Gilbert Murray

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Gilbert Murray

George Gilbert Aimé Murray, OM, FBA (2 January 1866 – 20 May 1957) was an Australian-born British classical scholar and public intellectual, with connections in many spheres. He was an outstanding scholar of the language and culture of Ancient Greece, perhaps the leading authority in the first half of the twentieth century. He is the basis for the character of Adolphus Cusins in his friend George Bernard Shaw's play Major Barbara, and also appears as the chorus figure in Tony Harrison's play Fram.

He was a prominent humanist, and served as President of the Ethical Union (now Humanists UK) from 1929-1930 and was a delegate at the inaugural World Humanist Congress in 1952 which established Humanists International.




  • An old eagle, a blind eagle, who waits hungry and cold and still;
    He seeks nothing, he fears nothing: he stands lone on a lonely hill.
  • It seems to me important that liberal feeling in England should keep fully in touch with the war...for the sake of the peace settlement afterwards. ... If we win, as seems on the whole probable, we must do our very best for a generous treatment of Germany. ... I think we ought also to go for a strengthening of the Concert and reducing armaments by treaty. Anyhow, whether it is practicable or not, it is enormously important not to have a mere grabbing or jingo settlement.
    • Letter to H. A. L. Fisher (10 August 1914), quoted in Gilbert Murray, An Unfinished Autobiography, eds. Jean Smith and Arnold Toynbee (1960), pp. 110-111
  • Have you read Keynes on the Economic Consequences of the Peace Conference? I think it is important as giving in a clear and definite form the criticism of a Liberal-minded man who saw the proceedings from the inside... I can not help thinking that it really gives the scheme of a bold Liberal policy in foreign affairs. Aim, the re-integration of Europe, both political and economic. Method, the correction of the Versailles settlement by the L. of N. [I]t gives us a real fighting policy which has the further advantage of being right.
    • Letter to Walter Runciman (26 December 1919), quoted in Michael Bentley, The Liberal Mind 1914–29 (1977), p. 171



The Ordeal of This Generation: The War, the League and the Future (1929)

