A Daemon at Oxford

Missing Persons: An Autobiography

by E.R. Dodds
Oxford University Press, 216 pp., $13.50

Before the last world war it was not unusual for English schoolboys from prosperous families to be sent to a private boarding school, called preparatory, at the age of eight and to begin to learn Greek in their first term there, as I did. I think it is rather less usual now, although it certainly still happens. The study of classical Greek, and of much of the literature of ancient Greece, could become a large part of one’s syllabus over a dozen years at school and university, and Greek seemed to have much more influence on later tastes and habits than the study of Latin or the desultory study of modern European languages. In the 1920s, as also now, there was much argument about the continuing value of classical studies, and Stanley Baldwin, prime minister at the time, gave a conventional but heart-felt address on that topic to the Classical Association.

If one recalls this and earlier apologies for the study of Greek, one theme was less stressed in Professor Dodds’s schooldays, before the First World War, and by Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s, than it is now: that it is a great advantage to have access to styles of thought and feeling which were wholly uninfluenced by Christianity and uninfluenced also by the humanism that is derived from it. Professor Dodds became Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford and is the author of The Greeks and the Irrational, and in this very well written, carefully composed, and entertaining autobiography he records his own path to the lifelong study of Greek and records also the enlightenment he found in it.

The Greeks and the Irrational is a now classical work on Greek religion and the associated mysteries and cults, a book that has widened and deepened traditional ideas of Greek life as studies of iconography by art historians have widened and deepened traditional ideas of the Renaissance. This widely read and largely original book was the achievement of a scholar who is also exceptionally distinguished in the more usual paths of scholarship, having produced editions of Plato’s Gorgias and Euripides’ Bacchae which have been greatly praised. The story of his life, as he tells it, is the story of a man who from early years valued independence, integrity, self-reliance, experiment, and any sufficiently sober form of unconventionality.

Brought up in Ulster, and educated partly in Dublin, he felt that he came from the periphery of the empire, and he was always far from being swept along by standard English middle-class interests, or even by any studied revolt against them. He was an atheist from a very early age, a pacifist, a rebel, particularly at school when authority was imposed on him, but on the whole a quiet, obstinate, peaceful rebel. He wanted to write poetry, and he was a member of literary groups and circles both in Dublin and in England; he came to know Yeats and Eliot, and he was an intimate friend of Auden …

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