This book looks back on the life and work of the great Classicist, Sir Kenneth Dover. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of his birth: he made it to age 89, dying in 2010. Unlike most such books, this one is not a succession of chapters praising its subject to Olympian status: accolades are mixed with criticism, sometimes severe.

The book has 2 editors, whose bios are listed at the conclusion of this review. In all, 19 people wrote chapters. The first section, on his life, consists of 6 chapters. He first visited Greece in 1937, at age 17, and there was never any doubt about the trajectory of his career. That is, there was no doubt in the minds of fellow Classicists, but when Dover was eventually offered (by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan himself) the greatest crown in Classical academia, the Regius Professorship at Oxford, he turned it down. He decided to remain at St. Andrews, a small university in Scotland. That was in 1960. He spent 21 years as a professor there, but he did eventually return to Oxford as President of Corpus Christi College in 1976. In addition, he became President of the British Academy in 1978.

One element of the book that particularly struck me was his dislike of Plato. “I do not find Plato’s philosophical arguments even marginally persuasive,” Dover wrote. As chapter author Frisbee Sheffield writes, “The aversion to Plato cannot be explained away as an aversion to philosophy period.” While it is not mentioned in the book, Dover reminds me of Samuel Parker (1640-1688), a Fellow of the Royal Society. He looked upon the entire Platonic tradition not as metaphysical discourses of truth, but merely as love stories. “True philosophy,” Parker wrote, “is too sober to descend to these wildnesses of Imagination, and too rational to be cheated by them.” I wonder if Dover ever read Parker?

Despite Dover’s lack of enthusiasm for Plato, he “spent many years working on Plato’s Symposium.” This led him to write his most famous book, as Sheffield relates. The medley of speakers in the Symposium, “enabled Dover to mine a variety of traditions for those norms of Greek homosexuality, in order to substantiate his sense that ‘practically everything said during the last few centuries about the psychology, ethics and sociology of Greek homosexuality was confused and misleading.’ Here Pausanias’s speech took centre stage, as it did in his 1964 paper ‘Eros and Nomos,’ reactions to which prompted Dover to decide to write Greek Homosexuality.” That 1978 book catapulted Dover to a public status achieved by very few Classical historians.

Two chapters in this book are devoted to a study of his 1978 work. The first, by Carol Atack (University of Cambridge), highlights a few shortcomings of Dover’s book. For example, “Dover avoids the question of whether Athenian pederasty can stand in for all of Greek homosexuality, or even that of the limited context of Athens. Rather than an empirical survey, he produces an abstract model.” Sheffield rightly opines that “Perhaps the illegality of homosexuality at the time of publication” was a factor in how he wrote.

The second chapter on Dover’s 1978 book is by Jas Elsner (Corpus Christi College, Oxford). It is full-throated take-down of Dover and his study. He begins by asserting that “Dover was a terrible art historian with no eye, no training and absolutely no reflex to questioning the problems of his evidence beyond what he wanted it to do.” If that was not dramatic enough, Elsner puts a stake in the heart of his book, which relies almost exclusively on photographs of ancient Greek pottery. “The results of this naivete, for which he has not been sufficiently condemned, were disastrous for the field of the history of sexualities.” Dover, he says, “takes the ‘reality’ of what is on a pot as an index of the realities of sexual life as it actually took place in Athens. This slide, from the photograph as reflecting the real pot, to the pot’s imagery as reflecting real life, is catastrophic scholarly method.” In conclusion, he labels Dover’s account of Greek homosexuality “a projective fantasy.” Most devastatingly, Elsner states the entire study of the subject is so misunderstood that his message to scholars is simply this: “I fear we need to start again.” No chapter in a scholarly book has left me so breathless.

There is much to savour in this book, including a chapter on another of Dover’s major books, Greek Popular Morality in the time of Plato and Aristotle (1974), and also one on Dover’s study of Thucydides, the ancient author on whom spent the most time. He contributed to the Historical Commentary on Thucydides (1981). I found chapter author Christopher Pelling’s description of how Dover handled Book 6 of Thucydides to be quite compelling. “Book 6 gave Dover the chance to dilate on the herms and the Msyteries, with juicy chronological puzzles and a major inscription to discuss. These show Dover at the top of his game. Book 6 has more speeches too than any other book, and their sometimes bewilderingly difficult sentences offer plenty of scope for his muscular linguistic wrestling.”

Certainly an arresting book, this one should be widely read not just by those who found Dover’s scholarship important, but for an assessment of how Classical studies has evolved during his lifetime and beyond.

The editors:

Stephen Halliwell is Professor of Greek at the University of St Andrews, UK. He is the author of The Poetics of Aristotle: Translation and Commentary (1987) also published by Bloomsbury, and Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity (2008).

Christopher Stray is Honorary Research Fellow, University of Swansea, and Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Classics, University of London. He is a leading authority on the history of classical scholarship. His publications include Remaking the Classics: Literature, Genre and Media in Britain, 1800-2000 (2007) A.E. Housman: Classical Scholar (2009) and Classical Dictionaries: Past, Present and Future (2010).

Scholarship and Controversy: Centenary Essays on the Life and Work of Sir Kenneth Dover is by Bloomsbury. It lists for $144.

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.