  • [T]he main work of life lies in carrying on worthily the great common task of civilization: to play one's due part in the enterprise of feeding some hundreds of millions of men, in seeing that they are protected against violence and fraud, that they have access to justice, and as far as may be to education, that they have some freedom to pursue life and happiness, and are not cut off altogether from the wonders and beauties of the world and the mind of man. To succeed in doing this is civilization: to fail is the defeat of civilization. For civilization is, ultimately, the process whereby a human society in search, as Aristotle puts it, of a "good life for man", gradually overcomes the obstacles, material and other, that stand in its way and makes man increasingly master of his environment.
    • "Peace and Strife as Elements in Life: The Ideal of “Unhindered Activity”", pp. 37-38
  • This service of civilization is our true work; the occupation that gives meaning to life. We need peace, inward and outward, because peace leaves us free to attend to it; while war—or, indeed, any violent hatred—interrupts and wrecks and perverts.
    • "Peace and Strife as Elements in Life: The Ideal of “Unhindered Activity”", p. 39
  • Is it pedantic, is it the mere result of my special education, that I fall back again upon Aristotle? He tells us that Happiness in the highest sense, or the true end of human life, is first activity, next unimpeded activity, and lastly unimpeded activity "according to virtue"; that is to say, on right lines and for good ends. Surely we want, both as individuals and as a community, to pursue that quest for the attainment or the creation of "a good life for man"; we want to get to that work unhindered and uncrippled, and therefore, apart from other reasons, we need above all things peace.
    • "Peace and Strife as Elements in Life: The Ideal of “Unhindered Activity”", p. 40
  • As we get further away from the England of the nineteenth century, and see it separated from us by the great gulf of the war, we shall perhaps be better able to see it as it really was, to appreciate its extraordinary greatness, its peculiar faults and flaws, and to a remarkable degree its unity. Beyond question it was a very great age indeed. For Great Britain especially it marked the zenith of national success, the widest expansion over the world of British government, British commerce, British political thought, British morals, philosophy, science, poetry and prose literature. It was a time when Indian rajahs and Chinese mandarins learnt to play cricket and read Macaulay, as now they are learning baseball and frequenting the movies.
    • "The Civilization of the Nineteenth Century: Its Greatness and the Flaw which led to its Collapse", p. 41
  • The advance in humanity and care for the alleviation of suffering is also, so far as I know, without a parallel: in England alone in this period we find the abolition of slavery—at the cost of £20,000,000 of public money willingly given: the sweeping reform of the old criminal law and the barbarous penal system which accompanied it... We find the reform in the treatment of lunatics; the laws against cruelty to children and to animals; the Factory Acts; the Married Women's Property Acts; the immense spread of education in all it stages, both by public authority and by private experiment; the beginnings of the care for public health; the...greatly decreased consumption of alcohol... [I]t was, of course, the great age of Liberalism.
    • "The Civilization of the Nineteenth Century: Its Greatness and the Flaw which led to its Collapse", pp. 41-43
  • Now the Victorian Age, or the nineteenth century as a whole, was a great moral reformer... It proclaimed that men, even courtiers and noblemen, ought not to be drunken or dissolute or even corrupt, that politics were really concerned with the welfare of the people, that the rich had duties towards the poor. The transition from George IV and his unpleasing brothers to the young Queen and the Prince Consort was typical of a much wider change. When Lord Palmerston was caught chasing a maid of honour into her bedroom, the excuse made for him was: "Your Majesty should remember that he is a very old gentleman and accustomed to the manners of the late Court".
    • "The Civilization of the Nineteenth Century: Its Greatness and the Flaw which led to its Collapse", p. 43
  • There was a re-birth of public spirit. Gentlemen ceased to take bribes. Justice became incorruptible... It has been observed that up to about 1820 the laws passed by Parliament had almost all been for the protection of the privileged few against the many; after that time they are predominantly for the protection of the nation as a whole against abuse and privilege. Instead of the ferocious defence of property, a spirit of sympathy and help to the oppressed begins to inspire legislation. The old revolutionary doctrine of the infinite perfectibility of mankind, which had set on fire the enthusiasm of Godwin, Shelley and Condorcet, passed in a milder and more reasonable form into the general imagination of the age.
    • "The Civilization of the Nineteenth Century: Its Greatness and the Flaw which led to its Collapse", p. 44
  • Whether or no man might be made perfect, he certainly might be made better and happier than he is; and the conscious pursuit of that object became an accepted source of inspiration to politics and literature. With it went the conception that the necessary condition of the pursuit was freedom: set man free, let him have room to move and external conditions which do not starve or cramp him, and human nature of itself will strive to rise higher. This spirit shows itself in almost all the best English fiction of the period, from romantics like the Brontës, and realists, like George Eliot, to satirists, like Dickens and Thackeray. It had been utterly lacking in Fielding and Smollett, and even in Jane Austen. It shows itself in the immense increase of charitable institutions, of religious missions, of societies for the education of the people. There is no question of hypocrisy. To suppose there is, is the mere petulance of jealously. Shelley's or Gladstone's love of moral improvement was just as genuine as Falstaff's love of sack. But an age of moral earnestness seems in our own day to have been succeeded by an age of relaxation; and one can see in, for instance, such a book as Mr. Strachey's Eminent Victorians that the moral earnestness of Gladstone or Dr. Arnold is felt by the author to be a hateful quality and not easily to be forgiven.
    • "The Civilization of the Nineteenth Century: Its Greatness and the Flaw which led to its Collapse", pp. 45-46
  • [T]he Victorian Age... cared more for life than for thought; consequently it produced abundant and fine life, while its thought was comparatively unambitious and aimed mainly at serving the practical purposes of life. It cared intensely for morals and little for metaphysics; a good deal for religion and scarcely at all for theology... It had an immense faith, a faith in goodness, in duty, in the future of mankind.
    • "The Civilization of the Nineteenth Century: Its Greatness and the Flaw which led to its Collapse", p. 51
  • There ought to be some sanction behind international law, and the League of Nations is there to supply it... The problem is not how to concentrate somewhere sufficient force to quell a peace-breaker—that already exists; it is to produce a general state of mind in which the possessors of force will really use it for maintaining the general peace and not merely for supporting their own interests.
    • "The Felt Need. The Three Principles of the Covenant: Conference, Law, Sanctions", pp. 71-72
  • [I]f we lay at all too much stress on the need of warlike preparations for quelling the peace-breaker, we find ourselves on a very slippery slope. ... It is all a perpetuation of war, not a planting of peace: a hardening in old error, not a change of heart. One of the most advanced French advocates of the League once said to me that the true guarantee of peace in Europe was a strong French Army and a strong British Navy. The sort of man who thinks that is the sort of man who ought never to be allowed to touch international affairs. Remove that implication. Accept freely, and put into practice, the principles of genuine and equal Disarmament, and then your preparation for Sanctions is perfectly right. To put crushing Sanctions in the hands of two particular Powers, or of an alliance of certain highly armed Powers, would be a crime against humanity.
    • "The Felt Need. The Three Principles of the Covenant: Conference, Law, Sanctions", pp. 88-89
  • The real difficulty of the situation lies in the practical working of the coercion. Let it be laid down that the League as a whole will take the necessary action, economic or military. Well and good; but the League is not a military or economic unit and possesses no central executive. It is a society of independent sovereign states, their independence somewhat modified by treaty obligations and a habit of regular conference, but none the less real. I doubt whether the League as a League could declare war or wage war. The force would have to be supplied by each state separately, of its own deliberate will. ... One cannot expect Siam or Canada to mobilize because one Balkan state attacks another. And if the duty is not incumbent on all members, who is to decide what members are to undertake it? The Council has no absolute authority. No nation will be eager to subject itself to the strain and sacrifice of coercive action unless its own interests are sharply involved. But the question is whether, in a world that increasingly detests war and mistrusts force as a instrument of international policy, the various national Parliaments or Governments will in general have sufficient loyalty to the League, sufficient public spirit and sense of reality, to be ready to face the prospects of war not in defence of their own frontiers or immediate national interests, but simply to maintain the peace of the world.
    • "The Felt Need. The Three Principles of the Covenant: Conference, Law, Sanctions", p. 91
  • It is hard on many people, on naval and military circles, on Philistine newspapers, on smart society in London, just as it is hard on similar circles in Berlin, to have to give up their favourite dreams and admit themselves definitely defeated, defeated even in the Tory Cabinet, by dull middle-class pacifism. ... all parties are pledged to the League...all Prime Ministers and ex-Prime Ministers support candidate for Parliament dares to oppose it openly.
    • "The World Inside the Covenant: The Internal Flaws", pp. 101-102
  • In sum it seems to me that the Covenant, though not without certain ambiguities and loop-holes, is on the whole a wonderfully successful instrument, flexible, comprehensive, and exactly directed to the main evil which it was desired to cure. It does aim straight at the heart of the international anarchy; and it does so by a method which is calculated to stir up the very minimum of opposition. Its normal sanction is the public opinion of the world; its most effective weapon publicity. You cannot punish a nation; you cannot even coerce by force any moderately strong nation. But you can exert a very severe pressure on even the strongest to mend its ways by simply putting a question to its representative at the Assembly, or at one of the permanent Commissions, and publishing its reply.
    • "The World Inside the Covenant: The Internal Flaws", p. 131


