Tuesday, February 09, 2016

In Memoriam: Professor Arpad Kadarkay

12/20/34 - 11/28/15

In late 2015, Professor emeritus of Politics and Government Arpad Kadarkay passed away. Professor Kadarkay joined Puget Sound in 1979 as associate professor specializing in political theory, American political thought, and intellectual history of 20th century Europe. Professor Kadarkay lived a fascinating life, beginning with his upbringing in Hungary during the Second World War. On his wife Leone’s advice several years ago, Professor Kadarkay had begun writing his memoirs. For those of you who are interested, they are published in serialized form at the Hungarian Review. Professor David Sousa spoke at Professor Kardarkay’s memorial service in late January and he kindly agreed to share his remarks with all of us. - Professor Alisa Kessel

From Professor Sousa

Arpad Kadarkay had a taste for big ideas and large questions. So, like Arpi, I’ll go right to the big picture. Arpad was a free man, freedom won the hard way, who lived in awe of the often terrifying world events through which he lived, the massive movements of social forces that shaped the world and profoundly shaped his own life and thought. Arpad lived in awe of the ideas that he saw as the most powerful forces shaping the world, and was awestruck by the minds and lives of those who generated those ideas. He spent a lifetime engaging these terrible events and those ideas, helping students to glimpse the often awful and sometimes liberating possibilities in ideas and political theory. He was a man well-positioned by virtue of his own story to help students and the rest of us understand tragedy and possibility in history, and in our own lives.

When I heard of Arpad’s death I re-read some of the recent notes he had sent, read a bit of the memoir that he was working on, but mostly I just thought about him in his study, reading. This led me to this passage from Machiavelli that I’m sure he loved, a pitch perfect depiction of a man like Arpad entering his study, to read:

Come evening, I return to my house and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my ordinary clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and wrap myself in robes meant for a court or palace. Dressed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts filled with ancient men where, affectionately received, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse and ask them to explain their actions, and where they, kindly, answer me. And for hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I have no fear of poverty, or even of death. I enter their lives completely.… I have written down what I have learned from these conversations (in a little book called The Prince!)

This was Arpad’s life’s work, to enter the lives of the greatest thinkers who have lived, and to enter them completely. His passion for this project was evident everywhere. His teaching was legendary, enthusiastic, exciting, and more than a bit theatrical. I once read a student evaluation that said that in Kadarkay’s class she felt like she’d had a séance with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which for Arpad had to be the ultimate compliment—he had helped this young person enter into a real and meaningful conversation with a profound thinker. For Arpi, this was the very stuff of a meaningful life and the measure of his success as a teacher and a man. I had the opportunity to watch him teach, to experience the sparks and the fire and the emotion, and after the first visit I asked a colleague if that was, well, real—I mean, how many times can you teach Mill or Marx or Rousseau to first year students and sustain that level of excitement and passion? The colleague assured me it was real—Arpad’s love for teaching political theory, his taste for “that food for which he was born,” never waned.

You could find Arpad’s intellectual passions evident in quiet ways as well. At some point, I needed to read parts of Madison’s notes on the constitutional convention. I couldn’t find my copy, which I had toted around for years but never read, and asked Arpad if I could borrow his. He graciously loaned it to me. When I cracked the book open I found evidence of Arpi’s reading and engagement with Madison and the framers everywhere. Careful, gentle underlinings of key passages in a blue pencil he once favored; notes and questions and exclamations in the margins in his distinctive script, on and on throughout the hundreds of pages of text. This is an important document, but not a scintillating read by any stretch. Still Arpad had engaged it deeply, completely. I thought of the number of times that we had talked about how hard and lonely a life of reading and scholarship can be. At some point it’s just you, and a book, and time. It’s hard. Arpad was distractible and had that charming absent-minded professor persona (there’s a story of Arpad, deep in reading a manuscript in loose pages, crashing into a colleague, two professors on the ground, paper everywhere) but he was much more than this. He had a remarkable self-discipline and dedication to the work that he loved. He was willing to engage in what Weber called “the slow, patient boring of hard boards,” hours of solitary work and reading, sometimes with little apparent payoff, as the price of admission to the great conversations about past and future and about the meaning of the good that he wanted to engage.

I thought of Arpad’s close reading of Madison’s notes when I received what would be his last letter to me from Budapest, parts of which I’d like to share with you now. In retrospect it’s easy to see here that he knew he was saying goodbye.

