Sir Kenneth Dover was one of the foremost classical scholars of his generation.
He was born in 1920 and educated at St Paul’s School and Balliol College, Oxford. From 1948-55 he was a fellow and tutor there, becoming professor of Greek at the University of St Andrews, where he stayed until 1976, when he became president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. His many publications include Greek Homosexuality and The Greeks, which led to the BBC TV series of the same name. From 1978-81, he was president of the British Academy and was chancellor of the University of St Andrews from 1981 until his retirement in 2005. He died in March 2010, survived by a son and a daughter.
His controversial autobiography, Marginal Comment, published in 1994, was the subject of many a heated outcry among his critics – especially with regard to the chapter on Trevor Aston, a colleague who had committed suicide.
My interview with him, in 1997, was a great eye-opener as to what makes a man of his calibre and talent show such a perilous disregard for transparency when it comes to his own sexuality and deep inner feelings.
Here is the text of my interview in full:
You suggest in your autobiography that your choice of Greek offered you an escape from the tensions and frustrations of life at home and at school. What was it about classics – as opposed to any other discipline – which you felt could offer you this security?
There is an element of chance in it being classics. If one is unhappy at home, any kind of activity that fully engages one’s mind is a self-rewarding escape. I happened to be precocious in the sense of being able to read very early in life and having a strong appetite in for learning, but my first line of escape was into the study of insects, and until the age of twelve I hoped to be an entomologist. Then I started Greek and got hooked on language, but even then my interest was much more what you might call scientific, essentially wissenschaftlich, rather than any kind of aesthetic response, which came only later. My school rather pushed me away from science and in the direction of classics, simply because my natural talents, such as they were, seemed to lie in language. By the time I went to university, I would have hoped to have a degree in linguistics, but this option was not open to me. Looking back on it now I am very glad because I’ve had such immense enjoyment out of studying the ancient world. And if I were asked now what my field really is, I’d be tempted to say Greek behaviour – social, moral, sexual and political – and I would count language and literature as an area of human behaviour.
Most people fail to recognize the relevance of classics to the modern world. Do you feel absolutely confident about defending its abiding significance?
I’d hate to defend it with some of the arguments which are used in its defence. For example, it is sometimes put out that learning Latin and Greek makes one think logically; in fact what one acquires through the study of language is not logic, but sensitive antennae – a very different matter. And if one is looking for the sort of advantages to be obtained from solving the problem of translating from one language to another, then I suspect that more might be gained from studying Chinese or Japanese than by studying Latin and Greek. My own attraction is to the culture of the Greeks, because I so enormously admire their literary skill. And I’ve no doubt whatever about the utility of studying another culture; it shakes one’s own presuppositions, and this is immensely valuable.
In an address to the Classical Association in 1976 you said: ‘Language engages me intellectually more than any other kind of human interaction. And this more than anything else is what stands between the classicist and the general public.’ Have you had any interest in engaging the attention of the general public, or is the study of classics too elitist an activity?
I’m never worried about elitism, or indeed any word ending in –ism. It’s true that the general temper of the age is rather hostile to linguistic difficulty. There are all kinds of reasons for that and I suspect the main one is that by now there is such an enormous range of interesting and rewarding activities which depend not on natural language but on artificial language; by which I mean mathematical and scientific symbols and the operation of those symbols. And this tends to make people rather impatient with the study of natural language.
Your father was by your account a difficult man. Looking back now, do you understand him better than you did?
Yes, but of course understanding doesn’t necessarily make one like something better. One famous saying that I don’t actually believe to be true is tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, because it sometimes happens that when you understand something better you are less inclined to forgive it.
Do you feel either the need or obligation to forgive him?
I’m not really worried about commendation or forgiveness, because I never wanted revenge on my father or to hurt him; I just wanted him not to be there, because it made life so tense and uncomfortable. Besides, it wouldn’t actually mean anything now to say, yes I still condemn him, or, no I now forgive him. It wouldn’t make me remember the unpleasant things about my childhood any differently.
Since you could not change your parents or your circumstances, you embarked on the deliberate business of changing yourself, and indeed you claim some success in the matter. Are you convinced that this is a feasible exercise and available to most people?
