North American Scholar
FINLEY, John Huston, Jr.
A.B. magna cum laude Harvard 1925; Ph.D. Harvard 1933; D. Litt. (hon.) Harvard, 1968
- Professional Experience:
Assist. to assoc. prof. classics, Harvard, 1933-1942; Eliot Professor of Greek Literature, 1942-1976; Master of Eliot House, Harvard, 1941-1968; George Eastman visiting professor, Oxford University, 1954-1955
“Quo modo poetae epici graeci heroas sententias fabulas moribus publicis accommodaverint” (Harvard, 1933)
Mr. Finley (as we called him; hereafter JHF) seemed a Homeric god to his devoted followers. He would appear suddenly before you in your room, or in Harvard Square, or on the playing fields, to instill strength and courage (menos) into you, to inspire you to perform deeds of excellence (aristeia). In Eliot House, in the Master's lodging, he would give advice about choice of career that was drawn out, with a few leading questions, from deep within yourself. Thus X discovered that he wanted to be a lawyer, not a doctor; Y, an administrator, not a professor. "It doesn't matter," JHF would say in his aphoristic way, "whether you're a poet or a squire. What matters is whether you're a saint or an egotist." He was himself a poet turned squire, a brilliant and sensitive classical scholar-teacher who put enormous time, thought, energy, and devotion into being Master of Eliot House. Was he ever bitter about the road(s) not taken, the books not written, the recognition given to other, less interesting people? He joked, with self-deprecating humor, about how, contrary to his expectations, his chosen literary genre had turned out to be the letter of recommendation. Certainly, he was disappointed when Nathan Pusey, not he, was chosen out of the finalists to be President of Harvard. I remember that day. We were sad for him but did not know what to say. That early evening, I happened to be standing outside Eliot House when JHF emerged with unusual equipment: "I'm going fishing," he said in a quizzical tone, implying, among other things, that there was more to life than Harvard. His life was indeed rich and many-sided, and he was -- but had sometimes to remind himself to be -- very grateful. In his Victory Odes, which I read with JHF in a Greek tutorial as dazzling, in its way, as his famous lectures to hundreds of students in Humanities 2, Pindar constantly stresses the moral necessity of gratitude, the rejection of self-consuming bitterness, envy, and wishes for things beyond human reach, as he celebrates the "god-given brilliance" that rarely but wonderfully lights up human life. Certainly, JHF put much personal feeling and experience into his empathetic teaching and writing about Pindar (as also about Thucydides, and Aeschylus, and Homer: his love of his wife Magdalena surfaces in an admiring tribute to Penelope in the Odyssey). His mind resonated to Pindar's. He appreciated, as few have, the intensity and depth of Pindar's highly compressed metaphorical style and mythical thought. But even more, I think, he was constantly relearning from Pindar, even as he taught or wrote, the physical, mental, moral and spiritual discipline by which true excellence (aretē) is achieved and the "god-given brilliance" of life is rightly and fully celebrated.
NYTimes 14 June 1995; G. Nagy, et al., Harvard University Gazette 25 May 2000
- Author: Kenneth J. Reckford