, Italy.
All the best,
Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University
baylor.edu/honorscollege | 254.710.7689