I’ve no idea about its availability to the other people, and my feeling for many years that I had deliberately changed myself was probably exaggerated, in the sense that one changes at that age quite a bit anyway. What I believed to be a large element of deliberate planning was possibly much more caused by external things. But people do rather tend to feel that whatever goes wrong with them is externally caused and that they can’t very well sit down and plan how they’re going to reacts to things; but to a certain extent they can.
You have been very frank about what you regarded as a physical deformity, your funnel chest, and how it distressed you as a youngster. Was it something that continued to weigh on your mind? And did it affect the course of your life, do you think?
Yes, because I’ve never lost the sense of inferiority. Of course, I’m talking about a feeling, rather than a rational thought, and if I were looking back on a process of rational thinking, then of course it might be possible for me to say, yes, I was mistaken. But if I’m looking back on the feeling caused by this awareness of deformity, I’m not at all surprised that I felt as I did. For I have never shed that sense of basic inferiority in shape to other people, and to this day I don’t take off my shirt in public. I don’t go swimming in the sea unless it’s a deserted beach.
Your autobiography seems remarkable for the degree of reliance you place on intellect and intellection. Do you think there is any place for human feeling, for tradition, for instinct?
Well, there’s any amount of room for feeling. One reaction to my book which rather surprised me was that of one of my former colleagues in Corpus. He described me as an evil man, because I was cold and calculating. I can laugh that one off easily enough because calculation is an ingredient of all purposeful action, and without calculation one gets things wrong, except by remarkable good luck. After all, what is the alternative to calculation? Impulsiveness, thoughtlessness what should one call it? A lot of time, I would certainly regard calculation as equivalent to rational thinking, but then to say that I don’t have feelings, I don’t have emotions, seems to me quite absurd. I have strong feelings, strong emotions, and I think about what the consequences would be in acting upon them; that’s a different activity. Calculation, reasoning, intellect – these things are to do with means, not ends; the choice of ends, this does seem to me an emotional matter.
You say that you prefer ‘nasty truths to silly lies’, and to that end you have aimed at complete candour in your book. Have you had any cause since publication to doubt this approach?
No. Undoubtedly I have upset some people, but not many compared to the much larger number who have expressed very strong approval of my inclination to tell nasty truths. There are only two people whom I like and respect and whom I would have liked to please, who disapproved of the book, I’m sorry to find myself on the other side from them, but overwhelmingly the line I’ve taken seems to be approved of by the people whose approval I would have wanted.
The problem with candour is surely that it affects and sometimes distresses other people. Are you not persuaded that there is a place for reticence in an autobiography?
I have been very careful not to say things which would have an adverse effect on anyone who is still alive. And there are a very great number of things, amusing sometimes, interesting sometimes, which I could have said about living people, but which I have refrained from saying. When it comes to people who are dead, it may be distressing for those who liked them or perhaps loved them, to learn things they’d rather not have known. But there the harsh duty of the historians comes in; and I so feel a strong compulsion to tell the truth about the dead, who will not after all themselves be hurt or disadvantaged by what I say. There are a couple of cases in the book where I have refrained from saying things about people who are now dead out of consideration for their surviving family, but only two. On the whole, in cases of doubt, I have preferred to tell the truth.
Do you ever feel that others might be tempted to regard it less as truth-telling than revenge?
God, no. Oddly enough. There are remarkably few people I’ve ever disliked. I’ve had some enemies, but they decided to make themselves my enemies; I have not made enemies of them, and I’ve never wanted revenge. I don’t think anybody has hurt me badly enough for me to want to hurt them in return, or to feel that I would enjoy hurting them in return, but perhaps I’ve just been very lucky. This doesn’t apply to things one hears or reads of, where some totally innocent person has been grotesquely harmed. On their behalf, naturally, I would very much like to harm the harmer; but I haven’t been in the position of victim myself.
But what about those people who are no longer in a position to dispute your version of events?
This is true of all historical characters. Alexander the Great or Cromwell or Queen Victoria are not in a position to dispute anything we say about them. Once somebody’s dead, whether it is yesterday or a thousand years ago, it makes no difference. If one were to refrain from writing about a person because he’s not in a position to defend himself, this would rule out history entirely. Of course, when one is writing about one’s feelings or intentions or thoughts, the reader can have no control at all over whether one is telling the truth or not. There’s simply no way of knowing, but this is true of all autobiographies, and something one has to accept from the start.
