Kenneth Dover#

Read the obituary in The New York Times.

Sir Kenneth Dover obituary#

Distinguished classical scholar and academic who broke new ground with his book Greek Homosexuality
Stephen Halliwell
Published in The Guardian, March 8, 2010

Sir Kenneth Dover, who has died aged 89, was a towering figure in the study of ancient Greek language, literature and thought. Very few could approach the range and quality of his scholarship, especially his synthesis of philological, historical and cultural acumen. His name became known to a wider public partly for his groundbreaking 1978 book, Greek Homosexuality, and partly for the publication of his controversial autobiography, Marginal Comment, in 1994.

Greek Homosexuality treated the topic with unprecedented openness and nuanced definition. The work drew together the evidence of literature (not least a prosecution speech in a sensational Athenian court case); visual art (Dover inspected hundreds of sexually explicit vase-paintings, often in the basements of museums); and history, mythology and philosophy. The result was a compelling picture of the complex web of sexual and social practices that constituted the phenomena now grouped together under the label of Greek homosexuality.

The book proved a turning-point in the modern study of ancient sexual cultures, leading to the growth of this field in the 1980s (and not just among specialists – Michel Foucault was among those influenced by it). Later in life, Dover was sometimes impatient that the subject had become an academic industry and that Greek Homosexuality had become the best known of his works, partly occluding what he felt to be his own central achievement as a historian of the Greek language. But the book is deservedly admired for harnessing scholarly sophistication to a shrewd and broad-minded historical imagination. If parts of Dover's argument have been challenged in relation to the kind of weight given to different sorts of evidence, the book remains an indispensable resource.

Dover was born in London and educated at St Paul's school and Balliol College, Oxford, where he read classics. He showed an early fascination for the varieties and intricacies of language, going so far as to teach himself the grammar of some Pacific languages as an adolescent. A capacity for close, subtle investigation of what linguistic usage can reveal about the fabric of human experience was to remain his hallmark, but he distanced himself from theoretical linguistics (as he put it, "my attempts to read Chomsky are enfeebled by the rapid onset of boredom").

His undergraduate studies were suspended for war service in the Western Desert and Italy, bringing him into contact with working-class soldiers whose unpretentious attitudes made a lasting impact, he maintained, on his conception of life even in Greek antiquity. He returned to Oxford in 1945 to continue an academic trajectory illuminated by a succession of prizes and scholarships. In 1948 he began doctoral study under the great historian Arnaldo Momigliano (who later said there was nothing he could teach Dover), but this was overtaken by appointment to a fellowship of Balliol in the same year.

In the early 1950s, he began to specialise in Greek comic drama, historiography and oratory, three areas in which he was to become a world authority. When he left Balliol in 1955 for the chair of Greek at St Andrews, it was with the general expectation that he would succeed Eric Dodds (author of The Greeks and the Irrational) to the Regius chair in Oxford; but when that opportunity was presented in 1960, family considerations led him to decline it. He remained at St Andrews until 1976 (and was subsequently chancellor from 1981 to 2005). During his two decades as professor there he became the finest Hellenist of his generation in Britain and the author of a succession of books, including commentaries on Aristophanes's comedy The Clouds and on parts of Thucydides's History.

Always a polished stylist and, in his prime, an assured lecturer, Dover was capable of adapting his expertise for very different audiences, even if a 1980 BBC television series on the Greeks was blighted by maladroit directing. The Greeks, a book commissioned in connection with the series, distils many of his guiding ideas for students and general readers, while Greek Word Order (1960) is an exhibition of formidably meticulous analysis on a subject so improbably specialised to some eyes that its title has sometimes been "corrected" to Greek World Order.

Highly characteristic of Dover's methods and mentality was Greek Popular Morality (1974), an attempt to reconstruct the value system of 4th-century BC Athens from the various argumentative strategies used by orators in the city's courts and political assembly. This work brought out his concern to try to understand the Greeks in realistic rather than idealised terms. His complementary suspicion of abstractions engendered an impatience with philosophical aspirations (not least Plato's) which was one of his few intellectual weaknesses.

Dover became president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1976, was knighted the following year, and in 1978 published Greek Homosexuality, subsequently translated into several languages. The later years of Dover's career included two volumes of collected papers; a commentary on Aristophanes's The Frogs; and The Evolution of Greek Prose Style (1997), a difficult but searching essay on historical stylistics. Dover's presidency of the British Academy (1978-81) was marked by contention over Anthony Blunt's fellowship after Blunt's exposure as a Soviet spy. While privately favouring Blunt's expulsion, Dover felt obliged, in the interests of the Academy's unity, to maintain public even-handedness, a policy which made him the target of animosity from opposing camps. He was more trenchant in declaring his own convictions when, at Oxford in 1985, he lent open support for the opposition to a proposed honorary degree for Margaret Thatcher.

The same year brought to a head a protracted problem in Corpus over the unstable conduct of Trevor Aston, a history fellow whose disputes with the college led Dover to wonder, as he expressed it in his autobiography, "how to kill him without getting into trouble". When Aston did kill himself, Dover felt immense relief, which he described with ruthless honesty in Marginal Comment. This frankness, which soured his relations with certain Corpus fellows, shocked some people, as did the book's occasional passages of personal sexual detail. But Dover had taken a principled decision to write an autobiography in the confessional mode, one of the oldest traditions of the genre. The furore over certain aspects of Marginal Comment obscured its attempt to explore the motivations and passions that had shaped a life of academic inquiry at the highest level.

The value of Dover's remarkable body of work lies not just in its consummate linguistic and historical adeptness, but in its fusion of these qualities with an insight that never ceased to find the whole gamut of human behaviour worthy of attention. To a degree extremely rare among top-rank academics, Dover was interested in all dimensions of life – from the sounds of people's voices to the largest ideas which inform their actions in the world. He was exemplary not for his pursuit of a method or ideology (he was scrupulously undidactic) but for the finesse with which he displayed how the best historical thinking can fuse technical excellence with deeply reflective understanding. His death marks the end of an era in classical scholarship.

His wife Audrey, whom he married in 1947, died last year. He is survived by their children Alan and Catherine.

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