The Muse of History: The Ancient Greeks from the Enlightenment to the Present by Oswyn Murray - review by Henry Day

Henry Day

Sparta Revisited

The Muse of History: The Ancient Greeks from the Enlightenment to the Present


Allen Lane 528pp £30

Edward Casaubon is one of the less appealing characters in Middlemarch. A selfish and ageing clergyman, whom Dorothea Brooke unwisely marries, he devotes his time and attention to an encyclopedic enterprise called ‘The Key to All Mythologies’. The fictional union was partly inspired by real-life events. In 1861, Mark Pattison, a prominent scholar working on a biography of Isaac Casaubon, a late 16th-century philologist, had married Emilia Francis Strong, an aspiring art critic thirty years his junior. In Oswyn Murray’s telling, ‘The subsequent disastrous relationship continued in mutual hatred for twenty-three years, until Pattison finally died.’

The link between Pattison and George Eliot’s novel is well known. But, as Murray suggests, Eliot may also have had in mind the controversial German scholar David Friedrich Strauss, whose Life of Jesus Critically Examined caused a scandal when it was first published in 1835. Eliot began her literary career in 1846 by translating Strauss, whose magnum opus offers certain parallels with Casaubon’s. In seeking to apply scientific methods developed in the analysis of mythology to the study of the Gospel narrative, Strauss reflected wider currents in 19th-century intellectual life, particularly the acceptance of the Enlightenment idea that ‘all cultures reflected a universal set of human characteristics that could be reduced to a system’ and that, in the ancient world, this system typically manifested itself in myth. In this regard, early Christianity was no different from any other contemporaneous belief system. And, so the sub-Darwinian argument went, history consisted in the advancement of such systems through successive stages of development, from primitive religion through monotheism to modern law and science.

One of the problems with this approach – a variant of the so-called ‘Whig interpretation of history’ – was the way it conveniently hid its exponents’ own myth-making behind their mythological objects of study. The search for the key to all mythologies revealed far more about the contemporary cult of

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