Your TV series on the Greeks seems to have been a great personal disappointment, and fell far short of what you had hoped for. Was it principally because you failed to spread the word of the Greeks to a popular audience, or was it more complex than that?
It was a lot more complex, and looking back now it is arguable that the whole concept was a mistake, because I’m not an art historian, I’m not an archaeologist, and it was a hell of a problem right from the start to get across the kind of thing I wanted to get across via popular use of the visual media. I also disagreed with the producer’s approach as to how it should be done, and it certainly was a considerable disappointment to me when it appeared. It was also a shattering disappointment to me when it appeared. It was also a shattering disappointment to Alasdair Milne, and the book I wrote to go with it didn’t sell at all well. I had rather hoped that the programmes would serve the purpose of interesting a wide public in the Greek world, and create a favourable climate of opinion so that people wouldn’t say to their children who were wondering what to do at university: ‘Oh, don’t bother about that, classics is dull.’ But there it is…
Both your parents were irreconcilably hostile to your religion – your father called Christianity ‘God-slobber’. You say that your own position on religion was arrived at separately, but it is difficult to imagine that your parents had no influence in this…
They were different sorts of influence. My mother had a poor opinion of any kind of ritual ceremonial, and she took a pretty distant attitude to church services, and never went to church for that reason. But I myself came very much under the influence of evangelical friends at school and that lasted about seven years, and then I switched to being irreligious, or even anti-religious. Then I had a bit of a tacking back towards religion in my late thirties, until I had what I called a mystical experience in reverse, a sort of voice from the sky saying, ‘You don’t need a god’ – which is just the same as happened to A. J. P. Taylor at a much earlier age. Since then I’ve never been tempted to be religious. I’m enormously interested in religion, and I look upon it as a way in which a lot of people express things that matter to them very much. I also find the history of religion absorbing, but I just don’t actually believe it’s true; which is a different matter.
But do you think, for example, that if you had been born into a Roman Catholic household and steeped in the creed and dogma of the church, you would still have arrived at an anti-clerical position?
Well, to judge by many of my friends who have had exactly that life, yes. I know many ex-Catholics, people brought up from birth as Catholics, who have now become very anti-religious. So it could perfectly well have happened to me.
But what exactly is the nature of your objection? After all, even if believers are wrong, most of them will mean well. So what is the problem … is it an intellectual objection or a moral one?
Mainly intellectual, in the sense that belief is something that happens to me when the evidence or the reasons for belief reach a certain critical point, so to speak. In the case of religious propositions, there aren’t any in my experience which have pushed me into belief; I simply do not think that I have adequate reasons for believing. I’m not an atheist; I don’t consider that it is reasonable to say there is no God, but I don’t think it is reasonable to say that there is a God either. I am a genuine agnostic. And if I can have recourse to the Greeks at this point, there’s a peculiarly interesting work by Protagoras, a contemporary of Socrates, of which – alas – only the first sentence survives. The work is entitled On the Gods, and he started off by saying, ‘I don’t know whether there are gods or not, or if there are, what they are like; the problem is too difficult and life is too short.’ How he went on, we don’t know, but that is a fifth-century-BC statement of the position with which I have some sympathy.
Is there nothing whatsoever to be said for what are called the comforts of religion? What alternative is there other than a brutal stoicism?
I have no doubt whatever that religion brings enormous comfort to a great many people, but to compare the consequences of a belief with the truth of a belief does seem to me a major confusion. You can derive any degree of assurance, confidence, comfort, call it what you like, from holding a totally untrue belief and how firmly you hold it; whether it’s true or not doesn’t come into it. I don’t go around trying to stop people being comforted by their religion. I merely say, if they ask me, that I don’t share the belief, and therefore I don’t derive comfort.
This mystical experience you had in which you described the heavens opening and a voice declaring you had no need of a god … I understand the difficulty in communicating such an experience to others, but what gives it precedence over those experiences of others which point, as it were, in a different direction, i.e. to the existence of God?
