A Front-Line Classicist

Essays Ancient and Modern

by Bernard Knox
Johns Hopkins University Press, 312 pp., $32.50

An eminent professor of Greek publishes his collected essays. What does the reader expect to find? Not quite, I think, what he finds here. It is not only the subject matter, which ranges from Hesiod to Natalia Ginzburg and from Greek tragedy to the politics of the 1930s. There is also the personality, strong and distinctive, of the author. As an undergraduate at Cambridge Bernard Knox neglected his classical studies for left-wing politics. At a Blackshirt (fascist) rally

I was one of several in the crowd who had been primed to shout awkward questions at intervals; like my fellow club members who had the same assignment, I was grabbed, hauled away, and kicked out by the Blackshirt goon squad.

After taking an undistinguished degree he went off to Spain to fight on the republican side in the civil war and came home wounded to England. Married to an American woman and settling in the United States, he had an exciting war with the American army, learning and teaching the techniques of dynamiting trains, parachuting into France to work with the Maquis, and then working in Italy with the partisans. Finding himself in Cambridge, he was taken to lunch by one of his tutors:

He enquired about my plans for “after the war,” and I had to tell him that they did not include the classics. My Greek was more than a little rusty…. I told him I rather enjoyed the army and might try to stay in it as a career soldier.

What we call classical antiquity was a whole world. It did not consist exclusively of high art, refined literature, and philosophical disquisitions; on the contrary, it contained politicians, peasants, soldiers, thugs. It cannot be made intelligible by a single set of techniques, a single set of approaches, or indeed by scholars of a single personality type. Tough eggs, as well as unworldly aesthetes, have their distinctive contributions to make to that enormous and unending cooperative venture. Knox, a brilliant interpreter of the plays of Sophocles, also brings to his work a sympathetic understanding of the peasants and the soldiers, who so often are either retouched out of the picture altogether, by the old-fashioned sort of scholar who sees only the elite culture, or, more fashionably, reduced to a purely abstract and bloodless status, as statistical units in the models produced by social and economic historians.

Knox writes, in connection with the archaic poet Hesiod, of

the grueling year-round business of working the land: hard, brutalizing labor, monotonous, exhausting—demanding, too, for a mistake or neglect in the fall can mean starvation in the spring. This is the incessant round of toil which mankind in the modern world has turned its back on whenever and wherever it could,…that peasant existence which has been the lot of the unsung majority of the human race for most of its history.

His understanding of that existence gives depth as well as warmth to his essay on Hesiod, a great but “primitive …

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