clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Stanley Hoffmann was a scholar, an intellectual, a mensch. He was the last of his kind.

Stanley Hoffmann.
Stanley Hoffmann.

I met Stanley Hoffmann at Harvard when I had only been in graduate school two weeks, and was just about ready to despair of the whole enterprise.

Those first weeks had been spent in something that Harvard’s government department — rather ominously, to my German-Jewish ears — referred to as "math camp." With the social sciences taking a quantitative turn, the main purpose of the first years of graduate school had become to ensure that students "tool up." A true political scientist, I learned, pursues general laws, not particular truths. He hopes to derive these laws from columns of numbers, not stumble upon them through a deep immersion with a particular place. Asked by a student how much time he should spend on learning the history and culture of the area in which he hoped to specialize, a senior professor in the department answered without hesitation, "Oh, you can always learn about that kind of stuff later on. I strongly suggest you prioritize the stats sequence."

I was happy to brush up on math, keen to learn statistics, and impressed with some of the insights these new methods afforded. But the department’s pre-professional atmosphere depressed me. Before arriving in Cambridge, I had been giddy at the prospect of trying to understand some of the world’s most pressing problems at the world’s finest university. Instead, I was spending my days talking about the importance of advanced statistical skills on the "academic job market." Within a few days, I was starting to wonder whether I had come to the right place.

Then I got to know Stanley.

If math camp is an image for what much of the academic world has become, Stanley was the embodiment of what it had once been. Nowadays, there is an assumption that one can be an influential intellectual or a serious academic, but not both. Stanley was living proof of this statement’s lunacy—and he has been an inimitable role model to me, as he had been to countless others, ever since.

Born to a Jewish mother in Vienna in the fall of 1928, Stanley moved to Paris in the early 1930s, surviving the war in hiding in southern France. "It wasn’t I who chose to study world politics," he wrote in a memoir about his childhood. "World politics forced themselves on me at a very early age."

His contributions to our understanding of the world of politics, and of much beyond that, were prodigious. He wrote about international relations with the same fluency as he wrote about French politics and culture, making equally accomplished contributions to our understanding of cross-border duties and the shortcomings of the European Union. He shared his knowledge generously, both with his many readers at the New York Review of Books and with the legions of students to which he remained devoted until his last days.

In contrast to the current self-understanding of mainstream political science, Stanley knew many of these truths to be specific rather than universal. Politics, he believed, could not be reduced to eternal laws because it was shaped by the ideas of great thinkers as well as the personalities of great statesmen. Structural factors were, of course, at work in human history, and some of them might surely be captured by numbers — but much of what mattered most was irreducibly cultural, and stubbornly contingent.

Though Stanley could feel like a peripheral figure at Harvard in recent years, his work largely ignored by the department in which he had taught since 1955, the university as a whole will long continue to benefit from his institutional legacy: He founded the Center for European Studies, and was among a small group of professors who created the popular Social Studies concentration.

To anybody who knew him, however, his personal gifts outshone all of these professional accomplishments. His demeanor was calm but passionate, his smile winning yet sly. In a milieu that claims to be egalitarian, but in which status differentials are often displayed in every greeting and gesture, Stanley treated every person he met with the same respect and consideration, from the most famous scholar to the greenest undergrad. Larry Summers, the former Harvard president with whom he had often quarreled, seemed to be just about the only person he disdained.

At times, being around Stanley could feel like being around a grandparent: His goodwill was boundless. When he would reach for something in the pockets of his corduroy pants, I half expected him to offer me a Werther’s Original. But this warmth could be deceptive, for it never softened the acuity of his intellectual judgments, nor the breadth of his knowledge. Arthur Goldhammer, now a leading translator of French books, recalled how graciously Stanley pointed out a mistake in one of his papers: "You're probably right that it was published in 1955, but that would make it difficult to explain how I read it at Sciences Po in 1949."

