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Classic Classicists

History of Classical Scholarship

by U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, translated by Alan Harris, edited with an introduction and notes by Hugh Lloyd-Jones
Johns Hopkins University Press, 189 pp., $20.00

There is no lack of books that explore the influence of classical, particularly Greek, civilization on the thought, art, and literature of succeeding ages, including our own; general surveys abound and detailed studies, like the two books on the Greeks and the Victorians recently reviewed in this journal,1 appear with some regularity. The history of classical scholarship, however, is an entirely different and less attractive subject: it deals not with the writers, thinkers, artists, historians, and statesmen who have adapted the classical legacy for their own purposes but with the scholars who, versed in the ancient languages and at home in the minutiae of ancient history, have toiled away at the tasks of establishing and interpreting the corrupt and difficult texts handed down through the centuries, of collecting and classifying the vast agglomerations of historical and archaeological data.

This subject is clearly not best-seller material, and it also demands considerable expertise in the scholar rash enough to attempt it; small wonder that, as Hugh Lloyd-Jones says in the introduction to this volume, “There is no adequate short account of the history of classical scholarship written in the English language.” John E. Sandys’s three-volume History of Classical Scholarship is a work of reference, a sort of biographical dictionary; Rudolph Pfeiffer’s two volumes, excellent as far as they go, cover only scholarship in antiquity “to the end of the Hellenistic age” and (in much less space) the years 1300 to 1850.2 And yet the subject has its own importance and deserves adequate treatment. For it is the patient labor of the scholars that fixes not only the texts but also the standard interpretations; it is their preferences, prejudices, and emphases that shape the literary public opinion of the age, and it is from their work that the free adaptations of the creative artist derive.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s book was published in 1921 when the author, over seventy years old, was recognized internationally as the most distinguished living classicist; he could survey the work of his predecessors from Olympian heights of experience and achievement. There was hardly a field of classical learning in which he was not expert; his written work was an awe-inspiring edifice of original interpretation, based on immense knowledge and couched in clear and lively prose. His right to judge his predecessors was well earned and universally acknowledged; he used it with an authority that won an admiring but critical judgment from Pfeiffer, his successor in the field: “It is a very subjective review of classical scholars made by a great master who calls up the dead heroes of the past from the other world and praises or blames them.”

Subjectivity however is not easily avoided; Pfeiffer’s own History, as Lloyd-Jones points out elsewhere, “takes a distinctive colour from his Catholicism.”3 Wilamowitz was Prussian and Protestant to the core; as a young man he served in the Second Guards at the siege of Paris in 1871, and he was to lose a brilliant son, Tycho, author of an epoch-making book on Sophocles, on the Russian front in the First World War. He was a dedicated exponent of the German historical (and developmental) approach to art, literature, and philosophy and he was also the living embodiment of the German ideal of Altertumswissenschaft, a discipline combining literary, historical, and archaeological expertise to produce a “scientific” understanding of the ancient world. Such a program, as Lloyd-Jones points out, could only be based on specialized studies, often organized as corporate projects: “Numerous scholars, many of them nameless, toiled like Nibelungen under the direction of gigantic figures like Boeckh and later Mommsen.” And gigantic figures like Wilamowitz somehow mastered the product of these scholarly factories as a means of understanding antiquity wie es eigentlich gewesen.

Brilliant as the results were in his interpretation of some of the literary texts (the three-volume edition of Euripides’ Heracles, for example, is still, though superseded in some details, essential reading), the rigidly historical approach sometimes led him astray. The prose of that most wily and elusive writer, Plato, is used to establish biography and chronology, and Pindar’s point of view and personal experience are deduced from first-person statements which since the work of Elroy Bundy everyone recognizes as conventions of the epinician genre. Lloyd-Jones emphasizes the dangers of regarding “every facet of a culture from a historical standpoint”; one of these dangers is “an excessive preoccupation with development.” And that preoccupation is not entirely absent from Wilamowitz’s History; scholarship seems to progress steadily (with occasional lurches and slowdowns) to the Wissenschaft of the twentieth century, in which “scientific scholarship has been steadily adapting itself to the age of large-scale enterprise.” (How he would have loved the Ibycus computer system!)

With all its faults, this is still the most useful introduction to the subject and, in an age when more scholars pass examinations in German than can actually read it, this translation is amply justified. The Regius Professor supplies explanatory and biographical footnotes and, in an eloquent introduction, sets the work in its historical context. He has also brought it up to date with a short but pungent survey of the fifty years that have elapsed since Wilamowitz wrote, a task for which, as is clear from the informative essays on his predecessors and contemporaries now collected in one volume,4 he is eminently suited.

  1. 1

    The Victorians and Ancient Greece, by Richard Jenkyns (Harvard University Press, 1980), and The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain, by Frank M. Turner (Yale University Press, 1981). Reviewed in The New York Review, June 11, 1981.

  2. 2

    John E. Sandys, History of Classical Scholarship, reprint of 1920 edition (Hafner Press, New York, 1967); Rudolph Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship from the Beginning to the End of the Hellenistic Age (Oxford University Press, 1968) and History of Classical Scholarship from 1300 to 1850 (Oxford University Press, 1976).

  3. 3

    Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Classical Survivals: The Classics in the Modern World (Duckworth, London, 1982), p.20.

  4. 4

    Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Blood for the Ghosts: Classical Influences in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Duckworth, London, 1982).

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