Ancient and modern

The Greeks wouldn’t have accepted Cambridge’s ‘respect’ policy either

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

Professor Toope, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge university, had proposed a motion ordering all members of the university to ‘respect’ each other, or else.

But significant numbers of members argued strongly against it, and rightly so: ‘respect’ is an emotional term implying deferential regard or special concern or solicitude for someone, a response more in line with the world of counselling and social welfare than with rigorous academic debate. Further, if ‘respect’ became justiciable because an academic appealed against dismissal from his job on that account, where would that end?

Thankfully Professor Toope failed, as history suggests he should have. On the ancients’ intellectual agenda, respect had to be earned. Rival Greek thinkers on matters medical, scientific and philosophical constantly kicked lumps out of each other. The philosopher Heraclitus said: ‘Much learning does not teach intelligence. If it did, it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras.’ Laertius wrote that Epicurus, inventor of epicureanism, ‘used to call Nausiphanes a jellyfish who was illiterate, a cheat and a whore, Plato a sucker-up to tyrants, Aristotle a waster who, after he spent his inheritance, became a mercenary and drug-dealer’.

But there was more to this than name-calling. These thinkers backed up their claims by arguing their cases against those of others, both in their writings and public forums. Socrates’s love of publicly tying fellow Athenians in intellectual knots went some way to leading to his execution. Doctors put on shows ‘to make the public goggle’ with their new ideas: fancy bandaging, or fixing a prolapsed uterus by tying the patient to a frame, turning it upside down and jiggling it. When Plato presented Socrates’s definition of man as a ‘featherless biped’, Diogenes brought a plucked fowl into Plato’s Academy and announced: ‘This is Plato’s man.’ From this throwing of hypotheses back and forth in vigorous public debate, there gradually emerged notions of empirical research and axiomatic deductive reasoning.


The Toope ‘respect’ protocol would never have resulted in the extraordinary Greek intellectual achievement. As a result, the academics who proposed ‘toleration’ to replace it won the day. But even that has its limits.

A.E. Housman (d. 1936) was, and probably still is, our country’s finest Latinist. He was a textual critic, an activity he defined as ‘a science… of discovering error in texts and the art of removing them’. To succeed, he suggested: ‘Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary: and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders and brains, not pudding, in your head.’

That gives a good sense of the man and of his approach to scholarship. Here he is on the textual critic Elias Stoeber, who lived in Strasbourg, ‘a city still famous for its geese… Stoeber’s mind, though that is no name to call it by, was one which turned as unswervingly to the false, the meaningless, the unmetrical and the ungrammatical, as the needle to the pole’. He commented on the Plato of Benjamin Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek and master of Balliol, as ‘the best translation of a Greek philosopher which has ever been executed by a person who understood neither philosophy nor Greek’. There is much more where that came from.

This gets us to the nub. Housman was in fact fulsome in praise of those who deserved it: he willingly gave ‘respect’ where it was due. But where it was not due, his condemnation was ferocious and unrelenting, backed up with the evidence (in his eyes) to justify it, leaving him (obviously) open to rebuttal. Let battle commence, was his view: but let there be no toleration of, let alone respect for, the intolerable.

Housman, who despised all publicity and rejected all honours (including an OM) and saw himself as a pejorist, not a pessimist, was in many ways an awkward man. But he was right in this: while absolute certainty is rarely an option in the arts, though in textual criticism it can be, the need to expose the false and meretricious is not negotiable.

If by ‘respect’ Professor Toope had meant good manners or courtesy, it is extraordinary that he thought it needed to be voted on. Now that he has lost he should reflect on Housman’s remark about the Dutch scholar Van Wageningen: ‘His opinions, not being his own, were picked up and dropped again, and he lived from hand to mouth on the borrowed beliefs of the moment.’

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