Dr. Robert St. Hilaire, associate professor of religious studies, recites a submission on 'Eros' to students and faculty members during an informal symposium held in the Village of Lewiston.

Niagara University faculty members continuously strive to intellectually engage students in a variety of unique ways. That philosophy was evidenced yet again earlier this month when students from Dr. Robert St. Hilaire’s course on Christian Visions of the Human Person (two sections, one of them Honors) met with professors at the Orange Cat Coffee Co. in Lewiston for an evening discussion on the topic of “Eros,” or romantic love.

“It is kind of an unwritten rule among the faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences that we want to increase the intellectual curiosity of our students and often the opportunities to achieve such a goal do not occur in the classroom,” noted Dr. Tim Ireland, dean of the college.

The event was deliberately modeled after Plato’s famous dialogue on Eros of the same name (and which was a required text in Dr. St. Hilaire’s course). Brief speeches on love were presented by Drs. Amelia Gallagher, Sharon Watkinson, Esteban Mayorga and Joe Little, all NU professors, while Dr. St. Hilaire moderated. (Dr. Daniel Pinti also contributed a speech, but was not able to attend the event; his submission was read by Dr. St. Hilaire.)

“Paolo and Francesca, according to Dante [in his Inferno], are in hell,” wrote Dr. Pinti, professor of English. “They’re an image of what not to be, so to speak, so we have to ‘invert’ their image if we are to get a sense of what love ought to be. I would suggest it ought to be a relationship in which, unlike Paolo and Francesca, the lovers live consciously for the full humanity of one another.”

The speeches were witty and insightful, ranging from highly “academic” to highly personal. Some were very funny, others were tear-jerking.

“You see, at the center of this kind of romantic love, what drives it – what should drive it – is physical beauty,” posited Dr. Gallagher, associate professor of religious studies. “And, let me be the first to tell you, that does not last. But instead of lamenting that, you should understand that this kind of beauty is a tyranny, and it makes you into a sort of slave. And while beauty is great, it is temporary and there is nothing better than freedom.”

Added Dr. Little, “I think such relationships historically fall short of Plato’s ‘love of the noble disposition’ because not only do they have their basis in fleeting things, they were never about two people intertwined on many dimensions, they were never about the homecoming of two halves to form the whole; it was always about you, it was always about the dance, and never the dancer.”

Afterward, the faculty and students continued the discussion on Eros over coffee, cookies, scones and muffins provided by the Orange Cat.

“The event was incredibly intellectually fulfilling and unique,” remarked sophomore criminology and criminal justice major Robynn Murray. “The ability to have exhilarating discourse outside of the classroom was inspiring and phenomenal. Having been able to gain knowledge from different faculty in itself was a good opportunity, but the discussions that followed between the professors and students provided a warm atmosphere for deep thought and moving talks between students as well. I hope we can continue to have such enriching events.”

Dr. St. Hilaire noted that in the hybrid intellectual-social atmosphere of the symposium, students gained a new perspective on their professors, academic discourse, and, perhaps, themselves. The event was jointly funded by the Writing 100 program, the Honors program, and the department of religious studies.

Some students, like junior psychology major Kelly Zaky, were so intrigued by the opportunity to delve deeper into their classroom subject matter that they willingly ceded tickets to that night’s Buffalo Sabres game to attend.

“What impacted me from this experience was how relatable the speeches were from the other students and professors,” Zaky explained. “I went with the expectation of hearing five similar talks about love relating to literature, but that was not the case. Each speech was unique and powerful in its own way.  Each professor put their own experiences into their talk, and they were relatable to our own lives. I do not regret skipping the Sabres game to attend this event, and would do it again. I hope to have an event like this again in the future.”