Friday, September 26, 2008

A Tribute to Dr. Shtromas


I just returned from my next-door neighbor's home, and he is not happy unless his guests have partaken generously of certain libations. If this post seems a bit disorganized, it is Chuck's fault....

While at Hillsdale College, I had the opportunity to study under a bona fide intellectual. Dr. Alexandras Shtromas not only possessed an elevated mind, he had experience in the world outside the ivory tower.

I still remember being a freshman: young--so wonderfully young--confident, and eager. Before classes even resumed, my roommate's sister--a sophomore--, informed me that this particular professor of political science did not give A's. Dr. Shtromas was from Eastern Europe, and he thought that American youths were raised on little more than MTV.

I took that as a challenge.

On the first day of class--a Tuesday--I met my friend, Bob Murphy (author of the blog "Free Advice,"--among other things--and one of the few people of whom I will admit is probably smarter than me--that's right, Bob, laugh it up. I admitted it--though only as "probably." Now it's your turn to admit that I have more hair on my head, can eat more tacos than you, and kick your ass in a fight. "Come on, bitch!"--inside joke).

I remember listening through Dr. Shtromas's thick Lithuanian accent and thinking, "I can do this." However, it would take some time for any confirmation.

Those of you who have been through college know that the bulk of any given class is just listening, taking notes on lectures, reading, taking notes on readings, and studying notes from lectures and readings.

Our first reading was the first few books of Aristotle's Politics. I read the first paragraph and thought, "Oh shit. I'm not getting an A in this class." In all sincerity, I knew the meaning of every one of Aristotle's words (as translated into English), but the style and construction was so unfamiliar to me that I despaired.

I even called my mom to tell her that I was in trouble. I read aloud to her the paragraph, and she also thought that I was in trouble. However, after reading the words aloud, something started to click. I told her to hold on, and I re-read it silently, and it clicked even more. Now excited, I told my mom that I was ok, I loved her (and that I needed some money), but that I needed to get back to work.

Many of the assigned readings were difficult. I remember wading through Kant's "Treatise on Perpetual Peace" and being struck by the two possible scenarios for peace: If men will not find a true avenue to live together peacefully, then we will all rest together in the peace of the graveyard.

Our mid-term essay had something to do with the legitimacy of Lycurgus's regime in Sparta. It was assigned on a Thursday and due to following Tuesday. I worked my butt off on it until I was certain that it was probably the most insightful essay written about Lycurgus's regime.

A week later, we received our papers. I earned a true A, and I was beaming with pride. However, it was of Bob's paper that the professor spoke: "If you wish to write a good essay, then talk to Bob Murphy."

"Holy crap!" I thought. How good was Bob's essay?

It turns out that Bob's essay was an A-. That's right, an A freaking minus. I earned a higher grade (on that one, at least--nothing was said of subsequent tests or papers), but Bob received all of the honors. It's kind of like how his blog has so many readers and receives such insightful comments from intellectuals such as some brilliant and sexy guy who calls himself Aristos, but my blog is stuck with comments from BAR and "Howling Mad" Murdock (Golf Guy has, apparently, left the building).

But in the end, all of that whining represents nothing more than the recollections of a bruised ego that desperately wanted recognition. Everything of Bob's that I've ever read has been excellent, so he indeed deserved to be noted. I've played way too many video games over the past decade to pull of some kind of rightly-slighted academic attitude. Besides, I ended up with an A in the class--despite the warning that it was virtually impossible--and that alone was reward enough. (Though when I think of it I still give a good Stephen Colbert-esque "BOB!!!!!")

It was in Dr. Shtromas's class that I first read George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984. For a few years, my insights made me into a monarchist--according to the model of Plato's standards for philosopher-kingship--for I could not accept that democracy would find its way through the darkness (I just knew that Federalist #10 was wrong).

To support this monarchical fancy, I grew fond of Machiavelli's writings. I especially related to the idea that one must set aside ideals in favor of the present reality (as if ideals and not the present reality were the problem). My thinking was that people were too damn stupid to figure out how things should be done, so a good leader needed to stoop to a low level, seize control, and gradually show what should be done.

Yeah, I was a retard for a brief period.

If you are offended by my use of the word "retard" (literally meaning "slow"), then substitute either Democrat or Republican. However, if that confuses your understanding of "corrupt" or "evil," then just grow up and get over the semantics--unless you're retarded.

In more recent years, I have realized that the problem isn't the kind of government. The real problem is that some people assume that they have some kind of natural right/ability to govern everyone else (e.g. because they have money, military power, or the support of enough to call "the masses"). History proves that Plato's philosopher-king is humanly impossible. The only king who ever lived on this planet and didn't tyrannize anyone was Jesus of Nazareth--and look at what people did to him. (How's that for a model-king. Let your people murder you in a fashion so terrible that only Mel Gibson could imagine it, then forgive them for so doing).

