Problem in Greek Ethics. WITH: Two autograph letters signed.

John Addington SYMONDS   |   Richard F. BURTON

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(BURTON, Richard F.) SYMONDS, John Addington. A Problem in Greek Ethics. Privately printed, 1883. Octavo, contemporary full green calf sympathetically rebcaked in calf-gilt, red morocco spine label, raised bands, original marbled endpapers, top edge gilt. WITH: SYMONDS, John Addington. Autograph letter signed. WITH: BURTON, Richard F. Autograph letter signed. Symonds ALS: Three pages on one folded leaf, measuring 7 inches by 4 1/2 inches folded; Burton ALS: Four pages, each measuring 6 3/4 by 5 inches. Housed together in matching chemises and one custom clamshell box.

Limited first edition, number 6 of only 10 privately printed copies, of “the first extended historical and literary study of homosexuality in English,” the copy of explorer and author Richard F. Burton; together with a fine signed autograph presentation letter from author John Addington Symonds to Burton and with an unpublished four-page signed autograph letter from Burton to Symonds—written just two months before Burton’s death—acknowledging receipt of the book and discussing its content. With a number of ink emendations to the book, presumably in Symonds’ hand, along with pencil underlining and occasional marginal notations presumably in Burton’s hand.

One of Symonds' "most important works, A Problem in Greek Ethics… was written in 1873, though not printed until 1883, in an edition of ten copies. It is the first extended historical and literary study of homosexuality in English. In 1890 Symonds sent a copy to Sir Richard Burton, after reading the latter's Terminal Essay to The Thousand Nights and a Night published in 1888," which featured a 14,000-word section entitled "Pederasty" (Rictor Norton). Problem is recognized today as a groundbreaking work, one of the first to argue for toleration of homosexuality—albeit conflating it with pederasty—in part because of homosexuality's status as "a social phenomenon of one of the most brilliant periods of human culture"—that is, Ancient Greece. Symonds writes near the beginning of A Problem in Greek Ethics: "The immediate subject of the ensuing inquiry will… be that mixed form of paiderastia [i.e. pederasty] upon which the Greeks prided themselves… In treating of this unique product of their civilization, I shall use the term Greek Love, understanding thereby a passionate and enthusiastic attachment subsisting between man and youth recognized by society and protected by opinion, which… did not degenerate into licentiousness."

The autograph letter from Symonds presenting this copy of A Problem in Greek Ethics to Burton, written on letterhead marked "Am Hof, Davos Platz, Switzerland," reads: "August 15 1890. Dear Sir Richard, As I mentioned to you that I had written an essay on paederastia among the Greeks, I am going so far upon the path of impudence as to send you a copy of it. It was composed some while ago, before I had seen either Meier's article in the Leipzig Encyclopaedie or your own Terminal Essay. If you look at it, you will see that I have treated the subject from a literary & historical point of view, without attending to the psychology & physiology of the phenomenon. Since I wrote this essay I have been able to add a great deal to it, which, if I ever dared to publish it, would go to confirm my theory about the Dorians (p:23), & to make the discussion more interesting. If you do not care to read, or to keep, the opuscle, please send it back, as I have not many copies. Otherwise take it as a very little sign of my respect for you; & anyhow believe me sincerely yours, John Addington Symonds."

It makes much sense that Symonds would have reached out to Burton on this sensitive topic. The "Terminal Essay" that Symonds refers to was published in 1888 as Volume X of The Thousand Nights and a Night. This "famous, or notorious, 'Terminal Essay'… stands out as one of the most important products of 19th-century scholarship… [T]he most read and quoted section is that on pederasty, in which Burton discusses homosexuality… probably the first such discussion to appear before the general public" (Rice, 588-89).

Burton responded to Symonds' letter and book with a lengthy four-page autograph letter, featuring his autograph Arabic "Hadji Abdullah" heading, which reads: "Maloja Upper Engadine, August 18 / 90. Dear Mr. Symonds, On the evening after I had the pleasure of meeting you, the 'Problem' found its way to me. I have still two [feet] up which accounts for blunders. Gout is stubborn for too immediate action. I was to start early next morning, I was funky about the weather — quid plura? all this circumbendibus to usher in an apology for not answering yours of Augt. 15. However two days of exceedingly pleasant driving (including one break-down welcome for its novelty) landed me at Maloggia, the ill-omened term evidently a congener of Madora, euphemistically and Hispanico written Maloja. And now for the 'Problem.' Had you not told me that Meier was then unknown to you I should simply have referred your treatment of the question to his inspiration. Specially in the case of the Dorians the consensus is wonderful. I am so glad that you are holding to the opuscle and hope that you will see fit now to print if not to publish it. Especially interesting it would be to trace the gradual degradation of the Achilles – Patroclus ideality through the Latin writing and down to Shakespeare. Will you kindly give me the name of the French (? German ?) physicist who explains Le Vice by a third sex. It would correspond with my masculo-feminine temperament. I feel most flattered by your sending me No. 6. It will be most useful to me if I ever carry out my design of producing a detailed study of paiderastia [written in Greek] ancient and modern. We are expecting Mr. and Mrs. Stanley today and I look forward to meeting him after some 6 or 7 years. Prof. Oscar Browning is here and lastly her Grace of Leinster who is the Yankeeist article I ever saw out of Boston. Dr. Baker asks me to thank you most cordially for the interest you t[ook] in his History and to regret that Circumstance the miscreator [quoting a line from his own Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, abbreviated from Childe Harold] preventing him passing the evening with you. Believe me ever Sincerely yours, R.F. Burton." Burton's discussion of his health here foreshadows his death two months later at the age of 69.

