Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Obituary’

In Memoriam Maurice Pope

March 8, 2020 Leave a comment

We held a goodbye memorial on 7 March 2020 in Oxford for my father Maurice Pope, who died in France on 1 August 2019 at the age of 93. It was wonderful that so many friends and relatives who sometimes hadn’t seen each other for years could come together. The many testimonies we heard gave me a sense of closure that I had been missing, in the town where for 35 years he and my mother raised most of my four brothers, sister and myself.

Daddy Memorial - Order of Service_p2_sm copy

We had mourned deeply at my father’s cremation in France last year, but this time we were able to laugh too. (Thanks to my brother Patrick, you can listen to a full recording along with a slideshow here). Friends from the past shared touching stories, from an Oxford neighbour remembering how my father defused his son’s mistaken attack on our rhubarb patch with an axe, to a South African recounting the personal courage my father showed in his stand against the advance of apartheid into his beloved Cape Town University in 1969. Many anecdotes involved the family’s VW Combi camper van, in which my parents criss-crossed the U.S., Europe, Baltic states and even part of the Soviet Union. Among the funniest messages we had was one from Ben Freedman, a schoolfriend of my brother Francis who wrote in to remember this journey:

I have never forgotten driving from Winchester to Oxford with Maurice one weekend in 1989 – I was up front in the white VW Combi van and somehow he got to explaining Aristotle’s theory of the universe: a man throws a spear, walks to where it has fallen, picks it up and throws it again, and so on and so on forever. Unless — and here he turned to look at me intensely and for long enough for me to wonder if a sixth sense was occupied with the road — unless, Maurice said, the man comes upon the barrier at the edge of the universe. If and when he does, and he once again throws the spear, will it hit it and bounce back, or will it go through? And if it goes through — then what is on the other side? We pondered that question in silence as we chugged up the A34. Perhaps now he knows the answer.

20200307_145159

Or this, from Edith Hall, a student of my father’s and now a noted author, Kings College London professor and activist for the classics herself:

I remember a warm welcome in a lovely study in North Oxford and an excellent cup of tea in an elegant cup and saucer. Professor Pope was delightfully un-intimidating compared with all my previous tutors. He set one really challenging essay on how the Odyssey remembers key scenes in the Iliad and was excited because I argued that only a gap of a few years separated the events and memories would have been unbearably raw. He always liked a proper humanist reading of ancient characters and emotions and had refreshingly little time for the sillier literary theories so fashionable in 1980. He was kind and efficient with generous feedback and leapt up and down to get books off his shelves to read bits out. I remember an African oral epic about a war council! And he was funny, but not in the cruel in-group way of so many Oxford dons – more absurdist. In fact, he never seemed to me to be part of the Oxford machine, and as a very alienated undergraduate myself, this was unbelievably helpful. [He gave me] some of my happiest Oxford memories.

My father was well read in religion and often appealed to God or the gods in conversation. But, as he explains in his autobiography, Amateur, intellectually he was a convinced atheist. It was hard to know what kind of meeting place for a memorial gathering would both suit that mix of elements and also persuade the audience that the family was doing its spiritual duty. Luckily, we were pointed the remarkable Oxford Quaker Meeting House, an oasis surrounded by lovely English gardens where we could sit in the round, speak in turn, and, in between, listen to Bach and Mozart from my brother Thomas on the piano.

Dad-Order of Service

It also seemed appropriate to anchor the commemoration with a philosophical message that my father sent to me in an email conversation in 2001. He called it “The Classicist’s Creed”, setting out why he believed the open society-loving version of civilisation had much more to do with the ancient Greeks than with Christianity. He wrote it in response to three things, he said: the easy hypocrisy of senior schoolmasters; some reflections prompted by the lectures of a sinologist who accompanied a tour he and my mother took to China in 2000; and something I must have ill-advisedly questioned about the 21st century relevance of Latin and Greek.

For the schoolmasters, he found it strange that they “looked solemn in chapel, kept Sundays, and more-than-frowned on anything remotely approaching blasphemy or disrespect to Church of England Christianity. At the same time, during the six working days of the week, what they taught was Latin and Greek, and they did so through pagan authors exclusively. They discouraged us from reading ‘New Testament Greek’, let alone Vulgate Latin, and actively reproving us if we ever used a word found only in Christian authors.”

As for the Chinese connection, he had learned that “Chinese philosophy never outgrew the form that philosophy had had in early Greece: individual Teachers attracting students with their Thoughts and gaining reputations but never engaging in logical debate, appealing to first principles, or any Sermon-on-the-Mount stuff. The framework rules for living in China were not open to discussion, being firmly laid down by the Emperor-in-Society. Nor was there any Chinese concept of law that could appeal to first principles independent of the Emperor’s will.” In Athens and all major Greek states, by contrast, “the laws were public, written so that everybody could see what they were, and administered not by officials but by fellow-citizens.”

So here it is, as read out in public for the first time by my brother Quentin at the memorial:

The Classicist’s Creed 

It is not Christianity which has made the Western world what it is, but a distinct set of features or values that arose in Greece and were perpetuated by Rome, namely:

  • no sacred book or caste
  • public law
  • unrestricted literacy
  • unrestricted secular literature
  • the idea that citizens should be free and participate in government
  • the idea that truth is to be found by open argument

This set of values is certainly unique to the Graeco-Roman world and its descendants: indeed few, if any, of its constituents has ever existed elsewhere. The birth of these features was not from a single gene, guru, mystic, philosopher or ruler but the contrary. They came from the circumstances of the 8th century to the 5th century BC, when the Greek world contained a number of prosperous but competing independent states or cities. There were certainly leaders and would-be leaders, political, religious, moral, in plenty, but each had to establish his claims in public. There was no monopoly authority to appeal to. Athens almost succeeded in establishing itself as Top Power, but its own constitution was firmly and systematically democratic.

The genie, in short, was out of the bottle. It managed to stay out for a long time despite the centralising of political power and the decline of local autonomy in the later Roman Empire. But it languished, and was eventually put back in the bottle by the triumph of Christianity.

The bottle however was never quite sealed. There always remained a memory, even though it was for most of the time dormant in books, of what life had been like before Christianity. It woke up at the renaissance, and a side-result of this was that the Western church lost its monopoly. In the 16th century, Martin Luther claimed that what enabled him to “expose the false claims of the Pope” was not his spirit or courage but his knowledge of the original languages. However that may be, the bottle was prised open again. The values of an open society have, despite frequent neglect and frequent attack, managed to maintain themselves ever since. 

Whether people are happier and whether the world-as-a-whole is better looked after under our own value-system or under another, say Chinese paternalism or Orthodox or Moslem theocracy, would be a new argument. But assuming one wants to maintain it I feel honour-bound as a Classicist to rise to defend the virtues, the relevance, or rather the absolute and abiding necessity of Greek and Latin!!

As my brother Patrick put it, our father’s unorthodoxy probably created a streak of ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’ in him. In fact, each of Maurice Pope’s six children has it in some measure. I certainly hope that we can keep it up.

DSCF1636