There is an important difference between Alan Taylor’s experience of a voice saying, there is no God, and my own saying, I had no need of a god. It is possible to have theology without being religious. Epicurus was a case in point. He did not deny the existence of gods, indeed he believed they existed. But he argued there was nothing we could conceivably do or say or think which would affect or influence them, and they had no part whatever in intervening in human life. So there you have a belief in the existence of gods coupled with a strong assertion that they don’t need us and we don’t need them. I did not, however, have Epicurus in mind when I had that experience.
But do you have any attitudes or principles which are in some sense a philosophical alternative to religion? I mean something sustaining and convincing which would seem to you an adequate background to life’s vicissitudes?
I have a very strong sense of being an individual in a social species. We are in an interesting predicament since every one of us is simultaneously a competing individual and a social unit with a need for love and acceptance and so on, but of course no two of us are quite alike in our needs. If you take a graph of a human population and at one end you put the most selfish, aggressive, hostile, psychopathic people, and at the other end the most compassionate, generous, affectionate and caring people, it will be a normal graph, since most of us are somewhere round the middle. The important point in morality is to start off by recognizing our need for acceptance and love, and if this is going to be meaningless to a few people, then too bad. It’s going to be constantly overwhelmingly meaningful to a few others, and that’s the way it is. I have no difficulty whatever in imagining, and indeed in making a minute contribution towards creating, the kind of human society that I want to exist, the kind of society where we can rely on one another.
You are obviously a man who is much moved by nature and beauty of the countryside. And yet in your response to beautiful places, such as Wester Ross, there is nothing which remotely approaches pantheism, nothing of the Wordsworth idea of ‘a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused’. Why is that, do you think?
I think it’s almost hopeless to try to explain why one likes. This is true not only in terms of the natural world, but also in the arts. I mean, how can one explain preferences for particular works of art or particular poems? One just has to start off by recognizing what it is that one responds to and accepting that.
You describe an occasion in 1944 when you were so struck by the beauty on the top of a hill south of Mignano, that you sat down on a log and masturbated, something which you described as ‘the appropriate response’. Would you say it was principally an aesthetic response, or was it more biological, or what?
Goodness knows, goodness knows. All I know now is that it wasn’t unique, because since my book appeared I’ve heard of other people having very similar experiences. It seemed to strike one reviewer as something very odd indeed, but it is not as odd as all that.
You are remarkably frank in your discussion of sex, which has obviously played an extremely important and happy part in your married life. You describe the orgasm as ‘the purest and the most powerful of all the good emotional experiences available to mankind’. In another context, the context of religious experiences, you say that feelings of conviction tell us much about the person who experiences them but nothing about their truth-value. Would you agree it is difficult to assess the truth-value of your statement on the orgasm?
Oh yes, quite impossible. What I’ve said there about the orgasm was meant to be slightly jocular, and I was talking more about adolescence. It’s not a considered opinion on a scale of values in 1995.
Is there anything about sex that might shock you?
Yes. False promises. Or deception. I mean, a man claiming he is wearing a condom when he’s not – things like that. Perhaps I should have said rape before I said deception, but I was rather taking rape for granted. One must distinguish between aesthetic distaste and moral repugnance; they’re not the same thing at all. There are quite a number of possible sexual goings-on which I find aesthetically surprising, and sometimes repugnant. I recall a novel by William Boyd in which a couple use honey as a genital lubricant, which sounds just incredibly messy; things like that are aesthetically repugnant but not necessarily morally so. To have moral significance they have to come into a category of actions which would also be morally objectionable even if they were not sexual; and that’s why I include force, violence, deception, false promises, because those are ways of behaving which cover the non-sexual as well as the sexual; but it’s in the sexual sphere that they are particularly brutal.
During a brief spell of impotence your thoughts turned to suicide. Looking back, does this not seem to have been an overreaction?
Well, perhaps it was. But so what? I mean, that’s how I felt, and I told the truth about how I felt. It was of course the product of ignorance because I thought once one started being impotent, that was it.
But supposing that it had been permanent. I mean, is impotence such a terrible thing as to warrant suicide?
How does one decide whether something is such a terrible thing or not? I described the feeling I had, and I felt it made life not worth living. There’s nothing to be said for old age, absolutely nothing. One becomes weaker, one’s eyesight deteriorates, one’s hearing deteriorates, one can’t walk as far as one did, one becomes impotent and so on. What is there to be said for old age?
