Harold F. Cherniss

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Harold Cherniss
Cherniss Harold F.jpg
Harold Cherniss in 1941-2
Born Harold Frederik Cherniss
(1904-03-11)11 March 1904
St. Joseph, Missouri
Died 18 June 1987(1987-06-18) (aged 81)
Princeton, New Jersey
Nationality American
Occupation classicist, historian of ancient philosophy

Harold Fredrik Cherniss (March 11, 1904 – June 18, 1987) was an American classicist and historian of ancient philosophy. While at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he was said to be 'the country's foremost expert on Plato and Aristotle.'[1]

According to Tarán, Cherniss's 'greatest contribution to scholarship is doubtless his two books on Aristotle, supplemented by The Riddle of the Early Academy ... his published works on Plato, Aristotle, and the Academy are among the very few publications that revolutionized the field... His significance was recognized all over the world not only by classicists and philosophers but by the learned societies of which he was a member and the various universities that awarded him honorary degrees.'[2]

Cherniss’s 'brilliant'[3] scholarship continues to shape the study of ancient Greek philosophy in several significant ways (see Legacy below):

  • Cherniss along with his teacher Shorey is remembered as a champion of Platonic unitarianism, the contention that Plato’s dialogues present a single, consistent and unchanging philosophical system.
  • Cherniss raised the rigor of studies of Pre-Socratic philosophy by showing that Aristotle’s extensive reports were often unreliable and distorted by his own polemical aims.
  • Cherniss attacked Aristotle’s claims that Plato had ‘unwritten doctrines’ and developed an esoteric, mathematical ontology. Cherniss was cited repeatedly in Vlastos’s later rejection of the so-called Tübingen School. The skepticism of Cherniss and Vlastos remains dominant among English-speaking scholars, and contributed to the continuing split with much European Plato scholarship.
  • Cherniss mocked other scholars’ fanciful and aggrandizing reconstructions of the supposed lectures and the curriculum within Plato’s Academy, and created an enduring restraint in scholarly images of the early Academy.

Before and after World War II, various circumstances intertwined the careers of Cherniss and his friend Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project that developed the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer was later suspected of being a Soviet spy and lost his security clearance in the ensuing national scandal. Cherniss played a key role in helping Oppenheimer keep his job as director of the Institute for Advanced Study.


Missouri to Berkeley

File:Cherniss Furniture Store.jpg
A relative of Harold Cherniss, Louis Cherniss, had a furniture store at 515 Main St., Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska.[4]

Harold Cherniss's great-grandfather was Julius Cherniss and came to Omaha, Nebraska in 1882 with 160 Jewish immigrants from Vinnytsia in Ukraine, which was then part of the Russian empire (annexed in 1653).[5] The first pogrom in Russia had occurred in Ukraine the preceding year, at the end of April 1881, and spread through the provinces of Ukraine. The Russian government then adopted a systematic policy of excluding Jews from their economic and public roles, and this provoked a mass emigration of Jewish refugees from Russia to the United States and other countries.[6] There came to be a large, Jewish community in Omaha. Harold Cherniss's father was born in Vinnytsia on May 19, 1872 and settled a hundred miles down the Missouri River from Omaha in St. Joseph Missouri.[7] Later, during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in the early 1940's more than a million Ukrainian Jews perished in the Holocaust, including tens of thousands in Vinnytsia.[8]

Harold Cherniss was born in St. Joseph, Missouri to David B. and Theresa C. Cherniss, and studied at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received an A.B. in 1925.[9] In the summer of 1926, he took a class from Paul Shorey at the University of Chicago.[10]

A Crucial Year in Germany

The University of Berlin

In 1927 to 1928, Cherniss studied with some of the leading classicists in Germany: in Göttingen with Hermann Fränkel and in Berlin with Werner Jaeger and Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. Cherniss thus arrived in the middle of a period (1924–1929) known in Germany as the Golden Era (German: Goldene Zwanziger) of the left-leaning Weimar Republic during which the economy was growing and a there was a consequent decrease in civil unrest.[11] These were relatively uneventful years between the hyperinflation of 1921-24 and the Nazi Seizure of power in 1933. The 1920s saw a remarkable cultural renaissance in Germany.[12] Influenced by the brief cultural explosion in the Soviet Union, German literature, cinema, theater and musical works entered a phase of great creativity. The cabaret scene and jazz band became very popular. Art and a new type of architecture taught at "Bauhaus" schools reflected the new ideas of the time. These were also revolutionary times in classical studies and philosophy. Jaeger had published his famous work Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development in 1923.[13] Martin Heidegger published Being and Time in 1927.

Cherniss also witnessed the rising political tensions that were to destroy the Weimar Republic and bring the Nazi’s to power. In January 1927, nationalist parties were brought into the governing coalition in order to moderate political tensions.[14] However, the rising right-wing agitation and anti-semitism were highly visible:

… the host of Nationalist and anti-semitic (volkishe) groups emerged in the wake of war and revolution… throughout the 1920’s these societies waged a ‘broad cultural war’ against the ‘socialist and Republican left’ through mass demonstrations and political agitation.[15]

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Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff

While Cherniss was studying in Germany, a crucial election campaign splintered the moderate and centrist forces. In 1927, the governing coalition that included the right-wing and anti-semitic German National People's Party, a precursor to Hitler’s National Socialist Party, broke apart and precipitated a new election that the left-wing, democratic parties appeared to win.[16] Although the implications were not all apparent during Cherniss’s time in Germany, the election he witnessed proved to be a key turning point that fatally weakened the moderate and democratic forces in Germany and paved the way for rise of Nazism a few years later.[17]

A visitor to Princeton many years later reported that:

… we somehow got around to taking about Wilamowitz … [Cherniss] said that Wilamowitz would pepper his lectures with remarks about the political situation in Germany and that his students would applaud by loudly stamping their feet on the floor. The remarks were of such a nature that they caused Cherniss to develop an intense dislike for the man. I don’t recall how he characterized the remarks, but Solmsen’s description of the antidemocratic, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic Prussian lens through which Wilamowitz viewed Weimar Germany would explain Cherniss’s antipathy.[18]

Pre-War Teaching

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The University of California at Berkeley is marked by Sather Tower (1914) in the foreground. The bridge leads across the bay to San Francisco.

