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A labor of love | Daniel Johnson

A labor of love |  Daniel Johnson
A labor of love |  Daniel Johnson


This article is from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To receive the full magazine, why not subscribe? We're currently offering five issues for just £10..

TThe history of history is often ridiculed, even by historians, as a mere prolegomena to the study of the past. And yet it provides the key to unlocking the mystery of why our origin is important to us. On the face of it, Oswyn Murray is the archetypal Oxford don, with the progressive baggage that being a Balliol member entails. When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, his former classics tutor, Murray, told the Guardian that he was “probably the worst scholar Eton ever sent us – a buffoon and an idler“.

If Murray had truly despised Boris when he was a student, why would he to have renounced their friendship by sending your former student an official message resignation from friendship — “an invitation to exile or suicide”? You can't give up on a friendship that doesn't exist, unless anger over Brexit demands an unnecessary gesture, the kind that gave Oxford its nickname as the birthplace of lost causes.

The Muse of History: The Ancient Greeks, from the Enlightenment to the Present, Oswyn Murray (Allen Lane, £30)

However, I forgive Murray everything for the sake of The muse of history. It is rare that one would want to attribute beauty to a book written by an academic, but this is not an academic book (although it is the product of deep scholarship). It is the work of a true lover of his subject, a universal man who deserves to speak in the name of a great cause that is constantly threatened but must never be lost: the cosmopolitan Republic of Letters.

Murray begins in the golden age of this republic, the Age of Enlightenment, by tracing the historiography of Greece (and to a lesser extent Rome). It shows how the age of French philosophers And scholarsdominated by the debate between Athens and Sparta, was finally supplanted: first came the romantics and the Philhellenes, then the era of “radical history”“.

Murray ignores familiar figures such as Winckelmann and Gibbon in favor of the forgotten virtuous, like the Irishman John Gast. It is to this descendant of the Huguenots that the honor of writing the first criticism belongs History of Greecethat Murray resurrected from obscurity.

A book with a similar title by the Benthamite banker George Grote had a more lasting impact. Murray shows that his idealization of Athenian democracy had been anticipated by the literary dandy Henry Bulwer-Lytton – a better historian than novelist.

Benthamite banker George Grote

Like his radical friend John Stuart Mill, Grote was a strong advocate of parliamentary reform – but his History did not appear until 1846-1856, after much of the battle for democracy had been won.

Then came the “triumph” of German classical scholarship. Murray explains pioneer BG Niebuhr's key role in creating a paradigm for historical scholarship, the emergence of mythology as a serious subject And the impact of David Friedrich Strauss and Heinrich Graetz, who broke down the barriers between the classics and the history of Christianity and the Jews.

Two of the richest chapters of what is necessarily a overview are dedicated to the Swiss sage Jacob Burckhardt. During my first term at Oxford, I was asked about his famous Renaissance culture in Italy, the book that inaugurated cultural history. Murray shows how his Greek cultural historypublished posthumously against his will and criticized by the academy, remains unmatched to this day.

The era of the World Wars shattered the Republic of Letters, with scholars reflecting its nationalist imperatives. The most popular classic of the era, Gilbert Murray, rallied the intellectual elite to denounce the “dreadful” Germans.s” in a letter to The temperatureopposing him to the author's great-grandfather, James Murray, founder of the Oxford English Dictionary. Gilbert Murray's repentance for his chauvinism should give pause to academics who sign open letters on Gaza.

Irishman John Gast

The climax of the story comes in 1940, when an unknown Italian Jew and refugee from fascism, ArnalTO DO Momigliano gives a series of lectures on “Peace and Liberty in the Ancient World” to a small Cambridge audience. This marks the opening of the continental history of ideas in England, a process which still had a long way to go. 45 years later when I arrived in Oxford, where I once saw the great man.

Murray quotes an after-dinner speech by Momigliano, who became his teacher and hero, late in his life: “The historian can explain everything, but he cannot explain why he became a historian..” Momigliano was right and Murray, in this fascinating survey of the modern historiography of the classical world, shows and explains why.

The past is an essential dimension of the present; so we are all our historians here and now.

As the ancients understood, history, in this universal sense, is an integral part of our humanity; it gives meaning to life.




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