Francis Macdonald Cornford was a revolutionary scholar who reinterpreted the origins of Western thought and a masterful translator of and commentator on the later dialogues of Plato. He was also a recognized authority on Greek science, an innovator in the methodology of the history of ideas, an historian and a poet, and an important student of human nature. In his work he achieved a rare combination of profound erudition and sympathetic imagination, which he expressed in an admirable English style that inspired students and colleagues, and enabled him to reach an audience far beyond Cambridge.
Cornford was born in Eastborne, Sussex, on 27 February 1874, a clergyman’s son. During his youth he distinguished himself as a promising student of Latin and Greek and, upon graduating from St. Paul’s School in London, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1894 on an Open Minor Scholarship to pursue a course of classical studies (Greek and Latin literature and ancient philosophy).
In his second year Cornford became the pupil of Henry Jackson, praelector in Ancient Philosophy at Trinity, who later became Regius Professor of Greek in the University, a member of the Order of Merit, and Vice-Master of his college. Cornford once compared Jackson to Dr. Johnson: “Both were masters of the peculiarly English wit that is near allied, not to madness, but to common sense; both were great talkers—Jackson the more congenial of the two, countering folly with a north-country bluntness that did not forget the claims of courtesy. He taught the young scholars of many academic generations to clear their minds of loose thinking and never to leave a stone unturned. Like Socrates, he was content to leave his mark upon the minds of his pupils.” Jackson, Cornford continued, not only influenced him as well as three other Cambridge classicists he admired (Richard Archer-Hind, James Adam, and Robert Hicks) but also men outside “the academic world . . . who, if they met Jackson only as unflagging host, perambulating those rooms in Nevile’s Court with a syphon in one hand and a cigar-box in the other” would “count it an honour that they once received a friendly greeting from a great humanist and a great Englishman (Cornford, The Laws of Motion in Ancient Thought 6-7).
Jackson, whose great interest was Plato’s later theory of ideas (a subject he was never able to shape into a book) took Cornford under his wing and set him to reading ancient philosophy. Another important influence on Cornford at this time was that of Walter Headlam (1866-1908) Fellow of King’s College, who was then working on his translation of Aeschylus. (He had previously translated fifty poems of Meleager and later would publish poems of Herodas.) Headlam was regarded by many in Cambridge and on the Continent—Wilamowitz praised his scholarship)—as one of the most promising young classicists of his day. Rapport seems to have been established between Headlam and Cornford from the outset, and, until his premature death in 1908, Headlam called on his former pupil for assistance in interpreting difficult passages from Aeschylus.
After Cornford graduated from the University in the Jubilee Year of 1897 (he had taken Firsts in both parts of the Classical Tripos), he continued to live in Cambridge, where he supported himself with an Exhibition from Trinity and with the salary he received as editor of the Cambridge Review. It had seemed that he would have to become a schoolmaster, since he had been informed by his family that he would shortly have to be the sole support of his mother. Hence he momentarily ruled out the possibility of seeking a fellowship. Although he was offered a position in the sixth form at Clifton, he continued to mark time and in the end decided to gamble that he would be able to stand successfully for a fellowship before he might have to provide for his mother. Yet he almost lost his wager, for while he passed his Examination, Henry Jackson would not accept his thesis on the Cratylus. Cornford had evidently annoyed Jackson by disagreeing with his mentor’s interpretation of the dialogue. In any event, he was determined to succeed on his last chance in 1899. Jackson, however, had warned him that there might not be any openings that year. Thus, at the age of twenty-five, he applied for the Professorship of Greek at University College, Cardiff. He was turned down by Cardiff, but he won his fellowship in Trinity on the basis of his dissertation, “Prolegomena to the Nicomachean Ethics.”
The year before he became a teaching Fellow of Trinity Cornford met Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928), a lecturer in classics in Newnham College. He had first heard her give one of her bravura performances at the Archaeological Museum: “I have a vision of her figure on the darkened stage of the lecture-room . . . which she made deserve to the full its name of theatre—a tall figure in black drapery, with touches of her favourite green, and a string of blue Egyptian beads, like a priestess’ rosary.” After hearing her public lecture on the mystica vannus Iacchi, Cornford “sent her a letter on some point that had struck me. She asked me to come talk it over, and so began the series of innumerable conversations over the black brew of Indian tea which we both found needful to revive the powers of thought after the idleness of the early afternoon” (Cornford, 1929). And so, too, began a period of scholarly collaboration that ended when Cornford joined the British army in 1914.