Cherniss received his doctorate from Berkeley in Greek, Latin and Sanskrit in 1930.[19] He then taught Greek at Cornell University from 1930-3, followed by a ten-year stint at Johns Hopkins University and a return to the University of California before the war. A colleague at Berkeley remarked 'He is a Platonist both as scholar and as thinker ...'[20] He married Ruth Meyer, who had been a fellow student at Berkeley.[21] Cherniss was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1941-2.[22]

Service with British Military Intelligence in Europe

Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. In September 1941, groups of Nazi commandos tasked with eliminating the Jewish population of Ukraine massacred some 50,000 people in Vinnytsia, where Cherniss's family originated. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

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An iconic photo from September 1941 of Nazi atrocities in Vinnytsia, Ukraine. The words ‘The Last Jew of Vinnytsia’ were written on the back of the photograph, which was found in a photo album belonging to a German soldier.[23]

In April 1942, Cherniss gave the Sather Lectures at Berkeley and soon afterwards volunteered for military service. He entered the United States Army as a private and was abroad by November 1942,[24] where he worked in military intelligence. He was assigned to a British intelligence unit in England, France and Belgium, and rose to the rank of captain in three years.[25] According to George Watt, Cherniss was working in Belgium immediately after the war and sought information from Aline Dumon (nicknamed ‘Michou’), who won medals for her clandestine work in the so-called Comet Line resistance network in Belgium. Cherniss was seeking a young man who had betrayed scores in the Belgian and French undergrounds to the German occupation. In a 1985 interview, she remembered:

After the war, … Lt. Harold Cherniss, the American intelligence officer, telephoned me and said ‘Michou, you must come quickly.’ I went to Harold’s office and he showed me twelve little pictures of identity cards and asked ‘Do you know that boy?’ I said ‘Yes, [that’s him] …’ He said, ‘Michou, this is very important. Please look carefully.’ I said ‘No problem… [that’s] the same boy.’ He laughed. I said ‘What happened, Harold?’ ‘That boy is working for the Americans in Nuremburg.’ But not for long… [The boy] was tried and executed at Lille in 1945.[26]

Cold War Hysteria at Berkeley

Oppeneheimer and General Groves examine the site of the first test of an atomic bomb in New Mexico in 1945.

In 1946, Cherniss accepted an offer to return to Berkeley as a Professor of Greek, but 'his tenure there was cut short by the controversy which arose from the California Legislature's demand that state employees swear loyalty oaths.'[27] In the rising Cold War hysteria stoked by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, fears grew that communists were infiltrating American universities. The University of California soon began requiring its faculty to sign an anti-communist loyalty oath.[28] According to Edward Strong, 'The imposition by the Regents of a special oath -- which was to be signed as a condition of employment by a member of the faculty or any employee of the University of California -- was perceived by the faculty as being inimical to academic freedom. I quote, "Academic freedom does not exist where the right to tenure is not inviolate".' After 27 members of the faculty of the University of California refused to sign a loyalty oath effectively denying they were members of the Communist Party, they were prevented from teaching or drawing a salary until a court case decided their fate. Cherniss organized a public letter from the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in support of academic freedom that was distributed to the faculty at Berkeley and published:[29]

Being aware that the regents have dismissed members of your faculty contrary to the recommendation of your committee on privilege and tenure, and that this action violates the policy of tenure and the principle of the faculty’s self-determination and responsibility hitherto recognized by the University of California, we unanimously with to encourage you to unite in defense of your traditional policies and principles against encroachment.

The letter was signed by Oppenheimer, Cherniss, Einstein, Panofsky, and others. Similar letters were sent by the faculty of Princeton University and other universities.[30] The well-known German-Jewish medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz (1895 -- 1963) left Germany in 1939 after the Nazi government required civil servants to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler and became a professor at Berkeley. 'With Germany's experience before his eyes,' he refused to sign Berkeley's loyalty oath and was among those dismissed. Later, in 1951, Cherniss suggested he apply to the Institute for Advanced Study and he secured a permanent position there.[31]

Institute for Advanced Study and Robert Oppenheimer

The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

In 1948 Cherniss resigned from Berkeley and was appointed as a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Anti-semitism was still widespread at this time in America and even in American universities like Princeton, but the Institute 'employed scholars with absolutely no regard to religious persuasion or ethnicity.'[32] Cherniss was appointed by his old friend Robert Oppenheimer who is sometimes known as the ‘father of the atomic bomb.’

