When I was asked to name my top five Journal of Hellenic Studies articles, it seemed to me that the only way to get any kind of handle on the huge treasury of classic scholarship that the JHS archives contain would be to take a personal view.  That’s why my five articles all bear on the research I conducted for my PhD, and most date from my formative years in the 1980s.  All of them illustrate what it was that drew me to JHS in the first place, and all have – I think – stood the test of time.

The first issue of JHS I received as a subscriber was the one for 1982.  Douglas MacDowell, Professor of Greek in the University of Glasgow, had bought a subscription for all of us who were at that time in the Junior Honours Class of Greek.  This was typical of Professor MacDowell’s devotion both to his students and to the subject.  Perhaps it’s because JHS 1982 was my first issue, but it still seems to me to be a classic.  I’m still a subscriber, despite repeated efforts on the part of the SPHS office to conflate me with my slightly younger namesake, Douglas J. Cairns (who entered the Honours Class of Greek at Glasgow one year after me).  In particular, JHS 1982 features back-to-back articles by Colin Macleod, who died in December 1981, and Richard Rutherford, his successor at Christ Church, Oxford.

Macleod’s  ‘Politics and the Oresteia takes ‘politics’ in a broad sense, not as allegory of or commentary on contemporary political events, but with reference to the Athenians’ sense of community and to the trilogy’s reflections on the nature of civic justice.  The trilogy, he argues, is a product of its historical circumstances, but its political significance is not limited to those circumstances.  Though few these days would assert so confidently that ‘the function of tragedy in its social and historical context is not to comment directly on the times, but to raise to universality and touch with emotion the experience of the dramatist and his fellow-citizens, to interpret in myth and drama their deepest concerns as human beings’ (p. 131), the quality and quantity of the detail that Macleod provides and the sharpness of his insights invite engagement throughout.  He is especially good – and especially prescient – in his emphasis on the emotional aspects of the resolution in Eumenides and on the place of emotion in law and penology.  In particular, he emphasizes the role of timê (honour) in Athenian notions of justice: the maintenance of a just distribution of ‘honour’ among the citizens of the polis is a central aspect of Athenian law and politics.  His observation that ‘τιμή is both a “position” and a “function” in a society; it is also the “honour” which a person receives in virtue of them … Therefore when τιμή is at stake, sο is society itself’ (p. 139) is part of a brief but fertile discussion of timê in Athenian society whose implications are still not sufficiently well understood by many of those who write on these matters.

Rutherford’s ‘Tragic Form and Feeling in the Iliad does a remarkable job of summing up the affinities between the Iliad and Greek tragedy.  The Iliad, several of the greatest Attic tragedies, and Aristotle’s theory of the tragic share a concentration on what happens when human beings act – as they typically do – in partial or total ignorance of the consequences of their actions.  The pattern of error, recognition, and reversal is, as Rutherford shows, particularly pronounced in the cases of Patroclus, Hector, and Achilles, whose deaths are linked in an elaborate series of foreshadowings, prophecies, and parallels, as each realizes, too late, how much his past conduct has cost him.  The pattern of human error, ignorance, and fragility which the Iliad so strikingly underscores evokes ‘not simply despair, but pity’ (p. 152), for it is a condition which unites both characters and audience.  Achilles’ insight into his own condition culminates in his recognition of the community of suffering in which he and Priam participate, in spite of their enmity; as the final section of the paper shows, the Achilles-Priam scene in Book 24 is at once the culmination of the poem’s tragic appeal to the sympathetic imagination and a seminal statement of the Greek recognition that we can sympathize with any human being whom we come to regard as relevantly like ourselves. I chose this paper as a classic account of its topic for inclusion in my Oxford Readings in Homer’s Iliad (2001).

To be continued…

We will continue to share these article highlights from Douglas Cairns with a new post on Wednesday, 2nd August.  Don’t forget you can access any of these articles for free using the links above.

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