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Michael Sugrue: An Intellectual Life

A beloved professor uploaded his lectures on the Western tradition to YouTube and became a phenomenon.

The most popular video on Dr. Michael Sugrue’s YouTube channel is his 1992 lecture on Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Marcus Aurelius is a Stoic. Sugrue styles himself one, too. “All Marcus wants to do is live a philosophical life,” Sugrue says, “but he happens to have the misfortune to be…emperor of Rome.” As emperor, Marcus Aurelius had unthinkable power. He ruled the entirety of the known world. “Imagine a man for whom all the restraints of law and custom and political order are taken away. He can have whatever he wants,” Sugrue said. “If a man, under those circumstances, behaves well, you know something about the soul underneath.”

When I spoke to Michael Sugrue, he looked nothing like the man who raved about Marcus Aurelius. In 1992, Sugrue looked like the prototypical academic—tan blazer, ruffled khakis, mammoth square spectacles intruding on a boyish, clean-shaven face. The man I met on Zoom was grizzled, with a baritone voice and a deep, throaty laugh. He had a Confucian-looking beard, with hairs jutting from his chin in gnarled, uneven strands. 

The soul underneath, however, was the same. Sugrue, sitting beside his daughter Genevieve, was eager to discuss ideas—on justice (“it’s not like fins on a Cadillac”), religion (“I’m a Catholic, straight up”), and academia (“half the people are on medication, and not the ones who need it the most”).

Sugrue recently retired from Ave Maria University in Florida. He is a lifelong academic who hasn’t “really had a career.” His passion is reaching audiences beyond the classroom. Genevieve uploaded Sugrue’s entire 1992 lecture series to YouTube in 2020, 56 talks that span some 37 hours. The channel has more than two and a half million views. 

The lectures were recorded as part of the Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition series, a collection of talks on the West’s greatest authors and thinkers. Sugrue and his colleague Dr. Darren Staloff were finishing their degree program at Columbia in 1992 when a mutual friend introduced them to Tom Rollins of The Teaching Company, who offered Sugrue and Staloff the chance to anchor the Great Minds program.

“[We] just put him in front of a camera and watched the magic happen,” Staloff said. 

Sugrue’s first lecture in the series is on Plato, the last on critical theory. His remarkable oratory skill is on display throughout. In each talk, Sugrue strides back and forth across a makeshift stage. His steps, like a metronome, mark the pace of the lecture. He does not carry a note card or read from a prompter. There is hardly a stutter in 37 hours of footage—no “ums,” no filler words, no bluster.

When I asked him where his skill as an orator came from, Sugrue said the lectures came from a “different part” of his brain, like a stuttering child who can sing words he otherwise cannot say. 

“I suspect that I’m using a different hemisphere, the one that doesn’t, generally speaking, have words,” Sugrue said. “But on the other hand, it strings things together coherently, because the connection is musical.”

Sugrue grew up in an Irish Catholic home in 1950s New York. He attended local parochial schools, where he was “impressed” by the priests and nuns, especially the Jesuits. In the late 1970s, he enrolled at the University of Chicago and studied under Allan Bloom and Joseph Cropsey. He became a Platonist. When Sugrue arrived at Chicago, he said, “we were getting our first hit of what would be called postmodernism, but we didn’t know what to call it yet.”

After graduating from Chicago in 1979, he spent the next decade at Columbia University. He got his PhD in American History and taught literature and the Western canon until he graduated. He spent two years at Johns Hopkins and a decade at Princeton before finishing his career as a professor at Ave Maria in 2019.

Ave alumna Brigid Baker said Sugrue as a professor had a “gravitas” about him that was both intimidating and enchanting. Her first impression of Sugrue, one she still holds, was that “he seemed to know literally everything.”

“He used to tell us he was digging new grooves in our brains, like records,” she said. “And we all felt that every single week for each lecture and we thought, ‘Oh, there’s a completely new set of pattern grooves.’”

Sugrue took a close interest in his students’ intellectual lives. He challenged them to read thinkers who tested their most basic assumptions.

“If you are a Kantian, he will make you read Hume. If you’re a traditional conservative, you’re going to read John Rawls. If you’re a Hayekian, you’re going to read Karl Marx. If you’re a Marxist, you’re going to read Schumpeter,” Staloff told me. “It’s just not to change your mind, but to grow your mind.”

In retirement, Sugrue co-hosts The Idea Store podcast with his daughter Genevieve. Its name derives from Sugrue’s attempt to introduce philosophy to his children in their youth, taking them to the “idea store” to “shop” for ideas. On the podcast, he and Genevieve discuss the Great Books, answer listener questions, and trade laughs.

Sugrue was diagnosed with cancer eleven years ago. Doctors at the time gave him five years to live. He said the thought of Marcus Aurelius has taken on new meaning since his diagnosis.

“Being sick teaches you, you’re not in control, you’re not in charge,” he said. “And you have to learn to play at the hand you’re dealt.”

Genevieve said the illness has brought her closer to her father.

“Honestly, if I’ve learned Stoicism from anyone, it really hasn’t been from Marcus Aurelius. It’s been from him.”