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Strange Fruits

The Legacy of Greece: A New Appraisal

edited by M.I. Finley
Oxford University Press, 480 pp., $19.95

If upper-class Englishmen went off to the Great War with Homer in their knapsacks, as we are so often told, they were to learn, like Ronald Knox, that Gallipoli was not the same as Troy. The Duke of Wellington had long since commended the playing fields, not the classrooms, of Eton, and academics returning in 1918 found their shaky classical curriculum doomed to evaporate, an educational monopoly wholly unsuited to the postwar world. (Somewhat the same thing was happening on this side of the Atlantic.)

Nevertheless, the spirit of the old Edwardian dons and floggers, their serene faith in an ancient world of their own creation, has proven as durable as the fig leaves they supplied to the public. In 1921, at the request of the Clarendon Press, Richard Winn Livingstone edited another of those tributes to “the Greek heritage” that had been a donnish industry almost since the installation of the “Elgin Marbles” in 1817. Sir Richard, a fellow of New College, a facile composer of Latin verse, member of the Prime Minister’s Committee on Classics, author of The Greek Genius and Its Meaning to Us and A Defense of Classical Education, was an obvious choice to get together an anthology.

As might be expected, he drew mostly on other old Oxonians: Gilbert Murray, having recovered from the disturbing “Continental” ideas of Jane Harrison, his most original pupil; Arnold Toynbee, Murray’s son-in-law, who could polish off his letters to the Times with neat Greek couplets of his own; Sir Alfred Zimmern, friend of both Toynbee and Murray and also a fellow of New College, who had reminded the Establishment in 1911 that, whether in London or Periclean Athens, “club life promotes good fellowship” and that the “old garlic-smelling charcoal-burners of Acharnae enjoyed to the full, we may be sure, their rough work in the woods of Parnes.”1

Chapters by these and nine similar enthusiasts appeared as The Legacy of Greece. This standard funeral oration, in paperback, is with us today, “still deservedly popular,” to credit a gallant pietas from the editor of Oxford’s welcome and entirely “New Appraisal.” Less polite readers may feel that despite a few admirable stretches, the old Legacy is a marble exemplar of what Lord Clark called the “unconscious insincerity” of certain Hellenophiles. With its untranslated Latin quotes, it was addressed to a generation that had been educated on compulsory classics but had seldom mastered Greek. Like Edith Hamilton’s Echo, it maintains the antiseptic, innocent fantasies dear to certain pedagogues. Indeed, less than ten years ago, the occupant of our most venerable chair in Greek advised Jeffrey Henderson to write The Maculate Muse in Latin, so that few could see how dirty the comedies of Aristophanes really are.

Such benevolent hypocrisy has recently taken second place to another problem. Many a dense critique in the latest style justifies the warning E.R. Dodds: “If the love and knowledge of Greek literature ever die in this country, they will die of a suffocation arising from its exponents’ industry. I do not wish to be an accessory to the murder.”2 Yet the typical graduate student remains, linguistically, barely up to the old sixth-form level, while the professionals, fewer in number, are vastly more skilled and energetic than ever. The classical armory bristles with the weapons not only of Marx and Freud, but also, for example, of Weber, Durkheim, Malinowski, Braudel, Vernant, Vidal-Naquet, and Lévi-Strauss. New evidence, especially for archaic and early Greece, constantly upsets yesterday’s doctrine.

In 1952, on taking the Chair of Ancient History at University College, London, Arnaldo Momigliano declared that “all students of ancient history know in their heart that Greek history is passing through a crisis.”3 A flow of new and controversial research drawing on anthropology, archaeology, economic analysis, structuralist criticism, etc., makes it exhausting for experts to keep up with each other, much less guarantee their own results. At such a point M.I. Finley’s “new appraisal” of the Legacy comes as a stimulating breath of air.

Finley, who grew up in America, is the opposite of his editorial predecessor. He left the faculty of Rutgers during the McCarthyite purges of 1954, and ultimately became Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge and Master of Darwin College. Sir Moses has earned a dominance, recognized everywhere, for his brilliance as a social historian. While the youngest epigraphist may have ideas on methodology more rigid than Mommsen’s or Meyer’s, Finley is concerned mainly with credible information, and a belief that the public does not require a fig leaf.

His introduction depicts an elitist, paradoxical Greek legacy, a high-culture Hellenism left by a people who, far from enjoying club life, were more often at one another’s throats. Yet to live in this turbulent culture was in itself an education; the elitism was diffused, the literature oral, the visual art nearly all visible. The emphasis of Finley’s collection is less on the content of this culture than on what happened to it in the course of its transmission through Rome, Byzantium, and Europe to our own century. The selection of subjects is perforce entirely new, and the task more difficult, by far, than anything attempted in the old book.