  • The Commonwealth is the Sermon on the Mount reduced to political terms.
    • The Round Table (27 December 1930), quoted in Gilbert Murray, An Unfinished Autobiography, eds. Jean Smith and Arnold Toynbee (1960), p. 181
  • The great War was certainly not caused by financial interests. ... All the international financiers that I know are terrified of war and revolution, and anxious for things to work as smoothly as possible.
    • Letter to Shirland Quin (7 November 1932), quoted in Gilbert Murray, An Unfinished Autobiography, eds. Jean Smith and Arnold Toynbee (1960), p. 114
  • I do not think that war has much to with capitalism and socialism.
    • Letter to a member of the Oxford University Anti-War Society (22 December 1933), quoted in Gilbert Murray, An Unfinished Autobiography, eds. Jean Smith and Arnold Toynbee (1960), p. 114
  • I am one of those many millions who believed, and believe still, that, amid all sorts of confusions and inconsistencies, the World War was on our part essentially a fight for justice in international relations, as against naked Machpolitik; an attempt, in Mr. Gladstone's words, to “establish public right as the common law of Europe.” If the League of Nations stands, the War will have been justified, or at least compensated; if it comes to nothing, our whole action will have been a series of vain cruelties and blunders.
    • Letter to The Times (23 May 1935), p. 12
  • [T]he action of Italy towards Abyssinia threatens us with a catastrophe. ... One member of the League is openly planning against another member, under the eyes of all Europe, aggression of the most extreme kind, and is claiming the right actually to prohibit any consideration of the matter by the League. If the League submits there is no law left between nations. The Covenant is gone. ... I do not see what will be left of the Covenant, or what will remain to show that the Great War was anything but a battle of kites and crows, if Signor Mussolini is allowed to set his will above the law and make war as if no League existed.


