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The Warrior-Humanist

Bernard M.W. Knox (1914–2010).

For more on Bernard Knox, please read an extraordinary report of his heroism in World War II and a collection of his best pieces for TNR.

The death of Bernard Knox has impoverished not just contemporary classical scholarship but the humanities as a whole. In choosing him as its Jefferson Lecturer in 1992, the National Endowment for the Humanities could not have found a more ardent or eloquent spokesman for its mission. He believed passionately in the nourishing and healing power of literature, and against a rising tide of multicultural fashion, he affirmed the ancient values of western civilization. He was a man of action before he became a man of letters, and this unusual trajectory gives a resonance to his writings on Sophocles and Homer that no cloistered scholar has ever been able to achieve. He carried high the torch of classical Greek culture without patronizing other great cultures.

Bernard Knox stood apart from the professional academic establishment. Although for a quarter-century he held the title of Professor of Greek at Harvard University, he had a far greater impact outside Cambridge than in it. As the first Director of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C., he fostered an international network of promising young scholars from all over the world. At the same time, he wrote abundantly and brilliantly for the general public, not only about the Greeks but also about war, which he knew from experience and had a rare gift for describing.

Knox was British by birth, born November 1914 in Bradford in western Yorkshire, but he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1943 when he was back in Britain for service with the American armed forces. At that moment nothing indicated that he would later become a scholar and writer. He had, it is true, taken a Classics degree in 1936 at St. John’s College in Cambridge, but without any great distinction. At that time he watched with increasing alarm the tumultuous events in Europe and saw himself as a Communist, even if he never carried a membership card. Along with a few Cambridge friends of similar persuasion, Knox made his way through Paris into a French international brigade in support of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Not far from Madrid he received a serious wound to his neck and right shoulder that brought him close to death. He later recalled that as the blood drained out of him he had felt full of rage that he was about to die so young. The doctors removed him from the front, but one of his dearest friends lost his life at that time. 

Knox’s service in Spain strengthened his resolve to work against the spread of fascism—a resolve only tempered by his love for an American girl he had met in Cambridge. His marriage to Betty Baur, better known as a novelist under the name of Bianca van Orden, led to his emigration to the United States and a brief stint as a Latin schoolteacher. But the call of war in a noble cause led him to join the American military, and his experience in Spain proved, fortunately in his case, to be an inducement to army recruiters. From service with the French battalion in Spain, Knox had acquired fluent French, enviably enriched with argot that only native-speakers could be expected to know. That qualification trumped the potential disadvantage that sometimes, in that benighted period, labelled veterans of the Spanish Civil War as “premature anti-fascists” (i.e. Communists). The Americans sent him back to Britain to join one of the small groups, known by code as Jedburgh teams, to be dropped behind enemy lines in France. In preparation for this deployment, Knox took his American citizenship. 

A surviving report of Knox’s Jedburgh team recounts the amazing and frightening details of the dangers that he and two others encountered in arming French resistance fighters after being parachuted into Finistère. Upon returning from France, Knox was redeployed in a ravaged Italy, where he had an almost mystical experience that determined his postwar career. He came upon a text of Virgil and, in accordance with the medieval tradition of “Virgilian lotteries (sortes Vergilianae),” sought to read the future from the first lines he saw upon opening the book at random. His eyes fell on the final verses of the First Georgic, which, if less than prophetic, vividly described the world in which he found himself: “Here right and wrong are reversed: so many wars in the world, so many faces of evil. The plow is despised and rejected; the farmers marched off, the fields untended. … On the one side the East moves to war, on the other Germany.” According to Knox in a speech he delivered decades later at the Cosmos Club in Washington, he said to himself, “If I ever get out of this, I’m going back to the Classics and study them seriously.”

