Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.01.08

Robert J. Ball (ed.), The Unpublished Lectures of Gilbert Highet. Hawaii Classical Studies, 2.   New York:  Peter Lang, 1998.  Pp. xviii, 318.  ISBN 0-8204-3824-3.  $55.95.  

Reviewed by Robert Todd, University of British Columbia (
Word count: 1209 words

In the Michaelmas Term of 1935 Oxford University witnessed an unprecedented event: a series of lectures entitled "An Introduction to Classical Scholarship," organized by a young Fellow of St. John's College, Gilbert Highet. These lectures targeted students who were in their first term of studying Oxford's version of Classics, Literae Humaniores, and were otherwise exclusively involved in the program of translation from, and composition into, the ancient languages that constituted its first phase, Honour Moderations ("Mods."). Highet, however, wanted them to receive some broader orientation to the range of subjects open to contemporary classical scholarship.1 This little-known episode from Highet's brief involvement with Oxford Classics is a good point at which to begin this review. It highlights an early commitment to situating traditional classical scholarship in a wider context, something that Highet would subsequently maintain at Columbia University, where he became a Visiting Professor in 1937, and was a member of the faculty from 1938 until his retirement in 1972. The spirit that animated his initiative at Oxford was alive as late as 1976, two years before his death, in "Then and Now: The Classics Profession," a tour d'horizon of the enlargement and enrichment of classical scholarship in his lifetime. This retrospective is one of thirty items in the collection under review, a successor to the same editor's The Classical Papers of Gilbert Highet (Columbia University Press: New York, 1983). All these new papers reveal Highet's exceptional capacity both for professional breadth and effective popularization. They include magisterial academic lectures and didactic pieces on authors, texts, and topics, arranged in three categories, "Greek Literature," "Latin Literature," and "Classical Tradition." Eleven were given to the A.P.A. and other academic groups; thirteen were originally radio talks; and two are derived from cassettes. There is one translation (of Cavafy's Waiting for the Barbarians), one squib ("Advice to a Barnard Freshman" [on drinking]), and a lecture and a pamphlet prepared for extra-academic groups. Subject matter ranges from Aristophanes to Auden, and from Dio Chrysostom to Dante Alighieri. The radio talks are from the 1950s (1953-1958), and are inevitably dated (e.g., Schliemann was "the Mike Todd of archaeology" [185]; and "most of us" (!) know Housman's "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" [191]). The other items range from 1956 to 1976.2

Why would any reader of BMCR (as opposed to a general reader, or perhaps a beginner, who might well be helped by some of the items on Latin Literature) read any of this material? It would not be for scholarly purposes; many of these pieces were clearly written at fairly short notice, and almost none were intended for publication or designed to invite controversy. Should they, then, be ignored? Certainly not, since they are valuable documents for anyone interested in the history of classical education. They remind us of an era in which a classical scholar could still seriously hope to range widely within ancient literature, and also be respected when pronouncing on literature from other periods. Highet (not unlike Housman's London colleague, Arthur Platt [1860-1925] in another era) carved himself a niche unique in his time, but now entirely inconceivable. Even "Great Books" programs of the kind that at Columbia complemented Highet's talents no longer incorporate classical literature with the same degree of respect that it once received. (It is good to have in this collection a general lecture on the Aeneid [96-104], as some indication of Highet's legendary appreciations of Virgil at Columbia.)

