What Havelock knew in 1938

In 1938 Eric Havelock published a short (7 page) essay, ‘The Significance of the Greek Sophist’.  It appeared in successive May-June numbers of The School, a magazine published at the time in elementary and secondary school versions by the Ontario College of Education. How far the then 34 year old Havelock had advanced to his life’s topic may be seen from these excerpts from this essay:

Athens, when the sophists came to her, lacked not merely the institutions of secondary and university training, but also the necessary curriculum. Here again we have implications which need an effort of historical imagination to grasp. Let us begin with the fundamental fact that the habit of reading was uncommon. There were very few books, and they were nearly all copies of the poets.1 (…) But there were literally no prose books of grammar or history or criticism or economics, the written apparatus, that is to say, which serves any modern lecturer or teacher as the indispensable tools of his craft. (…) [The sophists] naturally used the oral technique, which was the only one familiar to those that heard them. What we style prose composition and essay writing had to be oral composition, which they introduced as a substitute [in instruction] for the mere memorization and recitation of the poets. As a by-product of teaching this oral composition, they naturally began to explore the structure of the language itself, as orally used. Thus what we know today as language study began in Europe on an organized scale as rhetoric, but, when we use this term rhetoric to describe the field of sophistic effort, we think of it as the art of public speaking, in opposition to the written word which has become the vehicle of ideas and history and language study. Thus we unconsciously fall into the error of interpreting the significance of the early sophists too narrowly, They cannot be understood until we realize that their rhetoric comprehended the total of Greek culture.

Havelock was already focused on the fact that Greek culture before Pisistratus (608-527), was produced and preserved orally and that that oral culture was then replaced over the space of a century or two by a related but significantly altered literate culture. His idea at the time was that this new culture was the result of revolutionary changes in education and social relations:

if the sophists excited violent feelings at the time of their first success (…) we may be sure that they had collided somehow with social habits and institutions of long standing. The clue is offered early in the Apology where Socrates, describing the success of the sophistic lectures, says that of course the youthful element in the cities could associate in the usual way with such of their elders as they might choose, but preferred to flock to sophistic lectures and pay fees for the privilege. (…) The offence of the sophists consisted simply in this, that they offered to organize this adolescent training into an educational system. (…) Receipt of fees became a concrete symbol of the revolution that was being forced upon Athens, for by systematizing and professionalizing higher education the sophists began to break the unconscious but effective monopoly of the governing class. The way became clear for any lawyer or demagogue to win social and political success, provided he had the ability and training [and the latter was now available in a new way via the sophists]. We may therefore sum up the effect of the educational revolution under three aspects. It replaced elder statesmen and heads of families with paid technicians. It seemed to dislodge “character” in favour of mere “brains”. And it threatened to dissolve conservative political and social traditions by abolishing the monopoly exercised by the aristocracy over the arts of leisure and leadership. It now becomes clear why, when Socrates was attacked as a convenient scapegoat for the sophistic movement, being selected for this purpose because of his eccentricities, the main charge against him was of “demoralizing young men”.

But was the media revolution noted by Havelock from orality to literacy only incidental to these educational and social changes — or might it have been what motivated them in the first place? When Havelock’s ideas began circulating at UT in the 1930s, this question must have particularly occurred to Harold Innis. For Innis was already looking at the remarkable influence of media like newspaper and radio in modern societies and, in any case, was suspicious of Marxist ideas and of the sort of activism some of his UT colleagues (including Havelock) derived from them. Why not look at the relation between media and culture/society directly? Without the importation of theory from elsewhere?

However this may have been, Havelock was plainly already close in 1938 to two further interlocked questions which he would begin to investigate in the 1940s. First, how had these different media, orality and literacy, functioned to produce and preserve the high oral culture of Greece before 550 as well as the related but very different high literary culture that was gradually implemented thereafter? And, second, how had both orality and literacy affected (or even effected) the minds of those living in the cultures structured by them?2 These questions would involve Havelock in the Homeric question in new ways so that, for example, he began to read Milman Parry for the first time in the early 1940s. And on January 31, 1946, he gave his last public lecture as a member of the UT faculty before transferring to Harvard: ‘The Sophistication of Homer’.3


  1. Havelock notes in this essay that “Homer had been codified under Pisistratus (608-527), in order to serve as a text for the elementary schools.” This was a century or so before the time when sophists from around the Mediterranean began to teach in Athens in the age of Pericles (494-429).
  2. These questions were very close to questions Innis was already asking at this time concerning the effects of mass media, particularly newspapers, on the modern politics and economics of England, the United States and Canada. Probably Havelock helped Innis generalize this work to concern all media at all times. For if Havelock’s Greece could be aligned with Innis’ work on the press in modern north Atlantic countries, why not Egypt and Babylonia? See Havelock’s observation on Innis in the next note.
  3.  “During the summer of 1943 I read Parry’s  work — I should have read it earlier — and later gave one or two public lectures on Homer and oral composition at the University of Toronto. Innis came to hear them and at once connected what I was saying with what he had been contemplating in a different context” (‘The Oral-Literate Equation: A Formula for the Modern Mind’, 1987, in Olson and Torrance eds., Literacy and Orality, 1991). Along with his 1946 lecture, Havelock may have been recalling his review of E.T. Owen, The Story of the Iliad, in UTQ, January 1948, which, like his lecture,  treated the question of Homer and oral composition.