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Benn, Stanley Isaac (1920–1986)

by Robert Brown

Stanley Benn died in the manner in which he wished to live: in his own home, in the company of his loving family, and displaying a wholly admirable equanimity in the face of all difficulties.

Let us listen, first of all, to his speaking voice as it is registered in the preface to his first book — the book which he and his close friend, Richard Peters, wrote together almost thirty years ago and which at one stroke made their professional reputations: 'Miriam Benn did much to clarify the ideas, and laboured to simplify the style of the book, in the face of every possible objection and obstruction from the authors. To her they owe their very special thanks for this and much besides'. That wry willingness to utter the truth, and to be committed to its pursuit in matters both large and small, despite the inevitable error and self-doubt, and often pain, that it brings, was one of Stanley's characteristic virtues. He was as strongly disposed to seek and state what he believed to be true of individual people and their actions in society as other people are disposed to turn aside from it, whether from fear, ignorance, weakness, or indifference.

Stanley was shaped, intellectually, by his pre-war undergraduate and post-war graduate education at the London School of Economics, a school then at the height of its distinction and influence. His academic career was divided by the war and by his service in the Army Education Corps. But his natural skill as a teacher — his directness, his sympathy with the interests of students, and the pleasing simplicity with which he tackled the problems of his chosen field — that of political life and morality — must have owed much to his years of adult teaching in the army from 1941 to 1946. By the time Stanley had finished his graduate work in 1948 and become a lecturer in Government at the University of Southampton, he knew what sort of work he wanted to do. It was the examination of the philosophical bases of social life. Stanley put it very well in a few lines many years ago:

Man, said Aristotle, is a political animal. He lives in society and is thereby able to survive, to talk, and to develop a culture. This is no doubt true, but the initial difficulty in theorizing about society is to be clear what we are talking about . . . The way in which a man lives in a society is quite different from the way in which a woodpecker lives in a tree. For membership of a society does not necessarily imply residence in some larger spatial whole (as a tree is for a bird). What then does it imply?

In an important sense that is the question to which Stanley devoted most of his intellectual life — devoted his very considerable energy, his great sociability with his colleagues, and the impressive power of his capacious talent in both its analytic and imaginative aspects.

We must give Stanley's question a very broad interpretation. For him, the implications of membership in a human society were not simply a matter of investigating some nagging and slightly tiresome academic questions each day at his desk. The implications were first and foremost a matter of discovering how people can best live in the societies that they construct, and how they can both explain and justify their preferred ways of life. Above all, Stanley was not, and would have hated being thought, primarily a technician. He did not believe that his concern with social morality had nothing to do with his private life, that his grappling with such general issues as political participation, authority, freedom, and wickedness (the title of his last published paper) should not affect how he behaved toward his wife, Miriam, his two sons, Nicholas and Jonathan, to his other relatives, and to his friends. Very few people have as keen a sense as Stanley had of his personal behaviour to which his principles committed him; and, conversely, of the principles which his own daily actions did in fact exemplify. There was no deep cleft for him, as there so often is for many of us, between a public role and a private face. He was cast all in one piece: scrupulous, painstaking, and deeply affectionate in everything that concerned the education and happiness of his sons, inseparable in attachment to a wife who was his emotional and intellectual colleague throughout their long married life, a source of great pleasure to his friends round the world.

Stanley fell ill before he could take up his Visiting Professorship at the University of Maryland and, sadly, he did not live to see the publication of his book A Theory of Freedom. His 25 years of residence in Australia benefited the intellectual and civic life of this country to a marked degree, and our own University here in Canberra would have been much less without him. Those people closest to him will now feel that they themselves are impoverished by his absence.

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Robert Brown, 'Benn, Stanley Isaac (1920–1986)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 September 2017.

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