Page 129 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 20

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123
S
chwarz
— H
arry
A. W
olfson
Now these literary sallies, delightful and illuminating as they
are, bear something more than the mark of a master of prose.
I t should be kept in mind that I have detached them from a
large body of works of technical scholarship, which were com-
posed with infinite labor and skill and written with reserve and
restraint. Why, then, should the author have from time to time
been impelled to season a style of classic distinction with the
condiments of irony and wit? The answer lies in part in a mind
richly endowed with diverse talents. As a youth, Wolfson began
to write fiction and poetry, literary and social criticism, and
finally philosophic prose. He could have continued and excelled
in any or all of these things and he might have become a laugh-
ing philosopher in the manner of Montaigne or a philosophic
litterateur in the manner of his teacher, Santayana. But some-
where along the way he chose to become a philosopher’s philos-
opher and embody the substance of his study and thought in
technical works. In making this choice and sticking to it, the
freedom and gusto of more personal expression were perforce
suppressed. However, these happy faculties survive in the clever
repartee and the sardonic humor of his conversation. And, I
believe, they have forced their way to the surface and found
expression in the occasional literary sallies imbedded in his
learned tomes.
While the scholarly masterpieces which comprise Wolfson’s
Structure and Growth of Philosophic Systems from Philo to
Spinoza
reveal a range of learning, mastery of original sources,
and an interpretive faculty rare in studies of the history of ideas,
they in the main conceal the man behind the ideas. On the other
hand, the literary sallies tell us something about him. The per-
sonality revealed in them is that of a humane mind and sensitive
spirit blessed with innate distinction and natural wit. Sometimes
his witticisms have an undertone of disdain, but this cudgel is
reserved for those who confuse the latest fashion with the last
word. He is contemptuous of the scholar who wraps his ideas
in bales of wool and substitutes
melitzah
(effusion) for logic.
But his sense of decorum prevents him from roaring down or
goring his critics. His mind, like his style, is always under con-
trol; if his polemics are devastating, it is their honed-edge logic
that makes them so.
Above all, these sallies reveal a mind which, despite inhabiting
intellectual solitude, has remained alive and fresh. His energy
is demonic, and more wonderful still, it shows no signs of dim-
inishing. Retired since July, 1958, he has not changed his way
of living. He is still the first person to enter the Widener Library
in the morning and the last to leave it at night. There Harry
Wolfson, the high priest of his craft, continues to fashion a
contribution to philosophic literature unique in our time.