Let Peter be Peter
I am publishing, with Mark Montebello’s consent, e-mails between us following the passing away of Peter Serracino Inglott.
1. From Fr Montebello:
Mario, first of all, please accept my condolences upon the death of Fr Peter. Though I know you were not blood-related, I consider you one of his many (or should I say “few”?) “spiritual” (for want of a better word) children. It must feel, as I myself do, as a kind of strange severing of some umbilical bonding. It falls somewhere between sorrow and angst.
Secondly, I do agree with you if apart from the official commemorations, we were to find the opportunity of remembering him soberly for his philosophical work. When all the smoke from the funeral pyre settles down, Fr Peter must be taken seriously. Seriously not as in pedantic. But as in “serious fooling”, as he used to say. I am pretty sure that, even now, when primed to look all solemn, he has not lost his wicked penchant for bemusement. You know, in a philosophical sort of way.
My saddest moments since his passing away came mostly from seeing nincompoops and sycophants bury Fr Peter under a heap of hollow superlatives, banalising him, trivialising what was too big for their plate. Yes, indeed, Mario, we must let Peter be Peter: fool with our seriousness; get serious with our fooling. We have a responsibility here, you know, one which we owe to ourselves and mostly to future generations. Surely, Fr Peter will gleefully play donkey to our rickety cart.
2. To Fr Montebello:
My condolences to you Mark. The news of his passing away struck deeper than I thought it would. I too was nauseated by attempts to reduce him to a caricature of himself by those eager to appropriate him for their own little purposes. One is tempted to take them up one by one, to contradict their pompous assertions with the man’s own words. In the circumstances, however, it would have been inappropriate.
Twenty three years ago I wrote that had Fr Peter not existed, certain political interests in this country would have needed to invent one. I argued that depicting him as a brilliant but unpractical and absent minded professor, is one way of banalising those initiatives that made Fr Peter a sometimes uncomfortable fellow traveller of the powers that be. As if to say, true, he does sometimes criticise us but what can you expect from an incurable head-in-the air utopian? As if to say, let him air his futuristic visions but leave the here-and-now to us.
Sometimes, however, philosophers kick kings where it hurts and kings are embarrassingly silent. Such as when, recently, Fr Peter “said the implementation of the national minimum curriculum was the biggest ever disaster in the field”. “Never in Malta,” he argued, “did we have a situation where the central education authority left no space for freedom, originality and innovation for our teachers as was done since the national minimum curriculum was introduced”. www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20111218/local/Fr-Peter-launches-scathing-attack-on-education-policy.398787
3. From Fr Montebello:
Mario, philosophers can indeed have a cutting tongue on public issues, and Fr Peter was undoubtedly one of them. Here lies one of his merits in Malta with regard to philosophy. I submit (correct me if I’m wrong), that Fr Peter could do this – not personally, or as a priest, but qua philosophy – only because, since 1963, he had been building a platform for philosophy. What I mean is that, before he began his intellectual contribution here in Malta, philosophy seems to have been generally considered as, at best, interesting, and, at worse, futile. To his merit, I think Fr Peter succeeded in changing this; he gave philosophy a more or less respected voice.
Of course, one might say that, despite all of this, that voice is rarely heeded where or when it matters.
I beg to differ. One must grant that some of Fr Peter’s “spiritual” progeny – which includes you, me and others – did take this enhancement to heart, and we surely cannot say that we were never heeded. Some people, even a few around decision-making tables, did pay attention.
This role should be continued and, possibly, justified better. The time is ripe, I think, Mario, to seek – in full deference to Fr Peter’s “spiritual” legacy – to transcend him. Understand him better, yes, for sure, but also to take his charge to heart, and, as he taught us, deem philosophers’ duty towards society as part of their very definition.
4. To Fr Montebello:
Mark, in yesterday’s homily you defined Fr Peter’s optimism. It is not the optimism of those that are blind to what is negative, not the optimism that minimises the gravity of threats, nor the cruel optimism that dangles carrots of false hope in front of the desperate. It is the optimism that recognises reality for what it is but does not surrender to it and seeks to change it.
Last week as I and my old friend Joe Friggieri waited our turn to speak on Bondi+ about Fr Peter, I sensed – especially as we watched two former presidents of the Republic have their say – that our relationship to our teacher and interlocutor was radically different from theirs to him, though Joe and I have taken different political paths.
Though philosophical blood may not be thicker than politics, certain elective affinities across the political divide make me less pessimistic about the future of this country.