Some of the sentiments appropriate for a memorial service were delivered by me in remarks made on the day of Laurence Berns’s funeral in March. Those remarks, which may be found on the Internetwordpress website collecting various of my things, were prepared for a seminar on Greek tragedy in the University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, the program in which our remarkably gentle friend began his vital teaching career a half-century ago. My remarks on that occasion included the recollection of our studying Michelangelo’s Moses, in a Roman church. We agreed, after awhile, that we really needed a higher vantage-point for proper observation of that sculpture. A priest in the church, however, proved not only uncooperative but even somewhat indignant when we asked for a stepladder. We were reminded thereby of the risks run by any serious dedication to a Life of the Mind.
I suggested last March that the 1957 Berns doctoral dissertation, on the political philosophy of Francis Bacon, should be prepared for publication. I have recently read that 230-page treatise, finding it even better than I remembered it. I could again see why his principal teacher, Leo Strauss, was moved to praise it as he did (and not only because of its covert appreciation of the then-ongoing Strauss inquiry into Machiavelli).
My return to that dissertation was memorable in several other ways as well. It is the first item that I have had retrieved for me by the newly-installed robotic system in the University of Chicago Library. On the other hand, it is an item which still has in it the old-fashioned library card that was once used to keep track of borrowers. This card, recapitulating in effect the first decade of this Dissertation as a Library asset, has on it the signatures of a dozen people, half of whom I happened to know personally, a roster which opens with Hilail Gildin and which includes Robert Faulkner and Raymond Weiss. This form of “accounting” does seem to me a civilized way of keeping track of one another in an academic community.
The engaging modesty of Larry Berns is evident even in the corrections he had made decades ago in the text of the Library copy of his Dissertation. I could recognize his distinctive handwriting. Particularly noteworthy there is the fact that these corrections were made by this determinedly unassuming man in pencil. That is, he did not presume to use ink.
An even deeper expression of a deepseated modesty is his recognition, as his Dissertation draws to an end, that fundamental questions remained to be investigated with respect to the issues that had been developed with confidence and competence in the Dissertation. The typical author of a treatise to which years have just been devoted is not likely to concede that critical questions have been left unanswered.
An aspect of modesty may even be seen in a Berns trait which intrigued our children whenever we encountered him on a trip, especially in Europe. His luggage would include a large suitcase—a very heavy suitcase—filled with books that he just might need en route. Still another aspect, which is related to an openness in him to an almost childlike wonder, may be seen in a major factor in his decision to volunteer for the Air Corps immediately upon graduation from high school in 1946: he had recently read Tolstoy’sWar and Peace—and, he once told me, he was intrigued by the thoughtful conversations that ordinary soldiers around a campfire could have. With this blithe expectation, he also told me, he was quite disappointed by the conversations that he was routinely exposed to in barracks.
But those of us fortunate enough to have encountered him were not disappointed, having our lives enriched not only by what he could reliably offer us but also by what we could be inspired by him to make of ourselves. The Festschrift soon to be published in his name, celebrating the companionship of books, can remind us of the salutary influence he has indeed had for decades.
That influence can be properly confirmed and extended by a timely publication not only of his Dissertation but also of a volume of the essays and articles that he nursed (almost prayerfully) into existence over the years. Such a volume could well begin with the thoughtful Poetics article (originally prepared by him for the Leo Strauss Festschrift), an article for which he has designated (in ink this time) numerous corrections.
Our time together in Rome could be recalled at the outset of these remarks. We can well close, therefore, with recollections of our time together in what can be considered the Classical equivalent of Christian Rome. That is, we can appropriate as a tribute to our mild-mannered friend these lines fashioned by my wife decades ago:
Delphi is the sound of bells
Beaten copper, twisted thin
Folded nailed with copper pegs,
Brilliant sparks from metal shells
Struck by fur and skeleton
In rhythms moved by legs.
The mountain’s thrust, the birds’ wild wings
Scarce touch the air that bears their stress.
This world declares that gentleness
Is strength and bell-like sings.
St. John’s College
(Read by William T. Braithwaite)
September 24, 2011