Cherniss first met Oppenheimer at Berkeley in 1929 (Cherniss had just married Ruth Meyer who had been in high school with Oppenheimer at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City).[33] After the war, there was a national scandal over suspicions that Oppenheimer was secretly a communist sympathizer. Cherniss recalled in a later interview there was some pre-war evidence of Oppenheimer’s interest in Marxism but made light of it:

In fact, [Oppenheimer’s] exposure to Marx occurred several years earlier, probably in the Spring of 1932. His friend Harold Cherniss remembered Oppie visiting him in Ithaca, New York, that Spring and boasting that he had read Das Kapital. Cherniss just laughed; he didn’t think of Oppie as political but he knew his friend read widely: ‘I suppose somewhere someone said to him ‘’You don’t know about this? You haven’t seen it?’’ So he got this wretched book and read it![34]

Einstein and Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study circa 1950

In July, 1945, when the world’s first atomic bomb was exploded in the Trinity Test, Oppenheimer was famously supposed to have quoted a saying from the Bhagavad-Gita: ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ Oppenheimer had studied Sanskrit at Berkeley and it was Cherniss who introduced Oppenheimer to his Sanskrit teacher.[35] In 1945, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki when Oppenheimer had become one of the world’s most famous scientists, Cherniss saw him at Berkeley. [36]

In 1947, Oppenheimer accepted an offer to take up the directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study. Cherniss was the first member of faculty Oppenheimer appointed to the Institute.[37]

Cherniss and the Oppenheimer Affair

Oppenheimer was disgraced in a controversial four-week hearing in 1954.

Despite his fame, Oppenheimer had made many enemies who suspected he was a communist sympathizer or even a spy. These included Lewis Strauss who was both a commissioner on the new Atomic Energy Commission, which had control of the plants and personnel assembled during the war to produce the atomic bomb, and chairman of the board of trustees of the Institute of Advanced Study. Oppenheimer was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949. Strauss and others pushed President Eisenhower to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance. A hearing followed in April–May 1954 and Oppenheimer lost his security clearance. This national scandal permanently affected relations between American scientists and the military. Historians with access to the American and Russian evidence have since concluded Oppenheimer was never involved in espionage for the Soviet Union and did not betray the United States, though in the late 1930s he had been a supporter of the Communist Party.[38]

After Oppenheimer’s downfall, Cherniss was instrumental in preventing his dismissal from the Institute. Lewis Strauss sought to have Oppenheimer fired:

In July, Strauss told the FBI that he believed eight of the Institute’s thirteen trustees were ready to dismiss Oppenheimer – but he decided to postpone a vote on the matter until Autumn so that it would not appear that Strauss as chairman was acting out of personal vindictiveness. This proved to be a miscalculation, because the delay gave members of the faculty time to organize an open letter in support of Oppenheimer… Strauss was forced to back off, and later that autumn the trustees voted to keep Oppie as director.[39]

According to Bird and Sherwin, ‘Oppenheimer’s old friend Harold Cherniss took a lead in organizing the effort. After talking with a few trustees, Cherniss had realized that Oppenheimer’s job was in doubt.’[40]

Cherniss and other faculty members of the Institute for Advanced Study published an open letter affirming his loyalty on Thursday July 1st, 1954 in both The New York Times and The Herald Tribune[41] and in the September Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

We, who have known [Dr. Oppenheimer] as a colleague, as director of our own institute, and as a neighbor in a small and intimate community, had from the first complete confidence in his loyalty to the United States, his discretion in guarding its secrets, and his deep concern for its safety, strength, and welfare. Our confidence in his loyalty and patriotic devotion remains unimpaired as our admiration for his magnificent public service is undiminished.[42]

The letter was signed by H. F. Cherniss, A. Einstein, F. J. Dyson, K. Gödel, E. Panofsky, J. von Neumann, Herman Weyl, Chen Ning Yang, and others. Cherniss's close friend and colleague, the art historian Erwin Panofsky, 'considered the case a symbolic and sorry indictment of American society. In Panofsky’s eyes Oppenheimer had been attacked for assuming the responsibility and for having the courage to proffer an independent voice of reason in response to the mindless conformism of the day. Though never formally prosecuted for any wrongdoing, this once-celebrated scientist was widely discredited in the public sphere for his ‘humanistic’ viewpoint. For Panofsky the case spoke volumes in regards to the anti-intellectualism and the narrowness of the national-political consensus in America at the time.'[43]

Controversy over John von Neumann’s Computers

Von Neumann's 'IAS machine,' now at the National Museum of American History

John von Neumann and others developed the architecture of modern computers (the concept of a ‘stored program computer’) while working at the Manhattan Project. After the war, his team built some of the very first computers at the Institute for Advanced Study. This was controversial and Cherniss later recounted that he was one of the humanists who opposed von Neumann's project: ‘In hindsight, there were certainly very good reasons for building the machine. I was nonetheless against it. The computer had nothing to do with the purpose for which the Institute was founded. The computer was a practical undertaking but the Institute was not conceived of as a place for anything practical.’ [44]

After von Neumann’s death in 1957, the faculty organized a committee to terminate the project. All the permanent faculty met in Oppenheimer’s living room. As Cherniss explained, ‘This was back when we used to do things right. Everything was informal.’[45] After the final decision was made, Cherniss elaborated ‘But we passed a more general motion. It was a declaration to have no experimental science, no laboratories of any kind at the Institute.'[46] In his history, Regis remarked ‘And so it has been ever since. The Platonic-heavenly fathers [i.e., advocates of the Institute’s abstract and theoretical approach] had triumphed.’ Another faculty member, a young physicist named Freeman Dyson, said simply ‘The snobs took revenge.’[47]

Later Years

The literary theorist George Steiner recalled an anecdote about his visit to the Institute for Advanced Study that gives insight into Cherniss’s years there:

So I went to lunch with [the diplomat] George Kennan and Erwin Panofsky and the great Plato scholar Harold Cherniss. Afterwards Cherniss invited me to his beautiful office and, as we started chatting, Oppenheimer came into the room and sat on the table behind us. This is one of the most cruel, brilliant tricks: it makes you master of the situation, and the people who can't see you as you speak to them are completely helpless. Oppenheimer's mastery of these histrionic moves was incredible. Cherniss was showing me how he was editing a passage of Plato with a lacuna, and trying to fill it. When Oppenheimer asked me what I would do with such a passage, I began stumbling, and he said, “Well that's very stupid. A great text should have blanks.” There I happily lost my temper: “Of all the pompous clichés,” I said. “First of all, that's a quote from Mallarmé, as you, sir, must know. Secondly, it's the kind of paradox you could play with till the cows come home. But when you're asked to do an edition of a Plato text for us ordinary human beings, I am most grateful if the blanks are filled.” Oppenheimer fought back superbly. He said, “No, precisely in philosophy you should know more than in poetry. It is the implicit missing that stimulates the argument.”[48]

Cherniss discussed Renaissance philosophy with the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, a friend of the art historian Erwin Panofsky, at the Institute for Advanced Study.[49]

Cherniss spoke at a memorial service for Erwin Panofsky, a colleague at the Institute for Advanced Study, and said the ‘strong but subtle joys of private friendship that he afforded are too sensitive to endure expression …’[50]

David Keyt spent a year at the Institute in 1983-4, when Cherniss was nearly eighty years old, and recalled that:

Harold Cherniss was a professor emeritus at the Institute when I arrived, though he still had an office and came to it every day. (What is retirement like at a research institution? Cherniss remarked once that all it amounted to was having one’s pay cut in half.) He spent most of his time maintaining his elaborate bibliography of Plato, carefully entering the information on each new book and article on an index card. He was still sharp and I was pleased to be able to discuss Plato with him … [51]

Cherniss served at the Institute for Advanced Study until his death in 1987. According to a notice in the local paper, he died 'after a long illness' in the Princeton Medical Center and '... was preparing the second volume [of Aristotle's Criticism of Plato and the Academy] when illness overtook him.'[52] In a memoir, Taran said 'this country has lost one of its greatest Hellenists and the history of ancient Greek philosophy one of its foremost scholars in the last two centuries.'[53]

Family and Friends

Harold Cherniss married Ruth Meyer Cherniss in 1929. Her father was Max Meyer (March 29, 1876 – January 31, 1953). In 1944, together with M. C. Ritter, he founded the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.[54] He was born in Wissembourg, Bas-Rhin, Alsace, France and became a prominent lawyer, clothing manufacturer, and labor leader in New York City.[55] In 1931, he was named by the then Governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to a commission to study workers' compensation. In 1937, he became Chairman of the Millinery Stabilization Commission. In 1951, he became Chairman of the Board of Trustees and in 1952 President of the Fashion Institute of Technology.[56] Ruth Cherniss’s mother was Eugenia Grace Meyer (Goodkuid), who was born in New York on June 1, 1878.

Ruth Cherniss had been a childhood friend and schoolmate of Robert Oppenheimer at the Ethical Cultural School in New York City.[57] She was a student at Berkeley with Cherniss and received her A.B. in 1926. Cornell University awarded her a doctorate in 1933-4.[58] Thus she was finishing her doctorate while Harold Cherniss was an instructor at Cornell. In 1939, Ruth Cherniss published an article entitled ‘The Ancients as Authority in Seventeenth-Century France,’ in The Greek Tradition, edited by G. Boas.[59] In 1980, she wrote a book about her father, Max Meyer.[60] Ruth Cherniss was a friend of Oppenheimer's wife Kitty.[61] In 1956, Ruth Cherniss was president of the Princeton chapter of the League of Women Voters.[62] Harold and Ruth Cherniss resided at 98 Battle Road near the Institute for Advanced Study.[63] Ruth Cherniss died on April 11, 2000.[64]

Harold Cherniss's father, David Benedict Cherniss was born on May 19, 1872 in Vinnytsia, and died on December 19, 1936 in Los Angeles. His first wife was Millie B. Cherniss. Harold Cherniss's mother Theresa Cherniss (nee Hart) was born on August 19, 1878, in Iowa. Harold Cherniss's grandfather Benjamin Cherniss and grandmother Bosheva Cherniss were born in Vinnytsia circa 1845.[65] Harold Cherniss had a brother named Edward Hart Cherniss (1909 -- 1993).

Cherniss’s assistant at the Institute was Gwendolyn Groves Robinson.[66] She was the daughter of General Leslie Groves, who served as the military supervisor of the Manhattan Project.[67]


Advocate of Platonic Unitarianism

Professor Paul Shorey (here, circa 1909) taught Cherniss that Plato's philosophy remained consistent through all the dialogues.

In Plato studies, ‘unitarianism’ is the view that Plato’s dialogues contain a unified and systematic philosophy. It is opposed, for example, to ‘developmentalism’ that holds Plato’s doctrines evolved through the decades in which he wrote the dialogues. Cherniss studied at Berkeley with Roger Jones. According to Fontenrose,

Jones had been a ... graduate student at Chicago and had taken his doctorate under Paul Shorey. He was perhaps Shorey’s most able and promising student in Greek philosophy, especially in Platonism. Jones readily adopted Shorey’s views of Plato’s teachings, stressing the unity of Plato’s thought from the Apology and Crito down to the Laws, and opposing the Burnet-Taylor school, which saw a significant change in Plato’s thought after the Republic ... Jones passed Shorey’s doctrine on to Harold Cherniss, his most brilliant student.[68]

Cherniss was thus said to be 'the heir and apologist of Shorey's interpretation of the unity of Plato's thought.'[69] Cherniss continues to be regarded as an influential advocate of unitarianism: ‘One of the most important versions of unitarianism is represented by the likes of Paul Shorey, Harold Cherniss, and their disciples.’[70]

