Roger Sworder (1946-2016)

“Thomas Nielsen and Roger Sworder” by Jennifer Ma © 2012.

“The way up is the way down!” Citing Heraclitus, Roger was looking at me with those eyes that were both fierce and compassionate at the same time. And he had a big grin on his face.

For a long moment, I was lost at sea in terms of comprehension, searching for what that strange assertion might mean. But Roger was not uncomfortable with my confused expression. He held his fixed gaze at me—and grinned.

As my thoughts were travelling all over the place, desperately hoping for a clue from Roger, I suddenly felt a flash of light illuminating me from within. I felt I grasped the meaning of Heraclitus’ words in a wordless moment of insight. The way up really is the way down. It is the same way! There is no separation between the higher and the lower, the aesthetic and the material, it is all one, and what can travel one way can also travel the other.

Of course, words cannot give my insight justice. As with all joys, we cannot hold onto them too tightly but must let them fly into “eternity’s sunset”, as William Blake, one of Roger’s favourite poets, once put it. In any case, Roger had once again taken the chair away from the comfortable seat my mind had settled into during our discussion about metaphysics. He was going to do this many more times in the two decades that I had the honour of knowing this extraordinary philosopher, teacher and mentor.

The first time I met Roger was in the copy machine room at La Trobe University, Bendigo. He asked me if I would mind helping him with copying some papers, as he was, in his own words, “a technological moron”. At first I wasn’t sure if he was joking, but I helped him and he thanked me sincerely. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by his demeanour. His long black hair, his classic white shirt and dark dress pants—he looked like a philosopher who couldn’t be bothered with copy machines!

A little while after that encounter it was the sound of Roger’s unique baritone that propelled me further towards him. My office at La Trobe was located next to one of his tutorial rooms, and simply hearing his voice when I unlocked my office door made me want to listen to him more. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I felt impelled to find out. After his class, I asked him if I could come to his tutorials, even if I was not enrolled officially as a student. Not only did he allow me to come to these classes, he also engaged me in the discussions on par with his enrolled students.

It was through these classes that I got to really know Roger as the extraordinary person he was. Both Rudolf Steiner and Torkom Saraydarian say that the truly exceptional teachers have as much effect on their students with what they do not say as what they do say. Roger Sworder was without a doubt the most eloquent and impressive orator I have met in my academic career. And yet it is as much what he didn’t say as what he said that will stay with me forever. In moments of intentional stillness, he had a unique ability to allow for the student to find a moment of personal insight, a moment of seeing things anew. Just as when I caught a glimpse of what both Roger and Heraclitus knew—that the way up and the way down is indeed the same way.

Apart from not using copying machines, Roger didn’t drive a car, or use email, computers, or modern technology in general. The University forced him to have a desktop computer at one point. After which it stood untouched on top of his filing cabinet for years. Roger had much to say about the dehumanising effects of technology, and he lived by his principles as much as it was at all possible in our modern world. He was a Renaissance man and a fierce commentator on the many challenges we face in our current, highly technological world where we are not merely able to create new ecosystems but also destroy our own in a blink of an eye.

Some were challenged by what Roger had to say and the manner in which he said it. Roger was not afraid of this, because he knew that any movement of mind, as with our bodies, often does not occur without some imbalance to initiate the motion. Sometimes the chairs we are sitting on need shaking a bit. This was one of Roger’s special gifts to us all, helping to expand our minds, our reasoning. If you disagreed with him, he would courteously ask you to justify your position. Usually, if you were willing to travel with him in that way, you would eventually arrive at a point were you would see your own position anew. No small feat. To instigate change in people’s mind, that is.

Apropos of changing people’s minds, when I first told Roger I wanted to be a teacher of beginning teachers, he said:

Thomas, why do you want to be a teacher – don’t you know that teaching is way too dangerous?! Soldiers, they only kill a few people here and there. Teachers, they change the minds of their students, and in turn, the minds of their children, and their children’s children. Teachers alter the minds of generations to come. You don’t want that kind of responsibility, do you? Don’t become a teacher, Thomas, it is way too dangerous!

What Roger said so brilliantly in that moment was what he didn’t say with those words. That education has the potential to change the world for the better, as well as the worse, and that I was embarking on a very important path. I now start every semester by telling my first-year students that it is really too dangerous becoming a teacher…

Roger passed away at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne on October 27th 2016, aged 69 Years. He was a loved by his family.

Roger was also a loved mentor and wise teacher of mine, as he was of countless students at La Trobe University over a 30 year period where he lectured in philosophy, religious studies and literature.

His many books ( are here to keep his lucid thought alive. To keep him alive in our minds and hearts. To keep him here, as well as where he is now. The way up is the way down.