In Bronze for Posterity

Werner Jaeger at the Center for Hellenic Studies

A bust of Werner Jaeger (1888-1961) presides over the common room of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. He is comfortably housed in a place “designed to rediscover the humanism of the Hellenic Greeks.” The bust, done in Berlin, is by “Puppi” Sarre, says a Jaeger family member, and is signed “ML.”

Academic celebrity came quickly to Jaeger. Born in Lobberich, Germany, he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Berlin, where he wrote a blockbuster dissertation on Aristotle that got him, just 26 years old, a full professorship at the University of Basel. In 1936, by then back at Berlin, he emigrated because he disliked the Nazis. He came to rest at Harvard in 1939 as University Professor. He was hailed by academe as the great Aristotelian of his time, and the general reader might have known him as the author of Paideia, a three-volume work on Greek thought from Homer to Demosthenes.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

The Center for Hellenic Studies was founded in 1961, the year Jaeger died, with a grant from what would become the Mellon Foundation, on six and a half acres in Georgetown given by Marie Beale in memory of her son, Walker B. Beale ’18. The administration of the center was entrusted to Harvard. Its directors are not always Harvardians, but today’s is Gregory Nagy, the Jones professor of classical Greek literature. The center (www.chs.harvard.edu) has nine buildings, each year accommodates 12 resident fellows, and hosts on-site conferences and on-line projects. Its holdings of 45,000 books and journals include Jaeger’s own library.

William M. Calder III ’54, A.M. ’56, a University of Illinois classicist, took a condemnatory view of Jaeger in a 1990 biographical-encyclopedia entry, called a conference about him, and edited its proceedings, Werner Jaeger Reconsidered. Reviewing the book in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Charles Rowan Beye, Ph.D. ’60, noted that Calder had presented Jaeger “as a charmer, if not a toady, whose luminous career failed to secure the man a splendid posterity....

“When this reviewer was a lad and in the process of losing his Christian faith,” Beye recalled, “he read Paideia and was born again, as it were, into a faith in classical antiquity. And while he long ago gave up on that equally improbable approach to human existence and finds Paideia unbearably tedious, he will ever be grateful to Werner Jaeger for helping to show him the way to his lifework. Calder quotes Charles Kahn saying that he left the conference pitying Jaeger. But this reviewer prefers to imagine a man who after a long, highly active and celebrated career in Germany found a thoroughly agreeable sanctuary in sterile and alien surroundings seated before the fire, talking to rosy-cheeked youths, rekindling in himself as he passed on to them an idealized, beautiful, and highly spiritual hellenism.”

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