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?”1 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 the soothers, of mankind—in their day and ever after. Modern “classicism” argues that Athens, the first democracy, was a light to all later ages, offering an ideal of freedom preserved in “the classical tradition.” In fact, however, Athens was considered such a disorderly and short-lived experiment in “extreme relativism” that it discredited democracy for over two millennia. Only in the last century did Athens become admired for its form of government. Up to that point, Roman control of classical memory had made Sparta the ideal Greek polis.2

When Athens did become a modern ideal, a great part of the Athenian reality was suppressed—the city’s slavery, domination of women, and acceptance of homosexuality. Benjamin Jowett and others turned Plato into an upstanding Victorian gentleman, doing much of Allan Bloom’s work for him. As Moses Finley points out, there is not a single entry for “slaves” in the exhaustive indices to Werner Jaeger’s three-volume Paideia, a favorite text of recent “classicism.”3 This cult of antiquity was called “mystical classicizing” by Arnaldo Momigliano.4 It still exists, and can crop up in the oddest places. We expect Lynne Cheney to idealize what is clearly a vague memory to her. But even a fine troubler of our own democracy, I.F. Stone, could chide Socrates for being insufficiently reverential toward a faultless liberal like Pericles. If it is asked how a modern “gadfly” like Stone can demand conformity of Socrates, Stone announces that Athens gave little or no reason to oppose the democracy:

Athens had no Alien and Sedition Laws. Athens had no little Iron Curtain like the McCarran-Walter immigration act to bar visitors with suspect ideas…. Athens never had an un-Athenian Activities Investigating Committee…. If ever a city deserved the full energy and devotion of its citizens, that city was Athens.5

How, then, could this model city condemn Socrates? That is the question that puzzled Stone. He concluded that Socrates tricked the city into killing him—just as he “trapp[ed] Meletus into calling him an atheist.”6 Socrates refused to say the words that would have acquitted him “because his victory would also have been a victory for the democratic principles he scorned.” Socrates wanted to use his martyrdom to hurt his city: “An acquittal would have vindicated Athens.”7 What were the magic words that would have acquitted? “Free speech.” On that everyone in Athens, excepting only Socrates and his followers, was agreed. That is why “all the leading citizens of the city were lined up against Socrates.”8 Only he and his followers were “out of step with their time.”9


One would never suspect from Stone’s book that not only most Greek authors, but most surviving Athenian authors, were opposed to the Periclean democracy. Stone treats Aristotle as the champion of that democracy; but Aristotle was harshly critical of Pericles—he preferred Theramenes, a member of “the Thirty Tyrants,” a figure associated with Socrates in antiquity.10 Stone refers often to Pericles’ funeral oration, without any sense of its ironies—revealed in the next speech Thucydides gave to Pericles, a defense of empire at all costs.

It is true that Thucydides, a critic of the empire, thought that leaders like Pericles were necessary if one did have an empire—but he says the same thing of Alcibiades, another figure associated with Socrates.11 Implicit misgivings about Periclean empire are traceable in the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides—Knox himself famously emphasized the Periclean aspect of Sophocles’ tragic Oedipus.12 Of the extant dramatists only Aeschylus (in what remains of him) seems to have been a consistent celebrator of the democracy. This should give pause to the critics of an “adversary culture” in America—who are usually “mystical classicizers” on the subject of Athens. Poor Stone really does not belong in their company; but he ended up there once he accepted the mythical claim of Athens as an ideal democracy.

The idealization of Athens has blinded people to the realities of Greek slavery and female repression. Camille Paglia, a believer in “the luminous element of ritualized Apollonianism in ancient Athenian culture,” thinks that women had a soft time of it in Athens: “The portrait of Greek women as jailed and oppressed fails to acknowledge the historical fact that male law and order also provided protection, security, and physical sustenance to women and children.” 13 Paglia, despite her eccentricity, has been welcomed by some conservatives as a harpy conveniently fouling the banquet table of feminists and anticanonists. For their purposes, she is a Lynne Cheney with fangs. But her treatment of classical women resembles the defense of Athenian slavery as different from other cultures’ oppression, not only because of the Athenians’ “having on the whole treated their slaves liberally,” but because the slaves incidentally contributed to the great spiritual achievements of Hellas.14 Yet Gregory Vlastos has shown how slavery, far from being an incidental cost of spiritual achievements, fundamentally shaped and perverted the spiritual ideals themselves.15 The restrictions placed on slaves in Plato’s Laws were not only harsher than any in Athens, but were “less liberal than any known slave legislation of classical antiquity,” for reasons grounded in Plato’s metaphysics.16

