BMCR 2020.11.43

Rediscovering E.R. Dodds: scholarship, education, poetry, and the paranormal

, , , Rediscovering E.R. Dodds: scholarship, education, poetry, and the paranormal. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. viii, 341. ISBN 9780198777366 $99.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

R. Dodds (1893–1979) is one of the most interesting and unusual figures of twentieth-century classical scholarship. A committed Irish Republican and socialist, who as a youth discovered the ‘Secret of the Universe’ by smoking weed, attended séances by spirit mediums, and frequented Dublin’s literary salons, Dodds became a pillar of the British academic establishment in 1936 upon taking up the Regius chair of Greek at Oxford, where he produced the works for which he is best known today: The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) and editions of Euripides’ Bacchae (1944) and Plato’s Gorgias (1959). As Stray and Pelling explain in the introduction, this volume aims both to revisit Dodds’s scholarship and to show some of the ways in which the seemingly disparate, contradictory elements of his life come together into a more or less coherent unity. In this sense, the book functions as a ‘complement’ (1) and corrective to Dodds’s own autobiography, in which he emphasised the disconnection between his different ‘selves’ and the disjointed character of his life, which he saw as a ‘patchwork garment’ full of holes.[1]

The volume succeeds admirably in fulfilling these two objectives. It offers a largely fair assessment of Dodds’s scholarship, pointing out some of its problematic aspects and its continuing value for the present, focusing on The Greeks and the Irrational as well as on his work on tragedy, Plato, Neoplatonism, and early Christianity. In parallel, it traces a tight web of connections between these scholarly interests and the concerns that dominated Dodds’s private and public life – the supernatural and the ‘irrational’, individual and collective psychology, the rise and fall of civilisations, social justice, poetry. In tracking these continuities, the volume provides a rich account of the forces and individuals that influenced Dodds’s intellectual development, both within and outwith an institutional, academic context. The 1910s and 1920s, in particular, emerge as a decisive period in which Dodds’s approach, and the peculiar blend of interests that run through his life and work, took shape under a variety of influences including contemporary research in psychoanalysis, the paranormal, and Greek religion, and the poetry of W. B. Yeats.

Stray’s opening chapter offers useful biographical background and introduces some of the key themes of the collection. It follows Dodds’s trajectory outside his native Ireland, first as a student in Oxford and then as an academic in Reading, Birmingham, and back in Oxford from 1936. A central thread here is Dodds’s status as an outsider, particularly as an Irishman and Irish republican, a conscientious objector, and a socialist: he was asked to leave Oxford in 1916 because of his support for the Easter Rising, and was the target of vicious criticism from the right-wing press (and his Oxford colleagues) upon his appointment to the Regius chair (10-11, 20-2). One detects a tension between Dodds’s marginality and keen sense of his own otherness, and the fact that he eventually—if somewhat reluctantly—became very much a part of the establishment that had initially shunned him. The recollections of Dodds that constitute the book’s final chapter shed some interesting light on this: Oswyn Murray remembers an elderly Dodds refusing to stand up for a member of the royal family at a college dinner (277), while Donald Russell speculates that Dodds in fact became something of a British patriot, as he came to ‘mellow and slough off the skin of the outsider and the rebel’ (285).

The next three chapters are concerned with two essential—and closely intertwined—aspects of Dodds’s life and work: Greek religion and the ‘irrational’, and paranormal phenomena. Gagné offers a fascinating exploration of the scholarship on Greek religion in the first half of the twentieth century. Although particular links and overlaps with Dodds’s scholarship could be spelled out more, the chapter shows well the extent to which Dodds is indebted to earlier trends, agendas, and institutional networks, both in his approach to ancient religion per se and in the way he uses Greek religion and culture as a lens through which to view his own contemporary moment. For example, Dodds’s deployment of psychology and psychoanalysis to explain individual religious beliefs and broader social and intellectual development, which seemed quite innovative when The Greeks and the Irrational came out in 1951, had been largely anticipated by scholarship going back to the very early years of the twentieth century (57-9). The chapter also explores the dark side of much research on Greek religion at that time, notably its pervasive racism and antisemitism and its attempts to legitimate white supremacy (51, 63-5, 81-2). It is a shame that the volume does not develop Gagné’s analysis with a discussion of Dodds’s own relationship to racist, colonialist, and Western-centric narratives, particularly in The Greeks and the Irrational.[2]

