Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sir Kenneth Dover: Obituaries

From The Daily Telegraph
Sir Kenneth Dover, who died on March 7 aged 89, was considered the finest Greek scholar of his generation and seemed to have led a life of almost oppressive decorum, crowned in 1978 by his election as President of the British Academy. But in 1994 he published an autobiography, Marginal Comment,which deliberately shattered the image. The book portrayed a spikily intelligent man who was slave to an urge to demonstrate his emancipation from bourgeois constraints. The reader is not spared the least detail of Dover's sex life, right down to the culminating horror that at 64 he and his wife enjoyed "some of the best ----- of our life".

But the issue which caught the headlines was his account of his attitude to Trevor Aston, a History fellow at Corpus Christi, Oxford, where Dover had been President between 1976 and 1986. Aston's disintegration into paranoia and alcoholism had proved a serious embarrassment to the college; Dover confessed to having thought long and hard about how to murder him.

"It was clear to me," wrote Dover, "that Trevor and the College must somehow be separated, and my problem was one which I feel compelled to define with brutal candour: how to kill him without getting into trouble."

In fact, as the text reveals, Dover acted impeccably towards Aston, who was bent on self-destruction and eventually committed suicide. What was less clear is why the author should have been the victim of an adolescent desire to shock.

But that was to misunderstand Dover's almost brutal passion for honesty. When he was interviewed on radio by the psychiatrist Anthony Clare shortly after the book's publication, it became obvious that Clare had never met anyone with such a commitment to telling the truth about himself, however discreditable; indeed, so disoriented was Clare by the encounter that towards the end it seemed as if Dover was the one doing the interviewing.

This passion for honesty, especially on sexual matters, was to inform Dover's whole career and cause him considerable trouble. Because his commentary on Aristophanes' Clouds (1968) was the first to go into detail about the physiology and psychology of the play's sexual jokes, it was greeted frostily in many quarters, as if it demonstrated Dover were some kind of pervert.

He realised the sensitivities of his subject and carefully prefaced his epoch-making Greek Homosexuality (1978), the first and best scholarly study of the subject, with the words: "No argument which purports to show that homosexuality in general is natural or unnatural, healthy or morbid, legal or illegal, in conformity with God's will or contrary to it, tells me whether any particular homosexual act is morally right or morally wrong. No act is sanctified, and none is debased, simply by having a genital dimension."

It made no difference. Some parts of the gay community immediately assumed that, because he showed the Greeks were hostile to sex between bearded males, Dover was somehow attacking contemporary homosexual practice. A Californian gay magazine, meanwhile, began its review of the book with the words "The well-known British homosexual Sir Kenneth Dover … " Dover considered suing, but was advised against.

Kenneth James Dover was born on March 11 1920. His father had a safe job in the lower echelons of the Civil Service, from which he was invalided out in 1946; his mother, a teacher's daughter, submitted with rational good humour to her husband's uncertain temper. Dover despised his father, but his mother's reason and honesty was to have a profound influence on him.

The infant Kenneth was precocious and could read at three; his first passion was for insects. At St Paul's he became competent in Latin and fell in love with Greek. He also consciously cultivated, as he explained, a stoicism impermeable to his own and other people's emotions, a project in which he regretfully admitted to being "a little too successful". Dover's cold rationalism could certainly make him seem a forbidding figure and occasionally a risible one.

He went up to Balliol in 1938 where he took a first in Mods and won the Gaisford Prize for Greek verse in his first year. Soon after starting Greats he was commissioned and in March 1941 joined the Eighth Army in the desert war. After landing at Salerno in September 1943, Dover remained in Italy for the rest of the war, taking part in the final battle at Cassino. Though mentioned in despatches, he never rose above the rank of lieutenant.

Back in Oxford, Dover took a First, won a Harmsworth Senior Fellowship at Merton and in 1948 was elected to a Balliol fellowship and lectureship at Wadham. This was the start of a career that was to take him to the chair of Greek at St Andrews (1955-76), the Presidency of Corpus Christi, Oxford (1976-86), and would light up the classical world.

For Dover, problems about the Greek world could be solved only by being a perfectionist in matters of language and willing to make use of the experiences of other cultures. It was the application of these principles to a vast range of scholarly problems under the guidance of his diamond-hard intellect that made him unmatched in the world of Greek scholarship.

Prose and poetry, history and literature, detailed textual commentaries and wide-ranging social analyses were all part and parcel of an intellectual existence that he found constantly gripping and which he was only too willing to share with others – scholars, sixth-formers and beginners at Greek summer schools alike (Dover wrote a beginners' Greek course for use at St Andrews). He once admitted that he had never been bored for more than five seconds in the whole of his life.

