I recently learned that historian and activist Dr. John Lewis has passed away after a long battle with cancer.
I was fortunate enough to have many interactions with John over the past dozen years, and he repeatedly inspired me in both word and deed. I first encountered John back in 2000, when we were both taking a year-long writing class (over the phone) with the Ayn Rand Institute. Even though he was a seasoned adult–several decades older than the youngest student in the class (me) and a grad student at Cambridge–John was openly, youthfully, and unpretentiously eager to learn.
He embraced criticism, whether from the instructor (Rob Tracinski) or his classmates. He had no desire to keep up appearances, just to improve. I noticed, as I kept up with his work over the years, that his writing kept getting better while other writers would stagnate; his ambitious disposition is surely why.
The first class I took from John was in 2002, shortly after he got his Ph.D. in Classics from Cambridge. It took me approximately 30 seconds to become a fan of his teaching. Booming voice, enthusiasm for the subject (Solon and the development of law, a subject he would revisit often), encyclopedic knowledge–what wasn’t to love?
It was in 2002 that I learned more about John’s story–the story of how he switched careers from businessman to intellectual. For a long time he worked a full-time job and pursued the studies that would eventually make him an expert in the field. I remember learning about his late nights in the library learning the foundations of Classics. Ever since then, the image of John studying while everyone else is sleeping has stuck in my head as the archetype of what a serious intellectual is willing to do to master his craft. John never gave me advice–he showed me what listening to his advice would look like. Know what you want. Know why you want it. Know how to get it. And get it.
John got it. He spent a solid decade doing what he loved to do. He wrote books about his favorite subjects, he taught at Duke University, he won over crowds with his impassioned and insightful speeches. And he inspired many other intellectuals, myself included.
One thing I admired about John is that he was the full package–he knew history inside and out, he continually tried to understand it on a more fundamental level, and he would always connect everything to real people and real values. He was comfortable in academia and he was comfortable at a Tea Party Rally. He embodied the idea that ideas are for living by, and that an intellectual should be an engaged, compelling communicator, comfortable explaining his ideas to anyone.
Another thing I admired about John was the breadth and depth of his knowledge. Even though his background was in Classics, because he was so studious and so interested in life, he would regularly come up with fascinating facts that I could use in my own work on business, energy, and industry. In 2008, while I was preparing a course on the history of oil, he mentioned to me that although oil wasn’t rendered useful on a wide scale until the 1800s, its used was referenced repeatedly in the Old Testament. After a few pitiful attempts to find the references on my own, I asked John if he could give me some guidance.
He could, to say the least. Here was his response:
“Pitch, aka, asphalt, in the Old Testament:
Genesis 6.14 God commands Noah to coat his ship with pitch, which may be raw asphalt or bitumen
Genesis 11.3 pitch, or slime, is used for mortar
Genesis 14.10 the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fell into it
Exodus 2.3 Moses’ boat of bullrushes was coated with it
Isaiah 34.9 it burns
This is John Lewis as I will remember him–always with the answer, always enjoying his life.
Goodbye, John. It was a privilege to know you.