Shortly after meeting Cornford, Harrison introduced him to her Oxford friend, Gilbert Murray (1866-1957). This group of scholars, augmented on occasion by the participation of A. B. Cook (1868-1952), has been referred to as the Cambridge School or the Cambridge Ritualists. Either term, however, is a misnomer, since Murray was at Oxford (as Regius Professor of Greek from 1908). But the term “ritualist” was an appropriate description of their interest; they wished to discover the sources of Greek culture, and they thought that ritual was the bedrock from which all great symbolic forms emerge.
At the time Cornford and his group set out to revolutionize the study of Greek culture, classical scholarship was mainly confined to philology. Though Cornford and his collaborators appreciated the importance of strict linguistic study, they insisted that it should not dominate or circumscribe the scope of their investigations. The key, they thought, which would provide a more accurate and inclusive understanding of the intellectual achievements of ancient Greece, was not to be found in the study of syntax or textual criticism but in the relatively new disciplines of sociology and cultural anthropology. Borrowing concepts and methods of research from Emile Durkheim and from comparative mythologists such as James George Frazer (1854-1941), Cornford, Harrison, Murray, and Cook made a fresh examination of the origins of Greek historiography, philosophy, literature, and religion. The word “origins” is stressed because, until they applied the techniques and discoveries of contemporary social anthropology to classical studies, the vast majority of classicists ignored the beginnings and development of ancient Greek drama, religious practice, and philosophical speculation. By and large, most European students of antiquity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries treated classical texts in vacuo, as if they were independent of time and change. Yet within twelve years (1903-1914)—twelve years in which Cornford and his intellectual compatriots published many of their most influential and controversial works—the case for the evolutionary approach to classical studies had been made quite convincing; it could be, and indeed was, attacked (mainly because the evolutionary thesis appeared to diminish the importance of invention and individual genius in the creation of works of art or systems of thought); but it could no longer be ignored. Henceforward classical scholars would have to take seriously the contention that Attic tragedy and comedy, Ionian cosmogony, and Olympian religion, had had their roots in earlier, more “primitive” stages of thought and action, namely, in archaic ritual—an idea that Cornford’s article acquired from Robertson Smith—and mythology. Scholars could no longer accept with complacency the established view of the Greek “mind” as a static entity; rather, they now had to consider the possibility that it was a process demarcated by clearly definable stages analogous to the cultural strata unearthed by archaeologists. Just as archaeologists such as Schliemann (who had begun digging at Troy when Harrison was an undergraduate) and Arthur Evans (who “set sail for his new Atlantis and telegraphed news of the Minotaur from his own labyrinth”) (J. E. Harrison, Reminiscences of a Student’s Life: 83) had revealed a succession of different levels in the cultures of Troy and Crete, so Cornford, Harrison, Murray, and Cook thought they had dug up the past layers of the Greek mind and had revealed the historical series of mental and social events that led gradually but directly to the cultural triumphs of the fifth and fourth centuries.
The search for origins, however, did more than establish the evolutionary record by which the Greek mind emerged from ritual and myth. As Cornford notes in his first book, Thucydides Mythistoricus (1907): “Our view is that modern research into origins is not only recovering the temporal sequence of the several stages in the development of religious (and philosophic) representations, but is also, by that very fact, bringing to light the corresponding systems of association deposited, at those stages, in the racial tradition and memory of the Greeks—systems that lasted on in their minds like superimposed layers of alluvial stratification.”
Discovery of these “corresponding systems of association” was invaluable, Cornford observed, in attempting to understand the history of ancient thought in general and the views of individual philosophers in particular. Philosophers do not think in a vacuum; they are influenced by their background and traditions perhaps even more than by their historical time and place. While acknowledging the significance of individual talent and authentic novelty in the history of ideas, Cornford persistently drew attention to the fundamental presuppositions, the commonly employed structures of thought and feeling, of metaphor and symbol that are taken for granted during a given epoch. For he believed that the process of discovering the presuppositions of a philosopher’s work was as important, if not more important than perceiving the differences that divided him from his contemporary opponents: “In every age the common interpretation of the world of things is controlled by some scheme of unchallenged and unsuspected presupposition; and the mind of any individual however little he may think himself to be in sympathy with his contemporaries, is not an insulated compartment, but more like a pool in one continuous medium—the circumambient atmosphere of his place and time.”