Dodds’s magnum opus is the topic of Parker’s contribution, which traces the book’s intellectual context (thus developing some of the connections that remain implicit in Gagné’s chapter) and offers a fair and nuanced critique of its main arguments. A highlight is the excellent discussion of the ‘irrational’, a concept Dodds never satisfactorily defines, perhaps because of the vagueness and contradictions at the heart of his own attitude to ‘rationality’ and ‘irrationality’ (123-5, see also 40-2).[3] As Parker points out, although most of the book’s arguments have not stood the test of time, it retains some value, partly because ‘it showed … how a person intensely involved with the problems of the present could also be profoundly engaged with those of the Greeks’ (127). The broad tension between ‘rationality’ and ‘irrationality’ returns in Lowe’s chapter, which charts Dodds’s lifelong interest in the paranormal and his activity as a researcher for the Society for Psychical Research. In an engaging account full of anecdotes (particular highlights are Dodds’s various sittings with famous mediums, aimed at finding out whether they had a genuine telepathic gift, 101-2), Lowe demonstrates how closely this aspect of Dodds’s life was linked with his scholarly work (despite Dodds’s own protestations to the contrary). Here again, too, the ancient and the modern are profoundly intertwined: just as The Greeks and the Irrational told the story of a ‘temporary victory’ over the universal, irrational element in human experience, Dodds’s own ‘parapsychological project … sought to tame the forces of contemporary irrationalism’ by promoting a scientific approach to a few restricted phenomena (90, 115).

The next chapters tackle the main areas of Dodds’s scholarship. Scullion provides a valuable overview of his publications on tragedy, from the fascinating (and mostly forgotten) 1929 piece ‘Euripides the Irrationalist’ to more well-known articles on the Oresteia and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, via the commentary on the Bacchae. Despite praising the latter’s merits as a work of scholarship, Scullion judges it rather harshly, taking Dodds to task for being ‘subjective’ and treating the play as a ‘religious document’ rather than as a ‘work of art’ (139-40: surely the two are not incompatible, whatever the failings of Dodds’s interpretation). Rutherford gives a sympathetic account of the commentary to Plato’s Gorgias, paying particular attention to the ways in which Dodds connects the dialogue to his own times (notably in terms of the dangers of tyranny and ‘the power of public rhetoric as mass communication’, 157). The chapter’s second section explains that, if Dodds was in many ways uncomfortable with Plato’s politics and ethics, he found himself much more in sympathy with the Platonic concept of the divine. This is in part because his approach to Plato was mediated by his earlier work on Plotinus and Neoplatonism, the topic of Sheppard’s chapter, and a thread that runs throughout the volume. Sheppard outlines the essential role played by Dodds in the development of Neoplatonic studies, both through his own pioneering (and still influential) scholarship, and through his students and networks. As she notes, Dodds’s study of Neoplatonism is related in important ways to his psychic research and his ambivalent attitude towards ‘rationality’ and the ‘irrational’—his description of Plotinus as ‘a mystic without ceasing to be a rationalist’ (quoted in Rutherford’s chapter, 162) could almost be applied to Dodds himself. Morgan tackles Dodds’s scholarship on late antiquity and early Christianity, focusing on Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (1965). Although this was in many ways an important work which helped to bridge the divide between classics and patristics and gave impetus to the study of late antiquity, Morgan shows that it was also highly problematic (as was already recognised at the time of its publication). Among other things, she singles out Dodds’s explicit dislike for the Church Fathers, his uncritical adoption of a Gibbonian ‘decline and fall’ framework, and, in a particularly insightful discussion, his ‘reductionist’ approach, which leads him to see religion as purely ancillary to social and psychological phenomena (186-7).

