I am no sort of scholar, as I have observed many times on this blog. Perhaps that is why I stand in awe of the scholars I have been privileged to meet. My first encounter with a world-class scholar was as a sophomore at Harvard, back in 1952, sixty-three years ago. I sat for a semester in Harry Austryn Wolfson's great course on Spinoza's Ethics. We all knew that none of us would ever be, could ever be, a scholar like Wolfson, but simply to sit in his presence was a blessing -- rather like listening to Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach Suites for unaccompanied cello.
Nine years later, when I left my Harvard Instructorship to take up an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago, I was powerfully impressed by the fact that one of my new colleagues would be Alan Gewirth, whom the philosophical world new as a moral and political philosopher, but who was, to me, the editor of the edition of Marsilius of Padua's Defensor Pacis that I had read during my half year on an SSRC post-doctoral fellowship. Three years later still, when I moved to a tenured Associate Professorship at Columbia, it was not Ernest Nagel or John Herman Randall or Arthur Danto or Sidney Morgenbesser whose presence in my new department impressed me, but Paul Kristeller.
Paul was a German scholar of the Renaissance thirty years my senior. Among his great achievements was the Iter Italicum, a catalogue of early manuscripts that he painstakingly assembled during his years in Italy by going from castle to castle, monastery to monastery, and to the Vatican archives as well, recording what he had found. It was the sort of laborious act of scholarship that earned one fame and honor back in the days before the Internet. It was a source of great sadness to me that during the '68 Columbia student uprising, because we took up opposite sides in that dispute, Paul stopped talking to me. When the two of us rode up to the seventh floor of Philosophy Hall in the building's tiny elevator, Paul would turn his face away from me in a physical act of rejection.
In those days, one could even gain scholarly recognition by doing something that a computer now accomplishes with a few simple commands. One philosopher, whose name escapes me, made a name for himself by laboriously cranking out a concordance to the works of Spinoza -- useful, to be sure, but now the sort of task one would assign to an undergraduate for extra credit.
These random thoughts, which engaged me during my walk this morning, were prompted by the latest exchange in the comments section of this blog. I posted a response to Sheryl Mitchell in which I attributed to Hillary Clinton the tone-deaf remark "All lives matter" as a response to the Black Lives Matter protestors at one of her campaign events. At 4:42 p.m. yesterday, Matt Austern questioned my attribution. Sixty-eight minutes later, someone writing under the pseudonym "Lounger" popped up with a link to an NPR story confirming my memory.
Young people these days are so accustomed to these sorts of things that they cannot understand why old folks like me continued to be astonished by them. What would Harry Wolfson, Alan Gewirth, and Paul Kristeller think, if they were still with us?