A kind of serenity, some might say…
No, no, I don’t think so. I’m serene only as long as I’m physically in good shape. I’m still waiting to be told by somebody of my age or older in what way it is better to be old than to be young.
Going back to suicide, it is something you have contemplated more than once, as did your father before you. Is it possible to make up a sound intellectual case for taking one’s life, or is one always emotionally driven?
So far as I know, one is emotionally driven. Plainly there are cases where one could take an intellectual decision; suppose, for example, that I knew for sure that I was getting Alzheimer’s disease, or that I was at the start of some kind of condition which would impose nothing but distress on my family, I think that would be a good sound reason, a product of thinking. Otherwise contemplating suicide is perhaps almost invariably an overemotional reaction.
What was the principal constraint on a suicide attempt? Was it lack of courage, or the thought of your wife or children, or what?
All those things enter into it, but I suppose it was not so much lack of courage as lack of conviction, by which I mean just not feeling strongly enough that there was no other way out. After all, it’s the one decision you can’t reverse, and although I was telling the truth when I said there had been occasions when I had seriously thought about it, quite obviously the conviction that it was the only escape had not been anything like strong enough.
You say in your book that you have never experienced what could properly be called grief at anybody’s death. This might be regarded as almost an emotional failing or impairment. Do you see it like that, or do you regard it as a strength?
I don’t know if it’s either really. One thing I should say is that I do regret making the remark in 1994 because it hadn’t been true for some years. The first time I felt something like grief on the death of a friend was in 1984. But it is generally true that although I react very strongly to other people’s suffering, for some reason or other I don’t react in the same way to death. I can’t be sorry for somebody who’s dead, because they’re not there any longer and they’re not suffering. I can be tortured by people suffering, but not in any comparable degree grieved by their death.
Were you disappointed that your autobiography was rejected for publication by Oxford University Press, especially in view of your long association with Oxford?
I had never taken it for granted that they would necessarily want to publish it. The reason I submitted it to them is that years ago I had promised them first refusal, and I was just keeping a promise.
Why do you think they rejected it?
That’s for them to say, but I think one thing that must have entered into it was the feeling that I was quite wrong in my chapter about Oxford and my chapter about Trevor Aston, and also wrong to reveal what were generally regarded as confidential matters from inside college. I gathered third or fourth hand that there was a feeling that it gave an unfavourable picture of Oxford. I don’t agree. In fact I don’t think I’ve been uncomplimentary about Oxford in any unreasonable way in the book at all. And I’m not altogether in sympathy with OUP’s attitude to confidentiality which, after all, is not something which is laid down by God or by nature. A thing is confidential if somebody has decided to make it so, and I think excessive confidentiality, and secrecy do far more harm than good. The one principle I observed, both in the chapter on the university and in the chapter on Trevor Aston, was not to reveal anything derogatory that could be attributed to a living individual.
You seem rather surprised by the fact that response to your book concentrated on what you called ‘the Aston affair’, and your confession to having had murderous thoughts towards your colleague at Corpus Christi College. Do you think you were perhaps naive in not anticipating this response?
Even if I was I couldn’t have acted differently. The Aston business mattered so much to me in the ten years I was at Corpus, and any historian has to pick on the things which in his view really made the difference. The reason I was surprised by the fuss was that a number of people had read the typescript and had written to me about various points of interest in it. Not one of them had picked on the Aston chapter as objectionable, and it was only after the fuss was started in the Guardian that it all blew up. The one place where I may have made a mistake, though I’m not totally convinced of it, was the actual wording I used when I said something like ‘the practical problem was how to kill him without getting into trouble’. Brian Harrison in Corpus, who was very helpful in reading part of the typescript, thought it was expressed in too brutal a way. My daughter also rather took against it, not because she was shocked at my wanting Aston to die, but because she thought the way I put it was self-indulgent. She knows that I’m fairly guarded in my expression of emotion, and she thought this went over the top. So I can’t say I wasn’t warned, but on the other hand, I can’t help feeling that whatever one contemplates doing, one should translate into real terms and face the consequences. If I was saying to myself in effect, as indeed I was, can I possibly create a situation in which there is no more Trevor Aston, then I ought to say it outright. How could I bring about a situation in which he was dead is a very long-winded way of saying, how could I kill him? That was why I kept the words.
