James Holmes

A Life Well Lived

The ancients weren’t the only exemplars of moral virtue and liberal thought. Some walk among us today.

Some of the most popular readings at the Naval War College are Plutarch’s capsule biographies of famous Greeks and Romans from antiquity. Plutarch unapologetically used his writings to push an agenda, namely equipping readers to recognize — and practice — moral virtue while shunning vice. He liked to pair up different historical figures, throwing the contrast between virtue and vice into stark relief. Among the figures we encounter in our courses are Themistocles, the founder of the Athenian navy; Pericles, the first citizen of Athens’ unruly democracy; and Lysander, the Spartan landsman who laid low the greatest navy of the age. They were exemplars of traits Plutarch thought worth emulating, as well as some he cautioned against.

Some people you encounter in life are worthy of a Plutarch. One such life, that of Professor Peter Liotta, was foreshortened last week in an auto crash in Newport. I was proud to call Peter my friend. He was a mentor I looked up to. He reminded me of philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s parable of the hedgehog and the fox. Berlin used the creatures as metaphors for two radically different types of people. The hedgehog, he wrote, knows one big thing. It sees the world through the lens of a single idea. The fox, by contrast, knows many things. It is not captive to one fixed idea.

Peter was a fox through and through. He served as a U.S. Air Force officer during the late Cold War, including, an exchange tour with Hellenic Air Force. He was a Naval War College professor; executive director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy; and, at his death, a professor of political science and humanities at Salve Regina University. He was a published poet and novelist. And he was an outspoken environmentalist. Peter was affiliated with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when that body earned the Nobel Peace Prize a few years back. These are just the endeavors of his that I can list off the top of my head. There are doubtless many more.

Peter was a liberal thinker animated by a generous spirit. His was a life well lived, and an example for us all. RIP.