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Bernard Knox, The Oldest Dead White European Males

by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan
(original date: August 2008)


This is one of a number of informal pieces originally produced for the CMRS Facebook page.
It is intended to provoke discussion and further investigation rather than as a formal scholarly submission.

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.


It being Summer, I've been catching up on some of my reading and have had occasion to work through some general books on Classics, one of which was Bernard Knox's The Oldest Dead White European Males (1993). Knox is an extremely literate scholar of the old school, whose own educational career is interesting in and of itself: you may know him from such books as The Heroic Temper (on the Sophoclean hero) or his introduction to Robert Fagle's translation of Sophocles' Theban plays (Penguin).

ODWEM consists of three general talks that Knox has chosen to publish in a slightly modified form. The first is in many ways the least satisfying — a somewhat cursory overview of trends (in the 1980s and earlier) in classical studies relating to anthropology (esp. studies of the origins and significance of sacrificial ritual), the history of consciousness (beginning with Bruno Snell's rather dated reflections on Homeric "Man"), and social history (slavery, the lives of women), leading to a well-worn survey of tragic texts that demonstrate the Athenians' willingness to critique the flaws in their own social system. To be honest, I couldn't help but feel that it is up to a younger generation of scholars to make the case Knox tries to present here, and to do so in a way that engages more successfully — and more sympathetically — with the more recent methodological trends to which Knox vaguely alludes. (More on this perhaps later.)

The third chapter is short, and quite entertaining, but might not appeal to those of you who haven't studied Greek and visited Greece itself. It focuses on the curious way non-Greek classicists have tended to ignore or actively denigrate modern Greek language and culture. The opening sections offer some great anecdotes, and some interesting glimpses into Knox's own career; the main discussion (on continuities between ancient and modern Greece) offers some points of interest but is a bit disappointing — I enjoyed it mainly for the memories of my own time in Greece that it evoked.

It's the second chapter, "The Walls of Thebes," that I particularly recommend. It's here that Knox reflects on the hard times facing the Humanities these days, and puts this in the context of a much longer series of attacks against/defenses of litterae humaniores. Particularly interesting are his evocations of those days in which advanced training in humanities was the ticket to self-advancement (mirabile dictu!) and his reflections on the close linkage between the rise of humane studies and Athenian democracy.

Of particular interest are Knox's repeated allusions to the poet Louis MacNeice (himself a professor of Greek at Birmingham) and his reflections on Classics in his lengthy poem "Autumn Journal" (1938), which anticipates a number of themes that currently are the bread and butter of classical scholarship, as well as modern discussions of the nature of pedagogy and academe. (See esp. Knox pp. 29-30 and 74-77.) I can't find a copy of MacNeice's poem on line, but these sections bear reading and discussion. Consider the following:

The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it
Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
For the present age:
Models of Logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity,
The golden mean between opposing ills ...

But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;
These dead are dead
And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.

And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago. ....

Which things being so, as we said when we studied
The classics, I ought to be glad
That I studied the classics at Marlborough and Merton,
Not everyone here having had
The privilege of learning a language
That is incontrovertibly dead,
And of carting a toy-box of hall-marked marmoreal
phrases
Around in his head.
We wrote compositions in Greek which they said was a
lesson
In logic and good for the brain;
We marched, counter-marched to the field-marshal's blue-
pencil baton,
We dressed by the right and we wrote out the sentence
again.
We learned that a gentleman never misplaces his
accents,
That nobody knows how to speak, much less how to
write
English who has not hob-nobbed with the great-grand-
parents of English,
That the boy on the Modern Side is merely a
parasite

Also: one of the most interesting sections of the book for the general reader might well be the foreword, where, in some 8-10 pages, Knox reviews the role of Greek literature and Greek thought in inspiring various intellectual and social movements from antiquity to the 20th century. He points out the paradox inherent in the recent tendency to cast the Greeks as the oppressive patriarchs/phallocrats/colonialists/xenophobes (etc.), when historically they have repeatedly inspired challenges to the status quo and a questioning of the categories by which people have ordered their lives.

This book was not much reviewed and certainly hasn't made the standard reading list in many courses, but I found it interesting, in part because, despite its occasional limitations, it reflects much of the background and outlook of that generation of philologists who trained my friends and me, and whose learning and humane scholarship I can't help but feel we will soon miss.



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