The Legacy of Greece: A New Appraisal
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.”
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 …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.