October 17

Dear David,

I came, I saw, I lecture. Budapest in its Autumn splendor is a sight to behold. After the ugly socialist realist architecture of steel, bricks and plaster, the city of white marble and gilded facades sparkles and radiates beauty and vitality. I lecture at three universities. The return of the native. How proud I am representing this great nation of ours in my native land.

…Throughout my career I have been most interested in the American Revolution. My preoccupation with the Revolution, the Founders, the Constitution comes from my belief that they are the most important events in American history, bar none. Not only did they create the United States, but they infused into our culture all of our highest aspirations and noblest values. Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people, that magic opening of the Constitution “WE THE PEOPLE” came out of the Revolutionary era. So did our belief that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.

Since the identity of the United States as a nation remains unusually fluid, elusive and evolving, we Americans have to look back repeatedly to the Revolution, the Founders, and the Constitution in order to know who we are. We go back to our birth and the values and institutions that came out of it in order to refresh and reaffirm our nationhood. That for me is why the Revolutionary era remains so significant and why it fills me with pride to proclaim it on lecterns by the banks of the Danube.

It is here in my native land that I am proud to say to students, the future leaders of the Republic of Hungary, that our American Republic is still a potent experiment in liberty worth demonstrating to the rest of the world. We can only hope that the idea of America will never die.

Now I am an Americanist and a hard-headed realist, and I have to admit that my first responses to these words were, first, to be charmed because these are so purely the words of my colleague Arpad, but also to roll my eyes at what I reflexively see as a kind of naivete’ about the American experience. But this came from Arpad—a free man who came about that freedom the hard way. He had not only seen the barbarians at the gates but had seen them crash through the gates, aiming to impose mad visions on histories and peoples and cultures that they would never understand so instead would attempt to obliterate. Arpad was more than right to hope that the liberal ideas he found in the American experience would endure, and be powerful enough to serve as antidote to the various forms of madness that threatened and threaten free thought and expression. It’s remarkable that Arpad, who had seen more horrors than most of us, really more than most of us could bear, maintained hope in the power of an idea to confront and turn back the horrors and create a better future.

Finally, a few words about Arpi as a colleague. He was universally regarded as warm, generous, and kind. He and Leone opened their home and played a role in building social capital among us. He took particular interest in the colleagues with young families, often checking in and asking about the children. You should have seen him when he heard Jill and I were having twins. He was laughing and beaming, giddy, doing a little dance. This person who clearly thought of himself as a man of the world, and obviously was a man of the world, was thoroughly grounded in home and family, and he couldn't contain his excitement that we would have the gift he obviously cherished in his own life. Our colleague Dave Balaam has young kids, and over a lunch Arpad heard Dave’s stories about the travails of parenthood. Arpad commiserated, and told him that this too, shall pass. A few days later, Dave found that Arpad had sent him a book on stoic philosophy. This is pure Arpad. All of us need a little Zeno, or Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius to get through the terrible twos.

At one point, in an act of insanity, we made him chair of the department. Arpad was of course a brilliant man of many talents, but it would be an understatement to say that he lacked the bureaucratic gene. He had not fled the totalitarians to put himself under the thumb of the apparatchiks from Jones Hall. He had not fought his way to a professorship in political theory to be saddled with mundane administrative tasks—signing the forms, meeting the deadlines, compiling the budget, submitting the schedule. We’d ask him what happened—where’s the form? Did you sign that and send it over to Jones? Did you meet the deadline? Balance the budget? He’d laugh, shrug, perhaps sheepish, perhaps defiant. This was exasperating in the moment, but as time has passed I have come to see that he was perhaps the greatest department chair ever to have lived. He was not going to let petty demands and requirements distract him from his reasons for living-- his reading, writing, teaching and family. Henceforth, when faced with bureaucratic nuisances we should all ask ourselves, “What Would Arpad Do”? We know exactly what he would do—he would ignore them, throw them away, knowing that if the demands were really important they’d get sent over again, and maybe a third time, saving himself time for the things he loved to do.


Arpad was free man. He lived a big and important life against the backdrop of great historical events, doing what he saw as the most important work in the world. He touched dozens of colleagues and hundreds of students, and his passions and hopes for the world never waned, despite the terrifying realities that he himself had faced. He lived a life in awe, and he himself was, in important ways, awe-inspiring. We’ll miss him.

Professors Arpad Kadarkay and David Sousa
Department of Politics & Government Holiday Party, 12/1/06