Of the eight Greek literary genres, Dover produced definitive work in articles and books on seven (only missing out the epic). He wrote commentaries on the historian Thucydides (from 1965-81), the comic poet Aristophanes (Clouds, 1968, Frogs, 1993, and Aristophanic Comedy in 1972), the pastoral poet Theocritus (1971) and the philosopher Plato (Symposium, 1980). This last was not well received, since Dover regarded arguments about metaphysics as a waste of precious time.

Greek Word Order was published in 1960, followed by his Sather lectures on the rhetorician Lysias in 1968. There were general books on The Greeks, arising from a television series; Ancient Greek Literature (with others) in 1980; and The Evolution of Greek Prose Style in 1997.

The book that pleased Dover most was his Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (1974), a brilliant analysis of what the Greek man on the Sunium omnibus thought about, inter alia, human nature, the environment (a topic close to Dover's heart), heredity, age, sex, status, moral responsibility, death, money, the gods, inequality, the state, and so on, full of characteristically sharp Doverian asides on the modern world's response to the same issues. His collected papers – Greek and the Greeks and The Greeks and Their Legacy – appeared in 1987-88.

In 1976 Dover was lured back to Oxford as President of Corpus Christi. Never one to duck administrative responsibilities, he had already been President of the Hellenic Society (1971-4) and of the Classical Association (1975) and chairman and co-editor of various classical journals and their boards. In 1983 he chaired the committee on undergraduate admissions at Oxford.

Dover had been elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1966 and was President (1978-81) when Sir Anthony Blunt was exposed as a traitor and the question arose as to whether he should be expelled. Dover tried with only partial success to hold the ring between competing factions within the Academy but the problem solved itself when Blunt resigned. For Dover, who privately thought expulsion could be justified on the grounds that Blunt had transferred his allegiance to a government hostile to the pursuit of scholarship, the whole affair was "absorbingly interesting and therefore intensely enjoyable".

In 1981, while still President of Corpus, Dover was appointed to the ceremonial position of Chancellor of St Andrews, where he returned to the family home after retiring from Corpus in 1986. Always an eager academic traveller, Dover was welcomed all over the scholarly world. During a sabbatical in 1982 he lectured in Princeton, Toronto, Melbourne, Tokyo and Beijing, and later held posts as "Professor at Large" at Cornell (1984-9) and Professor of Classics (Winter Quarter) at Stanford (1988-92). He was much impressed by the intelligence and liveliness of American classical postgraduates.

Kenneth Dover was knighted in 1977. He married, in 1947, Audrey Latimer; they had a son and a daughter.

From The Times

Sir Kenneth Dover was one of the finest and most widely respected Greek scholars of the 20th century, and held many high positions in the academic world. He became better known to a wider public in 1994 through his remarkable autobiography Marginal Comment and the reactions that it aroused. And to generations of students, especially at St Andrews, he was always a hero.

Kenneth James Dover was born in 1920, the only child of Percy Dover and Dorothy Healey. His father was a civil servant, and they lived in London. In 1932 he went to St Paul’s School, the nursery of so many classical scholars, and later acknowledged his debt to two outstanding teachers there, Philip Whitting and George Bean. He went up to Balliol as a scholar in 1938, and took his first in classical moderations in 1940. His army career was as an artillery officer in the Western Desert and in the Italian campaign, in the course of which he was mentioned in dispatches.

Returning to Balliol in 1945, he soon made his mark as one of the ablest young scholars of the time. After his first in Greats, and having collected the Ireland and various other scholarships and prizes, he migrated to Merton as a Harmsworth scholar and began to work for a doctorate under the supervision of Arnaldo Momigliano; but when Balliol decided to make an appointment in Greek and Greek history in 1948 he was obviously the man for the job. For a few years he combined his Fellowship with a share in the teaching for Wadham. He was something of an innovator in tutorial practice, and, young as he was, served as senior tutor at Balliol for a while. He was already publishing notable work: articles on Thucydides and on Antiphon’s speeches, and a still valuable essay in Greek comedy. He also edited a revision of J. D. Denniston’s The Greek Particles. All this foreshadowed the most important areas of his work.

In 1955 the electors to the chair of Greek at the University of St Andrews were looking for a successor to W. L. Lorimer. They made their inquiries and, as a St Andrews colleague later wrote, “netted the complete Grecian”. In Scotland there were both problems and opportunities not to be found in Oxford. One problem was the teaching of Greek to beginners. Dover solved this by writing his own textbook. It is a work of real linguistic scholarship, but extremely austere and demanding: it needs a teacher with Dover’s skill and enthusiasm, and pupils of unusual ability and commitment. The great opportunity was the chance to expand an already distinguished department along lines of his own choosing. It had concentrated hitherto very much on linguistic skills: Dover developed the study of all things Greek. By the time he left, 21 years later, St Andrews had a very special reputation in classical studies.