Aristotle's Criticism of his Predecessors (1935)

Cherniss's landmark monograph 'revolutionized the study of Presocratic philosophy'[71] and permanently altered studies of the earliest beginnings of European thought. Aristotle's treatises contain more quotations from and reports about Pre-Socratic philosophy than any other early source. After him, historians must rely on commentators and Neo-Platonists who come half a millennium later. Until Cherniss, therefore, Aristotle was thought our best and most reliable guide to Pre-Socratic philosophy because he was so early. Cherniss demonstrated 'in detail how much of the conceptual apparatus often attributed to Presocratic thinkers in fact represents Aristotle's own reformulation of their theories in terms of his own philosophy.'[72] This created skepticism about Aristotle’s reports and forced later historians to be more selective and to justify their use of them deliberately and rigorously. Writing in the 2008 Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy, Patricia Curd and Daniel W. Graham said that Cherniss

… found multiple sources of error in Aristotle’s treatments of the Presocratics… Since Cherniss’s book was published, scholars have been cautious of Aristotelian interpretations of the Presocratics; they cannot be used as uncritical data for reconstructing Presocratic theory. There have been some attempts to rehabilitate Aristotle… Overall, however, Cherniss showed that modern reconstructions of the Presocratics could improve on and correct ancient ones.[73]

'The Philosophical Economy of the Theory of Ideas' (1936)

This well-known article was first published in The American Journal of Philology[74] and gives a positive overview of Plato's system. It was reprinted in Vlastos’ 1971 anthology Plato I: Metaphysics and Epistemology[75] and Allen's 1982 anthology Studies in Plato's Metaphysics.[76] Here Cherniss argues that Plato’s Theory of Forms at once served as the foundation of Plato’s ethics, epistemology, and ontology, and resolved skeptical problems in all three areas:

The phenomena for which Plato had to account were of three kinds, ethical, epistemological, and ontological. In each of these spheres there had been developed by the end of the fifth century doctrines so extremely paradoxical that there seemed to be no possibility of reconciling them with one another or any one of them with the observable facts of human experience. The dialogues of Plato, I believe, will furnish evidence to show that he considered it necessary to find a single hypothesis which would at once solve the problems of these several spheres and also create a rationally unified cosmos by establishing the connection among the separate phases of experience.[77]

After establishing that the Theory of Forms was the common root of Plato’s system, Cherniss argued in the second place that, by a principle of ‘economy,’ the effectiveness of the theory in three disparate areas justified Plato’s assertion of the existence of the Forms. Just as in Greek astronomy, Plato was right to adopt an hypothesis that ‘saved the phenomena’:

The apparently disparate phenomena of these three orders, like the seemingly anomalous paths of the planets, had to be accounted for by a single, simple hypothesis which would not only make intelligible the appearances taken separately but at the same time establish the interconnection of them all. [78]

The notion that Plato sought astronomical theories that 'saved the phenomena' had been given prominence in an influential 1908 book by Pierre Duhem, To Save the Phenomena, an Essay on the Idea of Physical Theory from Plato to Galileo.[79]

Aristotle's Criticism of Plato and the Academy (1944)

This monumental, massive, and dense (600 pp.) tome aims to be a comprehensive assessment of whether or not Aristotle generally understood Plato’s doctrines and whether or not Aristotle’s much debated reports of Plato’s mathematical ontology are credible. Cherniss treats the following topics in turn: diaeresis, matter, the origin and nature of the Platonic Forms, the arguments for the Forms, the relation of Plato’s Forms and Substances, and the relation of Forms and Particulars. In each case, Cherniss finds that Aristotle has rather grossly and willfully misunderstood Plato. The chapter on diaeresis, for example, concludes:

From the passages thus far considered there emerge certain general tendencies of Aristotle’s critical method … Essential distinctions among various Academic theories are likely to be disregarded, and a criticism pertinent to one form of a given doctrine may be applied to all of its variations … and, finally, a doctrine may be attacked in a form which is the result of Aristotle’s own interpretation and formulation … [80]

Cherniss’s pre-war preface announces this as the first as two volumes, but after the war he never published the sequel on Plato’s supposed mathematical ontology. Cherniss’s views on this question, however, are summarized in The Riddle of the Early Academy.

The Riddle of the Early Academy (1945)

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Harold Cherniss, Riddle of the Early Academy

The vigorous polemic contained in this small volume (109 pp.) significantly shaped later Plato scholarship and began the process that split much of English-language and Continental Plato research into two communities.[81] The unitarianism of Shorey and Cherniss holds that Plato’s dialogues are both a consistent and complete exposition of Plato’s system. Cherniss saw both contentions under attack by the “higher critics” of Plato scholarship in his day. Burnet, Taylor, and others argued for radical changes in Plato’s theories and an esoteric mathematical ontology taught orally in the Academy. According to Cherniss:

… although few if any of the "higher critics" of Platonism accept the Burnet-Taylor hypothesis, all of them adopt explanations which differ from that hypothesis only in degree… accepting Aristotle's testimony concerning the idea-numbers, they find themselves constrained to assert that the theory of ideas underwent at Plato's hands a radical alteration or a radical development and that this new form of the theory … was never committed to writing by Plato and can be recovered only from the reports of Aristotle … [82]

The first of Cherniss’ three Sather Lectures defended the completeness of the dialogues as an account of Plato's philosophy by attacking the external evidence for Plato's 'Lecture on the Good' and his supposed 'unwritten doctrines':

The riddle of the early Academy is epitomized in the discrepancy between Aristotle's account of Plato's theory of ideas and that theory as we know it from Plato's writings. To explain that discrepancy, scholars have constructed the hypothesis of an oral Platonic doctrine. I have tried to show that that hypothesis is unsatisfactory not only because the evidence for Plato's one attested lecture fails to support it, but also because the inconsistency in Aristotle's testimony itself appears to contradict it… [83]

In Lecture II, Cherniss defended the consistency of the dialogues by arguing that Plato's supposed late development of a mathematical ontology is a misinterpretation imposed by Aristotle on material found in the dialogues: '… the theory of of idea-numbers which Aristotle ascribes to Plato is just Aristotle's own interpretation of the necessary consequences [he finds] implied in the doctrine of the Platonic dialogues …' [84] Thus there is no reason, for example, to see a critique of an 'early' Theory of Forms in the dialogues that was remedied by a later mathematical theory.

