In memoriam Ned Keenan

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Posted by Daniel C. Waugh <>.

Brian Boeck forwarded to me yesterday the sad news that Ned Keenan has died.  The obituary below, written by the Director of Dumbarton Oaks, Jan Ziolkowski, was sent out by the currrent chair of the Harvard History Department. Once I have gathered my thoughts, I plan to write about Ned, as I expect others on this list will also wish to do.

Sad News: The Death of Ned Keenan

Date: March 8, 2015 at 11:28:28 PM EDT

Edward L. Keenan died on March 6, 2015. Known as “Ned” to intimates and colleagues, he served as the sixth director of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, from 1998 to 2007, and as the fourth consecutive to be appointed from the ranks of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Among Keenan’s multifarious contributions to Dumbarton Oaks was a thoroughgoing capital renewal project for the main campus that resulted in a multiplicity of newness: a five-story library, a central heating and cooling plant, and a building for the gardening staff, as well as renovated quarters for administration, facilities, security, the museum, publications, and most other departments. With equal measures of pride and melancholy, Keenan joked that the library would likely be the last built in North America. The architect for the multi-year project was the celebrated Robert Venturi, and obtaining the permissions necessary for its fulfillment was a story told vividly in an oral history interview preserved in the virtual archives of the Dumbarton Oaks website. Keenan also acquired for the institution a former home of Elizabeth Taylor’s, which replaced as the director’s residence what is now the refectory. Keenan’s projects and acquisition brought the research center into the twenty-first century, and fellows, staff, and directors of the institution will benefit from his foresight forcountless decades to come.

Keenan arrived at Dumbarton Oaks with a long rap sheet of administrative experience at Harvard, where he survived more than a half dozen stints as associate director and director of the Russian Research Center, master of the present-day Pforzheimer House (then called North House), dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, among other things. He fulfilled most of these roles in phases of wrenching transitions, and he handled them all with great skill. Upon taking his final assignment for his alma mater at its elegant outpost in Georgetown, he deployed this background to excellent effect by rationalizing a reporting structure that in his words had resembled “a bowl of spaghetti.” After retirement in 2008 he moved mainly to Deer Isle in Maine, where he lived with his wife Judith (“Judy”), who survives him, as do his sons and her daughters.

Within the large and famous university of which Dumbarton Oaks forms but a small and remote part, Ned Keenan was a consummate Harvard man—but in his own distinctive fashion. Born on May 13, 1935, he remained in Cambridge continuously as an undergraduate (with a ’57 honors AB in Slavic Languages and Literatures), graduate student (PhD in 1965), and junior and senior faculty member (tenure in 1968), except for a couple of years in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, until he took up the directorship of Dumbarton Oaks. While being Harvardian through-and-through, he clung proudly to his background as an outsider from western New York State.

Keenan’s craft was history, and his specialization was medieval Russian history. Within his field he became prominent and controversial for various studies that sought to analyze and ultimately to disprove the supposed authenticity of major sources in East Slavic history. Two books, published more than thirty years apart, argue that two texts were not medieval at all, but seventeenth- and eighteenth-century, respectively: The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha: The Seventeenth-century Genesis of the “Correspondence” Attributed to Prince A. M. Kurbskii and Tsar Ivan IV (1971), and Joseph Dobrovsky and the Origins of the “Igor Tale” (2003). He also brought into print a number of seminal articles. His first article appeared in 1958, and his bibliography extended to 22 pages already by 1997.

Ned Keenan’s linguistic abilities were renowned, notably his native-level fluency in Russian, but also his facility in Spanish, an early love of his in foreign tongues. Beyond languages, he was also known for belonging to the first generation of early adaptors, since he switched to using personal computers long before many of his colleagues even reached the point of asking secretaries to do the same instead of them.

A memorable raconteur, he expressed himself colorfully. Often he came forth with formulations that sounded proverbial. In fact, his interest in paremiology reached back to his undergraduate thesis on Russian proverbs. All the same, listeners might often be nagged by uncertainty as to whether the original of his wording was Russian, another foreign language, or his own creation. Ned Keenan was himself an original, with strong and shrewd convictions that he expressed with memorable wit, and he will be much missed by all those who had the occasion to benefit from his skill, erudition, and humor. With his death we have lost a person who not only liked to talk about where the dog lies buried, but who also knew the exact location of many such canine skeletons that will now pass forgotten.