  • I am always a little surprised at the common habit of attributing “the failure of the League” to small defects in the Covenant or to the timidities of the French and British Governments in 1931 and after; the primary cause was obviously the disunion of the Great Powers on whose union everything depended. America withdrew; Japan turned traitor and was too strong to coerce; Italy after a period of blackmail went over to the enemy. Whether Britain and France together might still have saved the situation is of course open to doubt; I am disposed to think they could, but one must not forget how great the difficulties were.
    • Letter to The Times (9 November 1944), p. 5


  • I am pleased with the election result. Nearly all the educated people I meet are Liberal, but vote Conservative.
    • Letter to Rosalind Murray after the Conservative victory in the general election (May 1955), quoted in Duncan Wilson, Gilbert Murray OM (1987), p. 391
  • [I had] signed the letter of protest against Britain joining the war [but] then doubted, and was finally convinced the other way by Grey's speech on August 3rd [1914].
    • Letter to Bertrand Russell (20 August 1955), quoted in Gilbert Murray, An Unfinished Autobiography, eds. Jean Smith and Arnold Toynbee (1960), p. 110
  • Of course I cannot work as I did. Still, there has never been a day, I suppose, when I have failed to give thought to the work for peace and for Hellenism. The one is a matter of life and death for all of us; the other of maintaining amid all the dust of modern industrial life our love and appreciation of eternal values.
    • 90th birthday broadcast, 'Unfinished Battle' (c. 2 January 1956), quoted in Duncan Wilson, Gilbert Murray OM (1987), p. 399
  • First it is a question of International Law. The UN was intended to have a means of enforcing the law. It has no such means. Egypt and Israel have been breaking the law for 9 years without correction. Secondly, the Nasser danger is much more serious than a local friction. The real danger is we should be faced by a coalition of Arab, Muslim and anti-Western states, led nominally by Egypt but really by Russia. ... Such a danger, the Prime Minister saw, must be stopped.
    • Letter to the editor of Time and Tide during the Suez Crisis (10 November 1956), quoted in Duncan Wilson, Gilbert Murray OM (1987), p. 393
  • There was the Temperance cause, a plain duty if there ever was one. ... There was the emancipation of women. ... There was Home Rule for Ireland. There was the protection of all who were, or were likely to be, oppressed: Russians, Egyptians, subject nations and coloured races and of course 'the poor' everywhere. I was more than ready to absorb this atmosphere. I had learnt philosophic radicalism from J. S. Mill and much the same faith in a more idealist and less critical form from Shelley.
    • An Unfinished Autobiography, eds. Jean Smith and Arnold Toynbee (1960), p. 100

