From The Spectator March 13
It is not difficult to see why the greatest Greek scholar of his generation, Sir Kenneth Dover (who died last Sunday), was a man who attracted controversy. His edition of Aristophanes’ comedy Clouds (1968) was the first to go into the same detailed explanation of its sexual jokes as of its textual cruces. Readers were appalled: surely you did not pick up a classical text to read about the relationship between erections and pre-ejaculation fluid? That it was the finest commentary ever produced on every aspect of a comedy featuring the controversial figure of Socrates seemed to pass people by.
His Greek Homosexuality (1978) caused even more of a rumpus. In the Preface he argued that ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ were not antithetical terms, but that homosexuality was a sub-division of the ‘quasi-sexual’ or ‘pseudo-sexual’. He went on ‘I am fortunate in not experiencing moral shock or disgust at any genital act whatsoever, provided that it is welcome and agreeable to all the participants (whether they number one, two or more than two)...no act is sanctified, and none is debased, simply by having a genital dimension.’ This was not coat-trailing. Dover was simply explaining his own attitudes towards a deeply sensitive subject central to our understanding of ancient Greek life, as a preliminary to writing the first ever serious book about it. It has been the catalyst of a vast range of work on the topic.
But that was as nothing compared to the explosion that greeted his autobiography Marginal Comment (1994) in which, as President of Corpus, Oxford, he admitted to a desire to have a Fellow, Trevor Aston, killed. He wrote ‘I had no qualms about causing the death of a Fellow from whose non-existence the College would benefit, but I balked at the prospect of misleading a coroner’s jury, whose raison d’être is to discover the truth’. From this honest admission, people got the impression that Dover was a sort of mad axe-man, lurking in the ivy to see if he could surreptitiously top a colleague and dump his body in the Cherwell. But all Dover was doing was reporting what he honestly felt and thought at the time about someone who was wrecking college life. This did not stop him treating the unhappy Aston, who eventually committed suicide, with consummate patience and respect.
On this evidence, many people came to the view that Dover was not merely a callous man but one who, as the bottomlessly ignorant beginning of the /Daily Telegraph /obituary seemed to suggest, took pleasure in demonstrating his ‘emancipation from bourgeois constraints’ and ‘adolescent desire’ to shock.
This is arrogant eyewash, the product of someone who has not the remotest interest in serious historical enquiry of the sort that Dover espoused throughout his life. You do not become the President of an Oxford college, the President of the British Academy, the Chancellor of St Andrews and one of the most feted scholars of your day, let alone produce a huge range of brilliant work on some of the most complex and demanding problems of the Greek language, its users (especially Thucydides and Aristophanes) and their world, by behaving like an acne-riddled teenager sticking two fingers up to the world. It is time to put the record straight.
The most important influence on Dover’s life was his mother, of whom he said ‘she showed me by her example how perfectly the unfailing spontaneity of a warm heart can be combined with the passionate objectivity of a truly fair and open mind’. That warmth (‘love’ and care’ were how he once put it to me) were evident in abundance in his private life and in his teaching. He was hero-worshipped by his students who found in him a man who explained complex matters with crystal clarity and guided and encouraged without telling them what to think, and learning from them too.
That same love and care were expressed in his scholarly and administrative work by the immense pains he took, and intense ratiocination he devoted to, everything he wrote and said, characterised by an Olympian rationality that never allowed him to reach a conclusion without subjecting the full range of possibilities to the most rigorous examination. As he said of his judgement about the relationship between hetero- and homo-sexuality, ‘Anyone who wishes to make an impression on me by ascribing my inclination to prejudice must first persuade me that he has made a serious attempt to distinguish between prejudice and judgement’.
The innate fairness and humility of the man were well illustrated by his role in the Blunt affair. In 1979, as President of the British Academy, he had to preside over the decision whether to remove from that august institution Sir Anthony Blunt, who had been exposed as a Soviet agent. After intense ratiocination, he came to the view that the Academy could not harbour someone who supported a regime which deliberately falsified history and persecuted scholars who showed any independence of judgement. On the other hand, as the Aston affair showed, he was a firm believer in institutions—‘the Academy’s interests came first and Blunt’s interests nowhere at all’—and if it came to his casting vote he would have voted for the status quo, i.e. Blunt’s retention as a Fellow. In the event, Blunt responded positively to Dover’s typically pragmatic suggestion that he should resign. A Fellow attacked Dover for this on the grounds that ‘intellectual liberty’ was at stake; for Dover, that did little credit to the man’s intelligence.
What the sensation-maddened hacks of the press could not get over was that a man of such distinction could write about himself with such blinding honesty (it was certainly far too much for the hapless Anthony Clare when he interviewed Dover In the Psychiatrist’s Chair for the radio). But Dover was not only a true mother’s son; he was a historian of literature, committed to the establishment of the truth about the past, in as far as that was available through the analysis of the surviving evidence. He saw it as his professional duty to be as honest and open about himself as he was about his scholarly work even if, as he confessed in his autobiography, it meant admitting to incidents that might seem ‘ridiculous, embarrassing, contemptible or disgusting’ or, in scholarship, that he had got something wrong. He was never afraid to admit he had made mistakes; he later retracted his conjectures about pre-ejaculation fluid.
In time he became resigned to the fact that, a model of conscientious respectability throughout his life, he was just different from others in the way he expressed himself on certain subjects. If people were worried by a few sentences carefully selected from hundreds of ground-breaking articles, books, reviews and lectures—a lifetime’s engagement with the deepest problems of ancient Greek life, language and literature—it was their problem. One is reminded of Alan Bennett’s ‘All you need to do if you want the nation’s press camped out on your doorstep is to say you once had a wank in 1947.’ But it tells one something about our world when a man who has been entirely upfront about himself and his weaknesses should be traduced simply for being honest. One would have thought that was what scholars above all were for.