Thucydides Mythistoricus is devoted to elucidating the “systems of association,” presupposition, or—to use a term Cornford later used—the “unwritten philosophy” in the History of the Peloponnesian War. Cornford argued in Part I that the policy of commercial expansion championed by the Piraeus party and annealed in the Megarian decrees—the so-called “Western Policy,” which, for reasons of political expediency, was reluctantly supported by Pericles—led to the outbreak of the War. But—and this is the crucial point of Part I—Thucydides did not understand this fact, because he had no comprehension of the modern “science” of economics, since there was as yet no such thing. Nor did he possess, as Cornford argues in Part II, an understanding of historical causation in the modern sense, since his thought was still molded by traditional or mythopoeic forms. This led him to explain specific events of war in terms of nonhuman agencies (Tyche, for instance, in the case of the battle of Pylos) and to view the Peloponnesian War itself as the unfolding of tragic destiny (a model of historical explanation that he derived from Aeschylus). Hence Thucydides was not, as the majority of his recent students had claimed, a “modern of moderns” but rather a mythistoricus.
According to Cornford, historical events are frequently transformed in an author’s mind by “traditional habits of thought.” He called this process by which commonly inherited assumption transmutes fact into legend and legend into myth “infiguration.” In Thucydides’ case, tradition prevented him from perceiving the facts at Pylos. He was on the frontier of two ages, one still bound up in mythopoeic presupposition, the other—then just arising—seeking to establish a view of the world based on reason. He simply did not have the symbolic forms that might enable him to see things as they actually happened at Pylos or the Piraeus; he knew nothing of causation. Thus, he relied on pre-Olympian or non-human agencies to explain reversals of fortune and borrowed the structure of Aeschylean tragedy to describe the crucial events of the war.
Reactions to Cornford’s first book were mixed. The expected support was immediately at hand: Gilbert Murray praised it in a letter to his friend and gave it an excellent review in the Albany. Arthur Verrall (1851-1912), G. M. Trevelyan (1876-1962), Hugh Stewart (1884-1934), and G. E. Moore (1873-1958) wrote letters of appreciation. He also received thoughtful and complimentary letters from Walter Leaf (1852-1927) and Alfred Zimmern (1879-1957). But he was attacked by J.S. Phillimore (1876-1926), who thought he was misinterpreting Thucydides to suit his own devices. And he was as often praised as criticized in the newspapers. J. B. Bury (1861-1927), who presumably read Thucydides Mythistoricus when he was preparing his Lane Lectures (which he delivered at Harvard in the spring of 1908) agreed “that the style of Thucydides was influenced by the Attic drama . . . and it is one of the merits of Mr. Cornford’s monograph to have illustrated this influence. But,” he insisted, “the tragic phrases and reminiscences, and the occasional use of tragic irony, cannot be held to have more than a stylistic significance.”
While some classicists, such as W. K. C. Guthrie (1906-81), have recently praised Thucydides Mythistoricus, Bury’s view has endured. There is another exception to this opinion, however, that is worth recording; in The Idea of History (1946) R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) points out that “legend, either in the form of theocratic history or in the form of myth, was” not “a thing foreign to the Greek mind.. .. F. M. Cornford in his Thucydides Mythistoricus ... drew attention to the existence of such elements even in the hard-headed and scientific Thucydides. He was of course perfectly right.”
In the year following the appearance of Thucydides Mythistoricus Cornford published his immortal satire of academic politics, Microcosmographia Academica, with its portraits of the young-man-in-a-hurry, the Adullamites (scientists and engineers), Liberals and Conservatives, and its splendid description on acquiring influence: “Political influence may be acquired in exactly the same way as the gout; indeed, the two ends ought to be pursued concurrently. The method is to sit tight and drink port wine.”
