Michael Sugrue, a former Princeton professor whose 1992 lecture series on the Western canon later captivated millions of YouTube viewers, passed away on Tuesday after a long battle with cancer.
His career was in some ways typical of late-twentieth-century elite American academics. As an undergraduate, he studied under Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago. He graduated, got his master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia, and taught subsequently at Johns Hopkins and Princeton. In something of a nod to his parochial-school upbringing, he finished his career at Florida’s uber-Catholic Ave Maria University.
Sugrue was a minor celebrity among his students and fellow faculty, who were captivated by his lectures and dedication to the source material. In considering his legacy, that is worth noting. But Sugrue’s career reached new heights after what one can only describe as an accident.
In 1992, Tom Rollins of the Teaching Company was filming Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, a 57-episode lecture series spanning Western intellectual history from the Pre-Socratics through postmodernism. One of the headliners was seized by stage fright, and Rollins pressed Sugrue and his colleague Darren Staloff to teach many of the 50-minute installments on thinkers from Plato to Augustine to Nietzsche.
You can’t appreciate it fully until you watch an episode, but the condensed lecture format showcased Sugrue’s charisma, encyclopedic knowledge of the source material, and generational talent as an orator. In each episode, Sugrue paced back and forth without notes in hand, engrossed in the motivations, idiosyncrasies, and enduring relevance of the lecture’s subject. He studiously restrained his own beliefs, seeking to present the most compelling case for each thinker’s ideas. He sought to convince the audience of the urgency of the conflict each thinker sought to solve—whether Kierkegaard’s existential wrestling with the story of Abraham and Isaac or Marcus Aurelius’s attempt to live justly with near-unlimited power.
The VHS series that he anchored launched in 1992, bringing Sugrue’s talents to thousands who had never sat in on his Princeton lectures. After the advent of YouTube, he became for millions of viewers a gateway to the Western intellectual tradition. Today, Sugrue’s YouTube channel, which has posted each episode in the 1992 series, has more than 13 million views and a dedicated base of subscribers who claim that the professor sparked their interest in philosophy and the Western canon.
I spoke with Sugrue two years ago. In our conversation, he reflected on his life and his embrace of Stoic philosophy. “Being sick teaches you, you’re not in control, you’re not in charge,” he told me. “And you have to learn to play at the hand you’re dealt.”
Sugrue played that hand, and he continued posting YouTube videos until the week before his death. On Tuesday, his daughter, Genevieve, who runs the channel, announced his passing in a post. Accompanying her note was a photo of Sugrue, standing beside an old house, on the side of which was painted a paraphrase of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore: “He who plants a tree knowing that he will never sit under its shade, has at least begun to understand the meaning of life.”