Knox’s Jefferson Lecture demonstrates the way classical learning can rescue us from the nonsense purveyed by “classicism.” He describes the current rescue effort in four areas—in the studies of anthropology, psychology, women, and slaves. Greek anthropologists studying practices like ancient sacrifice have to draw on parallels in other societies, ancient or undeveloped. In the collection to which Knox contributes an essay, New Perspectives in Early Greek Art, Walter Burkert shows how certain ritual scenes in Homer make no sense in themselves, though they reveal their point when we see how they imitate Near Eastern ritual. It turns out that the oldest dead white European males were not entirely European after all.

In the realm of psychology, Knox’s contribution to New Perspectives dismantles Bruno Snell’s influential argument that the Homeric period had no concept of the living human body as a whole, since it had no word for it (only for the dead body, soma). Knox shows that some terms were used for the whole living body—demas, eidos, phye. Their use was restricted by the artificial nature of epic language; but the concept is revealed through the use of names, or of the voices that address the body’s parts, or of the descriptions and epithets applied to whole persons. The Jefferson Lecture adds a further point: if Snell’s argument from silence is to be used, then we anglophones have no experience or recognition of Schadenfreude, since we have no single word for it. The range and wit of Knox’s references here are typical of his graceful scholarship. 17


On the subject of women, Knox shows how modern feminism has changed our understanding of Greek culture. It used to be argued that the Athenians really did have a high regard for women, despite the way wives were muted and immobilized in real life—a regard that shows up in heroines of Greek tragedy, in Antigone or Alcestis. But Froma Zeitlin shows that women represent the generally menacing “other” in Greek tragedy, setting tests for male heroism (as monsters and foes also do), without upsetting the paternalism of the society.18

Knox says less about the new treatment of Greek slavery, perhaps because Moses Finley has said so much, forcing hard truths on the mystical devotees of Athens:

Buckland noted that “There is scarcely a problem” in Roman law “the solution of which may not be affected by the fact that one of the parties to the transaction is a slave.” That is too narrow. I should say that there was no action or belief or institution in Graeco-Roman antiquity that was not one way or other affected by the possibility that some one individual might be a slave.19

Those who draw a romantic picture of poor Socrates living free of material encumbrance resolutely overlook the fact that a person who could afford to study with the Sophist Prodicus, who lived as an intellectual inquirer without the need to work, and who qualified as a property-holding hoplite free to train and campaign in the wars, obviously had an estate of some sort that involved slaves.20 Part of the hoplite’s equipage was not only his expensive and heavy armor but the “batman” slave (hypæretæs) who maintained that armor and scouted up provisions. Socrates no doubt went to war (at least four times) attended by a personal body servant—how that information would have delighted I.F. Stone!

I am surprised that Knox does not add gay studies to the things that are rejuvenating classical learning.21 Those who recently made such a fuss over gays in the military are often the same ones who base Western civilization on the victories that turned back “the barbarian” at Thermopylae, fought by largely homosexual Spartans, and Marathon, fought by Athenians of the generation of Aeschylus, who were well disposed toward homosexuals. As K.J. Dover wrote:

It may well be that the late sixth and early fifth centuries, the generation of men who (like Aiskhylos) defeated the Persians, witnessed a more open, headstrong, sensual glorification of homosexuality than any other period in antiquity.22

Aeschylus, after all, wrote a most erotic line for his homosexual lovers Achilles and Patroclus: “The holy traffic with your thighs” (mæron te ton son eusebæs homilia).23 The important work of John Winkler, David Halperin, and others is demonstrating that almost every prior generalization about Greek homosexuality is dubious or in need of reassessment.

Of the two talks Knox appended to the Jefferson Lecture, one is a charming account of his year spent in Athens, discovering that there are continuities between ancient and modern Greece—a thing “classicism” has usually denied. Ingram Bywater, the British Aristotelian, refused to visit modern Greece, for fear it would disturb his mental picture of ancient beauty, and Camille Paglia thinks only The Reader’s Digest would try to find signs of ancient Greek life in modern Athens.24 But Knox knows that survivals in the popular culture do occur (games, music, spells).25 He also found his stay useful for correcting the impressions that “classicism” made on his youth—including the idea that Greek gods and heroes were tall white Aryans in appearance. Actually the “blond (xanthoi) heroes” of Homer are probably brown-haired, and most references to hair in classical Greek are to black or dark hair. The skin of the ancients was no doubt swarthy, since they were not only Mediterraneans but spent much of their life in the open air, sometimes competing naked under a punishing sun. In black-figure vases, the women, always pent inside, are white, the males (human or divine) are black. Dead white European males were not all that white, after all.