 Jan M. Ziolkowski, 
Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Medieval Latin, 
216 Boylston Hall
Department of the Classics, 
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138

Director, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection
1703 32nd Street NW, 
Washington DC 20007

I would like to encourage everyone who would like to, to share their remembrances of Professor Keenan in this thread. If you are an infrequent poster, and are not sure how to go about posting, there is a guide available here. If you would like to share any photos of Professor Keenan, there is a guide on uploading this kind of file here. You can also e-mail me directly here, and I will be happy to help.

I'm so sorry to hear this. I had heard he was ill, but I had hoped he would stay with us for a long time.

I met Ned in 1982, when I was fresh off my IREX year and newly returned to Boston after studying at Stanford. He was so gracious and helpful: appointed me his assistant so that I could get access to the Harvard Libraries, read my dissertation, guided my work, introduced me to the local community of Slavists, and in general acted as my unofficial adviser. At the time, I thought of him as an elder statesman, although I later realized he was younger then than I am now. His work was controversial, but Ned himself was always charming. He will be much missed.

Writing a commemorative piece for one recently departed is never an easy task. In struggling with what to say about Ned Keenan, I immersed myself in tapes (for which I thank Nancy Kollmann) of two lectures he delivered at Stanford in May of 1988 on Semën Shakhovskoi (a shortened version of the presentation is in Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. XII/XIII). Ned began by remarking that biography “is the most exacting exercise of the historian’s ability to perceive and to represent past reality,” but that it is “a most alluring occupation for the historian probably because it offers the opportunity to glimpse another’s inner life…and… is also a means of establishing a vantage point from which to take some commensurate measure not only of another mortal but of another age and culture.” I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to apply those thoughts (perhaps excising the “alluring”) to the writing of a memorial tribute about a mentor and friend of long standing, especially where in my case, the most intensive interactions I had with Ned occurred half a century ago in what now seems indeed to be another age. I would not venture to speculate about his “inner life,” although I would be so bold as to maintain that amongst all the historians of Russia I have known, he was the one who conveyed most persuasively an understanding of that other age and culture.

            There is little point in my repeating what was so elegantly expressed by the editors and contributors to Ned’s Festschrift on the occasion of his 60th birthday (HUS, Vol. XIX) or recapping what I think are the most revealing exchanges that followed on publication of his essay on “Muscovite Political Folkways” (Russian Review, Vols. 45 and 46; see especially Bob Crummey’s carefully crafted critical remarks and Ned’s responses). If Shakhovskoi was, as Ned put it, “intoxicated by the power of the word” and praised “the gift of the divine gift of speech,” for many of us it was Ned’s gift of speech and charisma which so intoxicated us. To listen now to the eloquent rhythms of his rhetoric and nuances of inflection is a reminder that his provocative written legacy alone is but an imperfect reflection of who he was and what he meant for all of us. Above all though, it was “the quickening of his lively mind” (Khomiakov) which has imprinted Ned in our consciousness, even if his leaps of imagination may have left those like this writer who are less talented feeling more than slightly inadequate and provoked others into ill-considered responses. In a different age when commemorating the passing of the most famous “dissident” of his time, Chaadaev, Aleksei Khomiakov further noted “Many loved him… Perhaps he was not so dear to anyone so much as to those who considered themselves to be his opponents.” At least some of Ned’s many critics surely would be so generous.

            In the Stanford lectures, while describing the “shame and honor society” of the Muscovite military elite, Ned drew analogies with the “structured and calculated rituals and humiliations” that are common to “certain religious orders, or the U.S. Marine Corps, or graduate training… exercises [which] had discipline as their justification, discipline as their goal, and discipline as their result.”  Religious orders or the Marines maybe, but in graduate training at Harvard this rather imperfectly describes the experience of those who worked with Ned Keenan. I like to think we were treated as colleagues in a common quest. His expectations were never a kind of ordeal, even if they may have resulted in discipline (of the mind). We surely learned that most valuable lesson from him (the words here a response he gave to a question at Stanford): “You don’t realize how little we know about everything.” The less acute of his critics would be wont to dismiss that as hyper-skepticism and, paradoxically, an invitation to play fast and loose with evidence. In fact, his insistence that we look so closely at the evidence tells us just the opposite. And the end goal was anything but destructive: rather it was to make sense of sources when they would be read anew in their proper context.

