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IN PRAISE OF GILBERT HIGHET BY LINDSAY JOHNS

Blog | By Lindsay Johns | Jul 12, 2021

The assassination of Julius Caesar, painted by William Holmes Sullivan, c. 1888

Last month saw the publication of the first ever biography of one of my intellectual heroes, a veritable titan of 20th century classical scholarship and letters - the Oxford and Columbia University classicist, broadcaster and public intellectual Gilbert Highet (1906 - 1978).

Author of such magisterial tomes as The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1949), The Art of Teaching (1950), People, Places and Books (1953), A Clerk of Oxenford (1954), Juvenal The Satirist (1954), Man’s Unconquerable Mind (1954), The Migration of Ideas (1954), Poets In A Landscape (1957), Talents and Geniuses (1957), Explorations (1971) and The Immortal Profession (1976), Highet did more to popularise Classics, a devotion to the life of the mind and an appreciation of the joys of literature than quite possibly any other academic or intellectual on either side of the Atlantic.

As an undergraduate with a penchant for Classics, I remember finding a copy of his magnum opus The Classical Tradition in a second-hand book shop, the distinctive pink cover revealing a Herculean task of painstaking erudition. It quickly became my bible and started my intellectual love affair with Highet’s body of work. To this day, several well-thumbed copies adorn my bookshelves.

Originally from Glasgow (where he took his first degree between 1925 and 1928), he was then a Balliol scholar who won almost every conceivable classical prize at Oxford while pursuing a second undergraduate degree from 1929 to 1932. He was subsequently a Fellow of St. John’s College from 1933 until 1937, when he left to teach Classics at Columbia University in New York, where he remained until his retirement in 1971. Highet was famous not only for his gargantuan erudition, but also for his immensely charismatic, ebullient and performative teaching persona.

Today, at a time when Classics continually gets demonised by those obsessed with identity politics for being too full of “Dead White Men”, Highet is arguably doubly unfashionable - both for his lack of melanin and his Y chromosome, both in and beyond the academy. Yet we dismiss him at our peril. His work and thought are still hugely relevant to our times - a sane, sagacious and humane voice, guiding our appreciation of Classics and of great literature as universal, timeless and possessing an abiding moral value. In short, to coin a Dantean analogy, he is the Statius to our Virgil.

Highet’s genius as a scholar and broadcaster was his ability to disseminate the myriad beauties and truths of classical literature and high culture with an infectious passion to both the expert in the groves of academe and the layman in Civvy Street, supremely erudite but always accessible.

The study of Classics endures to this day quite simply because the eternal verities at the heart of the human condition have not changed one iota since the days of Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Catullus, et al. To be sure, the way we live now has changed immeasurably over the last 2500 years, what with jet planes, the internet and iPhones, but the fundamental nuts and bolts of the thorny existential conundrum that is our brief terrestrial sojourn have not.

The ancient Greeks and Romans - often in strikingly beautiful words, mellifluous poetic metres and with recourse to enchanting stories, brilliantly articulated what it meant to be fully human. Highet recognised this, and did his best to transmit not only his colossal knowledge of, and irrepressible ardour for classical antiquity, but also his infectious love of teaching and his thoughts on the importance of pedagogy to future generations.

His The Art of Teaching (1950) is a peerless panegyric to the teacher - student relationship, the intrinsic nobility of the pedagogic vocation and its seminal role in a civilised society. As he wisely stated, “The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning.” Suffice to say, Rattigan’s The Crock (the failed Classics schoolmaster in my favourite play, The Browning Version) could certainly have learnt a thing or two from Highet.

With his nationally syndicated newspaper columns, essays and weekly American radio broadcasts on literary and cultural topics, all written in consummately elegant and urbane prose, Highet strove as a liberal humanist to keep alive the flame of classical learning, and by extension, the profound humanity which imbues Classical literature, and the moral grandeur of knowledge - at a time of global internecine strife following WWII - the acme of man’s inhumanity to man.

Today’s famous British classical scholars and historians like Mary Beard, Edith Hall, Tom Holland and Bettany Hughes (to name a few of the most prominent and best loved), as well as giants of literary criticism like George Steiner and Harold Bloom, arguably all owe a profound debt to Highet - for the rigour of his scholarship, for his shaping of the role of the public intellectual and for his exposition of pedagogic techniques, not to mention his being one of the very first “media dons” to achieve and then successfully navigate celebrity.

Highet deserves to be remembered and rightfully celebrated as a colossus of the life of the mind and as the epitome of what Literae humaniores (the official name of the Classics course at Oxford) is (or should be) all about - “studies which render you more humane.”

For me, Highet’s life and work are an eloquent testament to the humanising effects of Classics, to great literature’s ability to transcend the vagaries of time, place and race, and to the use of knowledge in the service of all mankind to elevate the human spirit. As Highet presciently said, “The real duty of man is not to extend his power or multiply his wealth beyond his needs, but to enrich and enjoy his imperishable possession: his soul.”