The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics
New Perspectives in Early Greek Art England
The Norton Book of Classical Literature
When Bernard Knox was chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the 1992 Jefferson Lecture, the head of the Endowment at the time, Lynne Cheney, interviewed Knox for the Endowment’s magazine. Expressing her amazement that Knox had a good word for the Sophists, Cheney argued: “Is it possible that that is a bit of sophistry? Are you making the worse the better cause when you write about the sophists?” Knox pointed out that the Sophists brought skills to the democracy. Cheney: “But the worse is still the worse cause.” Knox said the Greek for “worse” need not mean more than “weaker.” Cheney: “So it’s complete relativism, then.” When Knox said the study of the humanities—Cheney’s field of expertise—came from the Sophists, she tried to derive humane studies from Plato: “The Sophists had one approach to the humanities and the Platonists another, an approach that emphasized the idea of truth, as opposed to the extreme relativistic stance of the Sophists.”
There you have, in capsule form, the difference between “classicism” and classical learning. If the study of the classics were what Cheney takes it to be, that would be reason enough for getting rid of it. For her, the classics are a fixed thing that supports one’s own prior certitudes, fending off any ambiguity as “extreme relativism.” Since she knows (at second or third hand) what the classics must mean, she could lecture one of the leading scholars of our time rather than interview him (or learn from him). Such use of the classics impedes thought instead of promoting it. Even when Cheney thought she was reading Plato, she was really reading Allan Bloom or Leo Strauss, not Plato.
If Cheney thought, during the interview, that the Endowment might have chosen the wrong lecturer for her purposes, Knox’s new book will confirm her worst fears. The Oldest Dead White European Males prints that Jefferson Lecture and two other talks, in one of which we read:
It is often said that the importance of Socrates in the history of Western thought is that he brought theory down from the skies, from cosmological speculation, to the human world, to the moral and political problems of mankind. But this was in fact the achievement of the Sophists, who created an education designed for the first great democracy…. It was Plato, of course, who made the word “Sophists” into a term of abuse and also, though this aspect of his work is seldom mentioned, tried to suppress the new humanities. (Emphasis added.)
The old schema “Plato moral, Sophists immoral” can be reversed in certain matters, where Plato now stands for values we cannot honor. As Knox points out, the Sophists were unique in their time for questioning the superiority of Greeks to barbarians, men to women, free-born to slaves. No doubt that was “relativistic” to many Athenians, as well as to Lynne Cheney.
Knox argues that the Greeks have been the useful troublers, not …
This article is available to online 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.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
‘A Small Correction’ July 15, 1993