Cornford Mythistoricus *

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For D.H. Kelly

Un homme d'esprit sent ce que les autres ne font que savoir

(Montesquieu, Oeuvres complètes [Paris 1951] 1.57)

Although F.M. Cornford's name was already known to me from his commentary on Plato's Theaitetos, my first acquaintance with his Thucydides Mythistoricus came in my earliest years of teaching Ancient History in the mid-1970s under the tutelage of the one to whom this essay is dedicated. I have drawn on Cornford's book regularly when teaching Greek History, and found it useful as a provocation to students reading Thucydides. With the centenary since its publication looming, two years ago I felt it was high time to learn more about the context in which the book arose. Already a generation ago, W.M. Calder III identified Cornford as 'an outstanding scholar, a personality, and a man involved in the issues of his time' who merits a biography.1 I came across this comment only after the present essay was largely complete, and should clarify that what follows is not an earnest of a biography to come. That task was signalled as 'on the way' in 1991, but it has not come to fruition.2

1. THE MAN: A BRIEF CURSUS

Francis MacDonald Cornford was born at Eastbourne on 27 February 1874, son of the Rev. James Cornford and Mary Emma MacDonald. He attended St Paul's School, was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1893 and elected a Scholar the following year. Cornford obtained Firsts in both parts of the Classical Tripos in 1895 and 1897 (specialising in Part II in Ancient Philosophy under Henry Jackson, who was also at Trinity) and was awarded the Chancellor's Medal - a sign that his control of Latin and Greek was very strong.3 Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, in 1897 he applied at the age of 23 for the Chair of Greek at Cardiff, but was unsuccessful (in contrast to Gilbert Murray, who in 1889 won Glasgow at the same age and later proved a significant friend and patron). He had already attempted to win a Trinity Fellowship, but his thesis on the Kratylos fell foul of Jackson's views on that dialogue.4 When he again made a bid for a Fellowship, he wrote on the Nicomachean Ethics, a little further from Jackson's 'own' domain. Noting this combination of intellectual talent and ambition, Trinity determined to keep him, electing him to a Fellowship in 1899. A College Assistant Lectureship in Classics followed in 1902, and a Lectureship in 1904.

A generation after his unsuccessful bid for the Cardiff Chair, he had to cope with disappointment again in 1921 and once more in 1928, being passed over twice as candidate for the Regius Chair of Greek at Cambridge.5 Already Brereton-Laurence Reader in Classics from 1927, the consolation prize followed four years later in 1931 when he became the first to hold the Laurence Chair in Ancient Philosophy, a post which he held until retirement in 1939.6 An academic year spent at Harvard in 1928 may have prodded the university not to let him slip away from one Cambridge to another.7 1937 saw twofold external recognition: an honorary doctorate from Birmingham,8 and election to the British Academy.

Cornford appears to have enjoyed being a provocateur at Cambridge. In 1897 he organised a student petition in favour of degrees for women; in 1903 he circulated a document arguing for further change to the Classical Tripos, especially that it should be a vehicle to convey new ideas.9 In this he may well be reflecting the influence of Henry Jackson who was in the vanguard of reform of the Tripos.10 The following year, with his College Lectureship confirmed, he disseminated anonymously a pamphlet against compulsory chapel. He combined with C.K. Ogden in founding the 'Heretics', a rationalist club. During The First War, when Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was deprived of his College Lectureship at Trinity, Cornford was one of the Fellows who pressed for his reinstatement.11

Domestic life is not irrelevant to an attempt to flesh out our man. …