That is exactly what he did. After receiving appropriately distinguished recognition for his wartime service, including two bronze stars, a silver star, and the Croix de Guerre, Knox earned a doctorate in Classics at Yale, where he subsequently ascended the academic ladder to a full professorship. He took up the study of Greek tragedy, and, as he has told us himself, found in Sophocles and Thucydides two powerful guides to understanding the past. In the dramatist he had someone whose characters could paradoxically unite cruel self-deception with transcendent nobility. In the historian he had a man who knew war just as he knew it and attempted, in painfully intricate prose, to expound its lessons for future generations. Knox’s book Oedipus at Thebes (1957) established a new and post-Freudian interpretation for Sophocles’ masterpiece. After half a century the book remains in print today, and it pointed the way to a better understanding of the ideals and tenacity of Sophoclean heroes (something to which he returned in his later book, The Heroic Temper, of 1964).    

Not many years after the appearance of his book on Oedipus and his rapidly growing reputation as a leading classical humanist, Knox emerged on the shortlist of candidates to direct a major center of Greek studies that Harvard was about to launch in Washington D.C. The availability of funding from the Old Dominion Foundation and the support of Paul Mellon encouraged Harvard’s President, Nathan Pusey, himself a classical scholar, to accept the idea of a research center for ancient Greek studies in the nation’s capital as a kind of antidote for the ills of the world and the madness of Washington politics in particular. Already in 1954 Huntington Cairns, a Washington lawyer and general counsel of the National Gallery of Art, had presented the idea of a center to Mellon as a “reassertion of humanism in the arts, in the academic world, and in the nation as a whole.” The initial pronouncements about the benefits to flow from the proposed Center were so extravagantly phrased that Jacques Barzun, who was consulted at the time, declared that the whole undertaking “has all the aspects of founding a church rather than an intellectual enterprise.” He was against research institutes, such as the Institute for Advanced Study, whose first Director Abraham Flexner was one of the early proponents of the Hellenic Center. Barzun strongly preferred the diversity and teaching that characterized the best universities.

But the Center for Hellenic Studies came into being in 1961, and Bernard Knox was chosen as its first director, although a year was to pass before he could take up his position. The genius of Knox as director was avoid all the dangers that Barzun had worried about, and to create an international nucleus of dedicated Greek scholars who had nothing in common except their excellence and their devotion to Greek studies. There was no party line, no dogma, but there was plenty of friendly debate and collegiality. Knox himself became a highly visible presence in Washington, through his amiable personality and his obvious knowledge of the real world as opposed to the classroom. With Knox’s articulate and benign participation in Washington social life, the great vision of Huntington Cairns began, rather surprisingly, to be realized.

Apart from an administrative committee that checked the books, the Center had a board of senior fellows who worked with Knox to select the junior fellows each year and to take an interest in the work of the fellows who were currently in residence. For the last nine years of Knox’s tenure as Director I had the pleasure of serving with him as a senior fellow. I observed with admiration the warmth of his human sympathy, the range of his knowledge of literature in many languages, his openness to ideas that were unfamiliar or even uncongenial, and his sublime refusal ever to engage in professional academic politics. As far as I could tell, the junior fellows, whatever their background or scholarly training, could communicate easily and fruitfully with the director.

I knew very well that Bernard Knox’s heart was committed to literature, and whenever we scrutinized an application in philosophy or epigraphy those who knew him could detect a very slight groan of disinterest. But he never failed to support these areas of Greek studies, and the strength of the Center’s library in these fields is proof of that. Knox knew what a Center for Hellenic Studies should be. He never put his own personal interests ahead of the Center’s. He never played any of the academic games to which professors are so deplorably prone (sometimes, of course, in good causes). He was always willing to give his opinion or advice when called upon, but never to insert himself into a debate. As Professor of Greek, he was formally a member of the Classics Department at Harvard throughout his time as director of the Center, but he participated in department voting only when called upon to do so when there was a serious division of opinion. His was truly the vote of Athena, as I can attest from my years as chair of that department.

Everyone who watched Knox preside at lunch at the Hellenic Center will have unforgettable memories of his war stories. Like all good storytellers, he was not averse to repeating a good story, but he was a good listener when others wished to talk. The Center lunches in the Knox era were hot, ample, and mandatory, whereas a later generation opted for lightness in cuisine and flexibility in attendance. But it would be hard to imagine any junior fellow who would now wish he had missed any of those encounters with their genial and eminent director. Scholarly conversation was largely informal. Knox occasionally invited guests for a lecture or seminar, particularly guests who were flamboyant or extremely famous, or both (Hugh Lloyd-Jones was a favorite), but on the whole the fellows were left to pursue their own work unaided and on their own terms. Group projects, ongoing seminars, workshops, colloquia all lay in the future, and there is no sign even now that such activities, borrowed from the laboratory culture of the natural sciences and imposed by granting agencies, actually benefit the humanities. 

