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 and of Louis MacNeice. His dry style, and his habit of detachment, enable him to look at his past, or at the more interesting bits of it, without either egotism or self-concealment, and tempt the reviewer to write about him in an obituary tone, as if he were dead. This is an intended effect. The “missing persons” are his own past selves, whom he restores with surprise. Although interested in them, he keeps himself at a distance from them. He is now a good eighty-four.
The study of the prerational sources of art and religion might be initiated by a man who regularly crossed the line dividing sanity from madness, and who preserved his own memories of concrete thinking and of a dislocated consciousness. This was the case of Aby Warburg, who, by his writing and by his library and by his generosity to other scholars, did as much as any other man to help recapture the symbols buried in the visual arts in Europe, and buried also in the unconscious minds of men everywhere, as it seemed. But Professor Dodds is alarmingly sane, and, perhaps oppressed by his own sanity and by his steady atheism, he turned, when he was still a student, to the Society for Psychical Research; he practiced telepathy and hypnotism, and became interested in Frederic Myers, pioneer of the occult, and in Freud. He thought seriously of becoming a psychoanalyst, and he believes that he would have done so if he had been able to support himself. He even entered a sad demimonde which consisted of Ouija boards and mediums and crystal-gazing and haunted rectories and provincial poltergeists and (formerly) Sir Oliver Lodge.
All this unseemly curiosity was later justified because it was part of his wider interest in the unmapped meanderings of the imagination, which he knew must inform literature and mythology and the mystery religions and the visual arts. James Frazer, Jane Harrison, and Gilbert Murray had preceded him in this interest, and Murray had also dabbled in the occult, particularly in telepathy; he was a virtuoso in thought transference, in combination with his wife, Lady Mary. Aggressive free-thinkers seem to find relief in pursuing ghosts and divinations, and Freud seems to have believed that Oxford wrote Shakespeare and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, rationalist pathfinder in anthropology, was quite sure that Bacon did.
Professor Dodds followed the paths of imagination into the unconscious mind with a more careful philological interest and more thoroughly than his predecessors, working, among other things, on Platonism and on Plato himself. Humanism in Greek studies had usually entailed a stress on the rationality and philosophical clarity and democratic outlook to be found in ancient Athens and its thinkers, as if Pericles’ speech at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, as creatively reported in Thucydides, gave the whole truth. Professor Dodds has always been a humanist with a difference, because he has given equal attention and value on one side to philosophical reason and on the other to that kind of associative thinking which uses inherited symbols of forgotten origin and of great emotional power.
A man from the periphery, he has not always been accepted and as greatly admired as he now is. Chosen by Baldwin on the advice of Gilbert Murray as Regius Professor at Oxford in 1936, he met some openly expressed resentments from uncouth scholars and from members of a particularly depressing Common Room there, and this made him and his wife unhappy for some time. He was resented as a pacifist and because he was elected without consultation with the faculty. It is a sordid little story, to which he alludes only lightly.
He did not remain a pacifist. By 1940 he was supporting the distinguished philosopher J.L. Austin in heckling Quintin Hogg, conservative candidate for Parliament and supporter of appeasement, at all his election meetings in Oxford. Like Socrates, he attributes to himself a daemon, or man within the breast, whose voice has determined his critical choices and insinuated a moral thread that runs through his changes of fortune. A Socratic daemon is a kind of conscience, but it is a personal conscience that speaks for one individual and from one breast and not necessarily for all humanity. It creates an identity, a recognizable self, and incidentally gives coherence to an autobiography which is much more than a sum of episodes. His is an unworldly and rather austere identity, and one may be sorry that Professor Dodds has so little taste for gossip, that is, for describing the individual essences of other people. To Eliot he always remained “the man with the crystal ball,” but we learn very little about Eliot himself, and almost nothing about Gilbert Murray and Sir John Beazley, probably the greatest English art historian of the century, who is just mentioned; nor about Eduard Fraenkel and about other great and original scholars. But this elegant, short autobiography follows its single path most successfully and is always a pleasure to read, in spite of its unconscious severity.
April 6, 1978