Yes, but those words will have shocked and appalled a great many people…
I also know a number of people who were not shocked or appalled, particularly people who were, or had been, responsible for colleges, universities, departments, institutions and the like.
In defending your position vis-à-vis Aston you rather appealed to the Greeks who would always have been more concerned about the harm or benefit to the community in general than the individual. Would you allow that there are dangers in applying Socratic law in the twentieth century, even if it is confined to the cloisters of an Oxford college?
I’m in a difficult position here because if I’m going to defend myself against some of the criticisms to which I’ve been subjected, it becomes terribly long-winded and I don’t want to get into the position of saying, ah, but you see… What I’ve said in the chapter about my dealings with Aston is only a sample. The real catalogue would be a great deal longer. One of my critics wrote to The Times saying that if Aston had been given the support he needed by his colleagues, this tragic outcome could have been avoided. I pointed out in reply that Aston had had any amount of support from his colleagues for over twenty years and for eight of those years he’s had a great deal of help and support from me, and indeed he told me that he always felt better after talking with me. But there came a point eventually when it obviously wasn’t doing any good, and that was when I felt my responsibilities for the well-being of the college were looming rather large.
Dr Thomas Charles-Edwards, tutor in modern history at Corpus, disputed your account of Aston and said: ‘Dover was the sort of person to derive intellectual interest from analysing Aston’s predicament. It doesn’t surprise me that he consulted a lawyer to judge the consequences of any action. Dover seemed to have no need for emotions and little time for those who did.’ How do you react to that kind of criticism?
I don’t understand how he can say that I had no room for emotion when I had an overriding emotional need to serve the interests of the college.
James Howard-Johnston, another fellow at Corpus, wrote: ‘I found the moral stance of the author quite abhorrent. The welfare of the institution should not be prized above life.’ Did this sort of reaction give you pause?
No, because I went on being patient and tolerant and supportive for eight years, but there comes a point when you have to write somebody off. That’s my feeling, and to say that you can’t prize the well-being of an institution above an individual life is just not true as far as I’m concerned. Certainly, one has to go on trying for years to reconcile the two interests, but when it becomes clear that it’s not going to work, at that point I will sacrifice the individual. The extraordinary thing is that it was my emotional commitment to the well-being of the college which made me act as I did. If I had been all that calculating I wouldn’t have bothered about it, because I knew I was retiring in ten months’ time. The fact was, I wanted to hand over a good college to my successor.
But your behaviour was surely open to misunderstanding. I mean, there seems to be an almost clinical detachment in your account of the Aston affair and particularly your reaction to Aston’s suicide. You write, ‘I got up from a long sound sleep, I can’t say for sure if the sun was shining, but I certainly felt it was.’ That degree of disengagement is quite chilling…
The Times leader used the word gloating. Now that seemed to me an extraordinary word to use of the feeling one has when one is relieved of a heavy burden. It was the lifting of a weight that had been there for years; that’s what I felt, and I can’t believe that I was wrong to feel that. If it had been a matter of revenge or vindictiveness, then gloating would have been an appropriate word; but that’s precisely what it wasn’t. The other thing is that people like Thomas Charles-Edwards and James Howard-Johnston honestly believed they knew Trevor better than I knew him, and I think they were wrong. Not only was I a friend of Trevor’s for eight years but I was also in many respects his confidant. He told me a lot about himself that I don’t think they knew, and for them to talk as if they really knew, and for them to talk as if they really knew his virtues and I didn’t was not accurate. I think I knew him better.
Although you conceded afterwards that you were not claiming the right to execute Aston, you said that you do not have reverence for human life per se in this instance. What is the force of per se in this instance?
At all costs. I was contrasting my own feelings as a non-pacifist with the belief of pacifists that it is always wrong deliberately to cause somebody’s death in any circumstances. I don’t have this feeling of reverence for life as such – perhaps I should have said ‘as such’ rather than per se. I don’t have a feeling it is always necessarily the worst thing one can do to cause somebody to die. I plainly didn’t have a ‘right’ to cause his death – and I wouldn’t for a moment claim that – partly because I don’t actually think one has rights other than those which one is specifically given. I have rights under the law, but the law does not give me the right to cause the death of a colleague, I’m absolutely sure about that. But then there are occasions when one does things without having the right to do them because one decides it is a good thing to do.