The first section, by Finley himself, is characteristically astute on the limits of Athenian democracy, and on its rough-house character. The unpalatable truth is that little of this greatest Greek invention has been reflected in subsequent institutions, however much the Greeks may have contributed to Western political literature. (One might have welcomed here the intrusion of the emphasis Finley makes elsewhere, that “it is impossible to translate the word ‘freedom,’ eleutheria in Greek, libertas in Latin, into any Near Eastern language, including Hebrew, or into any Far Eastern language, either.”)4 In the next essay, “Political Theory,” R.I. Winton and Peter Garnsey write about politics without politicians. They make some dry points of their own—the influence “of Greek political theory as a whole through the ages can easily be exaggerated,” though the rediscovered Politics of Aristotle inspired Northern Italians to resist a papal dictatorship. (The expected linking of our mixed constitutional system via Polybius-Montesquieu-John Adams is postponed to the concluding summary chapter, without actually crediting Polybius by name.)

In “Lyric and Other Poetry” A.M. Davies wisely notes that here the legacy is inherent in the content, not in a barely tangible transmission. But otherwise nobody could accomplish the really hopeless task of untangling all the threads which ultimately lead us back from Shelley through Alexandria to Alcman and Sappho. The ancient remains are fragmentary, the terrain treacherous, and the space limited. A famous Delphic response—“The decorated court has fallen”—to Julian the Apostate’s physician, cited without any source whatever, is a misleading way to conclude a chapter on poetry. At least Davies has avoided Petrus Alcyonius’ lament for the great corpus of Greek lyric, “which dealt with the passions, obscenities and follies of lovers,” destroyed by Byzantine priests in Christian times—the envoi printed with devastating effect by Edmonds at the close of his now superannuated Loeb volumes.5 No other authority supports this indictment, and we may well believe that most clerical barbarism was directed, as usual, against erring Christians, not against the pagan writers they often enjoyed in private.

Only the “desiccated philologist” so often invoked by Hugh Lloyd-Jones would wish to go through all fifteen essays finding faults. T. G. Rosenmeyer, of the University of California, in an elegant essay on drama, demolishes much classroom nonsense about the didaskalos as poet-moralist for the Athenian community. The brilliant light he sheds on the tragic legacy, up to our own day, owes less to the continuous vitality of the stage tradition than to his own flair for seeking affinities. In Beckett “the bitter-sweet combination of cruelty and gentleness, and, above all, the ritual power of ordinary language are features which cannot be found in precisely this way outside the Western theater, and which were put there by the Greek ancestors of the line.” One shot like this—and Rosenmeyer has many—are worth many pages on the “Aristotelian unities” and the formalism of Racine. Old Comedy, part of an oral, underground legacy, has never, to my knowledge, been adequately explored as such, nor is it here. And we can make small allowance for what look like forced analogies between Aristophanes and Orwell, or Joseph Heller—the kind of twist students will, presumably, think to be “relevant.”

The two chapters by Arnaldo Momigliano, an “ally” of Finley, as he once styled himself,6 are “History and Biography” and “Greek Culture and the Jews,” the latter a neglected part of the traditio. They display his phenomenal erudition and his inability to write a dull or graceless line. Educators should never forget that for centuries the assumption of Christian superiority to pagan and Jew was part of the old-fashioned legacy, and another reason why the classical curriculum became a moral vacuum. Plain anti-Semitism—not merely the official brand one expects to find in Wilamowitz, or Pound, or hidden in the genteel snobbism of Eliot—drove Eric Bentley to comment on “what an awful mentality the classically educated so often had.”7 Few scholars could diagnose the perils of an alien wisdom, or the ethical and moral dilemmas of Hellenized Jews, with more perceptive sympathy than Momigliano. Colleagues have learned to take for granted the virtuosity of his bibliographical essays, and it’s a pity that here his fellow contributors were unable to follow his model.

The essay of the late H.I. Marrou on “Education and Rhetoric,” translated by his friend Finley, reminds us that this remarkably erudite scholar, a courageous explorer in an explosive territory, shocked readers a generation ago with his observation that Athenian education was not free from “a dreadful aberration,” that “paideia found its realization in paiderasteia.”8 We are a long way from Werner Jaeger here, and from Gilbert Highet. Marrou also insists on another unpopular reality: that the survival of the Greek legacy hardly depends on conjugating irregular verbs or the compulsory study of ancient literature, but rather on education which aims to produce not “a mere cog in the industrial economy,” but a whole person.