Cornford’s venture into academic satire was consistent with his previous efforts at reform of the University and its Colleges. He had urged the Classical Society of Cambridge to reform the Classical Course in 1903; he had attacked compulsory chapel in 1904; and he had helped establish a summer course at Cambridge for the Working Men’s College in 1901. He also questioned the role of religion in the University in 1911. It is important to note that Cornford’s concern for University reform (he had supported University degrees for women as an undergraduate) reflects in part his desire to reform society as a whole. He opposed British imperialism, became a Fabian Socialist, assisted political refugees, and tried to save scholars from Nazi persecution. And he invariably defended democratic principles, especially the right of freedom of expression, a position that was sharply tested when he—at the time a Sergeant of Musketry—helped lead the effort to have pacifist Bertrand Russell’s Lectureship in Trinity reinstated during World War I.
Four years after the appearance of Microcosmographia Academica Cornford published his second book, From Religion to Philosophy. The year of its publication, 1912, marked the greatest cooperation amongst the members of his scholarly circle. Harrison published Themis in the same year, a work that included chapters by both Cornford (“The Origin of the Olympic Games”) and Murray (“Excursus on the Ritual Forms Preserved in Greek Tragedy”). And Murray himself, whose Rise of the Greek Epic had appeared during the same year as Cornford’s Thucydides Mythistoricus (1907), also published a book in 1912, Four Stages of Greek Religion. In his new book Cornford continued to explore questions he had raised in Thucydides: the problems of deciphering the unconscious elements in ancient systems of thought, and the quest for origins. He had previously taken issue with contemporary scholars who imposed modern assumptions on Thucydides; now he criticized modem classicists (such as Paul Deussen (1845-1919) and John Burnet (1853-1928)) who mistakenly viewed the presocratics—to transpose a phrase of Jacob Burkhardt’s—as the first-born sons of modern empiricism. The Ionian cosmogonists, for instance, appeared to them to be precursors of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth-century Age of Genius or, indeed, even the scientists of the Age of Darwin. The fallacy of misplaced empiricism ignores the importance of collective effort and tradition in the creation and transmission of ideas. To imagine “that Thales or Anaximander was like Adam on the day of his creation, with no tradition behind him, no inherited scheme of things, opening his innocent eyes on a world of pure sense impressions not as yet coordinated into any conceptual structure” is at the very least naive, since the “philosophic Muse is not a motherless Athena: if the individual intellect is her father, her older and more august parent is Religion.”
Philosophy, according to Cornford, has its roots in religion, or rather in a pre-theological state of religion or myth, and the representations of religion develop from the social order of the primitive tribe. Borrowing from Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), Cornford asserted that the collective consciousness of the primordial tribe generated the idea of the sympathetic continuum (of all life in nature), which itself became the first religious representation. The sympathetic continuum was eventually divided—the idea of division having been unconsciously inherited from antecedent totemic divisions of the primordial tribe—into two pools or channels of mana that resulted in the formation of two approaches to reality, one negative, the other positive. The former produced the collective religious representations of Moira, Nomos, and Physis, the emergence of the Olympian gods, and the advent of philosophy and the early development of scientific materialism. The latter led to the creation of mystery religions and the view of life as dynamic process. The negative channel spatialized reality—here Cornford, following Harrison, borrows from Henri Bergson (1859-1941)—while the positive stream of religious thought viewed life in terms of human time or becoming. The former ends by reducing life to particles in a machine, while the latter embraces life in the round of nature. Early philosophy comprises both channels in two historical traditions, first noted by Diogenes Laertius: the Ionian and the Pythagorean, the scientific and the mystical or, as Nietzsche would have it—and Cornford gives him credit for the intuition—the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
Like his first book, From Religion to Phibsophy provoked controversy and received varied reviews. W. A. Heidel (1868-1941) found some favorable things to say about his handling of the mystical tradition, but he was very critical of Cornford’s assimilation of the complex history of Ionian philosophy to the simplified abstractions of Durkheimian sociology. Contrary to Heidel, Gilbert Murray noted his agreement in The Nation (13 July 1912) with Cornford’s analyses of the inherited mental background of the earliest Ionian philosophers. “For instance, Anaximander, in a famous sentence, says that all existing things of necessity must pass away into that from which they rose, because ‘they pay to one another justice and retribution for their injustice according to the ordinance of time.’ That is not the free comment of a man of science, derived from the observation of nature. It is steeped in religious [and moral] preconceptions” that originate in the pre-theological notion of Moira as “the portion of land, that by rights belongs to any division of the tribe. To transgress Moira is to trespass; to break Dike, or custom; to violate nomos, the tribal law or assignment.” Since “the world of the gods is necessarily imagined on the model of the world of their worshippers, the rule of Moira over Zeus becomes plain.” For, like the members of the totemic tribe, the gods have to follow the rules of apportionment. To exceed their proper portion would make both humans and gods culpable of hybris or force them, as Anaximander puts it, to pay recompense “for their injustice according to the ordinance of time.”
