Jacob Klein was, first and last, every inch a teacher, a teacher who stymied discipleship in the very effort to induce learning. He did, indeed, have some teachings to convey—a few, though those were powerful and of large consequence…
Editor’s Note: This essay was read as a tribute to philosopher and long-time tutor of St. John’s College, Annapolis, Jacob Klein, to a gathering after he passed on July 16, 1978.
He was, first and last, every inch a teacher, a teacher who stymied discipleship in the very effort to induce learning. He did, indeed, have some teachings to convey—a few, though those were powerful and of large consequence; above all, the understanding of the arithmetic structure of being set out in his book on the origin of algebra.
But these doctrines, central as they were, were obvious; obvious, that is, once they had been told. It is doubtful that they would have been soon discovered without him. As they went home in their obviousness, they displayed their originality. They were not cleverly fabricated by reference to the opinions of others, but direct and deep. As they were original, they were faithful, faithful to the text of which they were interpretations.
For he spent his most characteristic effort in recovering the way to the conversations of that most artfully communicative lover of wisdom whom he followed. Yet as his readings were faithful, they were fresh, as immediately the thought of Jacob Klein as of Socrates.
His way into the dialogues was emphatically not a method. He insisted that each had to be approached in its own terms. But as he shunned unthinking method, he practiced unfailing meticulousness. His manuscripts, written in a small, fine hand, were thickly annotated with precise references to the text. Nonetheless, for all this carefulness, he was blithe to cut sweeping swaths through the blind thickets of scholarship.
In sum, his learning was at once inimitable and influential for the reason that it did no more and no less than rouse a sort of recollection. I often ask myself whether I learned anything or everything from him.
He was solid; he possessed himself what in his commentary on the Meno he called a solid soul, that is to say, a soul with dimensions enough for inward depth. Yet as he was solid, he was plain and also playful, inventive in the explanatory and evocative devices of the talented teacher.
He preserved the humaneness of his energy by reserving it for a small community, for this college; he chose this life in accord with the verse of the Preacher spoken on a mellow Maryland summer day at his grave site, as close as could be to our campus: The words of the wise man are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools.
In behalf of his school, he was fiercely parochial—though by personal and political fate the complete cosmopolitan, a wanderer who in spirit never gave up his Nansen passport, determinedly unrooted. And yet, he achieved a home, the most comfortable and animated, hospitable and private domesticity anyone could wish for.
He was fully free from his own time, but as he was free of it, he was a most knowledgeable contemporary, a passionate bystander who listened to the hourly news as one appointed to be the world’s monitor. As his world was large, he cherished immobility and its accumulations. His study was the repository of sacrosanct piles of undusted and outdated documents. He was altogether an indoor man, who would take the car from Market Street to campus, but he was light and supple, and could break into a sudden caper. In looks, he was at once small and grand, soft and manly; in bearing, he could be excitedly mobile and regally dignified.
He lived a life bare of all aesthetic paraphernalia, but he was the most sensually appreciative of men, not least of all the pleasures of the table. Caught off guard, he would admit that he had no ear for music, but he loved epic poetry, especially the spacious warmth of Russian novels. He spoke English with a soft, gravelly Russian accent, and he wrote it in a strong, sound style. As his life’s preoccupation was the wonder of the word, so he battled with ever-fresh fury its smart and thoughtless perversions.
In the small world he had chosen, he was ubiquitous. As dean, he would station himself at the bottom of the McDowell stairs to take the pulse of the place. Yet he was devoid of all intrusive curiosity and his gossip was without smallness. He suffered his own fools gladly and met youthful contentiousness with sweet serenity, but he could be royally irascible with incompetent meddlers.
He came conveniently equipped with those eccentricities—he called them his pathologies—which are the joy of student communities, and he was balanced and sane—the Greeks would say, sound-minded—above anyone; he was harmonious in his oppositions.
He could be shamelessly affected by others’ grief, and he could be stonily unforgiving when the bounds had been overstepped. He was coolly reserved in the face of pretentious impertinence, but his usual way was the warmest, most irresistible pedagogic eros.
And finally, he was in birth and in appearance unmistakably a Jew, but his soul belonged to that unending enterprise which has its origins among the Greeks.
He was a man, take him for all in all, we shall not see his like again.
Books by Eva Brann, and by Jacob Klein, may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the St. John’s Review (Volume 30, Number 2, 1979). Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.