Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1.2.11


Bernard Knox, Essays Ancient and Modern. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Pp. xxxv, 312. $12.95 (pb), $35.00 (hb). ISBN 0-8018-4107-0 (pb), 0-8018-3789-8 (hb).


Reviewed by Mary Whitlock Blundell, University of Washington

Few professional classicists can claim to have been trained in burglary school as well as graduate school, or to have supplemented the cut and thrust of scholarly debate with "Australian barroom fighting". But then few have had such rich careers as Bernard Knox has, not only as a speaker of words but as a doer of deeds. And fewer still have succeeded in weaving a web of context between word and action as artfully as Knox does in this second collection of his essays, which is now available in paperback. From the opening account of his role in the Spanish Civil War defending a university building entitled "Filosofia y Letras", to an interpretation of Thucydides addressed to students of the Naval War College and larded with modern parallels, Knox has a rare ability to weave connections not only between the ancient and modern worlds, but between the life of action and that of contemplation.

The twenty-five essays and reviews collected here were originally published between 1976 and 1988, most of them in such journals as The New York Review of Books and The New Republic. The volume is thus aimed less at the specialist than at the educated public (unlike Knox's earlier collection Word and Action). Several pieces offer well expressed but otherwise unexceptional interpretations of ancient texts (Hesiod, Thucydides, Sophocles' OT). But there is also much to interest the professional classicist, especially in the reviews, which cover a broad spectrum of works on ancient life and thought. Redfield, Finley, Dover, de Ste Croix, Vidal-Naquet, Keuls, Steiner and many others pass under Knox's judicious and sometimes acerbic eye.

Knox gives a decidedly mixed reception to recent trends in literary theory. Lacan (130) and certain unnamed anthropologists (23) are marked out for special disapproval, along with "epigones of Lévi-Strauss," and "students of Derrida [who] continue to write critical prose which is often a classic vindication of their master's basic contention that language is not an adequate instrument for the expression of meaning" (77). But this hostility is tempered by a generous appreciation of individual scholars, such as Vidal-Naquet, whose political engagement no doubt strikes a personal chord in the Spanish Civil War veteran. The abiding impression, however, is of one who harbors a Hesiodic suspicion for the exciting but treacherous high seas of non-traditional methodologies -- one who "will prefer to settle, reluctantly in most cases, for the old uncertainty and imperfection, to live with unanswered questions and unrelated details rather than allow theory and occasional poetic license the benefit of the doubt" (89).

While one may respect this healthy scepticism and benefit from the clear-sighted analysis it often produces, there are times when Knox is handicapped by his reluctance to adjust his sail to fresh winds of change. Despite his sympathy for such disenfranchised groups as slaves (in the ancient world) and homosexuals (in the modern), and his acknowledgement of the exploitation of women in classical Athens (111), his writing displays a certain insensitivity to gender issues. We are informed yet again that "any citizen" could participate in meetings of the Athenian assembly (106). And it seems at best perverse to dismiss the phallus on the Athenian herm as a "detail" (110). Moreover Knox's preference for the word "man" to denote the human race is not just offensive to the feminist ear, but interferes with his usual elegant lucidity. When he claims that the myth of Pandora "absolves man of any responsibility for the evil of the world" (11), he is not, as one might think, alluding to the fact that in the Greek tale woman, as opposed to man, is the cause of human misery, but claiming that we humans are not responsible for that misery at all (since "Prometheus ... was not a man," "the instrument of disaster was a creature made by Zeus," and "it was not even a man who let Pandora in"). Hesiod, however, makes Pandora and the women who came after her (who on most counts make up about half the human race), unequivocally responsible for "the misery in which man lives".

But such reservations should not be allowed to interfere with the numerous pleasures to be reaped from Knox's incisive essays on the ancient world. Still more enjoyable in some ways, and often most instructive, are those pieces which bridge the gap between the "ancient" and "modern" of Knox's title, exploring such subjects as the curious history of the the French Academy's Prix de Rome, and the influence of Hellenism on Victorian England (which is the occasion for repeating a wonderful Oscar Wilde anecdote, 154). Then there are the exclusively "modern" essays, which unearth gems ranging from Bentham's theory of a homosexual Jesus (192f.) to Auden's mode of delivery at a poetry reading: "the voice of a half-mad Oxfordshire curate with occasional notes suggestive of a sheep in extreme distress" (219).

The book closes with a handful of essays on the Spanish Civil War and World War II, often spiced with absorbing incidents from Knox's own adventures. With these belongs his fascinating autobiographical introduction, with its moving account of how he rediscovered the classics. Taking cover from a German machine gun in a bombed-out Italian house, he found among the debris "a text of Virgil, printed on expensive heavy paper, one of a series of classical texts issued by the Royal Italian Academy to celebrate the greatness of ancient (and modern) Rome; the title page bore the improbable heading, in Latin, IUSSU BENEDICTI MUSSOLINI" (xxx). Practising the sors Virgiliana on this ominous volume, his finger lit upon the denunciation of war which concludes the first Georgic. This fateful moment inspired Knox's future career as a masterly interpreter of the classics. That it did so, none of us can regret.