For this, he and his Latin colleague Gordon Williams, who had followed him from Balliol, were largely responsible. Their legacy happily endures. In Dover’s time, a steady stream of enthusiastic and well-trained graduates flowed from St Andrews to Oxford and elsewhere, his pupils and devotees. He was not only a natural and indefatigable teacher; he was active in university and local affairs, and served twice as a diplomatic and persuasive Dean of the Faculty of Arts.

It was during his tenure of the St Andrews chair that his first major works appeared. It is a rich crop: the original and subtle Greek Word Order (1960), no easy read; the careful and disconcertingly destructive research on the speeches attributed to Lysias, which was the subject of his Sather Lectures at Berkeley in 1967; his commentary on Aristophanes’ Clouds (1968), and the general book on Aristophanic Comedy (1972); and his share in the great Historical Commentary on Thucydides, which he and Tony Andrews had taken over from A. W. Gomme. Honours came too: he became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1966, and was President of the Hellenic Society in 1971-74 and of the Classical Association in 1975, the same year in which he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

At this time, commentary was Dover’s genre, at least as far as major publications were concerned. In continuous exposition, he was better as a lecturer than as a writer, for, though he expected a lot from his audiences, he expected even more from his readers. At his best, he was a spellbinding lecturer; he came to scorn using notes, and his apparently extempore talks could often be taken down in a form that many would have thought fit for publication. He was gestating two large and original books. One was Greek Popular Morality (1974), in which he used his minute knowledge of comedy and oratory to illustrate the ordinary, unphilosophical Athenian’s attitudes in the age of Plato and Aristotle. His choice of evidence was unexpectedly limited: neither Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric nor Xenophon, both surely good sources for the ordinary man’s ideas, was put to use. The book was in part a response to A. W. H. Adkins’s Merit and Responsibility, which Dover thought gave a selective and misleading account of how moral ideas developed. The controversy with Adkins went on for some time. The second book was Greek Homosexuality (1978), the first really scholarly study of the subject. It is outspoken and shirks no detail; indeed, Dover always took pains in his writing to be explicit about sexual matters, in a way that is more usual today than when he started doing it.

He had thought about leaving St Andrews in 1960, when he was offered the Regius chair of Greek at Oxford, but he chose not to move, partly no doubt because he thought he could do more for Greek studies, and exercise more influence, where he was. In 1972 it was different. He applied for the Cambridge chair, where he believed with reason that he could have done an outstanding job, and was disappointed not to be elected. But in 1976 there came a call back to Oxford, to be President of Corpus Christi, a relatively small college with a strong classical tradition. After some hesitation, he accepted. His knighthood, awarded for services to Greek scholarship, came at about the same time. He and his wife, Audrey Latimer (whom he had married when he was an undergraduate), soon won the respect of the college. He was popular with undergraduates, and steered the college successfully through the changes consequent on its decision to admit women. The university, too, made use of his talents. The Dover committee on undergraduate admissions (1983) did much to simplify the complex procedures by which colleges chose their students.

But it was in this period of his life that Dover faced two difficult situations which would have been an anxiety to anyone in authority. He was President of the British Academy (1978-81) when the question arose of what should be done about Anthony Blunt’s Fellowship, now that he was known to have been a Soviet spy. Dover’s account of this tortuous affair is in Marginal Comment. He took enormous trouble, he tried to be reasonable, he agonised over it — and yet he found it fascinating. There was no painless solution; a few Fellows resigned, and the echoes of the affair rumbled on for a time. There was trouble too in Corpus, because of the illness and subsequent suicide of one of the senior Fellows. This caused Dover even more anguish, because it was closer to home and happened in the intimacy of college life. He involved himself very directly in the problem, and his very frank account of it is in the autobiography.

There had been another, much smaller, episode that had not turned out as he might have hoped. This was his television programme, The Greeks, broadcast in 1980, which was not a success. It was not his fault, except that he seems to have been too deferential to his BBC minders. The resulting book became quite popular as an introduction to the Greek world, and was even translated into Japanese.