            My deep involvement in his Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha probably sets me apart from most others at a similar stage on their road to becoming academics and may explain why some of my colleagues seem to think I might be one of the best candidates to write about Ned. I read for exams with him, but never took a graduate seminar he offered and at most but audited his lectures which had yet to be shaped in their most inspiring form. I was gone from Harvard when he held his stimulating seminar on the Council of 1503. I say these things not to distance myself from Ned, but to caution those who might too glibly talk of a “Keenan school” of Early Russianists. He was not in the business of producing clones of himself.

Indeed, my connection with the book always had a certain distance. Yes, we exchanged an active correspondence (which I later published in his Festschrift), but since I was in Leningrad, I did not participate in the Harvard seminar where he challenged his graduate students with his bold thesis and some in turn challenged him.  Even though I was diligently examining manuscripts related to the book and eventually looked carefully at the textual arguments, the latter never became my preoccupation. (Would that later reviewers who so readily dismissed the book had taken up those textual arguments seriously!)  Later I deliberately chose not to be dragged into the endless round of critiques and summaries and responses about Apocrypha. Ned could not escape what he had started and eventually tired of it, but as one peripheral to the substance of the argument, I could escape and did. While I still believe he was right about the letters and the Kurbskii History, I was not comfortable at the time with some of the leaps of imagination that might have been more effectively documented (others of Ned’s admirers have noted as much about his style). It was difficult ever to come up with a source he had not already carefully considered, but he had a tendency to dismiss things without providing an adequate explanation. For someone who did not have the opportunity to work in the major manuscript collections, he always seemed to know more about them and problems of their study than most who have spent long hours in turning their pages. I am reassured that at least some others still working seriously to test his hypotheses are not finding them lacking. Alas, as we are reminded by contemporary discourse in our own society (think “climate change” just to name one subject), in the end, however rigorous the scholarship and presentation of compelling evidence, many will never abandon what are for them articles of faith or which serve their purposes. The recent popular biography of Ivan Grozny by V. V. Shaposhnik, even if ostensibly based on a careful review of the sources, is a perfect illustration, quoting as it does Kurbskii and Groznyi with gay abandon. For the author, Apocrypha seems to be an “inconvenient truth” that might never have been written.

In 2004 when in D. C., I visited Ned in the elegant residence he occupied as the Director at Dumbarton Oaks. The visit included a rather quick private tour of the Center’s collections (which were not at that hour open) and a memorable glimpse of the rather garish Art Nouveau exercise studio the former resident, Elizabeth Taylor, had installed in the basement of the house. Ned inscribed for me a presentation copy of his just-released book arguing that Josef Dobrovský was author of the Igor’ Tale. I began devouring it on the plane back to Seattle but then had to confess to him I was not convinced (which is not the same as saying he was wrong). Granted, unlike some of his serious critics who claimed that his discussion of Czechisms in the text was ill-informed, I was not in a position to evaluate that critical part of the argument. Frankly, I wish he had spent his time not on Dobrovský but on Muscovy.

One is tempted to draw comparisons between Ned and his somewhat older contemporary Aleksandr Zimin, both of whom embroiled themselves in seemingly Quixotic attempts to question accepted wisdom. No received opinion was sacrosanct, and all the sources required fresh interrogation, precepts which they passed on to their students. Although constrained by the demands of Marxist interpretive conformity, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich was nonetheless hugely prolific. For his heresy in taking on the establishment over Igor’ though, his fate was to be set upon and shunned, rather in the same way that Semën Shakhovskoi fell afoul of the authorities in 17th-century Muscovy.  Paradoxically, in the American context, the for some surprising response to Ned’s slender Apocrypha was promotion to full professor at Harvard, where, in contrast with many of his colleagues, his published output remained slender until the appearance of his Igor’ book decades later. As others have already noted though, many of Ned’s most significant contributions were in the administrative realm. So in important ways, the trajectories of these two scholars were very different. What they shared was a reputation as charismatic teachers who helped shape a whole generation and then, as in the metaphor of the falcon Ned used at Stanford, set it loose to hunt.  

