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A JHU researcher stumbled upon a copy of the 'A Problem in Greek Ethics,' by British scholar John Addington Symonds, printed in 1883.

It’s an unassuming little book, bound in olive green leather and stamped with gilt. Seven inches tall and less than 5 inches wide, it’s small enough to be concealed in a coat pocket.

Who would have thought that an 1883 essay with the dry-as-dust title “A Problem in Greek Ethics" could create such a stir?

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A curator at Johns Hopkins University recently stumbled across an extremely rare copy of the 19th-century essay by John Addington Symonds that helped lay the foundation for the modern gay rights movement — a copy that for more than 130 years was thought to be lost.

It is now on view at the university, along with some letters, photographs and copies of books from Symonds’ library.

The discovery establishes Hopkins as a national center of Symonds scholarship, a professor said. And it helps resurrect the reputation of a gay rights pioneer whose work inspired the writer Oscar Wilde’s famous defense against charges of “gross indecency.”

“Symonds is unjustly neglected today,” said Shane Butler, director of the university’s Classics Research Lab. "He was very famous in his own lifetime. Both he and Oscar Wilde were household names.

“But even if Symonds was forgotten after he died, his [unsigned] essay wasn’t. Pirated copies were passed hand to hand and read throughout the 20th century. The essay has been enormously influential in the struggle for gay rights.”

Photo of John Addington Symonds in "Queer Connections: The Library of John Addington Symonds," an exhibit at the Eisenhower Library of Symonds' letters and books.
Photo of John Addington Symonds in "Queer Connections: The Library of John Addington Symonds," an exhibit at the Eisenhower Library of Symonds' letters and books. (Baltimore Sun)

The book is the centerpiece of the exhibit, “Queer Connections: The Library of John Addington Symonds,” on view through March 13 at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, 3400 N. Charles St. Once the exhibit closes, “A Problem in Greek Ethics” will be available in the library’s reading room.

“There’s something sacred about a book like this,” Butler said, “especially for queer students and gay faculty like myself. Just knowing that it’s there and being able to hold it and turn its pages is incredibly moving.”

The essay’s title is misleading, because the “problem” that Symonds describes isn’t intrinsic to Greek ethics. Instead, the author argues that the Victorians had a flawed understanding of the ancient world they professed to revere.

“The book’s premise is that British Victorians based their whole culture on the world of ancient Greece,” said Ryan Warwick, a doctoral student in classics who worked on the exhibit. “But in 19th-century England, homosexuality was illegal — while in ancient Greece, homosexuality was widely accepted and practiced and considered to be the root of their cultural greatness.”

It appears Symonds knew how inflammatory his ideas were. He had his essay printed privately and limited the run to 10 copies.

“He was afraid it would fall into the wrong hands,” said Gabrielle Dean, curator of rare books and manuscripts for Hopkins’ Sheridan Libraries.

Just five copies — all in the collections of libraries in the U.S. and the U.K. — were thought to have survived.

Gabrielle Dean, a curator for rare books and manuscripts at Johns Hopkins University, holds the lost sixth copy of a "A Problem in Greek Ethics" by John Addington Symonds.
Gabrielle Dean, a curator for rare books and manuscripts at Johns Hopkins University, holds the lost sixth copy of a "A Problem in Greek Ethics" by John Addington Symonds. (Baltimore Sun)

Dean discovered the sixth copy while helping students, in a course she taught with Butler, prepare an exhibit about books that were central to Symonds’ intellectual development.

”I was trying to verify the authenticity of Symonds’ handwriting by comparing the example we had to samples of his handwriting in other books,” Dean said.

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”I Googled ‘John Addington Symonds‘ handwriting’ and one of the hits was a brand-new listing for ‘A Problem in Greek Ethics’ from a rare book dealer.”

Dean presumes that the sixth copy had been privately owned before it went on the market in the fall. Once she and Butler got over their disbelief at their stroke of luck, they quickly obtained approval from library officials to purchase the book. (They would not disclose the price.)

”I was blown away when Gabrielle showed me the listing,” Butler said. “I assumed there had to be some sort of mistake. The odds of coming across something so incredibly rare are practically zero.”

Butler has been interested in Symonds since he was an undergraduate at Duke University in the early 1990s and found a reprint of “A Problem in Greek Ethics” in a used bookstore in North Carolina.

“I was a young gay man who was just out of the closet and I was a classics major,” he said. “Here was a book about how homosexuality was celebrated in ancient Greece and Rome. I had to have it.”

The more Butler learned about Symonds, the more fascinated he became.

Symonds was one of those larger-than-life personalities common to Victorian England. He was on a first-name basis with the leading thinkers of his day, from the explorer Sir Richard Burton to the poet Walt Whitman. (Symonds pointedly inquired about Whitman’s sexual practices, earning a rebuke from the author of “Leaves of Grass." Whitman replied that his correspondent’s inferences “are disavow’d by me & seem damnable.”)

For his part, Symonds seems to have known since puberty that he was sexually attracted to men. But like other closeted gay men of that era, he married a woman and fathered four daughters. Diagnosed with tuberculosis in his 20s, Symonds later moved his family to Switzerland in the belief that the bracing mountain air would improve his health.

His memoirs describe three significant same-sex relationships: a youthful romance with a choir boy, a long and intense sexual friendship with a former student and, finally, his liaison with the gondolier Angelo Fusato, whom he met on a trip to Venice.

So smitten was Symonds with Fusato that he arranged to hire the gondolier as a household employee — a pretext so transparent that even today, Warwick marvels at its outrageousness.

“Why do you need a gondolier on your staff,” Warwick asked, “when you’re living in the mountains of Switzerland?”

The two men lived together for the rest of Symonds’ life. Though he observed appearances for his family’s sake, his sexual orientation seems to have been an open secret.

Dean said that the author Robert Louis Stevenson used his friend Symonds as a partial model for the protagonist in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" — a novel about a man forced to ”hyde” his true nature by leading a double life.

Symonds was not flattered by being compared to a murderer. Dean said that after Symonds read the book, he sent Stevenson the following note:

”I would have liked Dr. Jekyll to go in for analysis,” Symonds wrote. “That would have been a much better ending, don’t you think?”

But Symonds’ ideas seem to have had the most significant impact on Wilde, with whom he exchanged a few letters.

“Previous generations have been captivated by Oscar Wilde the eloquent,” Warwick said. “Symonds was more of a bibliophile, a plodding scholar. But he’s doing all the work and tracking down all the citations that allow Oscar Wilde to make his famous speeches.

“Wilde made this big legalistic argument that he shouldn’t be on trial for sodomy because homosexuality has been a noble pursuit since antiquity. All of that is in ’The Problem With Greek Ethics,’ though rewritten and reprocessed by Wilde.”

Butler is glad that the lost sixth copy is once again publicly available, given its relevance to today’s LGBTQ community.

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”Symonds went through long periods of despair and shame and self-doubt,” he said. “But he always came back to the certainty that there was nothing wrong with him — there was something wrong with the world.

“It takes courage for LGBTQ kids to believe that today. To have believed that in 1883 was extraordinary.”

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