The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow once remarked that he knew only three intelligent people in Chicago: the art critic Harold Rosenberg, the classical scholar and translator David Grene, and the sociologist Edward Shils—the editor of Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning, and Policy and a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals (compiled and introduced by Joseph Epstein, for many years editor of the American Scholar) gathers together eleven of Shils’s biographical essays, arranged alphabetically from Raymond Aron to Leo Szilard. Some, like those on Sidney Hook, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and Harold Laski, profile widely known figures, while others, like those on Nirad Chaudhuri, Leopold Labedz, and Arnaldo Momigliano, introduce personages barely known to the common reader.
Shils arrived at the University of Chicago as a graduate student in 1932, when Hutchins was already the university’s president, expecting to submit himself to dogmatic professors in the German mold who were certain they held all the answers. Instead, he was excited to discover teachers who—acting upon the belief that reality was finite and knowable—were tentative and pluralistic in their approach. In various of the essays collected here, he honors the university as an institution “selflessly and disinterestedly given over to learning without regard for practical ends or profit,” passionately committed to the freedom to study important matters “according to one’s best lights,” and open to the exhilarating conflict and controversy that are necessary to stimulate serious thought. Hinting at a decline in the quality of education since his own student days, Shils abhors the progressive dumbing-down, compromising of standards, and politicization within the academy.
While not focusing specifically upon culture wars and curricular debates, Shils’s largely laudatory treatment of Robert Hutchins does bear implicitly on those issues, since he (with strong support from Mortimer Adler of “Great Books” fame) resisted disciplinary specialization and organized the first two years of the undergraduate experience around intensive study of primary texts, intent on stressing the unity, rather than the fragmentation, of all knowledge. Although Hutchins appointed black scholars to his faculty and courageously supported those teachers accused of being fellow travelers, he came to resist departmental autonomy and faculty governance; surprisingly, he also—except for the neo-Aristotelian “Chicago Critics” within English— allowed the humanities to decay. Many of Shils’s “portraits” might aptly be called “paradoxes” or “double exposures,” exploring as they do such inconsistencies and ambiguities in character.
Shils himself was broadly educated; he particularly admired the writings of Samuel Johnson and Joseph Conrad and calls it “an act of intellectual grace” when one of his professors who is profiled here, the economic historian John Nef, writes T. S. Eliot’s name on the blackboard one day, reflecting Shils’s own commitment to the popular dispersal of culture and ideas. (The highly cultivated Nef, however, also displayed what amounted to a miniature art museum on his dining room walls.) Epstein, who was Shils’s close friend for more than twenty years, claims that Arnaldo Momigliano, an expert in Greco-Roman and Judaic history, was his mentor’s only intellectual peer. Shils, however, would probably hesitate to name himself in the same breath as the man he considered perhaps the greatest scholar of any age, rivaling Dutch historian Johan Huizinga and Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce for international renown. Momigliano sought out evidence, was skeptical of theories, and eschewed claims of certainty. His belief that truth about the past is attainable and that, consequently, “reliably true propositions” can be asserted puts him squarely in the midst of crucial debates about the validity of text- or narrative-based history.
Momigliano, like Shils, was Jewish, though he suffered much more for his ethnic heritage. Dismissed from his university position in Turin in the late 1930’s, he went to Oxford and then to London before coming to Chicago as a visiting professor after his retirement; eleven members of his family, including his...
(The entire section is 1782 words.)