While he accepted Cornford’s view of the continuity between religion and philosophy, Murray could not entirely agree with his colleague’s conclusions about the “origin of the conceptions of god, the soul and other religious ideas, and the derivation of the various forms of early Greek philosophy from divergent treatments of these fundamental totemic conceptions.” Like Heidel, Murray also thought that Cornford neglected important “historical factors” in his account of the different philosophers because “he is sometimes obsessed by his own method.”
Cornford’s reviews were also varied in the press. Many reviewers had reservations about his thesis, and most still deemed Burnet’s view that science began with Thales as essentially correct. While some complimented Cornford on the boldness of his interpretation, they had reservations or outright distaste for his use of French sociology.
From Religion to Phibsophy has fared somewhat better in more recent evaluations. W. K. C. Guthrie, Cornford’s most famous pupil and eventually his successor to the Laurence Chair of Ancient Philosophy, thought Cornford’s theory “leaves one now with a certain feeling of inadequacy.” Yet, he concluded, “it is fair to say that it represents a necessary stage on the way to that comprehensive understanding of the Greek mind which he afterwards achieved, rather than an example of the full understanding itself’ (Unwritten Philosophy). D. S. Robertson (1885-1961), late Regius Professor of Greek in Cambridge and also a pupil of Cornford’s, expressed his admiration for the work at the time of Cornford’s death: “Five years later came a far better book [than the Thucydides], his novel and stimulating From Religion to Philosophy, much influenced by Jane Harrison’s Themis.”Hugh Lloyd-Jones (1922-2009) may have had the book in mind (as well as Cornford’s later treatment of the subject, Principium Sapientiae) when he referred to Cornford’s “important work on Plato and on presocratic philosophy and its prephilosophical background.” Perhaps the greatest admirer of From Religion to Philosophy (as well as Comford’s other works on the presocratics) is the French scholar, Jean-Pierre Vernant (1914-2007), although Cornford also receives most favorable treatment by the philosopher of science Richard H. Schlagel (b. 1925), in his From Myth to the Modem Mind: A Study of the Origins and Growth of Scientific Thought (1985).
In his next book, The Origin of Attic Comedy (1914), Cornford put forward the hypothesis that the “canonical plot formula” of the Aristophanic play “preserves the stereotyped action of a ritual or folk drama, older than literary comedy, and of a pattern well known to us from other sources.” He had been inspired to reexamine the structure of the Old Comedy by the works of Thaddeus Zielinski (1916-91) and Gilbert Murray. The latter’s “Excursus on the Ritual Forms Preserved in Greek Tragedy” in Jane Harrison’s Themis had especially inspired him to look for traditional forms in the plays of Aristophanes. He eventually concluded “that Comedy itself has sprung, not necessarily from the same ritual [as Tragedy], but from one closely allied to it and belonging to the same class.” Cornford thought scholars had overlooked the importance of the second part of the Aristophanic play. Although they had discussed the Prologue, Parados, and Agon, they had regarded the play as being virtually over after the Parabasis. Yet, Cornford argued, there is a “sequence of fixed incidents” in the second part of the play that is “no less canonical than the Agon": a “Sacrifice, Feast, [and] marriage Komos.” Following Aristotle, Cornford concluded that the fixed elements in the Old Comedy had originated in the Phallic ceremonies associated with the worship of Dionysus, an example of which can be found in Aristophanes’ Acharnians. In his view we see in the Agon “the equivalent of the sacrifice which precedes the Phallic Song. The Agon is the beginning of the sacrifice in its primitive dramatic form—the conflict between the good and evil principles, Summer and Winter, Life and Death. The good spirit is slain, dismembered, cooked and eaten in the communal feast, and yet brought back to life. These acts survive in the standing features of the comic plot between the Parabasis and the Exodos. Finally comes the Marriage of the risen God, restored to life and youth to be the husband of the Mother Goddess. This marriage is the necessary consummation of the Phallic ritual, which, when it takes a dramatic form, simulates the union of Heaven and Earth for the renewal of all life in Spring.”
