10 Questions with Dr. Michael Legaspi

Having taught at Andover from 2010-2014, Dr. Michael Legaspi rejoined the Andover community in the Fall of 2020 after teaching at Penn State University as an Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies. Legaspi currently serves as the Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, teaching signature courses on biblical studies, existentialism, responses to the Holocaust, and the life and thought of Bruce Lee. Outside of the classroom, he enjoys coaching JV Football and the martial arts.

1. How did you first become interested in philosophy?

In the summer before ninth grade, I found a philosophy book in my house, which my older brother had brought home from college. I was bored, so I started reading it. It was an anthology of existentialist writings by Walter Kaufmann. Though I didn’t understand very much of it, I felt an almost automatic affinity with these intense and gloomy figures. Kierkegaard in particular impressed me with his talk of being an individual. That was the start for me.

2. After teaching at the college level, what drew you to return to Andover in 2020?

The biggest reason I came back was that I missed Andover students: their energy, intellectual curiosity, and readiness to challenge themselves. Classes I taught at university were dreary affairs that featured me lecturing to students who were glued to their phones and laptops. Frankly, it was depressing. I learned that I am not a very good lecturer. Another reason I came back was the sense of community at Andover. I didn’t realize how special it was until I went away. People here know and care for another. That’s not true of every place.

3. How has teaching philosophy shaped your own exploration of philosophy?

When preparing classes, I try to anticipate what students will ask and what will interest them. This has forced me to think about philosophy in a much more concrete, practical way. Context, nuance, and scholarship are important, but the ‘so what?’ or ‘why should I care?’ questions are perhaps even more crucial. In this way, I try to “keep it real.” I’m not saying that I succeed in this, but I try.

4. What is one thing you wish all students can take away from the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies during their time at Andover?

Humility. Dostoevsky said that “loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing like it.” Everything depends on humility: wisdom, intellectual growth, personal maturity, and the capacity for authentic relation and social change. An academic course can’t really instill in someone the kind of humility that Dostoevsky wrote about, but it can perhaps inspire students, as Bruce Lee says, to seek the causes of their ignorance.

5. What is an example of a philosophical idea that you enjoy incorporating into your own life?

There’s a story I like to tell my students. A king traveling with his enormous entourage stopped in a field to rest and have the mid-day meal. A peasant who happened to be working in the field was also on his lunch break. He stood eating his bowl of lentils and looking on, while an elaborate meal was prepared for the king’s party. A royal servant, fancily clad, went up to the peasant and gestured to the massive spread of delicious food. He said smugly, “If you would learn to serve the king, you wouldn’t have to eat lentils.” The peasant nodded and paused before replying, “If you would learn to eat lentils, you wouldn’t have to serve the king.”

6. How did you start coaching the martial arts as an intramural sport on campus?

The athletic program needed coaches and activities back in fall 2020, when interscholastic sports seasons were canceled. I had taught kickboxing during Andover’s summer program for many years. When Ms. Joel asked me if I would lead a martial arts activity that fall, I jumped at the chance. I believe that the martial arts are a unique path to self-knowledge. There’s a line from the movie “Fight Club” that points to a truth: “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” When you train in the martial arts, you learn things about yourself you could not have learned in any other way.

7. What is your favorite book?

The book of Job, which is found in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). “Job” is the name of a man who serves God faithfully. Yet God allows Satan to take away all that Job has, in order to test Job and see whether he will remain faithful to God in the face of unimaginable suffering. I suppose I am drawn to the book because I’ve always thought that God has a dark side. Job is thrust into divine darkness, yet he is strong enough to receive the experience, somehow, as a gift. I hope one day to understand what this means.

8. What is your go-to pastime?

Making home movies. It’s been a few years since I’ve had the time to do one, but when my kids were young, we made a number of them. I love all aspects of filmmaking: photography, editing, soundtrack, writing, directing. Though I love teaching, I sometimes fantasize about being a filmmaker, how fun it would be to make movies for a living.

9. What is your favorite quote from Bruce Lee and what does it mean to you?

“To understand your fear is the beginning of really seeing.” This is similar to something Cornel West once said, “To understand a thinker, find out what he fears.” We think of fear as a bad thing, something to get rid of. Yet both quotations point to a great truth: fear is a fundamental part of human consciousness; it is constitutive. It is only when we learn to fear the right things, when we learn to fear well, that we stand a chance at gaining wisdom.

10. What will the next chapter of your life look like away from Andover?

My wife and I will be moving to New York, where I will join the faculty of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. We’ll be living on campus there, and I’ll be teaching Hebrew, courses on Scripture, and philosophy electives. People at the Seminary who convinced me to join their faculty think that I have something to contribute to the world of Orthodox theological scholarship. We’ll see. I’m looking forward to it, but I don’t expect it to be nearly as fun as teaching philosophy and coaching football and martial arts at a school I’ve come to love a great deal.

Editor’s Note: Jasmine Ma’23 is an Arts Editor for The Phillipian.