Modern Prejudice

M.I. Finley

  • Blood for the Ghosts: Classical Influences in the 19th and 20th Centuries by Hugh Lloyd-Jones
    Duckworth, 312 pp, £24.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1500 9
  • Classical Survivals: The Classics in the Modern World by Hugh Lloyd-Jones
    Duckworth, 184 pp, £18.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1517 3
  • History of Classical Scholarship by U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, edited by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, translated by Alan Harris
    Duckworth, 189 pp, £18.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 7156 0976 9

Of the 53 short essays, book reviews, lectures and obituaries assembled in Hugh Lloyd-Jones’s two volumes, two were published in the year before he assumed the Regius Professorship of Greek in the University of Oxford, one was his Inaugural Lecture of 1960, and the remainder were written subsequently. I say this not as a prelude to yet another bad joke about ‘the other place’ but because it is impossible to appreciate the two volumes without some understanding of the course of Classical studies in 20th-century Britain and of the author’s role in them.

An auditor of Lloyd-Jones’s Inaugural Lecture who had known him only in his days as a young Classical don in Cambridge might well have been pardoned for distrusting his own hearing. In answer to the question whether ‘Housman was right to dismiss [Gilbert] Murray as one who would have been a good scholar but preferred to be an indifferent man of letters,’ the new Regius Professor replied: ‘a thousand times no... because I believe in the possibility of understanding ancient thought, at least in some degree, without importing modern prejudices.’ Murray and E.R. Dodds, his two predecessors in the chair, had both made the attempt, ‘and I shall do anything I can to follow them.’ The two closely linked themes that dominate these books are announced here and reiterated time and again: one is the contrast, indeed the conflict, between the Classical scholar and the Classical man of letters, the other is the menace of ‘modern prejudices’ in any attempt to interpret the civilisation of the Greeks and the Romans. And the two contemporaries, Housman and Murray, are the alternative symbols.

The supposed clash between scholarship and belles lettres is of course familiar in other humanistic fields, but Classical studies face it in an acute form: first because of the special place of the Classics in Western education and culture, secondly because of the unparalleled problems created by prose and poetry all of which was written in now dead languages before the invention of the printing-press. When we read Thucydides or Lucretius or Tacitus, either in the original or in translation, it is an act of faith to believe that throughout we are reading precisely what Thucydides or Lucretius or Tacitus wrote. A text has been laboriously collated from one or more Medieval manuscripts, copied by scribes many hundreds of years after the author’s lifetime, and it has been corrected by modern scholars. The jargon term for the work of the modern editor is ‘textual criticism’ and that activity, above all, is what is customarily meant by scholarship in this field, not rarely described as ‘scientific’. That is an abuse of the language: what controls are there over the work of a textual critic? How can one determine whether or not he has chosen the correct reading from a number of manuscript variants or that a proposed emendation is well grounded? In short, that the text he offers is precisely what the author wrote – an author, we must remember, who may have made any number of mistakes in usage, in grammar or in his thinking? The best answer possible is that there is (if there is) a consensus of expert opinion in the textual critic’s favour. It hardly needs saying that such a test does not warrant the label ‘scientific’.

That test has anyway been weakened by a source of information that is hardly a century old: namely, the (normally very fragmentary) ancient literary texts copied on Egyptian papyri hundreds of years before the Medieval manuscripts came into existence, a few even in the third or second century BC and thus very near to the date of composition. By now the number of fragmentary copies (not titles) of books by authors whose names are identifiable is in the region of two thousand, half of them copies of the Iliad or Odyssey. Papyrological copies cannot automatically be assumed to be more faithful than later manuscripts. Nevertheless, they provide some check on the efforts of modern editors.

As early as 1904, F.G. Kenyon, a pioneer in the field and eventually Principal Keeper of Books in the British Museum, analysed in detail all the then published papyrological texts which were also known from Medieval manuscripts, totalling 189, of which 109 were Homeric. ‘On a broad, general view,’ he concluded, ‘the result is reassuring. Taken in the mass the papyri confirm the authenticity of our generally received texts.’ However, he went on to say – and this is the relevant point in our present context – that ‘the favourite methods of modern textual criticism’ and the appeal to ‘the acumen of the critic’ have been ‘shown to be of very limited value’. Indeed, ‘it cannot be denied that in general the papyri do not support the conjectures of modern scholars... in no case, it may safely be said, has any sweeping change been justified by the papyri.’ In 1919, when the number of relevant papyrological fragments had almost trebled, Kenyon reaffirmed his conclusions and he was supported by another of the pioneers, B.P. Grenfell. I am unaware of any subsequent analysis in depth or of any refutation of the Kenyon-Grenfell conclusions.

No one questions the desirability of establishing the most accurate text possible. Nor should we underestimate the effort, knowledge and skill involved in editing a Classical author. But that is not the question before us. In a 1946 lecture, Dodds pointed out that five distinguished scholars had produced editions of Aesehylus’s Prometheus Bound since Wilamowitz’s edition just before the First World War, and that together the five had introduced only six new readings into the text, each unacceptable to the other four editors. ‘Surely,’ Dodds concluded, ‘this suggests that the law of diminishing returns has begun to operate.’ I suppose that only a dwindling minority of Classical specialists would challenge that conclusion today: yet of those who would not, many retain an 18th-century admiration of the textual critic which they are unable (or unwilling) to suppress.

