1988 Balzan Prize for Sociology
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 17.11.1988
Mr. President of the Republic,
Mr. President and Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to express my deep sense of gratitude to the Balzan Foundation for awarding me the 1988 prize in Sociology.
I am fully aware of the great honour that has been bestowed on me. And I am especially grateful because I assume that this award above all recognizes the importance of the line of sociological analysis in which I have been engaged throughout most of my work – namely comparative historical and civilizational research.
This line of analysis has its roots in the very central core of the sociological tradition as it has developed in work of its precursors especially Montesquieu, de Tocqueville and Marx and its Founding Fathers – especially Durkhei M., Weber, Mosca, and Pareto. It has developed in common with the sociological tradition in general as a part of the vast and variegated modern scholarly enterprise – comprising, among others, history, anthropology, philosophy, comparative jurisprudence all of which have built on the great tradition of reflexivity and self examination of the Western civilization with its Jewish, Greek and Christian roots.
Such mode of analysis, as sociological research in general, has greatly contributed , and hopefully will continue to do so – so long as it is not marred by secretarian or technocratic tendencies to the broadening and deepening of enlightened self-reflection within modern societies.
It is first of all endeavored to understand the nature, vulnerability and crises of modern Western society and civilization as they emerged from the nineteenth century on the horizon of human history. The important analyses of others, especially the great Asian, civilizations which were undertaken in the framework of these researchers were naturally – initially – focused on their differences from the modern, Western one. Nowadays the major challenge before us is how to understand also the ways in which the traditions and historical experience of these civilizations, as well as indeed of the European one – have been shaping the contours – and tribulations – of the great variety of modern and modernizing societies emerging all over the world.
The challenge of this inquiry is still very much before us – in many ways we are only at the beginning – but we are very fortunate to be able to build on the shoulders of the giants mentioned before. I myself was very fortunate to be initiated into this tradition by my teachers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Martin Buber and the historian Richard Koebner, by several scholars – sociologists, anthropologists, historians with whom I was privileged to meet and learn from during my sojourn at the London School of Economics forty years ago. Among them I would like to single out meeting with Edward Shils , the close association with whom since then I cherish greatly, and I feel honored to follow Edward Shils as recipient of the Balzan prize in sociology. I would like also to record my debt to a long association with Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton , to those colleagues at that wonderful year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1955-6 with whom long life friendships developed , and to colleagues, collaborators and students in Jerusalem and in many other places. I invoke with special gratitude the memory of Arnaldo Momigliano , with whom I was privileged to be associated in the last decade in the work on the Axial civilizations. I would like also to take this opportunity to thank my wife , children and family for their continuous support.
The honour you have bestowed on me lays a heavy burden of responsibility on my shoulders. In the Tractate of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) of the Mishna , the first great codex of postbiblical Judaism – and the only non juridical part of that codex – one of the Sages, Rabbi Tarfon , states «The day is short, and there is much work to be done , the workers are lazy, and the reward is high , and the Master is pressing» – and he continues – «it is not up to you to complete the work , but neither are you free to evade it». (In Hebrew: “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor veein ata benhorin Lehipater mimena”) .
I am, of course, fully aware that I shall never be able to complete even that small part of the work that I would have liked to and also that every finished work is truly never completed – as is said when completing the reading of the Tora – “Tam velo nishlam” . At the same time it is incumbent on all of us to endeavor to continue and work on – study – what can never be completed.
It is with profound thanks for your encouragement to continue this work that I accept, with appreciation and gratitude the 1988 Balzan prize in Sociology.