Quotes about Gilbert Murray

  • In Athens and Rome...every ultimate problem was theirs, as it is ours, and the more you open your soul to their appeal the more profound your pity for stumbling humanity, the more eager your effort to bind together the family of man rather than to loosen it. It is no blind chance that has led one of our greatest scholars to devote his life to the ideal of the League of Nations. Rather it is his desire to make his contribution to redeeming the failure of those very Greeks whom he, more perhaps than any living man, has helped this modern world to understand.
    • Stanley Baldwin, speech to the Classical Association (8 January 1926), quoted in On England, and Other Addresses (1926), pp. 115-116
  • Gilbert Murray...delivered a series of lectures in 1928 whose general burden was to affirm a passionate belief in the League of Nations, and yet which contained penetrating, even lethal, criticisms of it. He noted the weakness of conciliation as a means of solving international disputes... To solve this problem he proposed that all nations should agree to submit disputes to compulsory arbitration by the International Court, so that "if things came to the worst, the last resort would be Law and not Force". But here Murray was relying once more on belief in the power of parchment, for a determined and unscrupulous aggressor was hardly likely to honour its obligations to submit to arbitration when force offered more certain results... Murray ruled out the use of the most powerful and readily available armed forces at the disposal of the League... First disarm the French army and the Royal Navy, in order that all nations should be equally weak and then, wrote Murray, sanctions become both a genuine expression of the will of the community of nations and a safe and a necessary part of the Covenant. It was an argument of less than Murray's usual clarity.
  • The to induce the nations to disarm while they were afraid to do so, because, as Murray all too clearly perceived, "war can still be made, and there is no certainty that the nation attacked will be defended by the rest of the League". Nor were stricter and more elaborate obligations to support the League the answer...because, Murray pointed out, the present obligations were perfectly adequate, if only – if only – the members of the League lived up to them. That a man like Gilbert Murray could see so plainly the paradox on which the League of Nations was insecurely built, and yet remain the League's wholehearted supporter and propagandist, indicates how easy it was for faith in the League to blind the faithful... For the League of Nations itself the Japanese aggression raised as an urgent practical issue that fundamental question of power – military and naval power – which had so troubled Gilbert Murray in theory, but which had always been ignored or played down by most other moralising internationalists. Here was a bandit state engaged in open robbery; now therefore was the time for the law-abiding powers of the world to uphold the law against the wrongdoer; to act as policemen. Unfortunately the policemen had been persuaded to give up their truncheons.
  • I had got to know him very well as Vice-Chairman of the Executive Committee of the League of Nations Union. He was a most delightful colleague, charming as a companion and invaluable as an assistant.
  • Gilbert Murray, just retired at Boar's Hill as Regius Professor of Greek, became a friend. As a young man, Bernard Shaw had taken him as the model for Adolphus Cusins, the hero of Major Barbara. A tall courtly Edwardian, with the exquisite diction of his period, he was an active Liberal, and a supporter of the League of Nations... All these men [Louis de Brouckere, Camille Huysmans, Martin Tranmael, Otto Renner, General Koerner, Leon Blum] had a serene humanity and a broad culture which is all too rare in modern politics. They were also gentlemen in the truest sense of the word. The only man I knew in Britain with a similar quality was Gilbert Murray.
  • Dr. Murray was like Wilson a professor, a Liberal, an idealist. ... Because of the confusion of thought that has surrounded the word ‘pacifist’ he was often thought of as a non-resister, a believer in unilateral disarmament, whereas those who know him and have studied his speeches realize that he was from the first a believer in League action and in clear-sighted preparations for sanctions. Distinguished as his services have been, the label ‘doctrinaire’ has been affixed to his policies.
  • I find him oppressively virtuous and intellectual. He is too self-conscious about it. There is something feminine in his conviction that he is right and that all who differ from [him] have a touch of wickedness about them. He would make an admirable Father Confessor to a Nunnery.
    • MacCallum Scott's diary (27 September 1927), quoted in Michael Bentley, The Liberal Mind 1914–29 (1977), p. 171