The Dovers probably found it a relief to get back to St Andrews in 1986. He was now Chancellor of the University, having been elected in 1981, a striking testimony to the respect and affection with which he was regarded. He had kept his old house and the garden, which he greatly liked. He remained as industrious as ever. From 1986 to 1991 he spent one term a year at Stanford as visiting professor, to the great delight and profit of colleagues and students there. He collected two volumes of his own papers, which were published in 1987 and 1988 and give a wonderful view of the range of his interests and skills. In 1990, his 70th birthday was celebrated by a Festschrift, Owls to Athens, which gave him tremendous pleasure. Before finishing his autobiography he fulfilled a long-held ambition to “do a big Frogs”; his major edition of Aristophanes’ masterpiece came out in 1993. The autobiography itself, which appeared in 1994, has had its critics and did cause some offence. However, this obsessively honest and strangely confessional book has given many readers the impression of a very different Dover from the humane and generous person known to his friends.

Dover was above all a scholar. He always wanted to be one, and to excel at it. His St Andrews friends understood this when they gave him, as a leaving present, a rosebowl inscribed with the line of Homer which means “always to do best, and be above the others”. What captivated him in classical Greece was, first and foremost, the language. From childhood, all languages had fascinated him, and he liked to draw parallels even from remote Melanesian tongues. Second, he loved the complexities of the social and political history of the fifth and fourth centuries BC. For philosophy, he had little taste; Latin he put aside early, and he never wrote or talked much about the continuities of European civilisation. Of the importance of knowing about Ancient Greece, he had of course no doubt; but the historical links between the world in which we live and that of Thucydides and Aristophanes were not, to him, evidence of that importance. It rested rather on what he believed to be the social and moral perceptions of the classical age and the precise and subtle language in which they are expressed.

Dover’s achievement as a scholar was massive: but so too was his contribution, often as a leader, to the institutions which he served, in Britain and abroad. And both his scholarship and his leadership were shaped by a distinctive personality, one which won and kept many friends in all walks of life. You saw the tall, spare figure (he enjoyed quite severe physical exertion, humping stones on his rockery or walking in the hills for days on end) with some faint traces of a military look, perhaps only the moustache. “Shaggy” was a word sometimes used of him when he was young — his face was lined quite early in life, and deeply lined as he grew older, as the portrait in the Corpus common room reveals. But then you heard, not a grunt or a military bark, but rational argument phrased in perfect syntax, in a light, unhurried tone. His voice was clear rather than resonant, and seldom showed emotion or vehemence, or indeed any marked change of tempo.

Pupils, or members of committees which he chaired, felt reassured, but knew they would be expected to decide the issues themselves with the same scrupulous regard for evidence.

He therefore gave many people an extraordinary impression of serene strength, though those who knew him well understood that this triumphantly masked much inner disquiet. Religion did not come into it: he wanted it to be known that twice in his life he had consciously reviewed and rejected the Christian beliefs by which he had been surrounded as a schoolboy. He claimed to find strength in what he called “scientific materialism”; but he also looked for some kind of spirituality, and found it in high and lonely places, and in observing the habits of birds.

He married Audrey Latimer in 1947; she died in December 2009. He is survived by their son and daughter.

Sir Kenneth Dover, Greek scholar and Chancellor of the University of St Andrews, 1981-2005, was born on March 11, 1920. He died on March 7, 2010, aged 89

From The Guardian
Sir Kenneth Dover, who has died aged 89, was a towering figure in the study of ancient Greek language, literature and thought. Very few could approach the range and quality of his scholarship, especially his synthesis of philological, historical and cultural acumen. His name became known to a wider public partly for his groundbreaking 1978 book, Greek Homosexuality, and partly for the publication of his controversial autobiography, Marginal Comment, in 1994.

Greek Homosexuality treated the topic with unprecedented openness and nuanced definition. The work drew together the evidence of literature (not least a prosecution speech in a sensational Athenian court case); visual art (Dover inspected hundreds of sexually explicit vase-paintings, often in the basements of museums); and history, mythology and philosophy . The result was a compelling picture of the complex web of sexual and social practices that constituted the phenomena now grouped together under the label of Greek homosexuality.

The book proved a turning-point in the modern study of ancient sexual cultures, leading to the growth of this field in the 1980s (and not just among specialists – Michel Foucault was among those influenced by it). Later in life, Dover was sometimes impatient that the subject had become an academic industry and that Greek Homosexuality had become the best known of his works, partly occluding what he felt to be his own central achievement as a historian of the Greek language. But the book is deservedly admired for harnessing scholarly sophistication to a shrewd and broad-minded historical imagination. If parts of Dover's argument have been challenged in relation to the kind of weight given to different sorts of evidence, the book remains an indispensable resource.

