North American Scholar
RABINOWITZ, Wilson Gerson
A.B., U. California, Berkeley, 1940; Ph.D., 1955.
- Professional Experience:
Instr. Greek, U. of Washington, 1948-51; acting asst. prof. 1951-4; acting asst. prof. to asst. prof. 1954-8; asso. prof. Greek, U. of California, Berkeley, 1958-89; mem. IAS (Princeton) 1957-8; Guggenheim fell., 1957-8; ACLS fell., 1961-2
Plato. Phaedrus, transl. with an introd. with W.C. Helmbold, Library of Liberal Arts, 40 (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1956). REVS: RPh XXXII 1958 126 Louis | CR VIII 1958 81 Tate; “Platonic Piety: An Essay toward the Solution of an Enigma,” Phronesis 3 (1958) 108-20; “Ethica Nicomachea II,1-6. Academic Eleaticism and the Critical Formulation of Aristotle's Discussion of Moral Virtue,” in Aristote et les problèmes de méthode. Communications présentées au Symposium Aristotelicum tenu à Louvain du 24 août au 1ᵉʳ septembre 1960 (Paris: Nauwelaerts, 1961) 273-301.
Gerson Rabinowitz was one of the Berkeley Classics Department’s most memorable characters and devoted teachers. Though he had retired at age 70 he continued to hold unofficial tutorials every week, reading Greek with a select number of students, especially Plato’s Republic, which he venerated as the source of timelessly valuable insight into the human condition. As a student at Johns Hopkins and Berkeley, he was inspired by Harold Cherniss, the country’s most eminent expert on ancient philosophy and a devoted Platonist, who instilled in Rabinowitz a passionate attachment to Plato. At the time of his appointment at Berkeley, Rabinowitz’s promise as a research scholar was widely acknowledged. His dissertation was published as a University of California monograph and he published a number of significant articles on Plato. He had plans of extending his work on Aristotle’s Protrepticus, and of embarking on a study of Galen’s Platonism. Yet, for reasons that remain imponderable, he suddenly abandoned all interest in these projects. After 1961 he refrained completely from publication, resisting all attempts by successive department chairs to get him to continue an orthodox research career. It is possible to speculate that he was disappointed by some of the reviews his monograph had received. It is also possible that he was mortified by harsh criticism that he heard from some Oxford scholars when he delivered a paper to the Oxford Philological Society. Whatever the cause may have been, Rabinowitz decided in the early 1960s to concentrate his professional work on undergraduate and graduate teaching at Berkeley, following Socrates’ observations in Plato’s Phaedrus that personal contact between teacher and student is greatly superior to the writing of books. He directed numerous dissertations of students who, in several cases, have made names for themselves in departments of classics or philosophy. He especially liked to teach beginning Greek and courses on Greek tragedy and philosophy. Some students found him too severe, but in many he inspired a reverence that was quite remarkable. What they valued in him was his tireless determination to help them understand all the nuances of Greek and, as one puts it, “to work through dialogue rather than simple assertion,” and to give “critiques that leave the student dissatisfied until he has given the best account of which he is capable.” Anyone familiar with Plato’s Socrates will recognize this allusion. He was in every sense of the word a personality, old-fashioned in his manners, abrasive in his conversation, but gifted with a fine sense of irony and self-deprecation. Opening the door of a colleague by mistake, he apologized with the words: “Trying to open the wrong door—that’s the story of my life.” As a young man he had been strikingly handsome and a fine tennis player. Even when elderly and frail, he was stylish in his dress and spritely in his demeanor. In his spare time he assiduously attended the Albany racetrack, and one would like to have known how his love of betting on horses meshed in with his Platonism. One may regret that a person so intelligent should have chosen to withdraw so resolutely from the scholarly community of his peers, but Rabinowitz had his own priorities and he remained true to them. Few university teachers leave as strong a mark on their students as he did. That is his main legacy.
- Author: A.A. Long