You were president of the British Academy when Anthony Blunt’s treachery was revealed. Would it be fair to say that your writing to Blunt was instrumental in bringing about his resignation?
It was instrumental in the sense that it must have had some cause and effect, but I didn’t exactly demand his resignation. There were people – the late E. H. Carr was one of them – who thought I had pushed Blunt into resigning, and Carr wanted me to circulate to fellows of the Academy a copy of our correspondence. I couldn’t in fact do that because I had written to Blunt in longhand and I hadn’t kept a copy, but I told Carr if he wanted to see it, he could ask Blunt and I had no objection whatever. What mattered more was that I have after I had written to Blunt and asked him if he would consider the possibility of healing the wound in the Academy by resigning, we had a telephone conversation in which I emphasized to him that there was no way I could put pressure on him, that a president of the Academy cannot tell someone to resign; his danger had passed, he’d not been expelled, so he was absolutely free to decide whether to resign or not. We discussed this in a perfectly amicable way, but there was no transcript of that telephone conversation which I could send to Carr or to anyone else; yet to me it was that which mattered much more than the letter.
A. J. P. Taylor resigned in protest at what he called a ‘witch hunt’. He felt that the BA should not concern itself with matters other than academic. Did you have any sympathy with this view?
As a matter of fact I did. Although my first reaction to the news of Blunt’s treachery was very hostile, the more I looked at the legal side of it in terms of the charter of the British Academy, the more difficult it seemed to be to justify expelling Blunt. And if we had simply reacted with horror and said we won’t have this man around, we’ll expel him, that would have been lynching and not law. By the time it came to the discussion at the AGM, if I had been put in the awful predicament of giving a casting vote, I would have cast against expulsion simply on legal grounds. But there was of course another line that could be taken, which was that Blunt had damaged the whole international community by serving the interests of a totalitarian government under which historical and scientific work was not free. The extraordinary thing was that at the two meetings of the council of the Academy at which the Blunt case was exhaustively discussed, that point was not raised. I agonized over whether I should raise it from the chair, but I was very anxious not to lean on anyone as chairman. Indeed this crucial point was not made until after Blunt had resigned and the whole fuss had subsided, where a piece in Encounter put the issue of Blunt having served the interests of a totalitarian government hostile to the study of history. But until then even Blunt’s most ferocious enemies had not raised the matter.
What sort of man was he? Did you like him?
He wasn’t a terribly easy man to know, I must say. There was something guarded about him, which I think was probably accounted for by his homosexuality and the fact that he’d belonged to a generation which had treated homosexuality as an enemy. But I got on with him well. I never had any reason to dislike him.
At around the same time there were various stresses and strains in your life, notably the dilemma of whether or not to embark on adulterous affairs. Have you ever regretted not allowing yourself that indulgence?
No, no. Oh no, I was right to pass it over.
Once again, when talking about the possibility of infidelity, the case for and against it is argued in the cold light of reason. I would have thought that this was precisely an area in which reason played very little part, and that to pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous.
But one has to make a decision. I mean, is one going to go ahead or not? How does one make the choice? If it’s not reason, what is it?
If there had been no risk of being found out, would you perhaps have gone ahead?
That’s getting into an unreal world, to imagine that one can embark on any course of action which one can conceal forever. I wouldn’t even contemplate that because I don’t believe it’s particularly sensible to do anything that one wouldn’t want revealed. Supposing it had been certain that nobody would ever find out about it … that to me is an imaginary world, and I tend to stick to the real world. It’s also a moral issue, not in the sense that I believe fornication is necessarily wrong, but I wasn’t willing to hurt my wife, and that makes it a moral issue.
Do you think that your own moral sense has been shaped in any measure by the Greeks and the study of classics?
It may have been shaped in certain ways, possibly more than I know, but more probably it is the other way around; that I’m particularly attracted to Greek culture and civilization because the echo inclinations of my own. For example, this business of not having a reverence for human life – that’s certainly true of the Greeks because they were tremendous users of capital punishment and they executed people for all kinds of things. If you served on a jury and took a bribe, then you were for the chop, because they regarded the integrity of the jury system as vitally important to the life of the community.