Lecture III was a broad attack on the notion of oral teaching in the Academy:

… the inconsistency of Aristotle's own testimony and the discordant opinions of the different members of the Academy show definitely that Plato did not himself 'teach' his pupils or associates a doctrine of mathematical objects at all and did not even resolve their disagreement about the meaning of what he had written on the subject by laying down an authoritative interpretation… All the evidence points unmistakably to the same conclusion: the Academy was not a school in which an orthodox metaphysical doctrine was taught, or an association the members of which were expected to subscribe to the theory of ideas.[85]

In the course of his lectures, Cherniss also mocked scholars’ aggrandizing myths about the nature of Plato’s Academy:

… in most of the authoritative treatments of Plato, after a scholarly reference to [Plato’s single attested public] lecture on the Good, the singular becomes an unexplained plural within the paragraph, the lecture a whole series of lectures, and before the section has been finished we are being told that Plato gave "regular lectures," "systematic and continuous expositions in lecture form on some of the most important points in his doctrine."' This "expansion" of the evidence -- if I may use the term -- has been embellished by the different expositors with different details, a comparison of which would afford a certain cynical amusement to the historian of critical scholarship.[86]

Cherniss concluded: ‘The external evidence for the nature of the Academy in Plato's time is extremely slight …’[87]

The consequences of Cherniss’s polemic for later Plato scholarship are discussed below.

Controversial Legacy

In a 2014 article entitled ‘Harold Cherniss and the Study of Plato Today,’ the leading Plato scholar Lloyd Gerson argued that the approaches to Plato shaped by the work of Cherniss and Vlastos have come to dominate contemporary Plato scholarship in the English-speaking world and (wrongly, he argues) led to the dismissal of the Tübingen approach that dominates in continental Europe:

While acknowledging the highest level of scholarship in Cherniss’s book Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato and the Academy, I think the influence of this book has been largely baleful. Vlastos’s review in Gnomon inadvertently made matters worse … The divergence in the work of much European and North American Plato scholarship since 1950 can be traced, I believe, to the respect paid or not paid to Aristotle’s testimony about Plato’s philosophy.[88]

Other Works

Cherniss's edition of some of Plutarch's works, Stoic and Platonic Works (1967), won the Charles J. Goodwin award from the American Philological Society.[89]


Cherniss was a fellow of the British Academy, of the Royal Academy of Arts and Science of Goteborg, of the Academie Royale Flamande de Scis., of the Lettres et Beaux Arts de Blegique.[90]



  • The Platonism of Gregory of Nyssa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1930).
  • Aristotle's Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935; reprint: New York: Octagon Books, 1964).
  • Aristotle's Criticism of Plato and the Academy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1944).
  • The Riddle of the Early Academy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1945).
  • Selected Papers (Leiden: Brill, 1977).


  • "The Philosophical Economy of the Theory of Ideas", American Journal of Philology 57 (1936): 445–456.
  • "Plato as Mathematician", Review of Metaphysics, 4 (1951): 395-425.
  • "The Characteristics and Effects of Presocratic Philosophy", Journal of the History of Ideas 12 (1951): 319-345.


  • Plutarch's Moralia, Vol. 12. (with W. C. Helmbold) (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957).
  • Plutarch's Moralia, Vol. 13 Part 2. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976).


  1. Linda G. Arntzenius, 'Institute for Advanced Study' (Images of America Series) (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2011), p. 81.
  2. Taran, Collected Papers, p. 672.
  3. Fontenrose, Joseph E, 'Classics at Berkeley: The First Century 1869-1970,' 1982, online, accessed January 10, 2016, at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/5066c75h.
  4. Newsletter of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society (NJHS), vol. XI, n. 2, November 1993, p. 5. Online, accessed on January 5 2016, at www.nebraskajhs.com.
  5. Newsletter of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society (NJHS), vol. XI, n. 2, November 1993, p. 5. Online, accessed on January 5 2016, at www.nebraskajhs.com.
  6. Jewish Virtual Library, online, accessed on January 6, 2016, at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/pogroms.html.
  7. Online, accessed January 9, 2016, at http://www.geni.com/people/Edward-Cherniss/6000000031944231425.
  8. See, for an example of an eyewitness account, http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/einsatz/bingel.html. Accessed January 6, 2016.
  9. Paul A. Vander Waerdt, in Ward W. Briggs, ed., Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists (American Philological Association), p. 94. There are some notes about Cherniss's early studies and the undergraduate curriculum followed at Berkeley in the Twenties in Fontenrose, Joseph E, 'Classics at Berkeley: The First Century 1869-1970,' 1982, pp. 29 and 37, online, accessed January 10, 2016, at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/5066c75h.
  10. 'Harold Cherniss,' in Taran, ed., Collected Papers (Leiden: Brill Academic Pub, 2001), p. 667.
  11. See Weimar Republic.
  12. This paragraph is borrowed from Weimar Republic.
  13. Aristoteles: Grundlegung einer Geschichte seiner Entwicklung (1923; English trans. by Richard Robinson in 1934.
  14. J. W. Hiden, The Weimar Republic (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 82.
  15. Colin Storer, A Short History of the Weimar Republic (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013), p. 69.
  16. According to Eberhard Kolb, The Weimar Republic (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 76-77: '… towards the end of 1927 the will and the ability to reconcile divergent interests became increasingly weaker in all the parties concerned. This was the basic reason for the break-up of the coalition … the election of 20 May 1928 was a clear success for the left-wing … [the DNVP’s] strength in the Reichstag fell from 103 to 73.'
  17. According to Eberhard Kolb,The Weimar Republic (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 77: 'Despite the defeat of the right wing, however, it would be very superficial to interpret the election of May 1928 as a victory for democratic and republican forces. In the first place, the drift away from middle-ground parties to splinter groups with narrow interests showed to what an extent the former’s integrative power had diminished … many voters who moved away from the middle ground in 1928 … were to vote for the Nazis at the next Reichstag election in 1930, and a great many more in 1932… The right-wing of the DNVP … now went over to the offensive and gained the upper-hand within the party … and the party pursued a course of unremitting opposition and obstruction, its anti-democratic sentiments attaining a hitherto unknown pitch of ferocity.'
  18. D. Keyt, ‘My Life in the Academy,’ in Georgios Anagnostopoulos, Fred D. Miller, eds., Reason and Analysis in Ancient Greek Philosophy: Essays in Honor of David Keyt (Dordrecht: Springer Verlag, 2013), p. 27-8.
  19. 'Harold Cherniss,' Collected Papers, p. 667. See also, obituary, New York Times.
  20. Fontenrose, op. cit., p. 37.
  21. New York Times, obituary, July 12, 1987. Online, accessed January 5, 2016, at http://www.nytimes.com/1987/07/12/obituaries/harold-f-cherniss-an-expert-in-greek-philosophy-is-dead.html. See also Taran, Collected Papers, p. 669.
  22. See, accessed January 9, 2016, http://www.gf.org/fellows/all-fellows/harold-f-cherniss/.
  23. See its history online (accessed January 11, 2016) at http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/last-jew-vinnitsa-1941/.
  24. Fontenrose, Joseph E, 'Classics at Berkeley: The First Century 1869-1970,' 1982, p. 37, online, accessed January 10, 2016, at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/5066c75h. This is confirmed by the prefatory note to Cherniss, Riddle of the Early Academy(below). Cherniss put 'October 1942, Baltimore' at the end of the preface of his Aristotle's Criticism of Plato and the Academy(1944).
  25. Fontenrose, p. 37, and Obituary, New York Times, July 12, 1987, online, accessed January 10, 2016, at http://www.nytimes.com/1987/07/12/obituaries/harold-f-cherniss-an-expert-in-greek-philosophy-is-dead.html.
  26. George Watt, Escape from Hitler's Europe: An American Airman Behind Enemy Lines (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1990), p. 138. See also a page about Dumon at http://www.cometeline.org/cometorgnamedumonaline.htm (accessed January 10, 2016). Cherniss is briefly mentioned in another memoir of the Comet line: Jerome W. Sheridan, American Airman in the Belgian Resistance (Jefferson: McFarland, 2014), p. 177.
  27. Ward W. Briggs, ed., Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists (American Philological Association), p. 94.
  28. John David Jackson, 'Panofsky agonistes: The 1950 loyalty oath at Berkeley,' Physics Today, January 2009.
  29. Edward B. Strong, online, accessed 5 January 2016, at http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/uchistory/archives_exhibits/loyaltyoath/symposium/strong.html.
  30. ‘A Message of Support,’ Princeton Alumni Weekly, October 6, 1950, p. 7-8. Online, accessed on January 9, 2016, at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=oxlbAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP50&lpg=PP50&dq=Einstein+Cherniss+Princeton&source=bl&ots=vbqmsGsC86&sig=nvBS7C6a48fm07YTJYC0NJ01W_M&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiat_G4153KAhWIcRQKHUxEDYMQ6AEIOjAE#v=onepage&q=Einstein%20Cherniss%20Princeton&f=false
  31. See Kantorowicz's German Wikipedia page.
  32. Keenan, Daniel, Kultur and acculturation: Erwin Panofsky in the United States of America, PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2014, p. 71. Online, accessed January 9, 2016, at http://theses.gla.ac.uk/5238/
