Benjamin C. Sax, Professor Emeritus and longtime faculty member of the Department of History at the University of Kansas, passed away Saturday, 13 April 2019. He was 69. The only child of John and Anne Sax (née Grofstein), Benjamin Sax was born 7 January 1950 in Revere, Massachusetts. He grew up in the nearby town of Swampscott in a home that nurtured a lifelong passion for learning and music, and amid the company of his many cousins whom he recalled fondly throughout his life. He pursued doctoral study in European history at the University of Chicago, earning his degree in 1978. After a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Rochester, he joined the faculty of history at the University of Kansas in 1979 where he remained for the duration of his academic career. He taught a range of courses in the intellectual and cultural history of Europe including the Renaissance, Reformation, and the history of autobiography among many others, before retiring in 2015.
His abiding scholarship includes many articles and books, all of which exhibit a profound concern for the question of culture and moral values in European history, questions he pursued across a broad chronological trajectory. At the time of his death, he was completing his final book, Critical Ontology and Cultural History, in which he argues that human morality is the ground for making life meaningful, and reveals how specific key texts, especially those of Goethe, Jacob Burckhardt, and Nietzsche, create and bring forth a compelling moral universe.
Many will remember Professor Sax from his unique and thoughtful classes, which he always developed around a specific historical problem. Though an excellent lecturer, he preferred the more intimate setting of a seminar in which to guide, both patiently and deftly, his students in the interpretation of often complicated historical texts. His courses were challenging, yet he never condescended to those fortunate enough to come within his orbit: all recall his uncompromising zeal for European history and its cultural legacy. He insisted on an approach to history that encouraged students to think of the past and their relationship to it in fundamentally different ways, namely to participate in the tradition and value of civilization itself.
The same character that made Benjamin Sax an outstanding educator was mirrored in the friendship he willingly shared. The depth and breadth of his interests, extending far beyond the scholarly, made him an engaging conversationalist and companion. He could offer informed opinions and original insights on everything from the Metaphysics of Aristotle and the Commedia of Dante to the presence of James Mason on the screen, from Near-Eastern archaeology to Chinese cuisine. To the end of his life he maintained a constant and growing interest in art, music, literature, philosophy, and classic film; an enthusiasm for travel, particularly in Greece and Italy; a persisting love for his native New England; and above all a concern for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. He was, in brief, a humanist; a man driven by an insatiable curiosity for all the hidden crevices and facets of this world, and he was always eager and gracious to share his discoveries with those around him.
He leaves behind forty years’ worth of students shaped by his teaching; many close friends; and many more enriched by having known him. Benjamin Sax leaves a world poorer with his passing. He will be missed.
Was glänzt, ist für den Augenblick geboren;
das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren.