Early last week, I attended a memorial service for my colleague, Harold Berman. As others have noted, including here and here, Professor Berman was a preeminent scholar of legal history, comparative law, Soviet and Russian law, jurisprudence, and law and religion. As Guido Calabresi had occasion to say of him: “Berman’s work, and especially his Law and Revolution, will endure when almost everything is forgotten. He is the only American who might be paired with Max Weber in the depth of his historical and comparative understanding of the remarkable character of legal modernity – as well as in his appreciation of the inherent fragility and distinctive value of Western legalism.”
A member of the Harvard Law School faculty from 1948 to 1985, Professor Berman came to Emory in the face of mandatory retirement, and his desire to continue to teach and write. We were truly lucky to have him. Until near the very end (at the age of 89), he traveled widely, was in the office six days a week, taught a full load of courses, and was an active participant in the life of the community. He was also an incredibly engaged and supportive colleague, including particularly with regard to his most junior colleagues. “This is your law school now,” he once said, speaking of the junior faculty. “If you don’t agree with a decision, we shouldn’t even consider it!”
At the very moving memorial for Professor Berman last week, two things particularly struck me. The first was a colleague’s reference to him as living on in his memory, as “a metaphor” for the values of intellectual curiosity, analytical rigor, and open mind that he hoped he himself would always exhibit as a scholar. We all, I thought, might do well do have such a metaphor in our lives – perhaps both professional and personal – against which to take measure of our choices and commitments, as well as our successes and failures.
Reflecting on the warm recollections and tributes of Professor Berman’s family, colleagues, and friends, I somehow also kept recalling the simple notion of “A life well lived.” We should all, I thought, hope to die to such warmth, affection, and appreciation from our families and our co-workers alike. Many might manage one or the other. But to secure such praise from both struck me as quite an achievement.
Later in the week, George Benston, a professor of finance and accounting and member of the Emory University faculty for over twenty years, passed away. Benston was widely cited in the legal literature, for his work on mandatory disclosure and banking regulation, among other subjects, but was highlighted for his contributions far more rarely. By contrast with some of the other scholars who shaped the discipline of law and economics, Benston was a mild, unassuming, and down-to-earth guy. Perhaps for that reason, he may not have received the amount of credit he rightfully deserved.
I will also always remember his joyful description of the fact that he and his wife, Alice, in many decades of marriage, had always made a point to sit down together at the end of the day, to discuss what they had done over the course of the day, their successes, their worries, and the like. Even when separated, he noted, they would strive to do so by phone. Beyond his studies of disclosure and banking, I wonder whether the modern institution of marriage might not do well to learn a thing or two from his example.