  33. Oppenheimer studied in Göttingen until July 1927 and Cherniss studied there in 1927-28. Bird, Kai, and Sherwin, Martin J, American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (London: Atlantic Books, 2005), pp. 68 and 93.
  34. Bird and Sherwin, p. 117.
  35. Oppenheimer later claimed to have said those words but there is no contemporary evidence, according to Bird and Sherwin, pp. 117 and 309.
  36. Bird and Sherwin, p. 324.
  37. Linda G. Arntzenius, 'Institute for Advanced Study'(Images of America Series) (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing,2011), p. 81. See also Linda G. Arntzenius, 'Institute for Advanced Study: An Introduction' (Princeton: Institute for Advanced Study, 2013), p. 26.
  38. See J. Robert Oppenheimer.
  39. Bird and Sherwin, pp. 552-3.
  40. Bird and Sherwin, p. 678.
  41. ‘Colleagues Back Dr Oppenheimer,’ The New York Times, p. 14.
  42. Letter dated July 1, 1954, published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 1954, p. 283.
  43. Keenan, Daniel, Kultur and acculturation: Erwin Panofsky in the United States of America, PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2014. Online, accessed January 9, 2016, at http://theses.gla.ac.uk/5238/
  44. Ed Regis, ‘Who Got Einstein's Office? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study’ (Basic Books, 1988), p. 113.
  45. Regis, p. 113
  46. Regis, p. 113
  47. Regis, p. 114
  48. Interview with George Steiner by Ronald A. Sharp, ‘The Art of Criticism (No. 2),’ The Paris Review, Winter 1995, no. 137. Online, accessed January 8, 2016, at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1506/the-art-of-criticism-no-2-george-steiner.
  49. Atmanspacher, Harald, and Primas, Hans, eds., Recasting Reality: Wolfgang Pauli's Philosophical Ideas and Contemporary Science (Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2009), p. 25.
  50. H. Cherniss, ‘A Commemorative Gathering for Erwin Panofsky at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University,’ March 21, 1968. Online, accessed 8 January 2016, at https://library.ias.edu/files/Erwin_Panofsky_1892-1968.pdf.
  51. D. Keyt, ‘My Life in the Academy,’ in Georgios Anagnostopoulos, Fred D. Miller, eds., Reason and Analysis in Ancient Greek Philosophy: Essays in Honor of David Keyt (Dordrecht: Springer Verlag, 2013), p. 27-8.
  52. Town Topics(Princeton), Jun. 24, 1987. Online, accessed January 9, 2016, at https://archive.org/stream/towntopicsprince4215unse/towntopicsprince4215unse_djvu.txt.
  53. 'Harold Cherniss,' Collected Papers, p. 667.
  54. See the article 'Fashion Institute of Technology' in Jackson, Kenneth T., Keller, Lisa, and Flood, Nancy, The Encyclopedia of New York City, Second Edition.
  55. See http://www.geni.com/people/Max-Meyer/6000000036480082057 accessed January 9, 2016.
  56. His papers are held at Cornell University: ‘Guide to the Max Meyer Papers,’ Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library, online, accessed January 9, 2016, at http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/EAD/htmldocs/KCL05221.html.
  57. Bird and Sherwin, p. 93.
  58. Henry Grattan Doyle, 'Doctor's Degrees in Modern Foreign Languages 1933-34, The Modern Language Journal, v. 22, n. 6 (Mar., 1938), pp. 456-459.
  59. The Greek tradition; papers contributed to a symposium held at the Baltimore Museum of Art, May 15, 16, 17, 1939 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1939), pp. 139-70.
  60. Max Meyer (Haskins Press, 1980).
  61. E. Panofsky refers to them in a letter to Pauli of July 31, 1956 reprinted in W. Pauli, Wissenschaftlicher Briefwechsel mit Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg u.a., Band IV, Teil III (Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2001), p. 624.
  62. Town Topics(Princeton), Oct. 14-20, 1956. Online, accessed January 9, 2016, at https://archive.org/stream/towntopicsprince1132unse/towntopicsprince1132unse_djvu.txt
  63. Town Topics(Princeton), Sep. 25-Oct. 1, 1955. Online, accessed January 9, 2016, at https://archive.org/stream/towntopicsprince1029unse/towntopicsprince1029unse_djvu.txt.
  64. There is a brief death notice in the New York Times on April 16, 2000, online, accessed January 9, 2016, at http://www.nytimes.com/2000/04/16/classified/paid-notice-deaths-cherniss-ruth-nee-meyer.html. A 1956 personal letter of Kantowriciz noted that 'Ruth [Cherniss] has been operated on (gynaecol., I assume) but is also again all right.' See E. H. Kantowriciz to R. E. Giesey of October 5, 1956. Online, accessed 8 January 2016, at www.regiesey.com/Archive/Ekaica/letters/1956.10.05.pdf.
  65. Online, accessed January 9, 2016, at http://www.geni.com/people/Edward-Cherniss/6000000031944231425.
  66. She is referred to in a letter of E. H. Kantowriciz to R. E. Giesey of October 5, 1956. Online, accessed 8 January 2016, at www.regiesey.com/Archive/Ekaica/letters/1956.10.05.pdf.
  67. See Leslie Groves.
  68. Fontenrose, Joseph E, 'Classics at Berkeley: The First Century 1869-1970,' 1982, online, accessed January 10, 2016, at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/5066c75h.
  69. Tarna, 'Collected Papers,' p. 669.
  70. Lloyd Gerson, ‘Plato’s Development and the Development of the Theory of Forms,’ in William A. Welton, ed., Plato's Forms (2002) (see Readings below).
  71. Paul A. Vander Waerdt in Ward W. Briggs, ed., Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists (American Philological Association), p. 94.
  72. Paul A. Vander Waerdt, p. 94.
  73. P. 17.
  74. See v. 57, n. 4, 1936, pp. 445-456.
  75. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1971.
  76. Reginald E. Allen (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).
  77. Pp. 445-6.
  78. P. 456.
  79. Sauver les Phénomènes: Essai sur la Notion de Théorie Physique de Platon à Galilée (Paris: A. Hermann, 1908). English translation, University of Chicago Press, 1969.
  80. P. 80.
  81. See section on Legacy below.
  82. P. 10.
  83. P. 31.
  84. P. 60.
  85. Pp. 79 and 81.
  86. P. 2.
  87. P. 62.
  88. Lloyd P. Gerson, ‘Harold Cherniss and the Study of Plato Today,’ Journal of the History of Philosophy, v. 52, n. 3, 2014, pp. 397-409.
  89. Taran, Collected Papers, p. 672.
  90. Paul A. Vander Waerdt, in Ward W. Briggs, ed., Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists (American Philological Association), p. 94.

See Also