In Memoriam: Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941-2013)

August 19, 2013

My meetings with Jean Elshtain always started late, and they almost always ran late. This was a constant feature of my experience at the University of Chicago, where, for too short a period, she was my graduate advisor. I nevertheless arrived to my appointments with her at the agreed-upon time—I was often early, in fact, a rarity for me—because even though I knew I would likely find myself waiting outside her office, thinking about how not to embarrass myself in front of her, I wanted to make sure that in the unlikely event that she was running on schedule, I'd be there. This gesture was never driven by fear, and entirely by the tremendous respect I felt for her as a scholar, and more importantly, as a person.

Professor Elshtain was never late because she was careless, or because she felt she had better things to do than meet with a lowly master's student (such as I was). She was, instead, immensely generous to her students, whom she genuinely cared for and whom she devoted much more time than was required of a scholar of her stature and authority. She loved discussing and debating the issues that motivated her own research, seeing how these issues intersected with her students' own work: the conceptual divergences and family resemblances, the intellectual avenues and alleyways that could link one area of conceptual inquiry to another. Even though we disagreed on many issues, she had a tremendous influence on me, and I am indebted to her as much as anyone for my own intellectual growth.

She was also extremely kind, almost alarmingly so for someone possessing such a formidable and vast intellect. As anyone who has spent even a modicum of time in academia knows, the Ivory Tower is a world of Towering Egos. Professor Elshtain evinced none of that. She carried herself with an understated grace and dignity, and this gracefulness made you think about the relationship between the contemplative life and the good and ethical life—that is, whether it really was possible for a scholar to be both brilliant and wise. She possessed, in great quantity—and I think my usage of this technical term might please her, given her fondness for Augustine—caritas, a kind of transcendental charity and caring. To the question of what the scholarly life is for, she provided a clear, compelling, and coruscating answer.

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