REDISCOVERING E.R. DODDS: Scholarship, Education, Poetry, and the Paranormal

Ed. by Christopher Stray, Christopher Pelling, and Stephen Harrison

OUP (2019) h/b/ 341pp £75.00 (ISBN 9780198777366)

E.R. Dodds was Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford from 1936 to 1960; a reasonably knowledgeable classicist, if asked about him, would be likely to mention The Greeks and the Irrational and his edition (in the Oxford ‘Red’ series) of Euripides’s Bacchae. This volume aims to show the fuller picture; as so often, it saw its origin in a conference at Oxford on Dodds in 2014. There is a minor curiosity: to take the Introduction au pied de la lettre, Chapter 3 both implicitly and explicitly did not exist, because there we are told that the three chapters following Stray’s Chapter 2 are by Lowe, Parker, and Scullion: but they aren’t, since not only is there a Chapter 3, by R. Gagne, but it is by far the longest in a book which contains not a few chapters of compelling interest: the editors are to be warmly commended. 

Dodds’s own introduction to Oxford was unpromising: a republican and citizen of Ulster, he had rejected service in the British army in the war of 1914-18, readily accepting the white feathers which were bestowed upon him, as an undergraduate, in the streets of Oxford. This was not forgotten: when he came from Birmingham as Regius Professor in 1936, he was met in some quarters (Bowra, Denys Page, Highet) by what was barely concealed hatred—and Bowra was especially hostile: he had not only fought in the war but had been a candidate himself for the Chair. (The reviewer’s own tutor, who had also fought in the war, simply never mentioned Dodds’s name, and certainly never invited him to dine as a guest). Dodds himself found Oxford alien, but he had been elected, on good scholarly grounds, on the recommendation of his predecessor, Gilbert Murray. This is a familiar story, well told by Stray in Chapter 2 ‘An Irishman Abroad’, but also, of course in the autobiographies of both Bowra (Memories, 1966) and Dodds (Missing Persons, 1977): neither book is listed in the Bibliography.

This is followed by R. Gagne’s long (52pp) article: ‘The Battle for the Irrational: Greek religion, 1920-1950’. Robert Parker later generously calls this article ‘rich’, but ‘dense’ might be a better word. G. takes us back into the 19th century, to Usener, to Rohde’s Psyche (1894), and even Lobeck’s Aglaophamus (1829) as he recounts the complexities of the various schools of Greek religion. Two sections retain interest: ‘Nilsson and Wilamowitz’ (p.62) and ‘Three Flashpoints’ (p.80), the second of which involved Orphism (notable that Wilamowitz comes under heavy fire from a change in fashion), but Dodds is hardly mentioned until the article’s closing pages.

N.J. Lowe’s chapter 4 (‘The Rational Irrationalist’) takes us into Dodds’s lifelong keen, alert, but also sceptical interest in the Paranormal: suffice it here to say that Dodds actually headed the Society for Psychical Research for some years. He was not alone in this interest: Gilbert Murray was another scholar interested in telepathy and clairvoyance, while the egregious Jackson Knight, with his South African friend T.J. Haarhoff, believed they had contact with Virgil. Here it may be apposite to note that Dodds had other non-classical interests: in chapter 11, by Tom Walker, we learn that Dodds, a very minor poet himself, cultivated friendships with Auden and, especially, Louis MacNeice (he was less drawn to Yeats, despite ‘Irishness’ and certain shared interests): once, curiously, he attended a lecture class on Neoplatonism at Oxford with just one other person—who turned out to be the youthful T.S. Eliot, whose distinction quickly became apparent. With MacNeice, another Irishman, the bond was close, as Peter McDonald describes in chapter 12, ‘The Deaths of Tragedy: the Agamemnon of MacNeice, Dodds, and Yeats’ (and it was T.S. Eliot who arranged for MacNeice’s translation to be staged, watched by both Dodds and Yeats): interesting though this chapter is, Dodds plays only a minor role.

A key chapter—perhaps the key chapter—is the fifth, ‘The Greeks and the Irrational’, by Robert Parker. It takes its title, of course, from Dodds’s famous Sather Lectures, ‘a book of such deftness and grace that it can be read and reread with delight’. Dodds was ‘heir to the so-called Cambridge Ritualists’, but here he has moved on to a more ‘psychologically inflected anthropology’, although in his work on Dionysus, he was much influenced by Jane Harrison. Murray’s work, Five Stages of Greek Religion was also important to Dodds, as was a much earlier book, E. Rohde’s Psyche.