His brilliant reconstruction of the origins of comedy was generally greeted with praise. He was criticized for exaggerating the significance of conjectural literary origins, for failing to substantiate fully the existence of the basic ritual drama, and for diminishing the significance of individual creativity, a charge he vigorously disputed: We can never know how creative “the wit of Aristophanes” was unless we can find out what Aristophanes “did not invent.” Most of his reviews, however, stressed the importance of his analysis of the second part of the plays, complimented him for his ingenious and thorough examination of the extant comedies, and either accepted or were at least open to his suggestion that a ritual drama provided the traditional mold in which the Old Comedy was cast.
The thesis that drama originated in ritual, or that dramatists unconsciously used fixed forms inherited from fertility ceremonies, was vigorously challenged from the start by classicists such as William Ridgeway (1858-1926), Professor of Archaeology in Cambridge, who insisted that tragedy developed from the dramatic dances associated with the cult of heroes. Some reviewers of The Origin of Attic Comedy referred favorably to Ridgeway’s theory when they criticized Cornford’s chapter on comedy and tragedy. However, the scholar whose efforts to demolish the idea that drama (both tragedy and comedy) was associated with the rituals of Dionysus as Year Spirit (Eniautus-Daimon) or seasonal deity was A. W. Pickard-Cambridge (1873-1952), who maintained in his Dithyramb, Tragedy and Comedy (Oxford, 1927) that the advocates of this theory proved neither the existence of a ritual from which drama emerged in classical Greece nor its use in the surviving plays. More recently, scholars such as Gerald Else have resumed Pickard-Cambridge’s argument and have decried “the modern obsession with myth and ritual, or ritual origins of myth.” The rejection of the ritualist interpretation of the origins of tragedy and comedy predominates at present (although it should be noted that T. B. L. Webster (1905-74) held to a modified variation of Murray’s theory). As Cornford observed in his lecture on “The Unconscious Element in Literature and Philosophy” (1921), the theory that there are “ ‘fixed forms’ of Attic Tragedy” and Comedy that “correspond to the moments in a ritual drama which survives all over Europe in the folk-play” reduces many scholars “for some cause I cannot fathom ... to a state of frenzy.” If it no longer provokes frenzy—and it may still—it is either largely dismissed or ignored.
Less than three months after the last reviews of The Origin of Attic Comedy appeared, Cornford joined the British Army as a (territorial) Instructor of Musketry. Whereas he was often embarrassingly quiet during supervision of his pupils, and while he was known for his uncanny ability to “dematerialize” or vanish without notice from a social gathering (he once told his children that he could have been a “confidential butler to a wicked earl”), he thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie of army life. He was rarely too far away from Cambridge to visit his growing family—he had married Frances Crofts Darwin, a granddaughter of the great naturalist, in 1909—and he often managed to keep a hand in college politics, even after he joined the Ministry of Munitions (where he rose to the rank of major).
After the war Cornford resumed his Lectureship in classics and stood for the Regius Professorship of Greek in 1921. He lost to Alfred Chilton Pearson (1861-1935), a scholar in the Jebb tradition) but tried again in 1928, when he competed against his former pupil, D. S. Robertson, to whom he also lost. He consoled himself with the fact that he had previously been appointed Brereton-Laurence Reader in Classics (the first University post in ancient philosophy in Cambridge), and he continued to hope that the University would one day establish a chair in his subject, an aspiration that was fulfilled when he was appointed first Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy in 1931.
Two years after he first stood for the Regius Professorship Cornford started publishing again: articles on Pythagoreanism were followed by contributions to the Cambridge Ancient History on “Mystery-Religions and Presocratic Philosophy” and “The Athenian Philosophical Schools.” In 1927, hearing that Philip Wicksteed (1844-1927), who was paralyzed and terminally ill, needed assistance in completing his translation and commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, Cornford immediately offered his services. It took him longer than he had anticipated to revise Wicksteed’s manuscript, and it was not until 1929 that the first volume of the Physics was published by the Loeb Classical Library; the second volume appeared in 1934. His generous labor may have diverted him from his own scholarship, but it influenced the form he chose for his great studies of Plato’s later dialogues.
