Gilbert Murray

George Gilbert Aimé Murray (02 January 1866–20 May 1957)

Today is the 156th anniversary of the birth of George Gilbert Aimé Murray (02 January 1866–20 May 1957), more commonly known as Gilbert Murray, who was born on this date in 1866.

Murray was among the greatest classicists of his generation. One of my favorite passages from Murray is his implicit contrast of the Gothic with the Classic in his The Classical Tradition in Poetry, which can serve as a useful introduction to Murray’s conception of the Classic:

“[The Gothic tradition] points triumphantly to its cathedrals. It says: ‘Why should I be the slave of rules? This morning, while I was writing my tragedy about the Archangel Michael, I saw a blind man take off his hat to a horse and ask it the way, and this gave me an idea which made me laugh consumedly. So I have put it in. Why lose a good laugh?’”

“Or again: ‘While pegging away, month in month out, at my old cathedral, I suddenly conceived the idea of a peculiarly disgusting kind of devil, so I have stuck him in where there was a good vacant space, just over the Virgin Mary. Also, I have heard so much about the richly carved porch that those idiots at P_____ have just had built, that I have determined to stick in an extra porch somewhere which shall be twice as richly carved. It may not exactly be necessary to the plan; but it will be one more beautiful thing to look at. And, furthermore, if you talk high doctrine to me and say that I should treat my art seriously, I answer that in real life the tragic and the ridiculous, the beautiful and the ugly, are always apt to be mixed up like that. And as for symmetry and order, that is just what you do not get in life. You get lots of beautiful and interesting things, mostly muddled together and fighting one another. So I consider my methods both freer and truer to life than yours’.”

Here we understand the Classic by way of contrast with the Gothic: the Classic is about rules of composition, construction according to a plan, order, symmetry, harmony, proportion.

Along with Jane Harrison and a couple of others, Murray was accounted one of the “Cambridge Ritualists,” who were deeply influenced by James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890), which, for them, constituted a kind of scientific (or humanistic) research program into the myths of classical antiquity and earlier. For the Cambridge Ritualists, ritual sacrifice was thought to have played a crucial role in ancient mythology, hence in the lives of ancient peoples.

In his “Aristophanes and the War Party,” originally delivered as the Creighton Lecture at the London School of Economics in 1918, Murray made some interesting comments on the role of imagination in history:

“And yet history is inevitably to a great extent a work of the imagination. No good historian is content merely to repeat the record of the past. He has to understand it, to see behind it, to find more in it than it actually says. He cannot understand without the use of his constructive imagination, and he cannot imagine effectively without the use of his experience. I believe it is one of the marks of a great historian, such as he in whose honour this annual lecture was established, such as he who now does us the honour of occupying the chair, to see both present and past, as it were, with the same unclouded eye; to realize the past story as if it were now proceeding before him, and to envisage the present much in the same perspective as it will bear when it is one chapter, or so many pages, in the great volume of the past.”

One cannot but wonder if Collingwood was aware of this passage when he formulated his idea of the a priori historical imagination.

I am including Murray in my survey of philosophy of history mostly because of his Five Stages of Greek Religion (originally published as Four Stages of Greek Religion, and published in a second edition with an additional chapter). Murray’s “failure of nerve” thesis is formulated in the opening paragraph of Chapter IV of Five Stages of Greek Religion:

“Any one who turns from the great writers of classical Athens, say Sophocles or Aristotle, to those of the Christian era must be conscious of a great difference in tone. There is a change in the whole relation of the writer to the world about him. The new quality is not specifically Christian: it is just as marked in the Gnostics and Mithras-worshippers as in the Gospels and the Apocalypse, in Julian and Plotinus as in Gregory and Jerome. It is hard to describe. It is a rise of asceticism, of mysticism, in a sense, of pessimism; a loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of faith in normal human effort; a despair of patient inquiry, a cry for infallible revelation; an indifference to the welfare of the state, a conversion of the soul to God. It is an atmosphere in which the aim of the good man is not so much to live justly, to help the society to which he belongs and enjoy the esteem of his fellow creatures; but rather, by means of a burning faith, by contempt for the world and its standards, by ecstasy, suffering, and martyrdom, to be granted pardon for his unspeakable unworthiness, his immeasurable sins. There is an intensifying of certain spiritual emotions; an increase of sensitiveness, a failure of nerve.”

Murray formulates the idea of a failure of nerve in the specific historical milieu of late antiquity, but we can easily see how the idea can be lifted out of the context and applied to other historical context; I have done them myself on numerous occasions, and I think that can see that there have been many failures of nerve in human history, by which I mean historical junctures at which development might have proceeded along a different trajectory if more courage to meet the reversals of fortune inevitable in life had been shown. Thus I view Murray’s “failure of nerve” thesis as a thesis in the philosophy of history, with applications of other past events as well as to the future.



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