Lloyd-Jones for one. When he writes that Housman, ‘with his exaggerated insistence that the critical appreciation of literature was an emotional matter that had nothing to do with scholarship, had done harm in Cambridge education’, we hear the voice of the convert from his own youthful Housmanian days. The chief catalyst of that conversion was Nietzsche, with Lloyd-Jones’s discovery in the 1960s of the Birth of Tragedy, a ‘work of genius’ that ‘began a new era in the understanding of Greek thought’. The evidence we are given for this strong claim turns out to be thin and insufficient, the supporting comments very much pre-conversion. It will be observed that the ‘harm’ Housman did was exclusively negative, stemming from his rejection of literary criticism as not scholarly, whereas his own peculiar brand of scholarship is irreproachable: this was climaxed after more than twenty years of toil by a five-volume edition with Latin commentary of the Astronomica of Manilius, a long, and by any standard very minor, didactic poem.

Housman himself, we are told, called Manilius ‘a facile and frivolous poet’ with an ‘eminent aptitude for doing sums in verse’. Yet, Lloyd-Jones asserts, ‘a good edition of Manilius will retain much of its value fifty years later; a book like Five Stages of Greek Religion will be largely out of date.’ When Lloyd-Jones wrote that, 49 years after Gilbert Murray delivered the lectures which were published under that title (originally Four Stages), the book had proceeded to a new, revised edition, which was eventually reprinted three times. Lloyd-Jones himself later called it Murray’s ‘most important book’, the conclusions ‘expressed with clarity and elegance’. Housman’s Manilius, in contrast, had a print run of four hundred copies. Let us be generous: for the hundred people in any generation who may wish to study Manilius, Housman’s edition is indispensable. But many thousands have turned to Murray’s Five Stages, still in print after nearly three-quarters of a century.

The test of ‘out-of-dateness’ is thus an odd one, resting on the notion that the study of the past is menaced with gross distortion from the ‘modern prejudices’ I noted at the beginning. Scholarship, it is implied, provides a defence because it is concerned solely with ‘facts’. And so the conversion is less than complete: Housman comes out much more favourably than Murray despite the occasional statement to the contrary. He shares the status of chief hero with Nietzsche, and that is quite a trick, for Nietzsche’s lecture notes of the period when he was a Classical professor at the University of Basel ‘contain little establishment of concrete facts’ and his ‘achievement in professional scholarship is trivial’.

Lloyd-Jones’s admiration for the good textual critic is genuine, but what really matters to him otherwise is the substance of the ideas, whether or not encased in ‘scholarship’. That is no bad test in a humanistic discourse: are the ideas acceptable or not? ‘Modern prejudices’ and the habitual use of the adjective ‘fashionable’ as a dirty word are largely red herrings. Witness the two favourable reviews of books on women in Antiquity written from the most fashionable of approaches: ‘even a work dealing with a fashionable topic may be useful.’ He has written several reviews of books of mine, with an unfailing kindness to most of my outrageously modern prejudices, though the limits of tolerance were reached when he came to an essay objecting to the continued dominance of British education by a narrowly literary concern. That provoked him to a page of indignant rhetoric. My position, he writes, grows out of a ‘Rousseauite reluctance to make children work’, and defends the disappearance of languages from the American school curriculum – two charges I reject completely. Besides, my position ‘might even encourage those who would make a training like that given by the University of Essex compulsory for all’. That charge I do not understand, in the context either of 1982 or of 1975, when it was written.

But there is little point in expatiating on our different prejudices and their deployment. That is one reason why I shall not discuss the individual essays, nor the (to me) puzzling sponsorship of a translation of the short history of Classical scholarship published by Wilamowitz in 1921. I happily concede the towering scholarly stature of Wilamowitz, but whom will this volume interest other than Classical specialists who may be presumed to be capable of reading the original German? The 178 pages of text, ranging from the Roman Imperial period to the early 20th century, offer a mixture of mere catalogue – ‘Thus the remains of Ennius were collected by Vahlen, of the Latin dramatists by Ribbeck, and of the Twelve Tables by Rudolf Schöll’ – and thumbnail evaluations, often sharp, never supported by argument or example, and not always reasonable. Two of Wilamowitz’s chief butts, Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt, are not even mentioned, though his early assaults on them were genuine scandals and were never retracted.

What I have concentrated on is the far more important matter, as I indicated at the outset, of the place of Classical studies in our world and their future. Lloyd-Jones’s Inaugural statement of faith – ‘I believe in the possibility of understanding ancient thought, at least in some degree, without importing modern prejudices’ – raises difficult epistemological questions, unless the saving clause, ‘at least in some degree’, is intended so broadly as to render the whole sentence meaningless. Is it really possible to ‘feel yourself into’ (Dilthey’s einfühlen) a past epoch? Can one read a Greek play as if Shakespeare had never lived? Of course one must not blindly ‘import’ modern prejudices, but the alternative is not a simple one, and I miss any discussion by Lloyd-Jones of the philosophical issues which the question has stimulated. Dilthey is never mentioned, nor is Collingwood’s Ideas of History.

That’s a pity. Oxford’s Regius Professor of Greek ranges widely beyond the usual purview of the Classical scholar of our time. He has thus fulfilled his Inaugural ‘pledge’ despite retaining traces of his ‘Housmanian’ youth. Those of us who are in the other camp would welcome his going on to give his reasoned views on the important problems and difficulties, which he has himself raised, that are implicit in the serious study of Classical authors and Classical values in our own fundamentally different civilisation.