Professor Benjamin C. Sax

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.

Messages & Condolences

From Darrick Taylor...

Ben was a true teacher and scholar in the best sense of those terms. He loved the tradition of learning and thought that he so honorably served throughout his life. I was fortunate to take several classes with Ben while in graduate school, and I came away with a deeper love and respect for the Western tradition than I would have otherwise. I can give nk higher praise than this. Your loss will be truly felt, Ben. Requiescat in pace, o magister!

From Jacob Bosch...

Even today, I had a reason to think about what you had taught me about Goethe’s Faust. Act, but never with the full knowledge where it will lead. Thanks, dear man, for the travels, the drinking and cooking, and helping me understand Europe, and who I am. Berlin, Malta, Venice, Rome, Weimar, Catania and Sicily, Monte Casino, Rothenburg … your faithful chauffeur, friend, and student.

From Susan Longfiekd Karr...

The smartest person I have ever known who shaped my love of learning, European history, and German philosophy. A man whose impact will long endure in his students across the globe.

From Bob Antonio...

Its hard to add to the fine obituary and the testimonies above – Ben was an intellectual, aesthete, and teacher, in the best meanings of those terms. He inspired bright students to reach and grow. Ben was a unique and generous soul who I will miss.

From Steven Lestition...

Ben was the sort of person who indeed left you with many great memories. For myself, they include the deep love of learning, love of music, and love of life, which we shared as young men at the University of Chicago for almost ten years. And then, of course, there was his intellectual ambition, the phenomenal multi-sidedness of his interests, and the dedication he brought to friendships and mentorships. All of that made him a remarkable friend, someone it was wonderful to have encountered at crucial times in one’s life.

From Marta Vicente...

I remember fondly the nights spent at his house enjoying his enormous vitality, love for food and intense conversation. His presence was a rare treat, where else you could have a dinner with four courses and while intending to leave at 11:00 pm finding yourself driving home at 2:00 in the morning? We will miss you, Ben!

From Ben Dorfman...

It’s not easy, Ben, to describe how significantly you impacted my life. Intellectually, I landed in million places that you and I debated endlessly — places I’m sure we’ll debate again if the universe provides that kind of chance. However, the positions which not only orient an academic career, but animate my life, are only possible because I was so thoroughly forced to think through their critique and an entire alternate way of reading values and the past. You were the humanist’s humanist, Ben, and a thinker who never took the easy path. I’ll remember the many moments of friendship: dinners and drinks at Teller’s, hosting Maren and me for evenings at your place, innumerable games of tennis, you coming around just days after the birth of Emil, and even putting me up for a couple of nights at a moment when a lot of things went south. What you pushed me to do intellectually, though, was the greatest gift of all. It’s a spirit I’ve taken into every classroom and brought to every article, and one for which I can’t thank you enough. Of course, that’s what you were, Ben: an intellectual. And for showing me what that meant, I can only express my love and the deepest of respect. May your journey be safe from here, Ben. I’ll miss you – very, very much.

From Ray Hiner...

Ben, your erudite, gentle spirit made you a valued colleague.

From Chase Richards...

Ben, you’re unforgettable. Your generosity, devotion, wisdom, brilliance and humor inspire nothing less than awe, and we’re better, richer people for having known and worked with you.

From Luis Corteguera...

May the many devoted students who admired and loved Ben Sax find comfort in the memory of his friendship and inspiration in all they learned from him.

From HAGITH SIVAN...

YOU WILL BE MISSED, BEN. YOUR ERUDITION WAS INDEED UNEQUALED, AS WAS YOUR EVER READINESS TO ENGAGE ANY AND ALL LISTENERS IN TOPICS OF IMPORTANCE AND INTEREST.

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