Bernard Knox
Bernard Knox; drawing by David Levine

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” poet, not easy for the modern reader to approach. He also understands the mentality of those who live that life. Hesiod denounces with personal bitterness those who trample on justice, “swallow bribes,” oppress their neighbors:

The Greek word for [violence] is hubris, and although it came to mean simply physical violence, it also describes the mentality which allows and encourages violence—an overweening pride and sense of superiority, of invulnerability, of contempt for the rights of others. For the Greeks of Hesiod’s peasant society (as for the peasant societies of the modern Greek countryside, and in fact the Mediterranean in general—Spain, Sicily, North Africa), this is the supreme, intolerable evil. For all such societies foster in the individual a fierce sense of his privileges, no matter how small, of his rights, no matter how confined of his personal worth, no matter how low. And hubris is the mood which drives one man to deny another these elementary rights, to treat him as nothing, to show disrespect for his dignity as a man, to deprive him of his honor. These are the terms, of course—honor, rispetto, philotimo—which still govern relations between man and man in Mediterranean agricultural societies. And that is one reason why hubris brings retribution in the end: it drives its victims to desperation—they will think of nothing but revenge.

That goes to the center of a vital aspect of ancient life and thought, and does so without the sentimentality which often seems to go with a knowledge of the Mediterranean and its modern inhabitants. One of Knox’s characteristic words of condemnation is “mushy,” as when he says of For Whom the Bell Tolls that “Hemingway wrote a magnificent if flawed novel about the war (the main flaw being the hero’s mushy romance with the little ‘rabbit’ Maria).” Other epithets of disapprobation are “batty” (“La Rocca can also, with that slightly batty irrelevance art historians are prone to, take off at a hilarious tangent to the main line”) and “soppy” (Alma Tadema). Flaubert himself could hardly quarrel with their aptness.


It is no surprise that Knox, while he clearly enjoyed his wars and thought of being a career soldier, is not sentimental about the military, either. An emotion which is several times powerfully expressed is that of the soldier in the front line: “It is true of every war that much as he may fear and even hate the enemy opposing him, the combat infantryman broods with deep and bitter resentment over the enormous number of people in his rear who sleep safely at night.” As for Hemingway,

his assumption of the role of combatwise veteran, which was widely accepted by his peers, had no basis in fact; he had never, strictly speaking, been in combat at all…. I am not denying that war correspondents have to be brave men—their casualty list is warrant enough for their courage—but there is one vital distinction between war reporter and soldier: the one can come and go as he pleases and where he chooses, the other goes and stays where he is ordered. The reporter can choose his risks; the soldier cannot. The soldier is in it for the duration; the only way he can get out is on a stretcher or in a bag. And he lives with the sure knowledge that if it goes on long enough his turn will come; the strong, the skillful, the lucky—it will take them all.

“Do you not see,” says Achilles to Lycaon, whom he is about to kill, “what a man I am, how huge, how splendid…? /Yet even I have also my death and my strong destiny, / and there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime / when some man in the fighting will take the life from me also.” In Dispatches, Michael Herr’s extraordinary book on the Vietnam war (“It’s the Rolling Stones go to Nam,” a young veteran of the war told me), there is the story of the puzzled young marine who can’t believe that the reporters came to his outpost on Mutter’s Ridge of their own volition: “You mean you guys volunteered to come overhere…. You guys asked to come here?” He cannot bridge the gulf between the harsh necessity of his own exposure to mutilation and death and the condition of a “hopeless fool who could put himself through this thing when he had choices,… who had no more need of his life than to play with it in this way.”

The other side of this coin is the marine who, seeing a group of correspondents leave for the rear, says bitterly: “I hope those guys get killed.” There is hardly a combat infantryman who has not at some time or other felt at least a trace of that same deadly resentment as he watched privileged visitors go back to where a man can stand up. Hemingway was a great writer and, in some areas, especially that of honor among men, exquisitely sensitive; he must have been conscious of this gulf between himself and the fighting men and tried to bridge it by displays of bravado, some of them quite simply silly.

That passage is a striking instance of Knox at work: the Homeric quotation, an unforgettable scene from the Twenty-First Book of the Iliad, coming into a discussion of modern and apparently quite separate matters, the experience of the writer’s own life, with a shock of immediacy. He tells us a story, almost too good to be true, of the revival of his interest in ancient literature. Taking cover from machine-gun fire in a ruined Italian house, he found in the debris, a handsome, gilt-edged book: a text of Virgil, After idly wondering “if I can still read this stuff,” he decided to open the book at random and see what passage he hit upon, following the medieval custom of Sortes Virgilianae, a form of fortune-telling. His finger came down on a passage of agonized lamentation, the end of the first Georgic: right and wrong reversed, war and crime all over the world, the fields neglected and the farm workers conscripted.

These lines, written some thirty years before the birth of Christ, expressed, more directly and passionately than any modern statement I knew of, the reality of the world I was living in: the shell-pocked, mine-infested fields, the shattered cities and the starving population of that Italy Virgil so loved, the misery of the whole world at war…. As we ran and crawled through the rubble I thought to myself: “If ever I get out of this, I’m going back to the classics and study them seriously.”

