Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bernard Knox And A Strange Encounter With The Oldest Dead White European Males

Where does inspiration come from? One of the meanings of the  English word "inspiration'  is to breath in. In Christian teaching inspiration is a gift from God delivered by the Holy Ghost and is identified with the wind. To the Greeks the source of inspiration was from the Muses, transmitted orally through myth and  poetry. To speak is to breath and again the connection with the wind.

Carl Jung's theory of the collective unconscious says that inspiration can come from our genetic predisposition to organize information according to racial memory. An inspired person can be one who is attuned to the spirit of his ancestors.

Inspiration often comes when we find ourselves in dangerous situations. Many a man has found God in a foxhole as the saying goes. Others make a vow to accomplish a specific goal for which they couldn't find the strength  beforehand. Perilous situations cause us to produce more adrenalin and consequently increases our rate of breathing.

Bernard Knox was English by birth. He excelled at languages and began his study of  Classical Greek on his own to the detriment of other subjects. Studying at Cambridge, England in the 1930's he became embroiled in leftist causes and became a communist. Although he denied being a member of any organized group, he fought in the Spanish Civil war in one of the Republican International brigades. During an offensive he was wounded and left for dead by his comrades.

After his experience of loss in the Spanish Civil War, in which many of his friends perished, he married an American woman and emigrated to America. When the US entered the war he enlisted to help in acquiring citizenship. His education and military experience earned him a commission and he later volunteered to join an OSS commando unit. He parachuted into occupied France and worked  with the communist led French resistance disrupting German supply lines and communications.

He survived this assignment and then  parachuted behind the lines in Italy, where he no doubt again experienced the force of the wind on his descent. Here he worked with the communist led Italian resistance along with other Italian-American OSS agents in the same function as in France. This work navigating locally known mountain passes involved close contact with the enemy, and it was in one of these encounters that he was inspired to study the Classical inheritance .

In a bombed out building he sought cover after being caught in a machine gun crossfire. In this desperate situation while awaiting reinforcements, he spotted a book by Virgil lying on the floor. To his surprise he could still read Latin and as men are wont to do in situations where one's survival is in question he sought knowledge of his fate which was beyond his ability to know without divine assistance. He played the "Virgilian Lottery" by selecting a page and passage at random. He read of a situation from two thousand years ago which uncannily mirrored the world situation of his time. This was the culmination of events which led to his personal vow to study the Classics.

The Oldest Dead White European Males is Mr Knox's answer to the political correctness movement in higher education,  which was gaining momentum, in it's current incarnation, more than twenty years ago. Mr Knox seems to accept many of the premises of the attempt to downplay or remove completely this cultural inheritance. He was the director emeritus of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies, and it can be argued that he wouldn't have held this prominent position in the liberal establishment if he resisted too vigorously. First studying at Yale after the war, he was known as a "pre-mature anti-fascist". This euphemism was perhaps a way for the faculty of Yale to admit a  known communist  at a time when people with those sympathies were becoming increasingly suspect.

In spite of this he defended the Greek achievements in his low key British manner. As a man of the West he seems to have intuitively seen beyond the left-right split of the times. His thought was obviously a synthesis of the two.

"Yet, canon or no canon, it is strange to find the classical Greeks today  assailed as emblems of reactionary conservatism, of enforced conformity. For their role in the history of the West has always been innovative, sometimes indeed subversive, even revolutionary." page15
  The literary cannon of the Greeks and Romans was nearly lost to the West on more than a few occasions. What survives  must be only a part of what once existed. It has survived on its own merits.

"The primacy of the Greeks in the canon of  Western literature is neither an accident nor the result of a decision imposed by a higher authority; it is simply a reflection of the intrinsic worth of the material; its sheer originality and brilliance."....

"As for the multicultural curriculum that is the ideal of today's academic radicals, there can be no valid objection to the inclusion of new material that gives the student a wider view. But that new material will have to compete with the old, and if it is not up to the same high level it will sooner or later be rejected with disdain by the students themselves; only a totalitarian regime can enforce the continued study of second rate texts or outworn philosophies. As long as the thoroughly Greek idea of competition is allowed free play, there is no need to worry about the future place of the Greeks in the curriculum.....They have stood the test of time, more than two thousand years of it, and have become a basic element of our character, of our nature. And, as the Roman poet Horace remarked, you may toss nature out with a pitchfork,but it will still come running back in." page22

As our soft totalitarianism hardens in the coming years, the free play of competition seems less likely. Hopefully, Mr. Knox's optimism is warranted.

The argument that the modern Greeks, and consequently their southern Italian cousins, are not the descendants of the Classical Greeks is addressed in the final essay entitled "The Continuity of Greek Culture". England and Germany in the nineteenth century were the prominent centers of the study of ancient Greek Culture. They identified so closely that they projected their ideal onto the physical appearance of the Greeks. A study of Greek vases shows a predominance of dark haired individuals along with those exhibiting the normal variation of shades found among Europeans. Similar proportions are found in the present day.

"...And in any case, the ancient literature gives no basis for this Western feeling (subliminal, but therefore all the stronger) that ancient Greeks were tall, blond, and blue-eyed. "Xanthos Menelaos may have been blond, though the word more than likely means red- or brown-haired, but surely the fact that he is so often called "xanthos" suggests that the other Achaian chieftains were not. And in Sophocles' Antigone, when the chorus wants to say "ever since I became an old man," they say "ever since my hair changed from black to white,". page124

   Mr Knox spent time in Greece and came to know the modern inhabitants quite well; both the man on the street and his academic colleagues. He testifies to this continuity in character,appearance and even similarities in the language, old versus new.

Bernard Knox experienced the two great crisis that the West has, and is still, facing in the twentieth century. As a scholar and a warrior he is someone to be emulated. Did he  foresee the coming demographic catastrophe that people of European descent are facing? His confidence in the value of our Greek inheritance is predicated on the survival of a people capable of receiving and carrying  that torch. Perhaps the coming storm will provide the gusts needed to wake  people up.

Posted by John A Stavola


The Oldest Dead White European Males, Bernard Knox, W.W. Norton & Co., 1993

Looking for Bernard Knox: Warrior, Ancient And Modern, Benjamin F. Jones

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