Frederic Raphael

Mudslinging in the groves of academe

Frederic Raphael reviews the latest book by Mary Lefkowitz

Mary Lefkowitz is a distinguished (i.e. no longer young) classicist who taught for over 30 years at Wellesley College. She has been particularly bold and articulate in promoting the role of women in antiquity. Married to Hugh Lloyd-Jones, a famously rigorous ex-Regius Professor of Greek, she can be presumed not to advance lazy arguments or to abuse her sources. Classicists do, of course, get involved in sometimes furious controversy but, in most cases, odium academicum is expressed with barbed courtesy. Civility is part of scholarship. So too, it is nice to imagine, is what one scholar calls ‘decency in proof’. Education is a common pursuit: even great scientists confess to standing on giants’ shoulders. There are also the contrarians, such as Martin Bernal, author of Black Athena, who gain height, or renown, by stepping on giants’ toes.

Lefkowitz begins with a little quiz: Which of the following statements is most controversial? (a) Greek philosophy was stolen from the Egyptians. (b) Greek philosophy was borrowed from the Hebrews. (c) Greek philosophy was invented by the Greeks.

The answer, folks, is (c); which pitches us through the looking glass and into the raving wonderland of modern academe and its pack of cards. When she insisted that (c) was beyond serious question, Lefkowitz found herself embroiled in prolonged nastiness and, eventually, in a lawsuit that lasted through most of the 1990s.

It all began with a New Republic book review in which, under the contentious rubric Not Out of Africa, she challenged Bernal’s central claim that Greek culture had been lifted from Africa (i.e. Egypt). One of Lefkowitz’s most pugnaciously opinionated Wellesley colleagues, Professor Anthony C. Martin, who taught a course on ‘Africans in (Greco-Roman) Antiquity’, ardently endorsed Bernal’s heterodoxy, even though, Lefkowitz says, ‘the record leaves little doubt that there were few Africans in Greece or Rome and that their cultural influence on these civilisations was negligible’.

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