224 Learning moments

Commemorating the death of two old friends in the past year, Schwartz thinks of experiences with them that changed his life. With Bob Cahn he learned a lesson in gentlemanliness and from Stuart Hampshire the importance of supporting institutions in which you believe. Putting these two things together goes some way toward a model for the good life in society, a better one than preaching to others about their deficient values.

On a two-day trip to New York last June to attend the funeral of one of my oldest and best friends, I read in the New York Times of the death of another, in England. The friend in New York was Bob Cahn (1939-2004), a fellow student of art history at New York University in the late 1950s and at Johns Hopkins University in the early 60s. Bob and I went through many experiences, pleasant and painful, of the kind that have lately come to be called learning moments.

Older readers will remember the seemingly endless decades when the dollar was worth 3 guilders 60 (€1,63), more than double today’s quote of 75 eurocents. In those same days, moreover, Holland was a European bargain paradise. And so it happened that two semi-indigent young Americans, with the Dutch young lady of one of them, thought nothing in 1967 of having dinner, on an art-historical excursion to Maastricht, in Château Neercanne or a comparable establishment. When my trout was served, the waiter remarked, guessing correctly that I might not know this, that the cheeks were considered a particular delicacy. Naturally, I wanted to share them with the rest of the table, and began a dry run of cutting two cheeks three ways. When he saw what I was up to, the waiter intervened smoothly with a welcome "May I, sir?" Without a sign of condescension, he deftly lifted the two cheeks off my plate and gave them both to my lady. Bob and I, spoiled silly by doting Jewish mothers, were stunned by this display of European savoir faire.

My friend in England I met in Jerusalem in the spring of 1959. The Oxford philosopher Stuart Hampshire (1914-2004) was a visiting lecturer at the Hebrew University, where I was studying for the year. Stuart was age-blind, and although he was nearly as old as my father, he became a friend rather than a parental surrogate.

On trips to England in the early 1960s, I would visit Stuart either in the flat in Chelsea he shared with his wife Renée, or in Oxford, where he was a fellow of All Souls. On one of those trips, he put me up in the rooms of the absent Isaiah Berlin, a non-encounter with greatness that I nonetheless cherish. In the latter 60s he headed the philosophy department of Princeton University. In 1970 Stuart returned to England to become the warden of Wadham College, a move that was incomprehensible to me. At All Souls he was free from teaching and administration; he was expected to do nothing but live the life of the spirit at the highest level attainable to him. Why in the world, I asked him, would he give up such miraculous liberty to run a college that had fallen on hard times and required a major overhaul?

Stuart answered in four words that I have never forgotten. "I believe in institutions." I rubbed my ears. By then I had been fighting for twenty years to free myself from the grip of religious, educational, military, political – even familial – institutions that I saw as pure enemies of human freedom. Institutions were there to be combatted and undermined, at best to be marched through in order to subvert them, not to be upheld and respected. How could a friend of mine, the philosopher who wrote Freedom of the individual (1965), say such a thing? I was soon to see a powerful example of what he meant. Within four years after becoming warden, Stuart succeeded, against bitter opposition, in opening Wadham to women. It was the first time that girl students were allowed to attend a formerly all-male Oxford college. (This was only 30 years ago, at an epicenter of our great European culture, with those "universal" values and norms people are preaching about. It is good to keep this in mind, when lecturing the Muslims in our midst about their treatment of women.) Stuart Hampshire’s institutional activism, almost as impressive as the chivalry of the waiter in Limburg, had more impact on the world than his important work as a philosopher.

With all my respect for Stuart, I cannot say that in the 1970s or 80s my feelings and behavior toward institutions changed much. The furthest I was willing to go was to edit and publish the art-historical journal Simiolus and serve on the board of a bi-annual memorial lecture for another older friend, Horst Gerson. (The following Gerson Lecture, by the incomparable Ingrid Rowland, will take place in the aula of Groningen University on 17 November 2005. Come one, come all.) However, when I reached the age at which Stuart became Warden of Wadham, I channeled my own efforts into creating a new institution, CODART (see www.codart.nl), which I am happy to say has gone from strength to strength over the past seven years. Now that I am faced next year with the necessity, at retirement age, of stepping down as director, I am deeply gratified that CODART, with the enthusiastic support of hundreds of younger people, will go on without me.

Being courteous to a fault and fighting for institutions in which you believe are difficult ideals to achieve separately, doubly difficult in combination with each other and getting difficulter and difficulter as the new century unfolds. But together they add up to a formula for living a good life in society, a down-to-earth formula that I for one prefer to the moralizing varieties going around these days, with their concealed bullying. Goodbye, old friends, hello, new ones.


© Gary Schwartz 2004. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 18 December 2004.

In the first draft of this piece I wrote of the phrase "learning moments": "Allow me to register here my objection to this concept, which reduces life experiences to management tools." To my annoyance, however, I could think of nothing better to describe the moments I was writing about. For once, I decided to accept an irritating neologism. I hope this is not a sign of a general mellowing.

My remarks in the P.S. to Schwartzlist 223 about the revamping of my column were all a misunderstanding. The Saturday supplement of the Financieele Dagblad is not going tabloid yet, if ever. They are only playing with the idea. The 500-word column I wrote for them, which I thought was going to be published today, went into a dummy that is never going to be published. I will recycle it later on. Back to Rembrandt, tot ziens.

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