Your book on Greek homosexuality was punished in 1978 to general acclaim. Do you think it is possible to have a perfect understanding of homosexuality, Greek or otherwise, without being a homosexual oneself?
Possibly not, Greek homosexuality fascinated me because it was such an immensely important ingredient of Greek culture. I also thought that virtually everything that had been said about it or written on the subject was nonsense. There was a complete failure to understand how in the Greek culture the attitude towards the active and the passive partner can be radically contradictory, even irreconcilable. It was common to find people writing about Greeks as perverts, using nouns for which there was no Greek equivalent, when in point of fact the essential division in Greek society was between the adult male penetrator and the female or immature male who are grouped together as the object of penetration. This is really what got me interested in it. Curiously enough I’m not wildly in sympathy with homosexuals on a purely emotional level. Aesthetically I feel a certain revulsion at the idea of kissing a man, but I don’t think that marred my historical investigation of the phenomenon.
During your time as professor of Greek at St Andrews, you were a great defender of academic standards and there was a suggestion that after you left in 1976 those standards rather declined. What view do you take now? Is the battle lost?
You’re probably thinking of courses in classical civilization and culture, of which I was a very strong advocate at first-year level. What worries me really is the continuation of that way of studying things beyond the first year, even perhaps up to honours level which does happen in some universities. Although it undoubtedly brings good people in, whose primary interest perhaps is medieval history, art history, English literature and so on, my own feeling is that if you are studying another culture at a level which is called honours in a university, it doesn’t deserve the name honours unless it includes a knowledge of the language of that culture. It’s as simple as that.
You have been chancellor at St Andrews since 1981. And you are the first chancellor of St Andrews who is not a duke, a peer or an archbishop. Is that a source of pride?
Yes, it is, but I’m not the first in Scotland of course, because Alec Cairncross at Glasgow is a former professor, as I am, and Kenneth Alexander at Aberdeen is another one since me. So it’s become comparatively fashionable now.
At the age of fifteen you coined the dictum: ‘Instinct is the force that makes us repeat our mistakes.’ Have you tried to resist your instincts throughout your life?
I’ve never trusted them, but I’ve been interested to observe them. I accept my instincts as a fact, but I don’t attach value to something because it is an instinct. I’m sceptical of instincts in the same way I’m sceptical of the beneficence of nature. Civilization consists in combating nature, and I take the view that what we inherit in the way of instinctive or genetically determined responses is not to be worshipped just because it’s natural; it needs to be scrutinized rather carefully.
You say that in recent years you have been repeatedly struck by the wisdom of some of Plato’s observations on society, notably that devotion to justice can be truly assessed only by one’s behaviour towards those who are weaker than oneself and in one’s power. You suggest that this is equally applicable to politics and sex. Looking round modern society, do you think there is any evidence that this principle is alive and well?
I’m not sure that any good principles are alive and well at any stage in human history, but fortunately they do survive from one generation to another.
You say that you have searched for aspects of old age which might compensate for its ills but have found none. Is there no sense of a job well done or a life well lived?
I have a great deal to be pleased about, but I think that at any given stage in life I have adequate reason to feel that. I don’t necessarily feel it more now looking back over a longer period than I would have felt it, let us say, at forty-five or fifty looking back over a shorter period.
Your doctor once assured you that one can never with any degree of confidence say, ‘That was my last fuck.’ Has this at least given you continuing and abiding grounds for optimism and happiness?
One can’t of course be wildly optimistic. I remember seeing a very amusing graph which showed there are a number of men who are still sexually active at eighty-five, but it’s a very small number indeed.
You have compared death to the returning of a book to the stack. Are you completely unsentimental in contemplation of your own death?
I think so, yes. I regret it in the sense that I’m always writing something and I want to finish it, and I feel aggrieved at the idea that it is going to be cut short by my dying at some point. But I don’t fear death. Hell may be real; I’d be very surprised if it were, but all the same, one doesn’t know. But then one’s not knowing, indeed the impossibility of knowing, I feel to be so complete, that it’s not worth worrying about.