1994 Recipient - Dr. Joseph Engelberg
Professor of Biophysics, University of Kentucky
If you already know Dr. Engelberg, you will immediately agree that he is a perfect candidate for the Hellenic Ideals Award. If you have not had the pleasure, then perhaps I can best describe him by saying that he is more like Socrates - or at least like my image of Socrates - than anyone I know. He is at his best as a gentle up-setter of apple carts, kindly persistent gadfly, and stimulator of deep thought. Because I connect him in my mind with Socrates, I have begun to believe that if Socrates were alive, he would look like Joe. If you know Joe only by his reputation - as a vigorous, persuasive organizer, a great intellect, a thrilling teacher who can demolish your argument and make you love him for it - then you probably envision something between Albert Schweitzer and Michelangelo's God. When you meet him, what you see is a small, sprightly man, who radiates benevolence, and whose kindly appearance gives no hint of devastating power of his wit when it is turned on a worthy opponent.
To my mind, his greatest accomplishment is to have badgered his colleagues into meeting weekly - for the last 12 years - to try to find the common ground of human experience. He calls these meetings "integrative studies," because Western intellectual energy for the last two hundred years has focused on analysis and anatomy (two expressive Greek words that mean dissolution), not on the patterns and principles that underlie the universe.
His method is Socratic in its purest form: to ask an innocent-sounding, basic question, to elicit opinions from everyone (giving all the impression that he thinks them wise and clever), and to leave everyone in fact wiser, more willing to seek the unifying aspects of reality. To attend these voluntary Monday night seminars is an extraordinary experience. It makes one proud to see the breadth of knowledge and experience that our community contains; and to discover the number of deeply concerned men and women from central Kentucky eager to share their ideas about the meaning of experience. Most remarkable of all, however, is to watch Dr. Engelberg with ease and humor directing the movement of the symposium-like discussions.
The now-famous Monday night dialogues have evolved under Joe's guidance from something like a formal lecture with discussion among professions, to a format in which a mentor guides and learns with his fellow-seekers. What is important to remember is that these seminars are not academic meetings, but are, if anything, an antidote to such intimidating gatherings. They represent an effort to bring together all of the elements of our community that have an interest in wholeness, including the business, medical, legal, religious, and academic sectors. If Joe could manage it, instead of sitting in classrooms, we would all meet in small, friendly groups in a park or over a really good meal - like Socrates and his friends - and help each other to explore the universe. If Joe's accomplishments were purely professional and academic, I would not have nominated him for an award that recognizes persons who have benefited our whole society by their actions or example.
Joe's published work is a mirror of his professional activities and his humanitarian concerns: the long list includes technical writing on his specialty, physiology; penetrating essays on religion, literature, medical ethics, war trauma, man's uncertainty at the prospect of his own death; and, to use the title of a recent piece, the limits of critical thought. I urge you to read Joe's article in Perspectives, to see how he leads his reader by imperceptible moves from individual concerns to the universal needs of the human spirit, from the amusing fable about the French restaurant (like Plato's cave story) to the imperative need for us to look beyond ourselves.
I hope that these remarks convince you that Joseph Engelberg is a modern Socrates: intellectually fearless, humble, energetic, humanitarian, a lover of beauty in all its forms, a man with a self-appointed mission to make us see how our world hangs together. He would be the last to believe himself worthy, but I can think of no one more deserving of recognition for his embodiment of the Greek ideal.
[from his nomination letter by Joseph R. Jones dated March 28, 1991]