Those in residence at the Center worked at their own individual tempo, and that included the director and his wife, who wrote many of her books there. Knox himself wrote increasingly frequently for a cultivated general readership, principally through articles in The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. He thereby transmitted his invaluable memories of the Spanish Civil War and the allied operations in France and Italy. But, above all, he made classical scholarship accessible, comprehensible, and important. His extraordinary piece for the New York Review of Books on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, as produced in New York by Andrei Serban, deservedly brought him the George Jean Nathan Prize for Drama Criticism. His review of Kenneth Dover’s pioneering book, Greek Homosexuality, alerted the public to a radical re-interpretation of Greek sexuality that remains authoritative, if occasionally controversial, to this day. Literature was the breath of life for Bernard Knox, and every one of his readers must feel this. After he had suffered a heart attack shortly before retiring from the directorship in 1985, I found him propped up in bed reading reading Proust, naturally in French.             

Fortunately the heart attack did not leave Knox seriously impaired, and, strong as he was in body as well as mind, he continued to work productively for two more decades. In 1990 he published an introduction to Robert Fagles’ new translation of the Iliad, and this account of the poem in all its aspects remains today a gripping meditation on the nature of war. In writing about the Iliad, Knox was able to draw generously on his own wartime experiences to illuminate Homer’s epic account of the final year of the Trojan War. Not that he included autobiographical details, but everywhere we hear the voice of someone who had endured it all. “The Iliad,” he wrote, “is a poem that lives and moves and has its being in war, in that world of organized violence in which a man justifies his existence most clearly by killing others.” Knox obviously drew on the visions that haunted him from the Spanish civil war when he wrote, “Men die in the Iliad in agony: they drop, screaming, to their knees, reaching out to beloved companions, gasping their life out, clawing the ground with their hands; they die roaring, like Asius, raging, like the great Sarpedon, bellowing, like Hippodamas, moaning, like Polydorus.”

Yet, as Knox recognized so poignantly, “War has its deadly fascination for those have grown up in its service.” There is no sentimentality in the Iliad, only a simple acceptance of the paradoxical truth that war, for all its horrors, “has its own strange and fatal beauty, a power, which can call out in men resources of endurance, courage and self-sacrifice that peacetime, to our sorrow and loss, can rarely command.” When Knox went on to observe that things have not changed in three thousand years, we can only agree, and we must agree with him as well that Homer will continue to be read as war’s “truest interpreter.” The introduction to Fagles’ Iliad concludes by bringing Knox back from its battles, violence, and death to the other pole of his own spiritual journey, Sophocles’ tragic hero: “Homer’s Achilles is clearly the model for the tragic hero of the Sophoclean stage,” and here he invokes Achilles’ passionate dedication to an ideal, “the same force that drives Antigone, Oedipus, Ajax and Philoctetes to the fulfillment of their destinies.” Even Socrates in the face of death recalled Achilles, who, when his mother foretold his early death, replied, “Let me die at once” and not become “a useless, dead weight on the good green earth.”

The final sentence of Knox’s introduction sums it up: “In the last analysis, the bloodstained warrior and the gentle philosopher live and die in the same heroic, and tragic, pattern.” Although Bernard Knox was no philosopher, he was at the same time a bloodstained warrior and a gentle man of letters, with a rare capacity to translate his harrowing experiences and his deep knowledge into matchless prose. His insight into human tragedy and his eloquence in writing about it found no equal in his lifetime. He raised humanistic learning to a level that only those who have engaged in the terrible conflicts of the real world can ever hope to attain.

G.W. Bowersock is Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His most recent book is From Gibbon to Auden: Essays on the Classical Tradition. 

For more on Bernard Knox, please read an extraordinary report of his heroism in World War II and a collection of his best pieces for TNR.