Eminent Athenians

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain by Frank Turner
    Yale, 461 pp, £18.90, April 1981, ISBN 0 300 02480 0

It is natural to contrast this book with The Victorians and Ancient Greece, by Richard Jenkyns, reviewed by me in the issue of this journal for 21 August-3 September 1980 (Vol. 2, No 16). Mr Jenkyns is a Classical scholar and a smooth and polished writer; I wrote that he ‘offers a great deal of information, clearly and pleasingly’. Professor Turner is a historian, the author of a study of the impact of scientific naturalism on Victorian England; he describes Macaulay’s style as ‘elegant’, and though he writes clearly enough, the adjective is not one that fits his own. He makes some mistakes which Mr Jenkyns would never have made; he cannot spell the names of Wilamowitz or de Quincey, or the word ‘Nicomachean’; he thinks Pindar was Athenian; he imagines that Frazer’s commentary on Pausanias, with its wealth of artistic, religious and historical detail, is a work similar to a critical edition of a text by Porson; and the knowledge that Exeter College, Oxford has a dining-hall, in which William Sewell once publicly burned a copy of Froude’s Nemesis of Faith, has led him to refer to it by the name of Exeter Hall, a building in London where Elderess Polly, Elderess Antoinette and other Nonconformist orators dear to Matthew Arnold used to edify the public. But where Mr Jenkyns is trivial, superficial and patronising, Professor Turner is serious, thorough and understanding. He is extremely well-informed, and, where necessary, well able to take account of Continental influences; and he knows how to detect and to delineate general tendencies. Jenkyns’s book is a pleasant entertainment for the casual reader, but Turner’s is an intelligent critical study of great value. It is handsomely printed, and the numerous misprints do not seriously impede the reader; and it is well illustrated, though I hope no future author will reproduce the ghastly portrait of Gilbert Murray by a relation which the National Portrait Gallery foolishly accepted.

The Victorians made the Greeks out to have been far more like themselves than they can have been: by now anthropology and sociology have shown how dangerous analogies between their society and ours can be. Indeed, we have gone too far in the opposite direction: anyone who points to a resemblance between Greek society and our own is pounced on by a pack of sour-faced dogs scolding the Greeks, for the millionth time, for not having liberated those slaves and women whose predicament some of them were the first to call attention to. But like the men of the Renaissance, the Victorians used the Greeks for their own purposes, and as this book shows, they did this to some effect.

Turner starts by observing that there were four different ways in which the Victorians conceived the Greeks to be historically related to themselves. One was based on Christianity: the Greeks had helped to prepare the world for the coming of the Gospel, and represented the highest human level attainable without its revelation. The second rested on a cyclical theory of history similar to that of Vico and taken over by Matthew Arnold from his father Thomas: the fifth century BC, when Greek religion was challenged by the Greek enlightenment, was often held to correspond with the period when the modern Enlightenment was challenging Christianity. The third method depended upon Comte’s theory of the three successive stages of human development, religious, metaphysical and postitivist: this was adopted by empiricists such as Grote and George Henry Lewes. The fourth method was derived from Hegel, whose influence began to be felt during the 1840s. His account of how the Greeks developed from Sittlichkeit, respect for custom and tradition, to Moralität seemed to many Victorians relevant to their own times, and even now, thanks to their reverence for received opinions, it influences many students of antiquity who have never read a line of Hegel.

Turner’s choice of topics for his chapters is most skilful. He rightly begins his account of humanistic Hellenism with Matthew Arnold, partly because the attention given him has deprived other writers of the notice that should have been their due. Arnold was strongly influenced by German humanism, particularly by that of Goethe; his own humanism was essentially secular, comprehending not only Nonconformity but Evangelical religion under the pejorative term ‘Hebraism’, which was opposed to Hellenism. To some degree, Arnoldian humanism rests on misconceptions about Greek society: it is amusing to find his epigone Sir Richard Livingstone contrasting ‘the turbulence of Edwardian society’ with ‘the stability of Athens and the absence of party strife’ – a notion that might have surprised Ephialtes or Critias. Pater, as Turner says, modifies Arnoldian humanism, operating with a Hegelian theory of development instead of a Viconian theory; he was more aware of the tension and violence underlying Greek society, and almost reminds one of Nietzsche in his understanding of how hard the Greeks found it to impose order on the conflicting elements of their society and their ideas.

Turner is strongest on history, religion and philosophy; he says little about literature, except in connection with Matthew Arnold’s controversy with F.W. Newman over Homer, and not much about aesthetics in general. But he remarks that, in the study of Greek sculpture, Victorian Classicists, down to the brothers Gardner, still active in the Thirties of this century, continued to defend the aesthetics of Reynolds. In the domain of scholarship, this attitude was challenged by Sir Charles Newton, who, apart from being vastly superior as a scholar to Sir Charles Walston and his sort, had a far wider notion of the development of art and civilisation. In the domain of aesthetics, it was criticised by Ruskin, who, like Humboldt, saw that the Greeks had copied not ideal types but nature, and who had the most delicate apprehension of the sensuous qualities of Greek art and the versatile workmanship of Greek artists.