So we should be grateful to Professor Ball for making available raw material that might, in time, be used for historical, and perhaps biographical, purposes. Details accumulated by William Calder3 certainly suggest that Highet deserves more attention than he has yet received. For example, Calder has seen Highet's conviction that Classics could speak to modern world as influenced by Werner Jaeger, while rightly stressing its apolitical and bellelettrist character (typical of some less appealing aspects of the 1950s -- though cf. the description of the Triumvirate as the "Roman Politburo" at 216). Highet was also influenced by one of his Oxford teachers Gilbert Murray. At p. 248 ("Endurance of the Classics" [1956]), the following peroration is quintessential Murray: "The true reward of those who give their lives up to the classics is the reward promised to [Scipio] by his dead father -- that they can rise above time, and above the mists, the distances, and the perplexities of this planet, to see the lights and splendors which are truly deathless, which are symbols and perhaps guarantees of humanity." But Murray himself would have expressed similar idealism with an irony, and a verbal elegance, that Highet could never match, as in the following passage from his Oxford inaugural of 1909: "[We Greek scholars are] a somewhat bloodless company, sensitive, low-spirited, lacking in spring; in business ill at ease, in social life thin and embarrassed, objects of solicitude to kind hostesses. We have, more than most people, the joy of having given ourselves up to something greater than ourselves. We stand between the living and the dead. We are mediators through whom the power of great men over their kind may still live after death..."4 Murray would also not have surveyed the modern history of his profession, as Highet does at 297-314 (from 1975), with more emphasis on income than on the philosophical principles at stake in the modern evolution of classical scholarship. Highet could have learnt much from Murray in this area, as also from Jaeger or Dodds, all of whom, in different ways, grappled with the political implications of preserving humanism in an age of political barbarity.5 Highet's apolitical stance inevitably engendered a certain complacency. As he told the New York Classical Club in 1975, "We can look forward with hope and with confidence to the future" (314). That surely depended on what he meant by "we."

Finally, one aspect of editorial policy needs comment. At Preface p. xii Professor Ball writes: "I have occasionally softened certain words and phrases that are found in the typescripts but are not appropriate today, in accordance with the conventions that currently govern the standards of public discourse." Now, an editor can certainly omit words and phrases, as long as such omissions are clearly indicated. But to "soften" is to alter the original, and since changes were apparently not required by the copyright holders, Professor Ball must take full responsibility for his unidentified interventions. He may have understandably wanted to avoid the kind of furore occasioned by the posthumous publication of Phillip Larkin's letters a few years ago, when this distinguished British poet was revealed as having expressed racist and sexist opinions. Even so, we still needed to be told where editorial interventions had occurred.

Not to end on a sour note, let me repeat that this volume is a thoroughly worthwhile enterprise if seen primarily as contributing to our knowledge of a period in classical scholarship and education that can now perhaps be revisited without undue nostalgia or deprecation. The idiom in which contemporary Classics reaches wider audiences may have changed radically, but outreach remains the common goal that links today's teachers to Gilbert Highet. This collection could help define not only what separates contemporary classicists from his world, but also, and more importantly, what ought to unite them with it.


1.   E.R. Dodds refers to Highet's role in initiating this series in an unpublished lecture, "The Nature of University Studies in Classics" (used to introduce the series in October 1937), at Dodds Papers, Bodleian Library Oxford, Box 27, No. 12, p. 13.
2.   The lectures on Greek topics are "Pandora's Box," "Aristophanes," "Aristophanes' Frogs," "Plato's Phaedrus," "Menander's Dyskolos," and "Dio Chrysostom," those on Latin topics "Julius Caesar," "Vergil's Aeneid," "Tibullus the Rebel," "Petronius' Dinner Speakers," "Apuleius's Golden Ass," and "Apuleius's Cupid and Psyche." Of the eighteen items on the Classical Tradition not already mentioned two deal with Julius Caesar (Shakespeare's play, as well as Joseph Mankiewicz's film, though with Marlon Brando's Oscar-winning Mark Antony ignored); one with A.E. Housman's prose; three with the classical sources of, respectively, Joyce's Ulysses, Kazantzakis's Odyssey, and Auden's Shield of Achilles; and three with Linear B, Schliemann's excavations, and classical oratory. That leaves "America's Classical Heritage," "Endurance of the Classics," two pieces on "Classical Influences" (on "today's world", and on "modern literature"), and a dated revisiting of a once lively debate, "Two Cultures: the Arts and the Sciences."
3.   See the index to the recent collection of papers, William M. Calder III, Men in Their Books: Studies in the Modern History of Classical Scholarship, John P. Harris and R. Scott Smith (eds.), Spudasmata 67, Hildesheim etc.: Olms, 1998. The reference to Jaeger and Highet is at p. 142.
4.   The Interpretation of Ancient Greek Literature (Oxford, 1909), 19-20.
5.   See, for example, two lectures from 1936: Jaeger, "Classical Philology and Humanism," TAPA 67 (1936) 363-374, and Dodds, "Humanism and Technique in Greek Studies" (Oxford 1936).

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