Jean-Pierre Vernant, one of the most renowned scholars of the ancient world has left us last Wednesday in Sèvres, he was ninety three and yet I feel he still had more to give us. He leaves a sense of emptiness within the community of Ancient Greece lovers, both academics and non academics, which we all will try to fill in by re-reading and re-studying all his writings.
Vernant was born in Provins in 1914, and soon became an orphan, as his father died during the Great War. After attending secondary school and gymnasium at Carnot and Louis-le-Grand in Paris he went to University at Sorbonne, where he and his brother brilliantly completed their classical studies in 1937. During these years at Sorbonne he met Prof. Ignace Meyerson (1888-1983) a Polish refugee who would have soon joined the French resistance against the Nazis and become a close friend of his. After the University, Jean-Pierre and his brother were in the army in Narbonne until 1940, when he left the army and was appointed as teacher of philosophy in a school in Touluse. Meanwhile he founded the Armée Secrète (1942), and assuming the identity of Colonel Berthier, he organised the resistance movement for the entire Haute-Garonne carrying out the liberation of Toulouse (1944).
By the end of the War Vernant would have gone back to teach if Prof. Meyerson and Louis Gernet (1882-1962), famous historian, philologist and sociologist would have not succeeded to convince him to join the National Centre of Scientific Research which he did in 1948. He began to work to a dissertation about the notion of work in Plato, and carried out researches into Greek civilisation from a social and psychological perspective as suggested by Prof. Ignace Meyerson. He was trying to seek a general vision – from the ancient Greek man perspective – of all the typical and common expressions of human nature like time, space, memory, power of will, fantasy and sacrifice. He also tried to figure diversities in these concepts between the Greeks and the other ancient societies, as well as between ancient Greeks and the modern Western world.
He was admitted (1958) to École Pratique des Hautes Études, where he joined Fernand Braudel. He was in those years an eclectic scholar studying on a comparative basis ancient anthropology and philology.
His first masterpiece, Les origines de la pensée grecque, was issued in 1962 and obtainied an extraordinary success. However he had already written extensively before and his past essays and articles were then harvested in Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs (1965). Since then all his writings were wonderful examples of deep research and passion for the ancient Greek world. His last book, Entre mythe et politique, was published in 2004.
In 1964 he founded his own research centre on comparative research on ancient societies. His group included expert historians and anthropologists on ancient Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and Africa and gave to religion a pivotal role in studying the various aspect of all societies. His centre was considered a real school of thought in comparative ancient anthropology and sociology. Nonetheless with time the researches became more focused on the classical world and in 1969 he handed over its direction to his friend and collaborator Pierre Vidal-Naquet (who died 29th July last year). His centre has become one of the most eminent schools of Greek and Roman history.
From 1975 he was Professor of comparative history of ancient religions at the Collège de France, where he was able to continue demonstrating the validity of his comparative approach. He used to say that focusing only on one culture makes you tend to forget the rest, and so you start and keep studying like there is no other possible culture. Nevertheless as soon as you widen your vision and compare the culture you are studying with others like Indian or Assyrian or Babylon’s, the whole perspective changes. The comparative method does not mean just compare diverse cultures, but mainly to change completely the way you approach the culture you are studying.
Vernant did not take for granted any classical Greek assumption. He was not simply one of the many praising ancient Greek culture, he wanted to understand the conscience and the feelings of the human beings immersed in that time and space, over two thousands years ago. His aim was to revitalise for research purposes, somehow, the social context of that golden Age by measuring the uniqueness, capabilities as well the gaps between the Greek man and us – who he considered his heirs… He was convinced that when comparing, differences should push the researcher to understand, to deepen and to comprehend the very reasons of diversity. Following his credo Vernant devoted all his life to study the Greek man, in any and all his expressions: religion, philosophy, conflict, literature, poetry, art, architecture, urbanistic, politics, science, exploration and technique, as he was positive that the Greek man cannot be considered separated by the social and urban structure he had lived in.
He said that man as we find as protagonist of the Greek tragedy is still particularly modern and present; meaning the enigmatic man, the man who has no choice but to follow the stream of the events; the man that contemplates, ponders and decides between two or more courses of action and yet afterwards recognises that the choice he made, and thought was the best one, is the worst. Often modern man – just like the heroes of ancient tragedy – when planning his life and goals tries to build up an ideal world, and yet probably reaches involuntarily the very opposite aim. This tragic feeling is stronger in our days since many things we gave for granted in the past now are not as certain as we supposed.
People should have come by now to realise that the efforts in programming their future, as history shows, may be vain and even, sometimes, disappointing.