I.A. Richards on Eric Havelock

Eric Havelock officially moved from the University of Toronto to Harvard in 1947, but was a guest lecturer there already in 1946. He and I.A. Richards appear to have immediately developed a close relationship. But even prior to their becoming Harvard colleagues, they may have been acquainted: both were at Cambridge (UK) twenty years before, Richards as a popular lecturer, Havelock as a brilliant student. And while Havelock was still in Toronto, Richards may have been in touch with him as part of the recruitment process for Harvard.

Richards had begun an intense engagement with Plato soon after he arrived at Harvard from Cambridge in 1939.  By 1942 he had already produced a translation of the Republic into Basic English. But after Havelock’s arrival he took up Homer and published a translation of the Iliad in 1950.  As seen from the citations below, it is probable that he began to investigate “the shift from Homer to Plato” through the influence of Havelock’s published and unpublished work (particularly his never published volumes on Socrates funded by the Guggenheim foundation) and through personal dialogue between the two.

Richards’ references to Havelock are surprisingly frequent:

‘The Spoken and Written Word’. The Listener, October 16, 1947 (pp 669-670), reprinted as ‘Literature, Oral-Aural and Optical’, in Complementarities, (1976, ed John Paul Russo), 201-208:

Eric Havelock has suggested that we may see in Plato’s rejections of Homer the revolt of the writing mind’s mode of apprehension against the pre-literate mind’s other, less abstract and intellectual, ways of ordering itself.

‘Toward a More Synoptic View’ (1951) in Speculative Instruments, (1955):

It is a perilous transition [from oral apprenticeship to literary instruction], no doubt, but hardly new or, on our ordinary time-scale, sudden. If Mr Eric Havelock is right, Socrates was put to death for trying to replace apprenticeship — association with and imitation of the knowledgeable — by instruction, and it looks as though the founding of [Plato’s] Academy itself was an early and decisive step in an interminable and necessary process. (Speculative Instruments, 126)

‘Opening Address’, P.E.N. Conference 1964, Arena, v24 (1965), 4-14, 20-22, reprinted in Design for Escape: World Education Through Modern Media (1968), chapter 2:

As Eric Havelock has been insisting, Homeric and Platonic utterances are trying to do radically different things. Plato’s rejection of Homer was in fact a revolution, a redesigning of what a man should be endeavouring to be. “The greatest invention of the Greeks was man”, remarked Werner Jaeger. The Greeks he was speaking of have Plato, not Homer, as their type specimen! This contrast between Homer and Plato has a special importance just now when in so many parts of the world an oral, story-borne culture is being destroyed and and replaced by a literate conceptual world-picture. (Design for Escape, 37)

‘Prologue: From Criticism to Creation’, Times Literary Supplement, 27 May, 1965, 438-439, reprinted in So Much Nearer (1968) with additional notes:

the shift from Homer to Plato: Eric Havelock in Preface to Plato (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1963) very fully discusses this transition showing the depth and extent of the changes that can occur in a culture as an oral tradition is replaced by a  literature. In the Greek case the outcome was singularly happy. But with the cultures, say, of Africa, there are grave reasons to fear that values now carried in speech will be swept away without compensating gains for any but an unhappily separated few.  On how this world-wide transition is managed (or mishandled) the mental and moral quality of living of the majority of human beings, for many generations, will depend. But how many competent people are thinking about this — compared with those competent people who are devoting themselves to ‘winning’ some local and ephemeral war? (So Much Nearer, 20)

‘Instructional Engineering’ in The Written Word (1971):

further reflection on how writtens and spokens differ and yet aid one another is timely. And here a sustained explanatory account of a chief difference by Eric Havelock, in his Preface to Plato, proves useful. He gives it as a reply to a striking, indeed, for our occidental tradition, a momentous question: whether, given the immemorial grip of the oral method of preserving group tradition “a self-consciousness could ever have been created. If the educational system which transmitted the Hellenic mores had indeed relied on the perpetual stimulation of the young in a kind of hypnotic trance, to use Plato’s language, how did the Greeks ever wake up? The fundamental answer must lie in the changing technology of communication. Refreshment of memory through written signs enabled a reader to dispense with most of that emotional identification by which alone the acoustic record was sure of recall. This could release psychic energy, for a review and rearrangement of what had now been written down, and of what could be seen as an object and not just heard and felt. You could as it were take a second look at it . . . In Greek, the words for explain, say, and mean could coincide . . . Now, the statement in question, if it concerned important matters of cultural tradition and morals, would be a poetised one, using the imagery and often the rhythms of poetry. It was one which invited you to identify with some emotively effective example, and to repeat it over again. But to say, ‘What do you mean? Say that again’, abruptly disturbed the pleasurable complacency felt in the poetic formula or the image. It meant using different words and these equivalent words would fail to be poetic; they would be prosaic.” This account presents an opposition between the identification invited by epic and the questioning attitudes which release from the memory load and development of thinking can induce.1 (70)

  1. The same passage from Havelock cited by Richards here from Preface to Plato (208-209) is used earlier by McLuhan in ‘The Future of Morality: The Inner versus the Outer Quest’ (1967). That Richards was reading McLuhan at just this time is evidenced by his mentioning him in 1968 in So Much Nearer.