Dover was born in London and educated at St Paul's school and Balliol College, Oxford, where he read classics . He showed an early fascination for the varieties and intricacies of language, going so far as to teach himself the grammar of some Pacific languages as an adolescent. A capacity for close, subtle investigation of what linguistic usage can reveal about the fabric of human experience was to remain his hallmark, but he distanced himself from theoretical linguistics (as he put it, "my attempts to read Chomsky are enfeebled by the rapid onset of boredom").

His undergraduate studies were suspended for war service in the Western Desert and Italy, bringing him into contact with working-class soldiers whose unpretentious attitudes made a lasting impact, he maintained, on his conception of life even in Greek antiquity. He returned to Oxford in 1945 to continue an academic trajectory illuminated by a succession of prizes and scholarships. In 1948 he began doctoral study under the great historian Arnaldo Momigliano (who later said there was nothing he could teach Dover), but this was overtaken by appointment to a fellowship of Balliol in the same year.

In the early 1950s, he began to specialise in Greek comic drama, historiography and oratory, three areas in which he was to become a world authority. When he left Balliol in 1955 for the chair of Greek at St Andrews, it was with the general expectation that he would succeed Eric Dodds (author of The Greeks and the Irrational) to the Regius chair in Oxford; but when that opportunity was presented in 1960, family considerations led him to decline it. He remained at St Andrews until 1976 (and was subsequently chancellor from 1981 to 2005). During his two decades as professor there he became the finest Hellenist of his generation in Britain and the author of a succession of books, including commentaries on Aristophanes's comedy The Clouds and on parts of Thucydides's History.

Always a polished stylist and, in his prime, an assured lecturer, Dover was capable of adapting his expertise for very different audiences, even if a 1980 BBC television series on the Greeks was blighted by maladroit directing. The Greeks, a book commissioned in connection with the series, distils many of his guiding ideas for students and general readers, while Greek Word Order (1960) is an exhibition of formidably meticulous analysis on a subject so improbably specialised to some eyes that its title has sometimes been "corrected" to Greek World Order.

Highly characteristic of Dover's methods and mentality was Greek Popular Morality (1974), an attempt to reconstruct the value system of 4th-century BC Athens from the various argumentative strategies used by orators in the city's courts and political assembly. This work brought out his concern to try to understand the Greeks in realistic rather than idealised terms. His complementary suspicion of abstractions engendered an impatience with philosophical aspirations (not least Plato's) which was one of his few intellectual weaknesses.

Dover became president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1976, was knighted the following year, and in 1978 published Greek Homosexuality, subsequently translated into several languages. The later years of Dover's career included two volumes of collected papers; a commentary on Aristophanes's The Frogs; and The Evolution of Greek Prose Style (1997), a difficult but searching essay on historical stylistics. Dover's presidency of the British Academy (1978-81) was marked by contention over Anthony Blunt's fellowship after Blunt's exposure as a Soviet spy. While privately favouring Blunt's expulsion, Dover felt obliged, in the interests of the Academy's unity, to maintain public even-handedness, a policy which made him the target of animosity from opposing camps. He was more trenchant in declaring his own convictions when, at Oxford in 1985, he lent open support for the opposition to a proposed honorary degree for Margaret Thatcher.

The same year brought to a head a protracted problem in Corpus over the unstable conduct of Trevor Aston, a history fellow whose disputes with the college led Dover to wonder, as he expressed it in his autobiography, "how to kill him without getting into trouble". When Aston did kill himself, Dover felt immense relief, which he described with ruthless honesty in Marginal Comment. This frankness, which soured his relations with certain Corpus fellows, shocked some people, as did the book's occasional passages of personal sexual detail. But Dover had taken a principled decision to write an autobiography in the confessional mode, one of the oldest traditions of the genre. The furore over certain aspects of Marginal Comment obscured its attempt to explore the motivations and passions that had shaped a life of academic inquiry at the highest level.

The value of Dover's remarkable body of work lies not just in its consummate linguistic and historical adeptness, but in its fusion of these qualities with an insight that never ceased to find the whole gamut of human behaviour worthy of attention. To a degree extremely rare among top-rank academics, Dover was interested in all dimensions of life – from the sounds of people's voices to the largest ideas which inform their actions in the world. He was exemplary not for his pursuit of a method or ideology (he was scrupulously undidactic) but for the finesse with which he displayed how the best historical thinking can fuse technical excellence with deeply reflective understanding. His death marks the end of an era in classical scholarship.

1 comment:

  1. She sounds like such an interesting man.I'm always amazed by the amount of wonderfully, rich detail in old obituaries. You can really get a sense of what the person was like. evertalk