A towering figure in philology and classics in the early twentieth century, Werner Jaeger was born 30 July 1888 in Lobberich, Germany, to Karl August Jaeger, a manager in a textile factory, and his wife, Helene. After school at Lobberich and at the Thomas à Kempis Gymnasium in Kempen, Jaeger attended the University of Marburg for a semester, where he encountered a Plato mediated by the Neo-Kantians. He completed his Ph.D. at the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1911, writing a dissertation on Aristotle’s Metaphysics that made a seismic impact in Aristotle studies.
Marrying Theodora Dammholz on 28 March 1914, Jaeger accepted a professorship and Nietzsche’s chair at the University of Basel in Switzerland the same year, without having written a Habilitationschrift (normally considered a necessary qualification for professors). Taking a comparable position at the University of Kiel in 1915, he became an academic sensation with the publication of his Aristoteles in his mid-thirties (1924). From Kiel, Jaeger moved to Berlin in 1921, where he began his magnum opus on Paideia. Jaeger divorced his first wife, placing her in a mental institution, and married a student, Ruth Heinitz, in 1931, with whom he had a child. The Jaegers immigrated to the United States in 1936 in the midst of Hitler’s rise to power. There followed a few years at the University of Chicago, during which he delivered his Gifford Lectures on ‘The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers’ (1936-1937), before Jaeger found a permanent home at Harvard in 1939. He remained in Cambridge, Massachusetts, until his death on 9 October 1961.
Jaeger’s attempts to found a ‘Third Humanism’ (following Erasmus and Goethe) more political than its immediate predecessor eventually came under attack due to the very ambiguity of that humanism. That it represented a sophisticated wax nose could be seen in his attempts to accommodate humanism to Hitler’s regime, even acting as spokesperson for the Third Reich within the classics field. This may be in part due to the fact that he was something of an activist for the classics in the formation of culture, even in a dissolving Germany; and yet it is significant that the Wunderkind of the Berlin days gradually retreated, to be replaced by the quiet, dedicated teacher at Harvard.
Jaeger is known primarily for his work on Aristotle and Hellenistic culture and education. Paideia eventually comprised three volumes of seminal work (the first published in 1934) on education, culture and the ideals that formed Greek civilization from Homer to Demosthenes. He called it his ‘three-volume history of the Greek mind’. Jaeger wrote over twenty books and numerous articles in all, including a massive project editing the works of Gregory of Nyssa. As was the case for so many Gifford lecturers, Jaeger’s interests in Hellenism and Christianity often criss-crossed. More than a lonely scholar (though he was that), Jaeger complemented his written work with a deep, abiding commitment to teaching.