Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.29

E.R. Dodds, Missing Persons: An Autobiography.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1977; reprinted 2000.  Pp. x, 202.  £35.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Todd, University of British Columbia (
Word count: 1665 words

The Oxford University Press has just reprinted nine works of classical scholarship among seventy titles in a new series "Scholarly Classics," in which "great academic works" from its archives have been resurrected in order to allow "fresh access to some of the finest scholarship of the last century."1 But one further work that appears under "Classics" is an autobiography by a major scholar first published twenty-three years ago. Since it belongs to the realm of literature and has had no place in ongoing scholarly debates, its reissue and fresh access justify its being, as it were, re-reviewed.

E.R. Dodds' Missing Persons (hereafter MP) is an artfully written evocation of a complex life that extended from Ulster in the 1890s to Thatcher's England. Throughout it a consistent devotion to classical scholarship was maintained in the face of personal sadness (an alcoholic father, and a childless marriage), cultural disruption (deracination from Ireland), an uneven career (temporary expulsion from Oxford as an undergraduate; a hostile reception on returning there as Regius Professor of Greek), and the intrusions of two world wars (non-combatantcy in one; debilitating service and travel in the other). Yet, confronted with these challenges, Dodds did not use scholarship as an escape. Instead, he sought to enlarge the limits of the traditional language-bound Classics of his era by informing it with insights drawn from psychology, anthropology, and psychical research, and by extending its range to include neglected authors of late antiquity, while all the time maintaining firm roots in traditional scholarly techniques. Classicists are familiar with this general picture of Dodds' achievement, as well as with the susceptibility of his approach to the charge of anachronism. His career and work have, however, been directly addressed in only a handful of special studies, and these have revealed that his autobiography is not the only, and not always the best, source for interpreting and understanding his oeuvre in the context of his life and times.2

We know now that Dodds wrote Missing Persons in the wake of his wife's death after a prolonged illness,3 as a work of consolation more than an apologia, and, above all, not as an intellectual and scholarly memoir. It is perhaps best described as a phenomenology of the self, in which the author focuses on his experiences and the dissociations he detected in them (the "missing persons" of his title; cf. MP, 192-195). The language is simple and unrhetorical,4 and the tone unsentimental. It contains vivid narratives (journeys to Serbia, China, and the United States) and a host of defining incidents charged with unstated meaning (e.g., images of his father's alcoholism [MP, 3], or glimpses of scholarly obsessiveness from A.E. Taylor and Max Pohlenz [MP, 75 and 166]). Such immediacy generally predominates over analysis, and when the latter occurs (as on Ireland [MP, 82-83], or the decline of Classics [MP, 172-176]) it emerges as rather stale and derivative. The result, then, is a biography not primarily designed to engage fellow professionals or to gratify historians of classical scholarship. These constituencies want more information about the great scholars whom Dodds knew; instead, they find them passed over in cursory, even evasive, terms.5 And though remarkably frank about some aspects of his personal life,6 Dodds is also too fastidious for gossip (declining even to name his bitterest foe at Oxford).7 Yet his silences invariably raise crucial questions, and since classicists discovering, or rediscovering, this autobiography may be most interested in those concerning the origins and evolution of his scholarship, those are the ones I shall pursue here.

Dodds' academic career had three phases: (i) the years 1917-1933 in which, after taking his Oxford degree, he worked intensively on Neoplatonism, while teaching at the universities of Reading and Birmingham; (ii) the period that began around the time of his return to Oxford in 1936 and is marked by his two most important and influential works, the edition of Euripides' Bacchae (1944) and The Greeks and the Irrational (1951); and then (iii) his last decade at Oxford, when he devoted himself to his edition of Plato's Gorgias (1959), returning to the study of ancient irrationalism only in retirement, with Pagan and Christian in An Age of Anxiety (1965). MP provides much factual information on these stages yet explains too little of why the author took up particular areas of study and why he changed from one to the other. Whether through reticence, indifference, or a sense of its irrelevance to his autobiographical project, he leaves (perhaps invites) the reader to supply such an analysis.8