Knox has just published a Norton anthology of classical prose and poetry in translation. As one might expect from a man who has been principally a Hellenist, the Greek world prevails over the Roman (roughly 500 pages of Greek to 250 of Latin authors). Knox defends this by saying that Greek survives translation better. But the Greek Anthology items would reveal their later influence if some excerpts from Martial were included. Anthologies, of course, are always things to argue with, and this one has uniformly readable modern translations, along with an introduction that gives the latest and most accurate information on both cultures.

The learning of that introduction shows that Knox is a master of the latest discoveries in his field. He acquired the traditional skills of philology in England and America. But no one could ever accuse him of being a scholar in the sense Yeats gave that term:

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neigh- bour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?26

Knox, born in England to a jazzpianist father, won a classical scholarship to Cambridge in 1933. On graduation, he sold all of his classical books to finance a trip to Spain, where his friend John Cornford (son of the Plato scholar, Francis Cornford) had preceded him. They made up, with a third friend named MacLaurin, a team of three from Cambridge fighting Franco. Knox alone of the three survived, and he was severely wounded in the neck and shoulder. He has described himself at the time as “wildly left wing,” and he was issued a Communist Party card in Spain—a thing that would pose a threat to him in the McCarthy period, when he was a young faculty member at Yale. The right-wing professor Willmoore Kendall took Knox to lunch for scrutiny, and then issued this laissez-passer: “You know, in Germany, Nazi Party leaders were allowed to have one Jewish friend, whom they protected from persecution. You are my Jewish friend.”

Actually, it would have been hard for McCarthyites to challenge the patriotism of a man who became a United States citizen in time to fight World War II behind the lines in France and with the partisans in Italy, winning both the Bronze Star and the Croix de Guerre. Since Knox was in the OSS, there is a fascinating picture of him being awarded the Bronze Star by General “Wild Bill” Donovan. His “Jedburgh” team, which parachuted into France, was chosen by tests that favored “troublemakers”—the fear was that members of the team dropped into France would go to ground and do nothing. Knox, on the basis of his exploits in Spain, was not even tested. His credentials as a troublemaker were in order—which gives weight to his estimate of the Greeks as the great trouble-makers of the mind. Even as a graduate student at Yale, he was enough out of step in choosing his dissertation topic that he could find no one on the faculty to direct it.

Knox points out in the introduction to his lectures that the study of antiquity—sometimes a refuge for conservatives like Jaeger or Heidegger—has also been a good school for rebels. This was as true of Freud or Nietzsche as of Marx. Marx was classicaly trained in Bonn by great scholars like A.W. Schlegel and F.G. Welcker. He translated Ovid. He read Aeschylus and Homer, in Greek, throughout his life. His doctoral thesis was a study of the Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus.27 That the Greeks still speak to radicals I learned from my anarchist friend, Karl Hess. In his right-anarchist days he wrote speeches for Barry Goldwater. In his left-anarchist days he was a Vietnam War protester. Arrested together at one demonstration, we shared a cell and had lots of time to talk about lots of things, including Greek (since I had a Greek New Testament with me). I told him I thought the most economical intellectual investment one can make is learning Greek—it gives access to the most influential texts in our history, from the New Testament to the founding examples of drama, oratory, philosophy. I mentioned what lzzy Stone had told me, that he regretted he had come to Greek so late in life. Weeks later we were at a follow-up demonstration and Karl said, “I’m going to stay by you and hope we can get in the same cell again.” I asked why. “I’ve been teaching myself Greek and I want to go over verb forms.” (We were arrested together but put in different cells.)