But perhaps the most enthralling thing about Stanley’s company was that, as his former colleague Pratap Bhanu Mehta put it, "he had that rare gift of deploying humor and irony for a serious purpose." Never was this more evident than when Stanley was telling a good story — which was all the time.

The story I remember best was about General Charles de Gaulle. After riot police had violently quashed the student occupation of the Sorbonne in May 1968, de Gaulle toured the old university buildings, TV cameras in tow. Suddenly, he stopped to inspect a piece of graffiti that had been scrawled on the wall: "Kill all the assholes!" it demanded. The great man turned to the assembled journalists, who expected an angry outburst, or perhaps a thunderous denunciation. But de Gaulle cracked a bemused smile. "Vaste projet" — a huge undertaking — he remarked, and walked triumphantly on.

Stanley, it was evident, admired de Gaulle’s joke, even though he had disapproved of many of his other decisions in that fateful spring. A convinced liberal in outlook and temperament, Stanley believed in the possibility of remaining civil even amidst deep disagreement — and knew the art of embracing imperfect political compromises without ever compromising his own moral compass.

In the last years of his life, Stanley began to suffer from dementia. His mind was going, and even for somebody who knew him as peripherally as I did, the slow deterioration of his mental capacities was painful to watch. He began to forget names, to confuse facts, to repeat his favorite quips twice in a row.

But though many dementia patients experience a change in personality as well as a loss in cognitive ability, the remarkable thing about Stanley was that, in illness, he seemed to become ever more himself. His kindness, his curiosity, and his courage shone through even in his increasingly frequent moments of confusion.

One of the last times I saw Stanley was at dinner in a vast new building at Harvard Law School, which he disliked with characteristic good humor. "The dean," he said with a bemused sneer, which dispensed with any need for further elaboration, "keeps boasting that it contains more office space than the whole of Yale Law School."

About a hundred people had been invited to discuss a lecture Michael Sandel had given earlier in the day. Asked about same-sex marriage, Sandel said that it is facile to claim, as some of its advocates do, that it doesn’t affect straight people. "Marriage is a social institution. Of course it affects the nature of marriage whether or not some people are excluded from it."

Everyone in the audience understood that Sandel was no opponent of same-sex marriage. Allowing gays and lesbians to marry did change the nature of marriage, he thought — but for the better. Only Stanley, who had never hesitated to call out injustice, whether it was the infatuation of many French intellectuals with the Soviet Union or the connivance of some of his erstwhile colleagues with the Vietnam War, didn't catch Sandel’s drift. Visibly shaken, he interrupted his friend mid-sentence.

"How can you say such a thing?"

"Say what, Stanley?"

"You are such a decent person, Michael. How can you say that they shouldn’t be allowed to get married if you and I can?" Stanley shook his head in sadness. "I just don’t understand."

The moment was bitter, but also sweet. Back when he had his full mental capacities at his disposal, Stanley would never have made such a mistake. But just as his illness was on painful display before many of his friends and colleagues, so was his unwavering decency. In error and old age, he was as principled and courageous a man as any of us can hope to be.

Stanley was the last of a certain breed of intellectual academics, and he knew it all too well. The only times I saw him bitter, or despairing, was when he complained about the direction in which the university to which he had devoted the bulk of his life was going. He was disappointed that many of his colleagues did not seem to him to be interested in gaining deep knowledge about politics and culture, and lamented their lack of moral purpose. To him, the study of politics had been a vocation, forced upon him by the great disasters of the 20th century. To them, it seemed to be a good career.

Stanley Hoffmann had a full life. Even in his twilight years, he remained surrounded by the boundless affection and gratitude he himself had sowed for decades. And yet, I find myself more distraught by his passing than I had anticipated. Perhaps this is because he taught so much to so many, and yet he lacks for true successors. With Stanley’s passing, the world has lost not only his charm, his kindness, and his knowledge. It has lost a model for what it means to be a scholar, an intellectual, and a mensch.