First, in the case of Neoplatonism, and Plotinus, we learn that his friendship with the inspired amateur Stephen MacKenna was fueled by a "common love" of Plotinus, which went back, he adds, to a class at Oxford with J.A. Stewart "and perhaps a little further" (MP, 63). How much further? Did he encounter him first at school, or in the circles of the Hermetic Society of George William Russell (AE), which we know he joined before he took Stewart's class (MP, 55)?9 And why did he persist in working on Plotinus, and later Proclus, during the 1920s when such authors were so obviously non-canonical within British Classics? I have suggested in this journal (BMCR 99.11.19) that it was easier for him to do so in provincial locations, where he had fewer and less challenging students (cf. MP, 90, 92), than would have been the case at Oxford. But we have to speculate. Dodds provides only details, such as the memorable story (MP, 92) of an audience having to be drummed up at the last minute for a paper on Plotinus at Oxford in 1926. That anecdote, as they say, speaks volumes, but volumes that we must decipher; Dodds doesn't do the job for us.

Secondly, why did Dodds shift in the 1930s and 1940s to studying authors from the classical period? He refers offhandedly (MP, 91) to taking "compassionate leave" in the late 1920s from what he revealingly calls "enslavement" to his edition of Proclus' Elements of Theology for "lesser enterprises, including a couple of papers on Euripides." But the papers mentioned here as parerga introduced Freudian psychology into an analysis of Phaedra's state of mind in the Hippolytus, and proposed a relationship between Euripides and contemporary irrationalism that anticipated The Greeks and the Irrational.10 Both papers also appeared just as Dodds was moving towards a throughly secular Weltanschauung. While his book of poems (1929) reflects Neoplatonism and its dualistic psychology,11 just two years later (and here we have to go to the archives) he delivered a paper that embraced secular morality, and offered a version of modern instinct-based psychology.12 Such an intellectual framework was more readily adapted to pagan classical literature than to the texts of Neoplatonism. His career dovetailed with this development when he returned to Oxford in 1936 and had to teach the canonical classical syllabus. An invitation to edit the Bacchae came in his first term as Gilbert Murray's successor, and by accepting it Dodds reestablished links to his Oxford undergraduate years, when Murray's lectures on Euripides' Bacchae had been his "most exciting intellectual adventure" (MP, 28). But the account of his development that I have given here is only skirted in Missing Persons. Thus he notes (MP, 169) that by "willingly" agreeing to edit the Bacchae he was able to show that he knew about something other than Neoplatonism. But he does not indicate why he preferred this task rather than joining Paul Henry in editing Plotinus, as he was invited to also in 1936 (a fact he omits).13 And whom did he think needed showing that he knew something about Euripides?

The final phase of Dodds' career might have been expected to lead to publications similar to The Greeks and the Irrational; he had, after all, planned to take the story of ancient irrationalism down to late antiquity.14 Instead, he buried himself during the 1950s in an edition of Plato's Gorgias. Initially conceived in the late 1930s as a culturally responsive project at a time of European political chaos,15 this project turned into a rather traditional piece of work, resembling the edition of the Poetics by his predecessor but one, Ingram Bywater, rather than emulating the outreaching studies of his immediate predecessor, Gilbert Murray. There is something sad about the sixty-year old Regius Professor collating a manuscript in Cesena on a Sunday in the 1950s (MP, 174) when he might well have been offering ground-breaking seminars to advanced students had he been disposed to accept invitations to teach in the United States. (A combination of advancing years and McCarthyism deterred him [MP, 183-184].) The upshot was an edition in which extensive work on the text led to his "bloating [the commentary] with trivia" (MP, 172). As such, his edition was perfect for "Mods." students, "Mods." (Honour Moderations) being Oxford's preparatory five-term program of linguistic study; see MP, 177-178 on Dodds' unsuccessful efforts to reform this system). In this restrictive environment Dodds had to lecture to raw undergraduates on "set books"; it involved drudgery (MP, 128) and in the post-war years lectures on Homer that yielded no scholarly publications (MP, 170-171). Though he does not say so, it was arguably this system that condemned him to produce an edition of the Gorgias with which he was himself dissatisfied.

