A Passion for Truth

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BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 1, 2010

A Passion for Truth

These are grim times for the academic humanities. Seen as useless frills, which nations can prune away to focus on the “things that really matter”—by which the speaker so often means “things that contribute to national economic growth”—the humanistic disciplines are being cut at all levels, from elementary school to college and university. Even worse, they are being asked (on pain of extinction) to refashion themselves as tools of profit, demonstrating the (economic) “impact” of their inquiries. To begin thinking about why this focus on “impact” is a pernicious business, we can do no better than to pause to honor one of the greatest classical scholars of the past century, who illuminated the world through such unfashionable values as mastery, rigor, and a passion for truth.

Sir Kenneth Dover, who died on March 9 just days short of his 90th birthday, was a scholar unsurpassed in his mastery of ancient Greek language, culture, and thought. What Dover could do without effort, most scholars could not do even with the most painstaking labor. When his autobiography, Marginal Comment, first appeared in 1994, I was visiting Dover and his wife Audrey at their home in St. Andrews. With a mischievous smile, he dashed into his study—to emerge a short time later with an inscribed copy. On the flyleaf was a Greek elegiac couplet in which Dover had managed (1) to use in an apposite and humorous way a Greek word whose meaning we had discussed in a co-authored article, disputing its translation with John Finnis; (2) to express pleasure at the collaboration; and (3) to compare the “daring” outspokenness of our article to that of his own memoir—all with not only impeccable meter and style, but also graciousness, wit, and elegance. This in ten minutes, from a man who wrote that he spent twenty hours preparing every hour-long undergraduate lecture he gave—so you can imagine how much knowledge those lucky students had lavished upon them.

Dover did path-breaking work on Greek comedy, oratory, prose style, and popular thought, but he is best known for his Greek Homosexuality (1978), which influenced all subsequent work on this topic, not least that of Michel Foucault. Challenging the received wisdom that sexual desire and choice vary little from one society to another, Dover showed that ancient Greek social norms profoundly structured sexual experience and even desire, making the desire of an older man for a younger one feel not unnatural, but profoundly normal and natural: even the gods themselves were thought to enjoy such passions. To make his argument Dover needed not only the lack of prudery and the passion for accuracy that were always such a huge part of his personality; he also needed the mastery I’ve mentioned, since he had to give convincing interpretations of difficult texts from many genres, as well as works of visual art. A life devoted to mastery of such arcane matters illuminated the world for us all.

In Britain today there is a new government program called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Under the REF, scholars in all fields will be rated, and fully twenty-five percent of each person’s rating will be assigned for the “impact” of their work—not including its impact on other scholars or on people who like to think, but only including the crasser forms such “impact” might take. (Paradigmatic examples are “improved health outcomes or growth in business revenue.”) “Impact” must be immediate and short-term, and it must be brought about by the scholar’s own efforts, not by the way in which another generation might find their world enlivened by a book the scholar has produced. Britain’s assault on the love of truth for its own sake is particularly explicit, but such pernicious trends can be found in every country.

Dover would do poorly in the REF: even his widely influential ideas were not “marketed” by him, but were simply put out there to be picked up by others, a process that may take many years. And yet they changed our understanding of human sexuality. While the world mourns a towering figure (and while I mourn a man of the highest sort of daring, whom I am lucky to have known as a friend), let us not mourn the passing of the type of scholarship he loved. Let us fight for it, because it may still survive. If it does not, our nations and our individual spirits will be the poorer. The pursuit of short-term profit is death to the life of the mind.

Martha C. Nussbaum is professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago. She is the author, most recently, of From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and the Constitution.

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posted in: books and arts, martha nussbaum, audrey, john finnis, kenneth dover, michel foucault

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