Life arranged a piece of extraordinarily neat symbolism.


That led to serious work on Virgil, notably a classic and pioneering article on the Second Book of the Aeneid (not reprinted in this collection).1 It also led to the historian Thucydides, whose profound analysis of the Peloponnesian War made that struggle “a working model of the dynamics of war and policy for all succeeding generations.” Knox reprints an excellent paper, “Thucydides, Politics and Power.” It “originally appeared,” we read, “as the text of the opening lecture for the Strategy Curriculum at the College of Naval Warfare in 1972,” and later on we find Knox writing, “In the last few years I have been invited to speak on Thucydides for the opening sessions of the strategy course at the Naval, National, and Air Force War Colleges.”

Those high military connections, interesting as they are, still surely do less than Knox’s intense sympathy with the fighting man to explain a curious silence in the book. He is eloquent in his condemnation of the British and, to a lesser extent, the French governments of the Thirties, who “cold-bloodedly sold the Czechs down the river” after betraying the Spanish Republicans and failing to oppose Hitler and Mussolini. I hope his account of that period will be widely read, not least by those who watched a rather shameful program recently put on by the BBC to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Munich Pact: several prominent and titled appeasers, still alive and loquacious, were allowed to hold forth at length and without criticism as they boasted how little they had learned, in understanding or in humility, from the calamitous mistakes which cost the world so dearly.

Knox also has warm praise for the French classicist Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who has produced important work on Greek history and literature (the essay on him by Knox gives, among other things, an excellent introduction to structuralism in the study of antiquity) and was active, as a man of the left, in opposing the war in Algeria. Vidal-Naquet wrote three books on the use of torture and illegal methods by the French army in that war. Knox ends by praising him for his audacity—

Audacity has been characteristic of [his] career from the start; it marked his activities as a historian engagé in the political struggle; it is visible at work in every page of this book.

When we put all this together, we are, I think, surprised by the absence of any discussion of the war in Vietnam. That conflict was surely, from several points of view, a subject on which Knox could have been trenchant. It was, too, eminently a war on which much could have been learned from Thucydides, whose account of the great Sicilian expedition which ruined Athens is a textbook example of the riskiness of such entanglements in distant countries, and who also has lessons to teach about “liberation” and its perversions. Was it that Knox could not bring himself to join in with those safely out of the firing line in their criticism of the suffering infantry on the spot?

But after all it is less than fair to evaluate a book for what it does not contain when it does contain so much. Knox has already published a volume of essays on Greek tragedy,2 but the present book includes a most suggestive paper on “The Freedom of Oedipus” and a long and thoughtful review of Minos Volanakis’s controversial production of the Oedipus Tyrannus, which makes an interesting case for innovative effects in modern productions of Greek plays:

The modern director must somehow restore vibrant life to words which no longer have power to enchant, and his only recourse is an appeal to the eye; he must reinforce words with movement, and precisely because he is compensating for a lost effect, it is to be expected that he will exceed what seems…to have been the choreographic decorum of classic tragedy.

That is suggestively put. We also find a discussion of George Steiner’s Antigones which seems to me absolutely brilliant, as does his essay on E.M. Forster—not a figure, despite his progressive views, whom one might have expected Knox to find particularly congenial, but who is handled with great sympathy and judicious insight. More predictably excellent, perhaps, is an appreciation of Siegfried Sassoon, which concludes with a marvelous episode in which Knox, in the Leicestershire woods, is teaching his soldiers how to lay and detonate smoke grenades: as they go off, a fox runs by, closely pursued by hounds and hunters, all of whom charge straight into the stifling smoke. The two worlds of Sassoon collide, and we see another scene of marvelous symbolic power.

Other essays deal with such questions as the influence of ancient Greece in Victorian England, the homosexuality of Byron, and the neoclassical works which had to be produced by the nineteenth-century French artists who won the Grand Prix de Rome. Knox always writes well, but a reviewer cannot fail to quote his account of the work of one of them:

Loviot’s (1879) re-creation of Athena standing four feet high in a cross section of the Parthenon, looking for all the world like an odalisque in fancy dress posed against the décor of a Second Empire maison de passe, or his red, white, and blue version of a corner of the Parthenon entablature, complete with Lapith, centaur, and winged gryphon—all the horns of Disneyland loudly blowing….

Three essays are on the Spanish civil war. Knox is able to carry off the technically difficult feat of combining dryness with emotion. He shrewdly demolishes some overblown and inaccurate narratives of events, one of which opens its account of an ambush of a German column in France with the rousing words “Knox had 2,000 maquis hidden in the bushes on both sides of the road….” He comments: “We did not have anything like two thousand Maquisards concentrated in one place until much later…. We certainly did not place Maquis troops on both sides of the road; if we had done so, they would have been shooting each other as well as the Germans.” Of a book on the war in Spain he concludes, “Clio, the Muse of history, seems, on this occasion, to have been replaced by Calliope the epic Muse.” But his own writing on war, apparently unemphatic in style, restrained but never suggesting self-consciousness, conveys with lucidity and power the courage, the companionship, and the horror of war in the twentieth century. This collection of essays is the work of a man whom one would like to have as a friend. It deserves to have a great success.

This Issue

October 26, 1989