In addition, Dodds was ahead of his time in looking outside the confines of his own discipline; but did he go too far in looking for benefits from the alliance between social anthropology and social psychology? And did Dodds satisfactorily define the irrational? Werner Jaeger (once, but no longer, a most influential figure) claimed that Dodds never defined the irrational, merging three separate elements, and Parker says that the ‘wavering’ definition of it is a criticism that can legitimately be made. Again, Lloyd-Jones and Dover both doubted whether Dodds’s argument that Periclean Athens had reached a ‘peak of rationality’ held water. Indeed, of the major arguments in the book, perhaps ‘none has survived’ intact; but, as a book which revived the anthropological approach to Greek culture without the excesses of the ritualists, but with a great depth of learning, which profoundly influenced Walter Burkert, and with which scholars continue to engage, it remains, like Fraenkel’s Plautinisches im Plautus, one of the last century’s outstanding scholarly achievements.

After The Greeks and the Irrational, Dodds’s edition (1944) of the Bacchae by Euripides is hardly less distinguished (and set a new standard for the Oxford ‘Red’ series of plays by Euripides); however it was not his first choice, which was the already-assigned Hippolytus. In this book, it is considered by Scott Scullion (chapter 6), who also reminds us of Dodds’s 1929 paper, titled Euripides the Irrationalist: a paper ‘which retains value as a vigorous survey of anti-rationalist and sceptical ideas that Euripides put before his public’. The Bacchae commentary is praised for its ‘linguistic precision and illuminating exposition … the psychological sophistication brought to the interpretation of dramatic characters’. What has worn less well, it is argued here, is his approach to matters Dionysiac, where he was unduly influenced by Nietzsche and Rohde, but also by the Cambridge Ritualists, especially Jane Harrison. Be that as it may, says Scullion, the book is a ‘compelling masterpiece of classical scholarship’. Scullion’s chapter ends with an appraisal of Dodds’s 1966 article, On Misunderstanding The Oedipus Rex: here the reviewer briefly drops his impersonal mask to declare the article the finest he has read on a Greek tragedy.

Dodds’s last major publication was his commentary on Plato’s Gorgias, ‘the best’ (says R.B. Rutherford in chapter 7) ‘we have on any Platonic work, because he was so well equipped to straddle the divide between linguistic and philosophic comment’. One reason for the choice of this particular work (1959) was its presence in the syllabus for Classical Honour Moderations (would, say, Symposium have appealed? One doubts it), but he also wanted to bring out ‘both the resemblance and the difference between Plato’s situation and that of the intellectual today’: curiously, it seems that the authenticity of Plato’s ‘Seventh Letter’ is assumed. If one detects a trace of earnestness here, that is surely right: he avoided writing about comedy or Hellenistic poetry, and he had—said Donald Russell—a ‘horror of the frivolous and a suspicion of verbal point and sophistication’.

Even in a relatively brief review, it would be wrong to omit Dodds’s long involvement with Neoplatonism: his commentary on Proclus’ The Elements of Theology, came out in 1933, he was deeply involved with Stephen McKenna’s translation of Plotinus’ Enneads, and his numerous early papers and reviews from 1922 to 1933 concentrated on this area of scholarship: in this book, the relevant chapters are 8 (by Anne Sheppard) and 10 (by John Dillon). Between them (placed rather oddly) Chapter 9 (by Teresa Morgan) is entitled ‘Pagans and Christians: Fifty Years of Anxiety’, and Dodds’s Wiles Lectures 1965, with an almost identical title, continue to be ‘read and relished for (their) lucid vision, (their) literary elegance, (their) attempt at an even-handed treatment of Christians … and pagans, and (their) remarkably original ideas’. In chapter 13, David Phillips writes on ‘Dodds and Educational policy for a Defeated Germany’. The book concludes with agreeable memories of the man by four friends: the classicists among them are Oswyn Murray and (the sadly late) Donald Russell: it was a surprise to learn that his involvement with Dodds came about via an intended commentary on a dialogue of Plutarch. 

During the course of the book, one contributor wonders whether Oxford conquered Dodds, or Dodds conquered Oxford. The reviewer ventures to suggest a draw, with goals scored by both sides. The comparison is also made with the great professor of Latin, Eduard Fraenkel, who, like Dodds, was an outsider, but who, in his way, did indeed conquer Oxford. Although a volume of the Journal of Hellenic Studies (1973) was dedicated to Dodds as a kind of Festschrift, there was no separate book.

A welcome feature is a complete bibliography of Dodds’s writings. The book is produced to a high standard, with only one possible and insignificant slip noticed by the reviewer. Finally, the synoptic account of Dodds by Robert Todd in the Dictionary of British Classicists would provide an admirable introduction for those who are less familiar with his career.

Colin Leach

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