Sadness in sepia

August 1, 1997

Edward Shils was a combative cold warrior, a learned, if sometimes nit-picking enthusiast for the work of Max Weber, a sociologist who shared Weber's obsession with the role of the intellectual, and someone who was astonishingly at home both in the University of Chicago committee on social thought, and in the rather less cosmopolitan common room of Peterhouse, Cambridge. In my few encounters with him, I generally disliked him - though I have to admit that I started the first quarrel by telling him that he was passing off as sociology something uncomfortably close to cold war apologetics. Since he was 50 and I was barely 19, some testiness was excusable.

This collection of memoirs and reminiscences defuses the temptation to pursue old quarrels, however. Joseph Epstein, the editor of The American Scholar, and an old friend of Shils, contributes a long memoir of him that captures his vices and virtues so neatly that I found myself disliking him all over again, while seeing more clearly how other people might have liked him better. Professor Epstein admires Shils's antipathy to the student left of the 1960s, and says without a flicker of anxiety that the only "contemporary social scientists" that Shils thought well of were Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson. On the other hand, his dislikes were so catholic that he sometimes got it right: "Hannah Arendt, Allan Bloom, Susan Sontag, the New York intellectuals, Michel Foucault - in the matter of contemporary intellectuals and academic savants, Edward knew whom not to get excited about." Spread your net that widely and you are unlikely to find anyone who disagrees about every item on the list.

The memoirs are not exciting but they are interesting. Four of them are useful essays on figures from the University of Chicago - one, a roundup of the figures of Shils's early years there, including the sociologist Robert Park and the economist Frank Knight, another a long essay on Robert Maynard Hutchins, the legendary president of the university and a devotee of the "great books" theory of the undergraduate curriculum, a third on the economic historian John U. Nef, and a fourth on Leo Szilard. The other includes pieces on Raymond Aron, Leopold Labedz, Harold Laski, Arnoldo Momigliano, Karl Mannheim, Nirad Chaudhuri, and Sidney Hook.

Shils is severe on Hutchins; Hutchins was appointed to Chicago in 1932 at the age of 29 - today he would have been struggling with the general examination or at best starting on his dissertation, but back then, he had already been dean of the Yale Law School, to which he was appointed at 25. Whether he did Chicago great good or great harm is a matter of opinion. Physically, at least, he was a splendid figure - "the most handsome man I have ever seen," says Shils. He spoke as well as he looked: "His voice did not distract from the matter which his words treated; it was a perfect vehicle for his lucid, almost geometrical thoughts." His great misfortune, in the eyes of most commentators, including Shils, was to appoint Mortimer Adler as professor of philosophy. The opinionated and aggressive Adler aroused opposition that Hutchins would not have done, and gave critics of the classics-based programme that Hutchins wanted to introduce at degree level some reason to believe that Hutchins's emphasis on metaphysics was a prelude to turning the Chicago undergraduates into seminarians.

Shils, however, focuses on something that most of Hutchins's critics did not, which is the irrelevance of Hutchins's innovations to what Shils thought of as the "real" university - the graduate school, and the research university. The result was that Chicago coasted while the faculty argued about the role of the classics in a modern education. Most of them wanted to do research; he wanted to save souls. At a time when successive British governments have threatened liberal education by emphasising vocational training, and have threatened undergraduate education by an obsession with research league tables, the history of Hutchins's bid to rethink the purposes of the undergraduate college has a melancholy interest. For Shils the melancholy lies in the way that Chicago was overtaken by Harvard and Berkeley in the competition to be the ideal research university. For the rest of us, the deeper melancholy may lie in the contrast between Hutchins's freedom to pursue his, perhaps misguided, schemes and our own hemmed-in condition.

Shils's essays on figures such as Harold Laski or Raymond Aron do not go deep enough to alter our view of what they were up to. It is not surprising that Shils thinks that Aron was much superior to the Marxist, marxisant, or Maoist intellectuals who thought of Aron as a tame, cold-war liberal. More interesting might have been some exploration of the tension between Aron's academic aims and his career as a publicist. But I suspect that Shils's own ideas about the writers that Aron concerned himself with were not so well defined that he could easily have provided the sharp, short critique that this would have needed. By the same token, his view of Sidney Hook is philosophically too thin to illuminate the subject; Shils takes it for granted that Hook really was the disciple of Dewey that he set out to be, missing in the process the greater intellectual affinities between the rationalistic and aggressively irreligious Hook and Bertrand Russell (whose politics Hook, of course, deplored). He misses, too, the amusing conflict between Dewey's desire to invite as many people as he could to share his diluted religiosity and his cautious socialism and Hook's enthusiasm for making enemies and pronouncing anathemata. Still, for anyone wanting to know whether to read further, these essays provide a way in to a terrain that is increasingly unknown to English readers, while Joseph Epstein's introduction provides a vivid glimpse of a now almost departed form of intellectual life.

Alan Ryan is warden, New College, Oxford.

Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals

Author - Edward Shils
Editor - Joseph Epstein
ISBN - 0 226 75336 0 and 75337 9
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £43.95 and £14.25
Pages - 255

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