Hess was not looking for some perfect past, but for tools to use in the present. “Classicism” holds that the Greeks would be valueless if they did not offer us a model for imitation. The Greeks have to be considered as superhuman—too noble, Winckelmann said, to display suffering in their faces. Lessing wrote:

Beautiful statues fashioned from beautiful men reacted upon their creators, and the state was indebted for its beautiful men to beautiful statues.28

If the Greeks were not so noble after all, it is best to conceal that fact, to keep up a Platonic “noble lie” about them. The great scholar Ulrich von Wilomowitz-Moellendorff rebuked Jacob Burckhardt for treating the Greeks like any other people. In the sacred place at Delphi, for instance, Burckhardt saw this in the votive offerings for victories won by individual cities: “the great monumental museum of Greek hatred against other Greeks, with the greatest prolongation art could achieve of sufferings inflicted back and forth.”29

Why study the Greeks, if they are not models of excellence? One of the best answers was given in W.H. Auden’s introduction to the Viking Portable Greek Reader. He destroys certain myths of “classicism”—that the Greeks were central in their humanness (very peculiar family, those Labdacids, wouldn’t you say?), that Greek drama is a model for later drama (it was, in some ways, more like a modern bullfight), that we can or should try to reinhabit something called a “Greek mind.” He treats Hellenic ideals with iconoclastic breeziness.

There is no single Greek literary work of art as great as The Divine Comedy; there is no extant series of works by a single Greek literary artist as impressive as the complete plays of Shakespeare; as a period of sustained creative activity in one medium, the seventy-five odd years of Athenian drama, between the first tragedies of Aeschylus and the last comedy of Aristophanes, are surpassed by the hundred and twenty-five years, between Gluck’s Orpheus and Verdi’s Otello, which comprise the golden age of European opera.30

Auden says it is not what the Greeks did that matters so much as the questions they asked themselves about what they were doing. All cultures have some kind of liturgical drama; but the Greeks are the first whose reflections are available to us, on a large scale, who asked themselves what on earth they were up to—why they were doing what they did, and how they could do it well. Aristotle looked at a Greek tragedy as he looked at a cow—to see how the parts work, what makes it go, what use it is. The empirical and descriptive task was not perfectly performed, so far as we can tell from the extant plays; but it was a tremendous breakthrough in self-consciousness about complex human activities.

Not that Aristotle’s gaze was pure. He brought to the cow (or to the play) his own theoretical puzzlements. He was always interested in the problem of change, how one thing can become another (and stay at least partly the same). So drama gets forced into that set of concerns. Tragedy is treated as a metabolæ from one emotional state to another. In his general theory of change, Aristotle held that a certain space for movement from one thing to another, a gap or emptiness to be filled, a deprivation (steræsis), is a requisite. In drama, that steræsis becomes the lack in what the hero is (or knows) before he becomes something else, the hamartia later rigidified into a “tragic flaw.” Classicism tries to derive from Aristotle rules for Greek drama, and indeed for all drama. Classical learning sees in the Poetics one way theory can be applied to art, a trail-blazing way in itself, but also one that suggests endless ways other theories can be applied.

Athens was caught up, in the fifth century, in a rage for theory. It made the French schools of our day look tame and imitative. Everything was coming into question. The whole place was one Brainery—to extend Aristophanes’ term (phrontistærion) for the Socratic circle. No wonder the Romans thought Athens kept an intellectual “disorderly house,” one they felt had to be shut down. Such binges of the mind do not last long. The Athenian one was a lopsided achievement, and it could not have occurred but for enabling conditions in themselves despicable—slavery, the empire, the position of women. It was an example of male-military-intellectual hypertrophy, as monstrous as it is instructive. Even the evils of the system have an instructive side to them—James Oakes testifies to the fact that Finley’s work on ancient slavery has decisively shaped the study of slavery in the modern world.31 Marx would have expected that.

There is an advantage to coming first in the large-scale kind of inquiry the ancient Greeks initiated. It is not true, as the old saying goes, that all later philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. But much of later philosophy is a dialogue with Plato, if only to refute him or fight the undesirable consequences of his views (or others’ misstatements of those views). If we heed only the later philosophers, we are hearing just one side of the conversation, a frustrating and dangerous deprivation. Virgil and Milton are engaged in a dialogue with Homer. If we hear only Milton and not Homer, we are not even hearing Milton. Though some have tried to use the classics to close discussions, the Greeks, properly understood, are the great conversation openers. They are not torches shining upon our darkness. They are more like the street lamps of history, near which people have recurrently gathered to argue with others. One goes to them for the interesting people one meets there. Marx is there. So is Auden. So is that interesting fellow Bernard Knox.

This Issue

May 13, 1993