North American Scholar

CHERNISS, Harold Frederik

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1904-03-11
  • Born City: St Joseph
  • Born State/Country: MO
  • Parents: David B. & Theresa C.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1987-06-18
  • Death City: Princeton
  • Death State/Country: NJ
  • Married: Ruth Meyer, 1 Jan 1929
  • Education:

    AB U California, 1925; PhD 1929; study at Göttingen & Berlin, 1927-8; LHD U Chicago, 1950; Johns Hopkins, 1965; Brown, 1976; Laurea Honoris Causa, U Rome, 1978;

  • Professional Experience:

    Instr. class. Cornell, 1930-3; asso to asso prof Gk Johns Hopkins, 1933-46; prof. Gk. U. California, 1946-8; prof. IAS, Princeton, 1948-74; asst. ed., AJP , 1936-40; ed 1940-2; Goodwin Award, 1977; fell, Brit. Acad.; Royal Acad. Arts & Sciences of Goteborg; Academie Royale Flamande de Scis., Lettres et Beaux Arts de Belgique

  • Dissertation:

    “The Platonism of Gregory of Nyssa” (California, 1929); printed UCPCP 11,1 (1930) 1-92

  • Publications:

    Aristotle's Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy (Baltimore, 1935); “The Philosophical Economy of the Theory of Ideas,” AJP 57 (1936) 445-56; “The Biographical Function in Literary Criticism,” UCPCP 12, 15 (1943) 279-92; Aristotle's Criticism of Plato and the Academy (Baltimore, 1944); The Riddle of the Early Academy (Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1945); “The Characteristics and Effects of Presocratic Philosophy,” Journal of the History of Ideas 12 (1951) 319-45; “The Sources of Evil According to Plato,” PAPhS 98 (1954) 23-30; “A Much Misread Passsage of the Timaeus (Timaeus 49 C 7-50 B 5),” AJP 75 (1954) 113-30; Plutarch's Moralia, De Facie in Orbe Lunae (trans), LCL (Cambridge & London, 1957); “The Relation of the Timaeus to Plato's Later Dialogues,” AJP 78 (1957) 225-66; “Plato 1950-1957,” Lustrum 4 (1959) 5-308, 5 (1960) 321-648; Plutarch's Moralia Esssays on Platonic Topics (trans), LCL, 2 vols. (Cambridge & London, 1976) Kleine Schriften: Selected Papers ed. L. Taran (Leiden, 1977)

  • Notes:

    Cherniss' unrivaled knowledge of Greek philosophy places him among the foremost North American Hellenists of this century. His life was largely devoted to the solitary and meticulous study of Platonism, and his scholarship was renowned for its extraordinary breadth of learning no less than its rare philological precision. Cherniss published studies of Aristotle's criticism of the Presocratics, Plato, and the Academy as well as editions of several philosophical treatises by Plutarch which rank among the few American contributions to the study of Greek philosophy which are of permanent importance.Raised in the Midwest and educated at Berkeley, Cherniss taught for ten years at Johns Hopkins before joining the U.S. Army in 1942 and serving as an intelligence officer throughout World War II in the European theater. In 1946 he accepted an offer to return to Berkeley as Professor of Greek, but his tenure there was cut short by the controversy which arose from the California Legislature's demand that state employees swear loyalty oaths. In 1948 Cherniss resigned and accepted a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he became professor emeritus in 1974 and remained actively engaged in research until his death.In his research before World War II, Cherniss undertook a comprehensive analysis of Aristotle's testimony concerning earlier Greek philosophy in the conviction that its history could be properly understood only when freed from uncritical dependence upon Aristotle's formulations. In his first book after his dissertation, which appeared in 1935 (it was researched and written, he once told me, in his first 53 weeks at Hopkins), he revolutionized the study of Presocratic philosophy by demonstrating in detail how much of the conceptual apparatus often attributed to Presocratic thinkers in fact represents Aristotle's own reformulation of their theories in terms of his own philosophy. Cherniss then turned to a study of what he termed “the riddle of the early Academy,” namely the discrepancy between Plato's theory of ideas as it appears in the dialogues and as it is represented by Aristotle. In 1942 he delivered the Sather Lectures in Berkeley on this subject, and in 1945 the first volume of his exhaustive study of Aristotle's testimony on Plato appeared. Although Cherniss never completed this work, the writing of which was interrupted by World War II, the controversial conclusions he sketched in his Sather Lectures have been an enduring stimulus for research both on Platonic metaphysics and on the Old Academy.The most important contributions Cherniss published after World War II were his magisterial editions, including new texts based on exhaustive review of the MSS and elaborate philosophical commentaries, of several philosophical treatises by Plutarch for the Loeb Classical Library: De Facie in Orbe Lunae in 1957 and two volumes of Stoic and Platonic essays in 1976, for which he received the Goodwin Award. Cherniss' edition of these latter essays, which were relatively neglected at the time, may well prove his most influential contributions given the recent renaissance of interest in Hellenistic philosophy. In the 1950s he published a series of much-discussed papers on Plato, including four on the Timaeuswhich quickly became classics in the field, several book reviews which are practically monographs in their own right, and in 1963 his bibliography of Platonic studies, which provided an annotated guide to scholarship on Plato during the years 1950-7. Among Cherniss' human qualities his generosity in helping other scholars was outstanding and was widely bestowed not only upon the numerous scholars who visited the Institute for Advanced Study but also upon his many correspondents The most powerful instruction in scholarly standards I ever experienced was to receive, as a very junior graduate student aged 19, a dozen typed pages of critical comment from Cherniss on a draft of an article I had sent him Ironically, Cherniss' appointment at the Institute deprived the field of a great teacher and perhaps even impeded publication of the fruits of his research The fact that he supervised only a handful of students during his Princeton years made plausible his ambition of reading everything ever written on a given passage or problem before turning to write on it himself But the research he published during these years maintains a consistently high standard of learning without parallel in the modern study of ancient philosophy.

  • Sources:

    Fontenrose, 62-3; L Taran, APA Newsletter (Fall 1987) 14-5; idem, Yearbook APhS (1987) 134-40; idem, Gnomon 60 (1988) 665-7; NYTimes (12 July 1987) 1:22; WhAm 9:68

  • Author: Paul A. Vander Waerdt