            It is too early to speculate on what posterity will think about Ned or his Moscow counterpart, once those who have such vivid memories of their personae and provocative ideas are gone and, as seems to be inevitable, the field of Early Slavic Studies, at least in the West, continues to wither away with the passing of the now senior generation. To borrow Ned’s own words about Shakhovskoi, “Everything we say about him must still be considered quite tentative… [Yet] it is not too early to declare that he was really a remarkable figure.” 



I fondly remember Ned as one of the best teachers I ever had. His course on early Russian history was one of the best courses I took in college. Each lecture was devoted to one thesis or argument, and Ned always got at least three or four laughs for his witticisms, like "In all of Russian history, there were no guys like the Nogais." Ned was also my advisor for my senior honors dissertation, which was on the prelude to the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union. I recall the substantial time that he spent reviewing drafts of my paper and his many helpful suggestions as to how I could better shape my argument. As Daniel Waugh said, he was a remarkable figure.

Forwarded from Brian Boeck:

To his critics Ned Keenan was a second Kachenovskii or an American Quijote who tilted at Russian windmills. But to his friends and students he was an inspiring scholar, charismatic presence, and raconteur extraordinaire. He rejected received beliefs and reveled in awareness of anomalies. A wordsmith and master of metaphors and allusions, he made Muscovy both familiar and enticing. The boyars resembled the dons of Corleone, Bomelius “dabbled in potions and politics,” ankylosing spondylitis forced Ivan IV to “get by with a little help from his friends”… Ned’s ‘heresy’ constituted both an epistemological challenge to the field and an irreverent assault on several of its sacred groves. Even if decades of striking at the root yielded only a modest clearing, he wasted no time in describing and categorizing branchy cranberry trees.

Forwarded from Don Ostrowski

“I asked him for 50 cents and he gave me 10 dollars”

            A number of people have mentioned Ned’s generosity, and I can add to that a personal reminiscence. It happened this way. In the spring of 1974, I went to New York for an interview with IREX to do research in the Soviet Union. Although Ned was doing interviews for IREX, he had recused himself from my interview panel because I had been working with him on my research project. The interview went well, but I had miscalculated how expensive New York is to stay in. I was short 37 cents for a bus ticket home, so I rounded up that amount  and asked Ned if he could lend me 50 cents. He reached in his wallet and handed me 10 dollars. That allowed me not only to buy the bus ticket but also to get a bite to eat and to take the T to Cambridge when I returned to Boston rather than walk from the bus station.

            His generosity of spirit with his time and ideas was similar. In the fall of 1973 the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI) established a seminar on the Povest’ vremennykh let (PVL). Professors Keenan, Lunt, Pritsak, and Ševčenko and assorted graduate students and post-doctoral fellows met to discuss line-by-line Lunt’s translation of the PVL into English.  This seminar met weekly from 1973 through 1979.  It was marvelous being able to listen to the interplay of the four experts. Lunt shared his expertise in Slavic linguistics. Pritsak brought in his knowledge of Turkish language and culture and east European geography. Ševčenko contributed from his storehouse of  knowledge of Byzantine culture and Greek. And Ned threw in the odd bit of arcana, such as how strakes on wooden boats are connected.  His sense of humor was always at the ready. At one point, we were discussing a particularly difficult passage. Ševčenko announced, “The text is corrupt,” got up, and left the room. We all looked at each other in surprise. Keenan asked, “Is that what one does when the text is corrupt? Walk out?”  It turned out Ševčenko was merely going up to his office to retrieve a reference book that he hoped would help resolve the problem.

Although I did not say much in the seminar, I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Likhachev’s edition, from which Lunt was translating. In early 1977, I wrote up my preliminary findings in a memo and showed it to Ned who then brought it to the attention of the seminar.  Ševčenko was immediately dismissive. “No, it doesn’t work that way,” he declared. “Someone [namely me] doesn’t just sit here saying nothing and then all of a sudden comes up with an improvement on the text.” Ned persisted and argued, “It can’t do any harm to hear what Don has to say.” If Ned hadn’t said that, I doubt that I would have had a hearing and, as a result, there would not now be an interlinear collated edition of the PVL, which came out in 2003 under HURI auspices.

