At first glance, modernist writer Virginia Woolf and classical philosopher Socrates, who was famous for not writing his great ideas down, seem to have little in common. Separated by oceans and millennia, V.W. and Socksy aren't the likeliest of companions...but it turns out that Virginia took inspiration from the great Greek.
Take, for example, one of Virginia's unfinished pieces, a dialogue in the style of ancient Socratic conversations made famous by Plato. In this work, inspired by Woolf's 1906 trip to - where else? - Greece, the author presents a chat between modern tourists visiting the sights and sounds of Greece. When Woolf herself traveled there, she noted the disparate nature of the language and society of ancient Athens and Sparta, with which she was most familiar from school, and those of contemporary Greece, an entirely different society. Her previous conception of "Greece" had derived not from actual knowledge of the country, but from childhood notions learned back in Britain.
Virginia Woolf on vacation in Greece. Photo via Standpoint Magazine/Harvard University.
Similarly, Virginia's cast of characters, upper/middle-class "tourists," are struck by the difference between modern Greece and their rosy-hued view of the classical civilization they learned about back home in Britain. These guys are so arrogant and full of their own self-importance conferred upon ` a seemingly superior heritage that they consider themselves Greeks by virtue of their university education. Woolf quips, "Germans are tourists and Frenchmen are tourists but Englishmen are Greeks."
These young men see themselves as inheritors of the intellectual tradition hailing from ancient Greece, but the Greek citizens of the twentieth century had, in their minds, all but forgotten their own heritage. Woolf memorably describes their perverse, Orientalist attitude: they "not only shared their wine flask with the escort of dirty Greek peasant boys but condescended so far as to address them in their own tongue as Plato would have spoken it had Plato learned Greek at Harrow."
These guys make a mockery of the Platonic ideal of a dialogue they strive to emulate. Did they do Socrates proud? Not so much. Woolf writes dryly, "But this we will say, that the talk was the finest talk in the world." Were their subjects the nature of the soul or of love, the proper government or questions of life and death? Nope. These jerks discussed how to make cheese and discussed "what it was that the Greeks had been, and what it is they are no longer." Indeed, as one scholar noted, the real Greece and the Greece of British Hellenism could not have been more different.
Feature images via Biography.com/Accelus.