The Oxford Press must be congratulated for reprinting this autobiography. It deserves to be read by a new generation of classicists, one that will, however, have to cope unaided with prosopographical challenges (name dropping of the obscure is one of MP's more maddening features). They ought in particular to rejoice in encountering a scholarly career that, partly through the accidents of history and personal circumstance partly through the determined will of an intellectually curious individual, extended well beyond the normal academic confines. They will not see its like again. But historians of classical scholarship should be warned. Missing Persons is at best a catalyst for the unfinished task of analyzing a rich and varied career, and assessing an influential legacy.16


1.   In summary form these are: A.E. Astin, Cato the Censor; E. Badian, Foreign Clientelae; A.B. Bosworth, From Arrian to Alexander; C.M. Bowra, Greek Lyric Poetry and Pindar; J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, Antioch; W.D. Ross (ed.), Aristotle: Parva Naturalia; S. Treggiari, Roman Freedmen; and M.L. West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient.
2.   D. Russell, "Eric Robertson Dodds," PBA 67 (1981) 357-370 is important both for biography and interpretation and for its insightful judgments (at 357 and 370) on MP. Two broader studies by Italian scholars are: G. Mangani, "Sul Metodo di Eric Dodds e sulla Nozione di 'irrazionale'," Quaderni di Storia 11 (1980) 173-205, and G. Cambiano, "Eric Dodds: entre psychanalyse et parapsychologie," Revue de l'histoire des religions 208 (1991) 3-26. I have published the following: "E.R. Dodds: A Bibliography of his Publications," Quaderni di Storia 48 (1998) 175-194; "A Note on the Genesis of E.R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational," Echos du Monde Classique / Classical Views n.s. 17 (1998) 663-676; and "E.R. Dodds: The Dublin Years (1916-1919), with reprints of two early articles," Classics Ireland 6 (1999) 80-105 (= http://
3.   Russell (note 2) 357, and confirmed by several other sources.
4.   Hence the effectiveness of the anaphora in the main paragraph of MP, 194, a concluding paeon to fortune with four successive sentences beginning "It was fortune."
5.   For a model of this kind of memoir see O. Skutsch, "Recollections of Scholars I Have Known," HSCP 94 (1992) 387-408, expertly edited by Anton Bierl and Wiliam Calder.
6.   We learn of his first erection (MP, 10-11) and an unsuccessful visit to a Maltese brothel (MP, 46; veracity questioned by W.M. Calder III, CW 73 [1979-80] 305-306, but defended by B. Gentili, QUCC n.s. 7 [1981] 175-176) and are treated to a ringing self-condemnation for his conduct towards his first fiancée (MP, 79). There is enough here to satisfy diehards of the confessional school.
7.   Kenneth Dover, Marginal Comment (London, 1994) 39-40 supplies the name for those who may be interested.
8.   Russell (note 1) 357 suggests that Dodds was also defensive about the eccentric nature of his studies. He refers to Dodds' anecdote in his Presidential lecture to the Classical Association (PCA 64 [1964] 11), where a person encountered on a train told him that he thought a professor of Greek was an "extinct animal." Russell, writing in the Age of Thatcher, quoted this as "extinct monster."
9.   He applied to join this Society in mid-1913; see A. Denson (ed.), Letters from AE (London, 1961) 85.
10.   "The aidôs of Phaedra and the Meaning of the Hippolytus," CR 39 (1925) 102-104, and "Euripides the Irrationalist," CR 43 (1929) 97-104.
11.   Thirty-Two Poems (London, 1929), from which, if N. Annan, The Dons (Chicago, 1999) 142 is to be believed, Maurice Bowra quoted at parties to Dodds' discredit. Bowra had hoped to become Regius Professor at Oxford. Careful readers will find ambivalence in Dodds' two references to him at MP, 126 and 127.
12.   "The Ordinary Man's Ethics" (Dodds Papers, Bodleian Library, Box 31/1), a lecture delivered in the academic year 1931-32.
13.   The evidence is in the correspondence file on the Bacchae in the Archives of the Oxford University Press.
14.   See R.B. Todd, "A Note on the Genesis of E.R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational," (n. 2 above).
15.   Plato: Gorgias (Oxford, 1959), Preface, v.
16.   In an article forthcoming in Quaderni di Storia I plan to discuss in greater detail some of the external evidence that can be used to enlarge Dodds' own account of his professional career.

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