            In the introduction to the Festschrift for Ned that Andrei Pliguzov, Dan Rowland, Nancy Kollmann, and I edited, I discussed a number of other cases of his intellectual generosity and influence. He had me meet with him and his own Harvard graduate students weekly during the fall of 1973 when I was no more than an interloper from Penn State. He provided the key hypothesis that carried my dissertation and turned over his spring seminar that academic year to discuss issues related to my research. He advised me on my codicological work while I was in the Soviet Union. His lectures opened my mind and that of others to the possibilities of innovative study of Russian history. He taught about the sophistication of the steppe nomads and the “grammar” of Muscovite political culture. Over and over he questioned the conventional wisdom and provided an alternate view. And he did so much more. In that regard, I can also say that I asked him for 50 cents and he gave me 10 dollars.

Don Ostrowski

Forwarded from Konstantin Erusalimskiy:

Yesterday, Edward Lewis Keenan died. This is a great loss for Slavic studies scholars worldwide, and a tragic event for me personally. I have spent my entire intellectual life working on questions which constantly intersect with the problems raised by Keenan. I was far from the first, and will certainly not be the last, of those who must meditate on the 'Paradox of Edward Keenan'. Today I can repeat what I have expressed in my book, and many times in conversation: the discussion, initiated by Keenan concerning the Kurbskii-Groznyi Correspondence, is a famous and definitive one which has enlivened Slavic Studies. That thin volume by Ned Keenan and Dan Waugh is an outstanding memorial to that movement in Slavic Studies which brought together the history of the book, textology of manuscript traditions, codicology, and intellectual history. This book was an invitation to a fruitful discussion, which Keenan did not leave aside until his last years. Thanks to the kind help of my colleague Michael Krom, I was lucky enough to have a discussion with Professor Keenan in St Petersburg 3 years ago. That controversy continues even today. It is impossible for anyone embarking on a synthesising work on Muscovite Russia, or writing on publicisistics in Muscovy or the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, not to take part in that discussion. I think that even the best works published today by 'traditionalists' on this problem, take it as the basis for their synthesis, close to the Keenan-esque 'Synoptic view', especially books by Iu. D. Rykov, I. Auerbach, and V. V. Kalugin. I consider that they are deeply rooted in the problem of Keenan's 'Apocrypha' and their synthetic sections answer his call. In his final years, Keenan dedicated a vivid, and, in many aspects, convincing, book to the 'Igor Tale', demanding a massive effort from those who would defend the idea of its early origins, which efforts have also lead to convincing arguments. I hope that the ambitious call of the Igor Tale book does not cause Keenan's earlier work to fall into obscurity (such as, it seems to me, was the fate of A. A. Zimin's outstanding work 'I. S. Peresvetov and his Contemporaries', which was unfairly overshadowed by his unfortunate 'Igor Tale'). It is essential to value this work as an historiographical landmark for various historians' thoughts and approaches. It would not do to forget that Keenan was also responsible for a multitude of subtle articles and individual observations. He redated the 'Kazan History', advanced a medico-gender conception of the origins of the Oprichnina, formulated the concept of a 'Godunov Renaissance', raised a question regarding the reasons for the absence of the historical genre in 16th century Russia, revisited the question of literacy and the intelligentsia in the Time of Troubles, and opened a discussion on the necessity of an anthropological approach to the study of Muscovite Russia. His pupils are outstanding scholars. At one of the Ukrainian Studies seminars in Harvard, Keenan joked that all of its present participants were his pupils. Unfortunately, Keenan's work, like that of many others, is undervalued in Russia. Only one or two of his articles have been translated into Russian. I know that one such translation is by A. I. Pliguzov, whom Professor Keenan particularly respected. I myself undertook another translation, although I do not know if it ever appeared. There were plans for it to appear three years ago in a publication in Kazan, but I have heard no more about it since then. Keenan was meant to publish a book entitled 'Beyond the Barriers' in Russia, but he somehow managed to have engaged me and Koshelev in that business. I consider that the failure of this book to appear is our collective responsibility, mine and Koshelev's. It is possible that a more objective view of this situation would show that the responsibility is mine alone. The title of the book was thought up by Keenan himself, and I would like to note in conclusion, that it is a fantastic choice. It is particularly appropriate for a book that never made it to publication in Russia. At the risk of offending some of my American colleagues, Keenan spoke Russian far better than many of his contemporaries and pupils. Having spoken with him for 2 or 3 hours, you noticed that he was foreign only because of his somehow outdated dialect, not quite that of the Parisian émigré, and by perhaps 2 or 3 mistakes in stress. He was an amazing, mild-mannered, and warm individual. Photographs of him give a very particular portrait of the man. In eternal memory.