In 1896 Symonds published an essay arising out of A Problem in Greek Ethics entitled A Problem in Modern Ethics, Being an Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion Addressed Especially to Medical Psychologists and Jurists, a more circumspect treatment of the subject of homosexuality which explicitly references this exchange with Burton. In that work, he writes that "Burton's acquaintance with what he called 'le Vice' was principally confined to Oriental nations. He started on his enquiries, imbued with vulgar errors; and he never weighed the psychical theories examined by me in the foregoing section of this Essay. Nevertheless, he was led to surmise a crasis of the two sexes in persons subject to sexual inversion. Thus, he came to speak of 'the third sex.' During conversations I had with him less than three months before his death, he told me that he had begun a general history of 'le Vice': and at my suggestion he studied Ulrichs and Krafft-Ebing. It is to be lamented that life failed before he could apply his virile and candid criticism to those theories, and compare them with the facts and observations he had independently collected." In that same essay, Symonds also references his own Problem in Greek Ethics, which he describes as "composed by an Englishman in English. The anonymous author was not acquainted with Meier's article before he wrote, and only came across it long after he had printed his own essay." Symonds did not publicly claim authorship of A Problem in Greek Ethics until 1908 when he published it with significant changes from the 1883 text and with the same subtitle as his 1896 Problem in Modern Ethics. Symonds notes in the Preface to that 1908 edition: "The following treatise on Greek Love was written in the year 1873, when my mind was occupied with my Studies of Greek Poets. I printed ten copies of it privately in 1883." This work led to Symonds' later collaboration with Havelock Ellis on the groundbreaking work Sexual Inversion, first published in German in 1896, then in English in 1897—four years after Symonds' death—which inserted A Problem in Greek Ethics as an appendix. Symonds' close friend and literary executor Horatio Forbes Brown arranged to have this work published with Havelock Ellis listed as the sole author, fearing the atmosphere of scandal and repression surrounding homosexuality in the wake of Oscar Wilde's trial and imprisonment two years earlier.

The Pierpont Morgan Library holds three of the original ten copies, numbered 1, 9 and 10 on their original wrappers; The British Library is in possession of Number 7. Although this copy has been rebound without the original wrappers, Burton's letter makes clear that this copy was "No. 6" of those original 10.

Symonds' letter is printed in The Letters of John Addington Symonds (Schueller & Peters, 3:488). A footnote there states: "Burton's copy [i.e. this copy of A Problem in Greek Ethics] eventually came into H.F. Brown's possession." This would be Horatio Robert Forbes Brown (1854-1926). "While [a student] at [Clifton College] Horatio Brown made the acquaintance of John Addington Symonds, who gave lectures on the Greek poets…. Thus began one of the closest and most formative friendships of Brown's life. Symonds replaced the father that Brown had lost, and Brown took the place of the son that Symonds never had. Symonds appointed Brown his literary executor, and on Symonds's death in 1893 Brown inherited all his private papers. Because of its homosexual content, Brown made only very discreet use of this material in his two books on Symonds… and in his will he left instructions that all papers in his possession were to be destroyed. The only exception was Symonds's autobiography, which he bequeathed to the London Library with an embargo against publication of 50 years" (ODNB). How the book and letters apparently made their way back to Symonds and "eventually came into Brown's possession" is not yet known, but it is reasonable to trace the ownership of the three items back to Brown. Laid into the book is the original auction catalogue description from 1933, seven years after Brown's death, when this triad of items was offered as one lot, from the library of Edward Dean Richmond. We believe that these three items purchased at that auction have remained in the possession of only one family until this time.

Symonds letter fine with glue remnants and paper mounting strips on blank verso of last page; Burton letter with expert paper restoration along folds, small expertly repaired tear to upper corner of pp. 2-3 with loss to three words; book interior clean, text complete, with title page and two preliminary leaves excised at an early date (as the 1933 auction description notes their absence), contemporary green calf boards expertly restored. A unique and important triad.

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