Martha Nussbaum Remembers Sir Kenneth Dover

A Passion for Truth
Martha C. Nussbaum
The New Republic
April 1, 2010

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.

Martha Nussbaum