The main weakness of 19th-century understanding of the Greeks lies in the field of Greek religion. Some people recoiled from it because it was not Christian; others took it to be more like Christianity than it really was; few saw that the place it occupied in Greek society could not be compared with the place Christianity has occupied in the societies in which it has been effective. Turner gives full credit to Grote’s sceptical treatment of Greek myth and legend, a treatment not really invalidated by the discovery of the Mycenaean world. In dealing with the Cambridge anthropologists, he observes that Jane Harrison tended to depreciate Olympian religion in comparison with the ‘primitive’ kinds of worship to which she and her colleagues called attention, but that Gilbert Murray defended it, seeing it as representing a further stage in the advance towards rationality. Perhaps the modern preoccupation with the irrational has prevented people from seeing the importance of Murray’s attitude – not that the Olympian religion can be quite so sharply marked off from what was ‘primitive’ as people used to think.

Coming to Homeric problems, Turner remarks that Wolf’s views were long neglected in England, perhaps because of fear of their possible effects on the criticism of the Bible. But German scepticism about Homer was brought into the full light of publicity by the publication, in 1846, of the first volume of Grote’s history; the ‘nucleus theory’ which he adopted derives, not directly from Wolf, but from a work published by Gottfried Hermann in 1832, and it was later taken up by scholars like Jebb and Leaf. Gladstone’s astonishing attempt to show that Homer was the vehicle of a divine revelation parallel with that communicated by the Old Testament is duly chronicled; later Turner makes the interesting suggestion that Gladstone’s favourable account of the Homeric polity is meant as a rejoinder to Grote’s praise of the Athenian democracy and its alleged emancipation from religious influences. Turner remarks that the discoveries of Schliemann led people to discover a new realism in Homer – the results of this have not all been beneficial, as the translations by Samuel Butler and T.E. Lawrence still remind us. Thirty years ago, I was assured by an eminent Mycenaean archaeologist that W.H.D. Rouse had proved that Homer wrote in the colloquial language of his time.

Before Grote, Athenian democracy was commonly given a bad press. Turner rightly argues that Mitford was a better historian than he is usually considered: but with every allowance made for misconceptions – he mentions that Grote calls Pericles ‘the prime minister’ and credits Athens with a party system like that of England – he does full justice to Grote’s superb defence of the Athenian democracy. As early as the year when Disraeli brought in manhood suffrage, Bryce remarked that the differences between ancient and modern democracies were so great that ‘no arguments drawn from their experience are of any value as enabling us to predict its possible results here.’ But to the very end of the period the controversy over Athenian democracy continued, and it still goes on, though few contestants equal the crass blindness to differences between ancient and modern of G.B. Grundy, a prophet not always taken as seriously in his own country as Turner seems to take him.

Socrates, because he combined rationalising criticism of received opinions with mysticism and, if Plato can be taken literally, with metaphysics, was an ambiguous figure to the Victorians, and the ambiguity was heightened by the sharp contradictions between the ancient sources. Liberal Anglicans disapproved of the Sophists, who reminded them of the Enlightenment, but adopted Socrates as one of themselves: shocked by Hegel’s comparatively favourable treatment of the Sophists, they were horrified by Grote’s praise of them and his inclusion of Socrates among their number. Grote, like Lewes, stressed the sceptical and critical side of Socrates, whom he compared not only with Bacon but with Bentham, blaming his final catastrophe on an unfortunate addiction to religion; Turner rightly notes that Nietzsche must have read Grote. Much of Grote’s view on this matter was acceptable to Jowett, who criticised the Sophists for excessive conservatism: in opposition to them, Socrates had sought a higher moral truth. Towards the end of the period, the reaction against rationalism and individualism led some people to condemn Socrates: Turner mentions two respected Nonconformists in this connection. Others preferred to emphasise the mysticism of Socrates; some compared him with Carlyle, others with Christ, and two eminent scholars, active well into the present century, credited him with most of the philosophy of Plato.

Aristotle’s Ethics, a set-book from the early 1830s, was held to prove that the application of reason was bound to produce a system of ethics that was essentially Christian and was by no means utilitarian. The book was treated as a document of its own time only after the appearance of the first volume of Sir Alexander Grant’s commentary in 1857. Turner interestingly remarks that Grant’s questionable treatment of the concept of energeia seems to have influenced Pater, notably in the famous declaration that success in life involves burning with a hard, gemlike flame. From a Kantian standpoint, the Ethics seems deficient, but in extenuation of our ancestors one must say that, irrespective of its place in history, it is a remarkably effective textbook of the subject from a practical point of view. In tackling the Ethics paper in Greats, I found it more helpful than any other book on ethics I had read.

During the first half of the 19th century Plato was astonishingly neglected: Turner can list only a poor translation of Schleiermacher published in 1836 and William Sewell’s introduction of 1841. But in the 1850s, Whewell and W.H. Thompson began in Cambridge a movement which Jowett carried on in Oxford; from the 1870s on, Jowett found Platonic translation and exegesis a better medium than theological writing for the expression of his liberal Anglicanism much diluted with Hegelianism. Others appealed to the prophetic side of Plato, but Mill, Grote and, more surprisingly, Pater preferred to stress the sceptical side of his philosophy.