From the In Memoriam column in the May 2000 Perspectives
Benjamin I. Schwartz (1916-1999)
Don Price, May 2000
Benjamin Isadore Schwartz died at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on November 14, 1999.
Born in East Boston on December 12, 1916, he graduated from Boston Latin High School in 1934 and began his lifelong career at Harvard as a scholarship student. With a BA magna cum laude in romance languages in 1938, and then an MA from Harvard's Graduate School of Education, he seemed destined for a career in secondary education, but entered the military service during World War II. There he learned Japanese and served from 1942 to 1946 intercepting Japanese messages in the Intelligence Branch of the U.S. Signal Corps.
After the war, Schwartz returned to Harvard University and embarked on the study of China's language, history, and politics, earning another MA in regional studies, and in 1950, a PhD in history and Far Eastern languages. In the same year he became an instructor in the departments of history and government at Harvard, where he remained for the rest of his career, occupying the Leroy B. Williams Chair in History and Political Science from 1975 until his retirement in 1987. In 1979 he was elected president of the Association for Asian Studies, and the AHA honored him with its Award for Scholarly Distinction in 1997.
In later life Schwartz remarked on his early, and abiding, interest in the realm of ideas. It was an interest that marked all his research, beginning with his landmark doctoral dissertation and first book, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. The subject was one of great topical interest, when the United States was at war in Korea, bitterly reviewing the "loss of China," and pondering the nature of the new regime there. For Schwartz, Mao's Communism was as much a matter of ideas as politics, and required examination within the larger context of modern intellectual history and heresies in the realm of Marxist doctrine. His conclusion was that China's brand of Communism had strong and distinctive indigenous elements.
A regular reader of the Renmin ribao, Schwartz continued over the years to comment on the evolution of Chinese Communist doctrine and policy in a series of incisive articles, but at the same time, pursued the understanding of the present further and further into the past. Inspired, no doubt, by the Communist Party founder Ch'en Tu-hsiu's early Manchester liberalism, Schwartz looked back in his second monograph, In Search of Wealth and Power to Yen Fu, the translator and interpreter of John Stuart Mill, Darwin, and Herbert Spencer.
Often read as an analysis of a Chinese misunderstanding of Western liberalism and individualism, this study took Yen Fu's insights as an occasion to reflect on the ways in which the pursuit of wealth and power in the West had likewise subverted individual values, even within its own liberal tradition: "Fabula de nobis narratur." The relations between tradition, modernity, and identity, so strong a theme in this book, continued to intrigue him, as did the major theme in his first book—intellectual and political history—the importance of which he insisted on in a brilliant Daedalus article at a time when students of China were turning more and more to the nitty-gritty of social history.
In the meantime, Schwartz began to teach courses on East Asian intellectual history, along with his course on Chinese politics, and then offered seminars on the thought of the Song dynasty. Ultimately, he was lured back to the very beginnings. Keenly aware of the importance of context in shaping the meaning of ideas, he nevertheless resisted the idea of unbridgeable differences between human concerns in different historical and cultural contexts. Indeed, he held that different cultures consisted of common elements but combined, as it were, into different compounds. Dissatisfied with simplistic essentialisms, he was nevertheless intrigued with the roots and depths of distinctiveness. Thus, in The World of Thought in Ancient China, he sought to identify and understand early aspects of the Chinese tradition in part through comparisons and contrasts with the rest of the ancient world. It was an ambitious effort to locate the insights, discoveries, and debates of early China within the larger human effort to understand and deal with the human condition. It was also an undertaking to which Schwartz was inspired and for which he was uniquely prepared by his profound and sophisticated commitment to Judaism, his training in romance literatures, and his broad familiarity with modern thought and contemporary scholarly theory.
His breadth of perspective lent an exciting profundity and originality to Schwartz's lectures, made him an endlessly fascinating conversationalist, and inspired his students with unexpected possibilities of interpretation. Little concerned with editorial detail, he might remark on the ingenuity of an advisee's thesis, and then bring him back down to earth with the question, "But do you really believe it?" Indeed it was a hallmark of his style, in writing or debate, to remind us of what we knew to be true but might have forgotten in the pursuit of our arguments.
Schwartz is survived by his wife Bernice, his son Jonathan, his daughter Sara-Ann Erichson, and four grandchildren.
University of California at Davis