Abby Smith Rumsey writes:
It has been wonderful to hear so many voices recalling the mind and spirit of Ned Keenan. I look forward to reading the essays of Nancy Kollmann and others about his influence on the field of Muscovite studies and beyond. I write as a student of his—both undergraduate and graduate—who did not pursue an academic career but whose choices in life were nonetheless deeply influenced by him.

He was a great teacher. Contrary to myths about Harvard faculty, he was quite accessible to undergraduate students. As a major in History & Literature, I chose to do my honors thesis under his supervision. He suggested that I work on Peresvetov, which I did, despite the fact that I was linguistically incompetent and essentially in way over my head. This did not seem to bother him. And even though he had become Dean by then, he was just as accessible, though I had to go through his secretary, who was not keen to schedule an hour of Dean Time for a senior. I remember trekking up several flights of stairs in University Hall for our weekly meetings so he could help me struggle through difficult passages and search for the right context in which to understand the genre of petition writing. His scrupulous attention to language and form, which I deduced was influenced by Jakobson, et al., had a powerful impact on the way I came to read, see, and hear everything in daily life. It still does. And when the linguistic turn swept through the humanities in subsequent decades, it seemed a strangely pallid take on what I knew from Ned, one oddly neglectful of the people who wrote and read. For Ned, theory could be useful at times. But humans, with their incorrigible quirkiness and irrationality, were the very center of our work.

When I told him in 1978 that I wanted to pursue a graduate degree, he warned me that the kind of careers I saw all around at Harvard were already a thing of the past. He and his generation of men (and they were all men) had benefited from certain factors—here he listed the demographics that he knew by heart as Dean of the Graduate School. But I reassured him that I was not suited for the academy anyway. I had other ambitions in mind. I began my dissertation under Pipes on utopian communities in the late Imperial period but soon realized that even though that was the subject I was interested in, ultimately I would learn much more by continuing to work with Ned, no matter the topic. We found a late 17c topic that he agreed to supervise.

Ned’s joy as a scholar was in telling stories about people, not writing monographs—this despite the fact that his interpretation of Russian history was profoundly original and many of us would have loved for him to have written volumes of interpretation that would enter the mainstream of academic scholarship. He was more like Kliuchevskii, who poured his creative thinking into lectures. The two monographs he did write mined only one of his scholarly passions—for debunking. But those who did not know him might miss the fact that telling the truth as best he could was an ethical calling for him and, I suspect, his moral response to the tragic fate of the Russians.

It was my good fortune to work with Ned on several projects in the 1990s and 2000s. When I was working at the Library of Congress, we brought him on as a consultant and together we made trips to FSU archives and libraries to set up some microfilming projects and offer general aid. I worked with him again when I was at a research council in DC. Ned assumed leadership of Dumbarton Oaks. He set about rebuilding the library and expanding the real estate footprint. (Yes, I got the tour of Liz Taylor and John Warren’s house, which had previously belonged to Connie Mellon. Though people call Ned a raconteur, I prefer to think of him as a gossip-monger of the highest caliber.) There he dedicated himself to a key scholarly responsibility, one so many scholars avoid or are simply blind to: securing the preservation and accessibility of sources. (Hugh Olmsted describes this well.) He relished his title as Librarian of Dumbarton Oaks. What he gave me as teacher and later colleague was a reverence for truth-telling, a healthy respect for the price one pays for telling truth to power, and a living example of why the search for truth is at the core of the humanities and of our own humanity. His spirit still lives.