Peter Emberley (1956-2016): In Memoriam

HomeAnnouncementsPeter Emberley (1956-2016): In Memoriam

Peter Emberley died in Ottawa, Ontario on November 30, 2016, of a neurodegenerative disorder called Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB). The cause of DLB is unknown and there is no cure. The chief presenting symptom is cognitive dysfunction as a result of abnormal protein collections in the brain. Eventually the symptoms are similar to those of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The period between onset and death is around eight years. I mention these rather unpleasant reminders of human fragility because such symptoms are particularly difficult for friends and loved-ones of a scholar such as Peter to observe and for the patient to endure. The last time we had dinner, some five or six years ago, we both knew something was wrong, but neither of us knew what.

Peter graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1978 and took a one-year MA at the University of Toronto the following year. He then left for the London School of Economics where in 1983 he received his PhD. His thesis, Rousseau and the Domestication of Virtue, was a topic of discussion (and cordial disagreement between us) when he came to the University of Calgary as a post-doc and sessional.

During his three or four years in Calgary, we routinely assaulted the mountains around Banff. On one occasion, atop Cascade Mountain, we were discussing a remark by George Grant, of whose Collected Works Peter was later a co-editor. “There may be gods in the mountains,” Grant wrote, “but they are not ours.”

“How would he know,” I asked. “He was never up here.” Peter agreed.

Across the Bow River Valley was Mount Rundle (both Rundle and Cascade are a little under 10,000 feet) and I pointed out to Peter the easiest route to the top, stressing that he had to come out of the trees and onto the scree slope above a deceptive rock band. A week later, Peter and some others from the department ascended Rundle, but from below the rock band. They kept going all the way to a couloir at the upslope end; it starts out easily enough, but gradually become steeper and ends in a fifteen-foot vertical climb that is difficult to go up and more difficult to come down. They went up without ropes and obviously they made it to the top. The next day Peter came by my office and assured me that they gods of the mountains were not only present but were dangerous.

Peter left Calgary with ambivalence in his heart. He had secured a tenure-track position at Carleton University in Ottawa, which was a positive, but he was still a Westerner. At Carleton he began publishing a series of papers and books, on technology, on Canadian universities and the regrettable decline in the importance of a liberal education, and on the spiritual longings of ordinary Canadians and Americans that took them abroad, particularly to India, in search of meaning. He was a major teaching presence at Carleton for twenty-five years and mentored some fifty graduate students to completion.

Readers of VoegelinView will be familiar with Peter as the co-translator and co-editor of the correspondence between Voegelin and Leo Strauss. Sometime in the late 1980s I was going through the Voegelin papers at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. Systematically working through the correspondence I eventually came to Box 37, file 1, which contained forty letters between the two men. No one had ever mentioned (to me at least) that the two greatest political philosophers of the twentieth century even knew one another.

Voegelin had the decency to type his letters to Strauss, but Strauss mostly wrote his in what was the worst handwriting I had ever come across. I assumed he wrote in German, but it could easily have been Arabic. And, in fact, Strauss would often insert individual words of English, Latin, and Greek but to me it all looked the same. I knew that Peter had spent time in Germany as an army brat and that his mother’s first language was German.  Peter showed Strauss’s letters to his parents and to his parents’ German friends. Later he contacted Strauss’s daughter, Jenny, for assistance. Eventually we put together a German typescript that could be translated. We expected there would be plenty of difficulties in the final text but decided it was important to make the correspondence public. The errors and ambiguities could be fixed later –and they were, by Peter Opitz and Emmanuel Patard, in 2010.

Peter did not just write about the importance of liberal education, he actually did something about it. Tim Fuller had invited him to teach on several occasions at Colorado College so he was thoroughly familiar with both the block-course structure at CC and the content of a liberal undergraduate curriculum. In the 1990s he designed a core curriculum in the humanities for a new school within Carleton, the College of the Humanities, of which he was the first director. He later advised the president of the University of Toronto on establishing a similar college there and, with Tim Fuller, was central to the curriculum development of Quest University in Squamish British Columbia.

Before the progression of DLB made writing impossible, Peter was at work on two books, Disorder of the Twentieth Century: An Examination of Multiple Modernities, and A Cultural History of the Bauls and Baharupiya Tradition. The first was to be a theoretical reflection on what Western modernity had become as it was diffused to the non-Western world; the second examined the creative response, and sometimes active resistance to Western modernity by two traditional communities in South Asia.

His last research on “multiple Modernities” and South Asian cultures took him several times to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. His skill as a photographer enabled him to capture stunning images of the Baul and Baharupiya traditions; his own abilities as a prestidigitator, to say nothing of his impish sense of humour, doubtless endeared him to Baul and Baharupiya practitioners. He expected his Cultural History would be a significant contribution to contemporary political science.

Peter is survived by his brother Philip and nephew Brayden and by his widow, Xiaoda Zhang. He is remembered by his many colleagues, friends and students.

Barry Cooper

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Barry Cooper is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary. He is the author, editor, or translator of more than thirty books and has published over one hundred and fifty papers and book chapters. He writes a regular column in the Calgary Herald.