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Bernard Knox, 95, dies; one of world's foremost scholars of classical literature

Bernard Knox, founding director of the Center for Hellenic Studies.
Bernard Knox, founding director of the Center for Hellenic Studies. (1992 Photo By James A. Parcell/the Washington Post)
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Later in his career, Dr. Knox argued frequently and forcefully against those he called "advocates of multiculturalism and militant feminists" who criticized the classical canon as racist and classist and pushed for universities to teach a wider range of literature. His essays and talks were collected in books including "The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics" (1993) and "Backing into the Future: The Classical Tradition and Its Renewal" (1994).

The Greeks "have stood the test of time, more than 2,000 years of it, and have become a basic element of our character, of our nature," he wrote. "And, as the Roman poet Horace remarked, you may toss nature out with a pitchfork, but it will still come running back in."

Spanish Civil War veteran

Bernard MacGregor Walker Knox was born Nov. 24, 1914, in West Yorkshire, England. He grew up in London and received a scholarship to study the classics at St. John's College at Cambridge. But the country was mired in economic depression, Hitler had come to power in Germany and the young Dr. Knox spent more time planning protests with left-wing student groups than he did studying.

"I didn't do any work. All I did was go to demonstrations and study Karl Marx, though I must say, I never did read 'Das Kapital,' " he told the Washington Times in 1989. "The world situation was so menacing that I didn't think I'd live very long. I thought that war was coming and studying Latin and Greek didn't seem relevant."

He received a bachelor's degree in 1936 and then volunteered to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. After he was shot and severely wounded, he returned to London and immigrated to the United States to marry Betty Baur, an American woman he had met while she was studying at Cambridge.

They were married from 1939 until her death in 2006. Survivors include their son, MacGregor Knox of London; a sister; and two grandchildren.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Dr. Knox joined the U.S. Army and took the oath of American citizenship while stationed in England in 1943. Not long afterward, he went to work for the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA's wartime predecessor.

Noting Dr. Knox's command of French, the OSS assigned him to parachute into German-occupied France, arm citizens and prepare them to rise up against Hitler's troops. Later, Dr. Knox was sent on a similar mission to aid the underground resistance in Italy. He was slated to go next to the Pacific when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, effectively ending the war.

His military decorations included two Bronze Star Medals and the French Croix de Guerre.

Numerous awards

After the war, he studied at Yale University. He received a doctorate in classics and served on Yale's faculty from 1948 until 1961, when he was named director of the new Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington. Dr. Knox served until his retirement in 1985 as director of the center, which offers year-long residential fellowships for junior scholars. In that job, he mentored many of his field's prominent thinkers.

He was the recipient of numerous awards and was chosen in 1992 to give the National Endowment of the Humanities' prestigious Jefferson Lecture, the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for intellectual achievement in the humanities.

He was a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington and was a founder of the Society for the Preservation of the Greek Heritage.

"It was the Greeks who started it all," he said, receiving an award from the Cosmos Club in 1979. "They are not just our roots, they are our sinews, our flesh and blood; they are what makes the West different from Islam, from India, from China," he said. "In fact, to be a professor of ancient Greek is to be a professor of modernity."


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