Over time I began to realize that left alone, human beings act according to their own interests, and that it is in human beings' interest to act in a way that leads to the natural formation of mutually beneficial societies. That's right. Peaceful, social interaction is natural.

You might know some fool who says something like, "If there was no government, then everyone would run around shooting each other!"

Ask yourself, is the government the only thing that keeps you from running around and shooting everyone in sight? Of course not. You don't do that because it is not in your interest to do that. You know by (natural) instinct that, if you want to accomplish much of anything, you need the support and consent of your neighbors.

The greatest government, then, isn't the one that takes people's money, but the one that leaves people to spend their own money. A truly good government doesn't tell people what to do, but makes sure that people are free to do what they wish to do.

Paine was almost right when he said, "The government is best which governs least."

But Thoreau was dead-on right when he said, "That government is best which governs not at all."

The vast bulk of my significant political insights began in that class, and so sad I am to remember that Dr. Alexandras Shtromas is dead. He--so intimidating, so willing to call his classes a bunch of stupid Americans who only knew how to watch MTV--was the first of the stepping-stones upon which I lit upon from Hades, across the river Styx, and into the place of real sunlight described by Plato in Socrates's Allegory of the Cave.

I know that this was a rather "round-about" way to give tribute to the late Dr. Shtromas, but I've had a few "beverages," and I just read a eulogizing article by one of his friends.

Call me sentimental, but it made me think about the man who once made me feel so small, then made me feel so grand--not as grand as, say, Bob Murphy, but screw him: I earned a full A on that mid-term and for the class!

I know that this tribute is several years late, but nonetheless I am compelled to say thank you, Dr. Shtromas, and rest in peace.


  1. Wow that was a neat post, Aristos. At first I was going to be a wise guy and say, "So the moral is, when you're feeling down in the dumps, call Zach's mom?"

    But it ended up being such a moving post, that I wouldn't wreck it with such crassness.

    BTW did we ever have a taco eating contest, or are you just coming up with categories?

    You also neglected to mention that he called me "the champion of the class."

    I was really naive in that class. When we were reading 1984, I could not for the life of me understand why they let Winston get so far along in his rebellious activities. I asked Schtromas after class, while he smoked a cigarette at his desk and allowed the column of ash to grow to more than an inch before it collapsed on his sleeve or something.

    I don't remember his exact words, but his reaction was incredulous. "Bob, why don't you understand this? This is very easy."

  2. I admit that we never had a taco eating contest. However, I am confident that I could win. I did, after all, win the most recent steak eating contest amongst me and several of my colleagues (60oz of Delmonico!).

    The last paragraph of your comment made me laugh out loud. I can see it in his face and hear it in his voice.

  3. Ah, Dr. Shtromas. I remember the first time we met him and told him that we were Aristos parents. He looked at us and said, "Ah, Aristos, an interesting fellow". I do know for a fact that Dr. Shtromas admired you and your commitment to learning. I believe he was the number one professor that has molded you into what you are today. There are times I am not so sure I thank him for that, face it some of your papers over the years, as well as your current Blogs, have been BORING at best and very hard for me to understand at the least. Unless "Walk through Bob's" (that is what Aristos dad and I use to call him because when we were there he would come through the front door of Aristos place walk in and go right out the back door) parents are super scholars like he is, I have no doubt they found his papers just as boring and hard to understand. Isn't that what a scholar is good at, speaking and or writing so far over everyone's head that us common folk just call you a genius rather than admit that either we are not so intelligent or you are full of crap.

    I did get many calls from Aristos asking me to listen to what he wrote and it was always very hard for me to keep up or even stay awake. But I loved him so I endured and was very proud in the end to see him graduate with honors, although not as proud as "Walk through Bob's" parents must have been because I am pretty sure he ended with a higher GPA!!

    Love you Son!!!

  4. Mother of Aristos, you really nailed it when you wrote that people call him a genius because they are either too intelligent to understand him or think he is full of crap (and hope he stops lecturing). Sometimes, though, people will avoid arguing/debating with him because his stubborn persistence annoys them so (like when he tries to show that drinking 50 oz. of coffee a day is healthy!)
    Aristos and Bob, I am a bit envious with the relationship you had with such a brilliant man. I never really had a "Hugh Akston" professor to inspire me to the extent of Dr. Shtromas.

  5. Alex Shtromas was, as you rightly say, an intellectual. He was a man of courage, experience, and foresight. Alas, he is gone, as is the only other fellow I consider his equal, John Reist. Both are missed, and both are irreplaceable.

    Best to you.


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