Dillon’s, Walker’s, and McDonald’s contributions are all concerned, in one way or another, with the links Dodds maintained with Ireland throughout his life (balancing out Stray’s chapter on Dodds’s life outside his native country). Dillon offers an account of the genesis and publication of the Irish journalist Stephen MacKenna’s translation of Plotinus, in which Dodds played an important role. In one of the best chapters in the book, Walker traces fascinating connections between Dodds and contemporary Irish poetry, notably that of W. B. Yeats and Louis MacNeice, arguing that there is something ‘poetical’ about Dodds’s scholarship (210). Yeats, who was interested in mysticism, the metaphysical, and ancient thought (notably Neoplatonism), emerges as an especially important influence on the young Dodds. By exploring some of Dodds’s early poems and articles and Yeats’s ‘Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’ (1921), Walker is able to connect Dodds’s lifelong obsession with narratives of crisis and decline in antiquity and modernity with attempts by writers and poets to respond to the sense of ‘material and spiritual crisis’ pervading Europe in the 1910s and early 1920s (215-20). McDonald further develops the connection between Dodds, Yeats, and MacNeice through an analysis of MacNeice’s 1936 translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Like Walker, he focuses on their common fascination for ancient thought, and makes the intriguing suggestion that they shared a ‘distinctly Irish’ classicism (242) in which religion and poetry played a central part, and which is perceptible for instance in The Greeks and the Irrational.

Phillips’s chapter focuses on a different aspect of Dodds’s life, his public engagement. He offers a detailed account of Dodds’s participation in British attempts to construct a new educational policy for post-war Germany. Phillips’s analysis of the publications, lectures, and policy documents produced by Dodds on this topic brings out his most admirable quality: his fierce commitment to social justice and internationalism. This shines through, poignantly, in his recommendation that education be ‘internationalised’ to lay ‘the foundations necessary for a future United States of Europe’ (253), or in his insistence that German schools be urgently opened up to working class children. Of all the threads of Dodds’s life and work explored by the volume, his progressive values and his commitment to equality of opportunity probably have the most relevance to the present moment, both in the world at large and in a field which still faces persistent questions about elitism and barriers to access. It is fascinating to see that Dodds was already clamouring for change in the discipline in 1919: although the issues at stake are vastly different now, his statement that ‘it is our business either to rediscover the classics or to scrap them’ (quoted by Stray, 27) seems remarkably fitting for our own anxious times.

Authors and titles

‘Introduction: A Missing Person?’, Christopher Stray and Christopher Pelling
2. ‘An Irishman Abroad’, Christopher Stray
3. ‘The Battle for the Irrational: Greek Religion 1920–50’, Renaud Gagné
4. ‘The Rational Irrationalist: Dodds and the Paranormal’, N. J. Lowe
5. ‘The Greeks and the Irrational’, Robert Parker
6. ‘“The road of excess”: Dodds and Greek Tragedy’, Scott Scullion
7. ‘Dodds on Plato: The Gorgias Edition’, R. B. Rutherford
8. ‘Dodds’s Influence on Neoplatonic Studies’, Anne Sheppard
9. ‘Pagans and Christians: Fifty Years of Anxiety’, Teresa Morgan
10. ‘Dodds, Plotinus, and Stephen MacKenna’, John Dillon
11. ‘“The lonely flight of Mind”: W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice, and the Metaphysical Poetry of Dodds’s Scholarship’, Tom Walker
12. ‘The Deaths of Tragedy: The Agamemnon of MacNeice, Dodds, and Yeats’, Peter McDonald
13. ‘Dodds and Educational Policy for a Defeated Germany’, David Phillips
14. ‘Memories of E. R. Dodds’, Ruth Padel, Helen Ganly, Oswyn Murray, and Donald Russell


[1] E. R. Dodds, Missing Persons: An Autobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 192-3. Cf. 32-3 for the ‘Secret of the Universe’.

[2] A 2019 London conference, The Greeks and the Irrational, Revisited, explored some of these aspects.

[3] For an excellent analysis of ‘rationality’ and ‘irrationality’ in the context of ancient Greek thought, see now S. Tor, Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 10-35.