Bernard Williams’s piece on Greek philosophy must of necessity be “drastically selective,” but he is always forceful and lucid, especially about what the Greeks failed to achieve. For example, they had little interest in how thoughts are shaped by their material, social, and historical environment. G.E.R. Lloyd on “Science and Mathematics” and S.G. Pembroke on “Myth” are each exponents of the best kind of new scholarship. The Greeks themselves, as Pembroke remarks, may have slightly anticipated Lévi-Strauss in distinguishing between nature and culture, but the latter’s structural analysis, and such extensive comparative compilations as Stith Thompson’s index of folk-tale motifs (1955-1958), continue to make us examine the mythic imagination in a new light, to say nothing of such obscure Greek curiosa as ritual transvestitism. (Nobody who reads Pembroke will ever again be bothered by such questions as “Who was Hecuba’s mother?”) Greeks found Christians “unprecedentedly odd,” and some might say the same about A.H. Armstrong’s cogent but narrow observations on “Greek Philosophy and Christianity.” Bypassing with tantalizing charity the bloodthirsty effects Greek cleverness had on Christian theologians, he concentrates on less familiar aspects of Platonism and Western churchmen. Literate Christians, he reminds us, believed the Greeks had plagiarized their best work from the far more ancient Jewish scripture; and he tells us that Augustine’s mighty City of God owes nothing at all to the Greeks, while even Platonism could actually be something of a leaven against fanaticism.

Peter Kidson gets off a good shot at the superficiality of modern Greek sight-seeing and makes other essential points in his two articles on “Architecture and City Planning” and “The Figural Arts.” Those who believe the Parthenon embodies some Hellenic ideal of the Good had better not tangle with him. Much of a Greek city was, as we should be told more often, ultimately built for rhetoricians—temples, stoas, theaters, and agoras where virtuoso conversation and oratory, nearly always by men, were essential to urban life on a scale almost beyond modern comprehension. Discussing “The Figural Arts,” the same author has, expectedly, little use for the long-discredited views of J.J. Winckelman (a particular bête noir of his editor as well), and he forces us to see the remains afresh. We are not likely to overlook the “severe style” of the west pediment at Olympia as we recognize that “scenes of extreme violence are performed by figures with totally blank expressions.” Unfortunately, Kidson does not encourage us to visualize the polychromatic and (to many modern eyes) tasteless spectacle that entranced the ancient viewer.

The concluding survey by R.R. Bolgar traces the Greek legacy’s transmission through the eighteenth century with fluent mastery of the complex material. But when Bolgar shows us how the “primitive” works of Homer were made respectable by the discovery of exciting “primitive” cultures in the New World, we wonder why he fails to note that much the same thing happened to Herodotus. (Neither does the History chapter do so, although Momigliano was the first to stress this point in an earlier study.) Some teachers of literature may be surprised to learn that the “rise of the novel” was partly the result of the Poetics of Aristotle making fiction more acceptable than fact. Bolgar finesses the famous post-Renaissance Battle of the Ancients and Moderns (easily available in Highet)9 and ignores the primary contribution of Robert Wood to the revolution in Homeric studies.

Inclusiveness is no test for a book of this kind, even though the new Legacy, in smaller type, is considerably longer than the old. One must expect passages too recondite for the general reader, or too obvious for the expert, and they are all here. The bibliographies have startling lacunae—no John Boardman under Greek art—and the index is spotty. One applauds Bolgar’s section on the Arab transmission of Greek texts, and wonders why Momigliano skips over the influence of Greek tragedy on Hellenized Jews—an omission explained, perhaps, by his emphatic view that the future of Judaism was determined not in the Greek libraries of Alexandria, but in Jerusalem. And so forth. Yet in choosing his topics and his contributors, Finley has succeeded well in defining the difficulties of Greek studies. In the midst of the very “crisis” in Greek history his own researches have helped to create, he has found writers notable for their honesty, for admitting what is not known, and for making so much of their subjects accessible. The reappraised Legacy is a chart through a fascinating new territory, and, like the lecherous centaur on its jacket, warns us that here, too, are monsters.

  1. 1

    Alfred Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth, fifth edition (Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 61 and 278.

  2. 2

    Euripides, Bacchae, edited by E. R. Dodds, second edition (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1960), pp. vi-vii.

  3. 3

    Arnaldo Momigliano, Studies in Historiography (Harper & Row, 1966), p. 57.

  4. 4

    M.I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (U. of California Press, 1973), p. 28.

  5. 5

    Lyra Graeca, edited and translated by J.M. Edmonds (Harvard University Press, 1959), Volume III, p. 679.

  6. 6

    Finley and myself, being Jews, have behind us the good old tradition of the Jewish epikoros.” The New York Review, October 16, 1975, p. 38.

  7. 7

    Reply to a questionnaire on classical education, Arion, Volume III, No. 4 (Winter 1964), p. 15.

  8. 8

    H.I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, translated by George Lamb (New American Library, 1964), p. 56. Finley cautions against this “wholly unreliable” translation, first issued by Sheed and Ward in 1956. I have not seen the original French, but have heard from Wilfrid Sheed how strongly his father was criticized for publishing Marrou’s open references to Greek homosexuality.

  9. 9

    Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition, third printing (Oxford University Press, 1957), Chapter 14.

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