Beginning in 1935 with Plato’s Theory of Knowledge (the Theaetetus and the Sophist) and followed by the Timaeus in 1937 and the Parmenides two years later, Cornford sought to elucidate the epistemology and cosmology of Plato by using a method (employed by Wicksteed in his analysis of the Physics) that was familiar to every lecturer on classical texts: translation with “running commentary.” In his earlier books Cornford had examined the origins and background of early Greek speculation; now, in his Plato studies, he focused his attention on “the finished product.” This allowed him “the opportunity for a more exact appreciation of the structure which the philosopher himself had built.” Yet, although he was now dealing with the philosophy itself rather than the presuppositions it had inherited from the preclassical past, he still immersed himself in the study of the main currents of thought that formed the intellectual climate of Plato’s age, and he made a serious effort to learn Greek mathematics—including the mathematics taught in the Academy—so that he could understand his subject in the round.
Cornford’s accomplishment astounded many of his contemporaries. As Professor Guthrie has observed: “Those of us who knew Cornford at that time can only marvel at the completeness with which all this in itself indigestible material was assimilated and transmuted, so that the reader who is presented with the finished commentary can scarcely be aware of the amount of patient labour that has gone to its composition.”
The books on the later dialogues were an immediate success and, even though they never achieved the popularity of Cornford’s famous translation of the Republic (1941)—which was aimed “at conveying to the English reader as much as possible of the thought of the Republic in the most convenient and least misleading form”—they have been (and still are being) read by many academic generations.
After completing his Platonic studies, Cornford returned to the subject that had never ceased to fascinate him: the origins of Greek philosophical thought. Previously he had taken the view that one channel of Greek religion had ultimately evolved into science. Now, however, he revised his earlier opinion—which he still maintained in Before and After Socrates (1932)—and argued that both Pythagoreanism and Ionian “empiricism” had remained essentially religious (although pretheological). Indeed, he demonstrated that Milesian cosmogony had ultimately derived from Near Eastern ritual, a thesis he first put forward in his lecture “A Ritual Basis of Hesiod’s Theogony” (1941) and later examined at length in his posthumously published book, Principium Sapientiae (1952). By examining the sorts of questions the early philosophers had asked about the creation of the universe and by discovering "fossilized metaphors” of defunct mythologies in their philosophical fragments, Cornford was able to demonstrate that the Ionians were not only not conducting an empirical investigation of nature but were unconsciously framing their conclusions about origins of the universe in the structure of prehistoric creation myths (ultimately derivable from the Enuma Elishand transmitted through the Epic of Kumarbi) that were based on cosmogonic ritual in the case of the Ionians and shamanism in the case of the “Italians.” His last search for the origins of Western philosophy led Cornford to the conclusion that there were at least four distinct (yet dynamically interrelated) stages in the evolution of Western “thought”: ritual, myth, religion (“quasi-rational”), and philosophy (“rational,” although not “scientific”). He appears to have believed that through his study of the emergence of philosophy he had discovered a model of ideational change that might in fact be universal, applicable, in other words, not simply to the development of Greek thought but, at least in some important respects, to the intellectual evolution of the species as a whole.
Principium Sapientiae has not only influenced classicists but also historians and philosophers of science. Whether it has been criticized (by Gregory Vlastos (1907-91), for instance, for failing to recognize the importance of the Ionians’ formulation of the idea of an independent order of nature [Gnomon 27 (1955) 65ff.]) or praised by E. R. Dodds (1893-1979) and W. K. C. Guthrie, it cannot be overlooked. It remains an outstanding treatment of the subject.
Cornford retired in 1939. Two years earlier he had received an honorary D.Litt. from Birmingham University for his outstanding scholarship in ancient philosophy. His last years also saw rewards outside academia: his wife, Frances, was restored to health after a long period of illness, some of his children married and for a second time, he became a grandfather. According to his wife, he felt confident about his family’s future when he died.