Benjamin Farrington

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A 1940 photograph of Farrington as he appeared on The Challenge of Socialism

Benjamin Farrington (1891–1974) was an Irish scholar and professor of Classics, teaching in Ireland (1916–1920), South Africa (1920–1935), and Great Britain (1935–1956). Although his academic career spanned several disciplines, he is most well known for his contributions to the history of Greek science. Moreover, within the development of the discipline his books were some of the first written in the English language that focused specifically on Greek science.[1] In addition to his professional academic career he was also active in socialist politics, using his intellectual capabilities to speak and write on it. While beginning his academic career in South Africa in 1920 he became heavily involved in the Irish Republican Association of South Africa. In the process he wrote several articles for local South African newspapers about the need for Ireland to separate from England. In addition he was instrumental in forming the Irish Peace Conference in Paris in 1922.[2] Such political commitments inevitably influenced his teaching style, giving him the reputation in South Africa of being an intellectual Marxist.[3] However, from the perspective of some critics, his Marxist commitments overshadowed his scholarly work, heavily tainting his work. One of his better known pamphlets on socialism, written in 1940, is The Challenge of Socialism.[4]

Academic career[edit]

Benjamin Farrington received a Classics degree from University College in Cork, Ireland, and then a degree in Middle English from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Then, from 1915–1917 he pursued a master's degree in English from University College, completing his thesis in 1917 on Shelley's translation from the Greek.[5] While finishing his thesis he also served as an assistant professor in Classics at Queen's University in Belfast from 1916–1920. In 1920 he moved to South Africa to teach at the University of Cape Town, serving as Lecturer in Greek (1920–1922), Senior Lecturer in Classics (1922–1930), and Professor of Latin (1930–1935). In 1935 he moved to England to become Lecturer in Classics at the University of Bristol (1935–1936), and then Professor of Classics at University College, Swansea (1936–1956), where he taught until his retirement.[6]

Critical reception[edit]

We are tantalized because his case is so nearly good, and might have been very good. If only he would avoid ridiculous overstatements bound to alienate,... Lastly, the book annoys, because ... it abounds in misleading statements or half-truths.

— W. K. C. Guthrie, review of Science and Politics in the Ancient World, The Classical Review, 54(1940): 34–5.

There is enough truth in Professor Farrington's main contention to cause one to wish that his book had been more fairly conceived. Let it be granted that politics and vested religious interests have often opposed the scientific spirit;... Yet it remains true that Greek humanism is as notable an achievement as Greek science.... Science is the chief foe of superstition, but to suppose that science alone will ever achieve man's good is itself a grandiose superstition.

— William C. Greene, review of Science and Politics in the Ancient World, ''Classical Philology, 36(1941): 201–2.

Professor Farrington, in this book, conclusively shows that the Popular Superstition which in the Ancient World formed so effective an obstacle to the progress of science was a superstition which was, for the most part, deliberately thought out by the 'patricians' and deliberately foisted by them upon the 'plebeians.

— M. F. Ashley Montagu, review of Science and Politics in the Ancient World, Isis, 33(1941): 270–3.

Farrington's Greek Science thus seems at once very stimulating and very biased, excellent in many respects but to be read with a critical mind. Until a better book on the subject comes along—and that may not be soon—it will fill a considerable need for a readable work dealing with the science of the ancient Greeks.

— Bentley Glass, review of Greek Science: Its Meaning for Us, Quarterly Review of Biology, 30 (1955): 281.

An explanation for the decline of ancient science has been put forward by the historian of science, Benjamin Farrington: The mercantile tradition, which led to Ionian science, also led to a slave economy. The owning of slaves was the road to wealth and power. Polycrates’ fortifications were built by slaves. Athens in the time of Pericles, Plato and Aristotle had a vast slave population. All the brave Athenian talk about democracy applied only to a privileged few. What slaves characteristically perform is manual labor. But scientific experimentation is manual labor, from which the slaveholders are preferentially distanced; while it is only the slaveholders – politely called ‘gentle-men’ in some societies – who have the leisure to do science. Accordingly, almost no one did science. The Ionians were perfectly able to make machines of some elegance. But the availability of slaves undermined the economic motive for the development of technology. Thus the mercantile tradition contributed to the great Ionian awakening around 600 B.C., and, through slavery, may have been the cause of its decline some two centuries later. There are great ironies here."

— Carl Sagan, Cosmos Chapter 7, Random House, New York (1980)


  1. ^ Lloyd, G. E. R. (1976). "Benjamin Farrington, 1891–1974". South African Historical Journal. 26: 160.
  2. ^ Baruch, Hirson (2001). The Cape Town Intellectuals: Ruth Schecter and her circle, 19078-1934. Johannesburg, South Africa: Witwatersrand University Press. pp. 124–137.
  3. ^ Atkinson, John (2010). "Benjamin Farrington: Cape Town and the Shaping of a Public Intellectual". South African Historical Journal. 62 (4): 685. doi:10.1080/02582473.2010.519938. hdl:11427/28188.
  4. ^ Farrington, Benjamin (1946). The Challenge of Socialism. Dublin, Ireland: New Books.
  5. ^ Atkinson, John (2010). "Benjamin Farrington: Cape Town and the Shaping of a Public Intellectual". South African Historical Journal. 62 (4): 672. doi:10.1080/02582473.2010.519938. hdl:11427/28188.
  6. ^ Lloyd, G. E. R. (1976). "Benjamin Farrington, 1891–1974". Archives Internationales d'Histoire des Sciences. 26: 159.


  • Science in Antiquity (1936, reprinted in 1969).
  • The Civilisation of Greece and Rome (1938, Victor Gollancz).
  • Science and Politics in the Ancient World (1939, 1946).
  • Greek Science: Its Meaning for Us; Part I (1944, reprinted with Part II in 1953, paperback 2000 ISBN 0-85124-631-1).
  • Head and Hand in Ancient Greece: Four Studies in the Social Relations of Thought (1947, paperback 2001 ISBN 0-85124-654-0).
  • Greek Science: Its Meaning for Us; Part II (1949, reprinted with Part I in 1953, paperback 1981 ISBN 0-85124-288-X, 2000 ISBN 0-85124-631-1).
  • Francis Bacon, Philosopher of Industrial Science (1951, 1973 ISBN 0-8383-1685-9, reprint 1979 ISBN 0-374-92706-5).
  • Francis Bacon, Pioneer of Planned Science (1963, 1969 ISBN 0-298-16449-3)
  • The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (1964 ISBN 0-85323-310-1, paperback 1966 ISBN 0-226-23885-7).
  • Lucretius, editor (1965).
  • What Darwin Really Said (1966 ISBN 0-8052-3282-6, paperback 1996 ISBN 0-8052-1062-8).
  • The Faith of Epicurus (1967).
  • The Philosophy of Francis Bacon: An essay on its development from 1603 to 1609, with new translations of fundamental texts (1970).
  • Samuel Butler and the Odyssey (1974 ISBN 0-8383-1777-4).


  • Communist Party of Ireland, "Some Famous Irish Communists: Benjamin Farrington (1891–1974)", Communist Party of Ireland, (accessed 18 June 2006).
  • Needham, Joseph, "Preface" in Farrington, Benjamin, Greek Science: Its Meaning for Us. Nottingham, Spokesman (Russell House), 2000.

External links[edit]