Professor Nick Rengger. CREDIT: University of St Andrews
Professor Nick Rengger. CREDIT: University of St Andrews

Professor Nick Rengger: A Reflection

Oct 10, 2018

On Monday October 8, family, friends and colleagues gathered in St Andrews, Scotland to celebrate the life of Nick Rengger, one of the leading political thinkers of his generation, and a much valued member of the University's faculty. At the time of his death on September 16, Nick was professor of Political Theory and International Relations in St Andrews, having arrived there in 1996 after holding previous positions at the Universities of Strathclyde, Leicester, Aberystwyth, and Bristol. On his arrival, he was already well-known: to academics for the rigor of his research and the energy of his ideas; and to students too, having co-authored, with John Baylis, the very popular textbook Dilemmas of World Politics: International Issues in a Changing World. He cemented this reputation amongst students, both in his teaching to undergraduates and in his supervision of postgraduates, and consequently became a key member of the School of International Relations' teaching staff. He was an excellent teacher, wide-ranging in his knowledge, thorough in his analysis, but gentle in his approach. In fact, in the days following his death, social media was flooded with messages from former students outlining just how significant his place as a teacher and mentor had been to them and, in particular, how his support had allowed them the academic freedom to develop their own research ideas. More than that, however, those messages conveyed the genuine affection in which Nick was held and the real loss that his death brings.

As a researcher, Nick's focus was inter- and trans-disciplinary, bringing the fields of international relations, history, theology, philosophy, politics, and the physical sciences together not just for the sake of bringing disciplinarians out of their silos, but also to develop a wider academic community. In Nick's own words, he worked "across and between disciplines as well as within them." Given this, and his innate collegiality, it was unsurprising that throughout his career he became involved in a number of Centers and Institutes, both in St Andrews and further afield, that together demonstrated his desire to break out of narrow disciplinary boundaries and talk to scholars that inhabited different discourses. These included the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics (St Andrews), the Institute for Iranian Studies (St Andrews), and the Centre for Theology and Philosophy (Nottingham). Throughout his career he also held a number of visiting appointments including at the Universities of Oxford and Southern California, as well as at the London School of Economics. He was also a Visiting Senior Fellow at the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life at Oxford University, whilst from 2011-14 Nick was a Global Ethics Fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York, a position that then became Emeritus. It was during his time as a Carnegie Fellow that Nick published, in 2013, his monograph Just War and International order: The Uncivil Condition in World Politics. This is a landmark text in that rather than seeing the world as one where states use, and justify, the use of force less—the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the growing sophistication of international humanitarian law and the "rebirth" of the just war tradition over the last 50 years' all being taken as indicators of such a trend—Nick instead argued that "the just war tradition, allied to a historically powerful and increasingly dominant conception of politics in general, is complicit with an expansion of the grounds of supposedly legitimate force, rather than a restriction of it." In a book whose analysis has been described as "effortless," and whose "research and reflection on international relations and political philosophy… should be the envy of scholars who claim to sit in only one of these branches of Political Science," 1 the impact of this is far-reaching, offering an explanation for how the international system appears to be unfolding in reality and a consideration of how the increasing violence of the state can be curtailed.

This ability to view the contemporary system with a realistic gaze was evident too in his last book, Dealing in Darkness: The Anti-Pelagian Imagination in Political Theory and International Relations, published last year. This brought together a collection of Nick's work in a '"set of portraits of different ways that this [anti-Pelagian] sceptical, non-utopian set of responses to the dilemmas of political theory and international relations might be conceptualized and understood." The volume is typically Nick—wide-ranging, thoughtful, complex, erudite and compelling—but what is striking now on reflection, are two things.

First, many authors have a different written voice, to their spoken one, but it is striking how Nick's voice can be heard in his written words, and to think too what that says about his ability to adapt and communicate his intellect in all its complexity to varying audiences. Indeed Nick was probably most intimately and best known amongst his friends, colleagues, and advisees for his fluency in storytelling, his endless array of experiences and encounters proving a never-ending source of material. Nick had the most generous of intellects, always curious, never jealous, always open, never arrogant, and it is this intellectual generosity that was one of the qualities that endeared him to so many.

Second, there is a paragraph in the chapter Introduction: dealing in darkness? Varieties of modern anti-Pelagianism, that is particularly striking to anyone who knew Nick well:

For much of the 20th century—and indeed also now in the 21st—the realities of international relations have been an extended and grotesque lesson in the appalling ingenuity human beings can practise in their relations with one another; a seemingly endless catalogue of mendacity, special pleading, exploitation, naked self-interest, viciousness and barbarism, usually cloaked in the language of high ideals. Of course, there have been successes as well; real achievements in saving people from degradation or horror, creating new institutional initiatives to strengthen the often fragile blooms of peace or of economic well-being. But an honest observer would have to conclude that, overall, it is the 20th century that truly deserves the title famously bestowed by the historian Barbara Tuchman on the 14th: a 'calamitous century'—and that the 21st century hardly promises, so far at least, to be any better.

One might assume that a paragraph written as plainly as that regarding the failings of the international system and the players within it would have been written by someone pessimistic about the realities of human nature. In truth, however, whilst Nick was known as one of the best judges of character, those judgements were always generous, reflecting a noticeable hope in the human condition, and a recognition that, although flawed, human beings could always be redeemed, and communication could always take place. Indeed, as the memoriam from the principal of the University that was circulated following his death highlighted, Nick believed "that a university is a place for conversations about things we hold dear and where we can disagree with civility."

There are some friends whose loss is so great that things never really return to normal—rather life reforms around that loss. For so many of us, Nick was such a friend. We will always miss him, but that is as nothing compared to the loss that his family feel and it is to them that our thoughts must always turn.

Thanks to Bennett Collins and David Miles for their edits and reviews of this.


1 Di Gregorio, Michael, "Just War and International Order: The Uncivil Condition in World Politics," The Review of Faith and International Affairs, Volume 12, Issue 3, 2014, 78-79.

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