A tribute to professor George Zaninovich


Ozodi Osuji

      On Tuesday, August 2, 2022, I went to Barnes and Nobles bookstore and bought a book that presented a pictorial history of Christianity, from the Birth of Jesus Christ in 4 BCE to the present.  I got home and flipped through the pages of this coffee table book. As I did so, I thought about one of my favorite professors at the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, where I did my undergraduate studies and some graduate schooling, Professor George Zaninovich (1931-2014).  

     Professor Zaninovich had his PhD from Stanford University; he was an outstanding High school Basketball player; after high school at Delano, California, he served in the US military and thereafter went to Stanford university. Thereafter, he was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and professor at Columbia University before he settled at the University of Oregon. He was a fan of the Oregon Ducks (sports teams), and a lover of Operas (he sang some operatic songs). His parents came from the former Yugoslavia, specifically, Croatia.

     I took three quarters of introduction to Western philosophy from him (and his course on existentialism). His classes were usually early in the morning, at 8 AM, Fall, Winter and Spring, I trudged to his courses, in the winter months shivering in the cold.

     The man had total understanding of Western philosophy. He began with a description of Greek society, Athens, and asked what led a group of people at Athens to become extremely philosophical, 2500 years ago? He speculated on possible putative reasons why at that point in time in the history of people a group of human beings transited from belief to rationalism, philosophy.

     The Greeks tried to use their minds to understand their world and sometimes also did some science, as they understood science to be (Aristotle studied plants and animals, Democritus said that the smallest indivisible part of matter is the atom).  Beyond the occasional foray into science, what the Greeks were really known for was philosophy.

     Professor Zaninovich went at it explaining the teachings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and what they contributed to Western philosophy. He looked at the various philosophical schools at Athens, such as the Sophists, Zeno and his stoics, Epicure and the various literary schools and the known Greek writers (Antigone, Sophocles).

     Having exhausted the Greek world, he segued to the Roman world. Rome did not produce many philosophers; Rome was a martial state; she was too busy conquering the world to devote too much time to thinking; the few thinkers that Rome Produced, Professor Zaninovich reviewed, such as Horace, Virgil, Pliny, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Plotinus, and others.

      Professor Zaninovich talked about the fall of Rome around 475 CE and the subsequent death of philosophy and the birth of superstition, Christianity. Europe plunged into what is known as the Dark Ages where thinking was discouraged and belief in what Richard Dawkins called the God Delusion was encouraged (I am not atheist, or theist; I am agnostic). 

     Mohammed was born in Mecca in 570 and died in 632 CE. He founded Islam; his followers used the sword to convert the known world to Islam. They took Palestine in 638 CE, Egypt in 643 CE, and got to Morocco and crossed the Mediterranean Sea into the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE and swept into France where the Franks, under Charles Martel, the Hammer of God, finally stopped them at the famous battle of Poitiers in 732 CE.

     Muslims ransacked the Greek library at Alexandria, Egypt and took what books they could (they also got to India and took Indian mathematics, Algebra), and reintroduced classical Greek and Roman learning to wherever they conquered in southern Europe, Spain, and Southern Italy.

     Thus, Greek learning gradually reentered Europe. By the 1200s Europe had recovered its Greek and Roman heritage. The Universities of Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge came into being and began teaching Greek and Roman classics.  Writers emerged trying to teach what Greeks and Romans knew about phenomena, folks like Dante, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Meister Eckhart did their writings. The mystics, such as Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Hilton, and others had their visions of oneness with Christ.  Professor Zaninovich explained what these folks taught.

      Thereafter, he got into renaissance Europe through modern times; he covered the writings of Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Voltaire, Diderot, Jean Jacque Rousseau, Spinoza, Ludwig Leibnitz, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Nicolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Mill, John Stuart Mill, Charles Fourier, Joseph Proudhon, Robert Owen, Auguste Comte, George Sorel, Henri Saint Simon, Henri Bergson, William James, John Dewey and others.

     He then zeroed in on modern thinkers, such as the European existentialists, like Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Karl Jasper, Martin Heidegger, and others (why was the USA not a fertile ground for existentialism?).

      Generally, after class I walked with Professor Zaninovich to his office and stayed with him in his office for a little while and we talked about the philosophers that he talked about in class.

      I simply liked talking to the man and he enjoyed talking to me. During my final year at the U of O, he requested that I become his teaching assistant, and I was appointed one. That gave me the opportunity to go with him to his other classes and learn even more from him.

     This man helped me understand Western civilization, particularly its philosophy, and grasp the transition of philosophy to science (science is not only rational thinking as philosophy is, but dwells on empiricism, what is observable, verifiable, falsifiable ala Karl Popper).

       I am totally indebted to Professor Zaninovich for whatever I know about the zeitgeist of the West.   I was therefore saddened to learn that he died and that before he died, he had MS disease. 

      Professor Zaninovich, you were truly a great teacher and did your best for all your students. I am immensely proud of what you did for us; you nurtured our young minds with ideas.

     I am going to miss you. If there is life after we die, I look forward to seeing you on the other side of the curtain.  You were a good man and gave your best to your students; there is really nothing else that a man can do for other people than what you did for us.

Adieu, my professor,

Ozodi Osuji, PhD (UCLA)

August 5, 2022

(907) 310-8176


This piece was posted on the Website where those who knew Professor Zaninovich were invited to leave comments.

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