Friday, May 19, 2023


A Day of Grand Intellectual Feasting

Jean-Pierre Vernant, Preface to Louis Gernet (1888-1962), The Anthropology of Ancient Greece, tr. John Hamilton and Blaise Nagy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), pp. vii-viii:
This man, who had so many things to transmit and who could have formed so many pupils, passed most of his life as a teacher of Greek prose composition on the Faculté des Lettres d'Alger. He was over sixty-five when he was able to come to the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes to speak about a subject dear to his heart, one about which he alone could speak. We were a handful who followed his seminars, and most of us were non-Hellenists. During these years, each Thursday morning was a festive day for us, a day of grand intellectual feasting. We saw him arrive with rapid and lively pace, this old man still full of youth; he was tall, with a fine face framed by a well-trimmed beard, and it seemed as if the great Poseidon, such as the figure seen in the Museum at Athens, were coming to us. As a sign of his nonconformism, he wore a black, round hat in the style of Blum, and the cravat of Lavalliere. He carried not a single lecture note; only a few references jotted down on a single sheet of paper. Penal law, testament, property, war, legends and cults of heroes, family and marriage, Orphism and religious sects, tragedy—it did not matter what the question was. Whatever it was, Gernet was at home in his subject, because he was at home in ancient Greece. Like an ethnologist who, beginning with the dawn of civilization, sets out to a distant land, he would never abandon his quest, and would understand the people from within and from without, with the twofold perspective of native and foreigner. Louis Gernet had read everything; in all the areas of Hellenism, his knowledge was faultless. This knowledge went far beyond ours, but it never crushed or paralyzed us. There was not a shadow of pedantry in this learned man, who considered erudition only a means, a tool with which to pose the problems correctly and to discover each time answers that were better nuanced than before. We used to debate every subject freely in his presence, and I cannot think of a better eulogy for him than this: none of us ever feared to lose face because of some error or silly mistake. He rescued us from our own mistakes, gave us direction, and informed us. Our shortcomings were mere trifles in his eyes. The research he pursued continually looked far beyond.

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