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Heroes of History

As most autobiographies suggest, people usually write about themselves when they have run out of other things to say. When physicians retire, they take up the history of medicine; and when historians approach the end of their career, they find themselves composing the annals of their universities or the obituaries of their colleagues. Until quite recently, the history of science was largely a pastime for scientists who had given up on their research, while the history of human scholarship was regarded as a narcissistic sideline, inappropriate for historians who were still in full possession of all their faculties. When, in the 1950s, it became evident that the Roman historian Arnaldo Momi-gliano was devoting much of his energy to the study of historiography, many of his colleagues openly lamented that he had turned away from what ought to have been his first responsibility, the history of the ancient world.

Because of its failure to engage the interest of scholars at the outset of their careers, the history of learning has, until recently, been something of an academic backwater. In 1976, for example, Rudolf Pfeiffer, the great editor of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus, published a History of Classical Scholarship covering the period 1300 to 1850. It offered an acute, but distinctly laconic, outline of a vast subject. It was politely reviewed by a young assistant professor at Princeton University, who hailed it as “the first real history of classical scholarship in the modern world,” but then went on to make clear that, in his view, the serious study of the field had barely begun. He conceded that there had been much valuable work on the humanist philology of the Renaissance era, but he suggested that the true history of classical scholarship from its beginnings in fourteenth-century Italy to its culmination in nineteenth-century Germany had yet to be written. What had been lacking was sustained engagement with the practice of the individual scholars themselves, their working habits, and their mental processes. The standard histories of learning tended to be mere biographical compendia, based on secondary sources and padded out with excerpts from the prefaces of scholarly works.

The need was for detailed monographs that would come to grips with the practice of scholarship itself by analyzing the working methods and achievements of individual textual critics, epigraphers, numismatists, archaeologists, and historians. The habits and conventions of scholarly life—reading, writing, publishing, and reviewing—had to be reconstructed and fitted into a larger social and intellectual context. This was a formidable task, which could only be attempted by those who combined the broad perspective of the cultural historian with the technical skills of the classical scholar. To write the history of the learned, in short, one had to be more learned than they were.1

Now, little more than twenty years later, the author of that youthful manifesto can look back at it with some satisfaction. As Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University, the Young Turk has become the doyen of the subject. Thanks to his advocacy and example, the history of scholarship is more widely, and more interestingly, practiced than ever before. What was once a peripheral theme has become an areaof intense activity and intellectual vitality.

Starting with the advantage, so unusual in the United States, of having learned Latin and Greek as a schoolboy, Anthony Grafton has developed into a polymath of great erudition and linguistic virtuosity. In numerous books and articles, he has illuminated the history of textual criticism, archaeology, antiquarianism, history, chronology, geography, astronomy, and sundry other dimensions of intellectual and scholarly life in the past six hundred years, not excluding forgery, charlatanism, and the history of the footnote. The objects of his study range from the fifteenth-century architect and humanist Leon Battista Alberti and the sixteenth- century scientist and astrologer Girolamo Cardano to the eighteenth-century Homeric scholar Friedrich August Wolf and the nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke. Above all, he is the author of a dense and demanding, but highly praised, intellectual biography of the most learned scholar of the early modern period, Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540–1609).2

Exceptionally for one so erudite, Grafton writes with enormous brio; and much of his work can be enjoyed and appreciated by readers with little Latin and less Greek. A few months ago, his achievement was recognized by the award of a Balzan Prize—the virtual equivalent for the humanities of a Nobel Prize for science.

What is it that makes the history of scholarship, particularly classical scholarship, so important a topic in the history of the West? Essentially, it is that the classical inheritance was central to the intellectual life of the early modern period and underpinned most of its literary, artistic, scientific, and philosophical achievements. The scholars who edited classical texts and published commentaries were crucial agents of cultural transmission; and it was through the lenses which they devised that the classical world was perceived.

Because their work was of immediate relevance to politicians and administrators, the status of scholars in the early modern period was very high. Grafton is particularly concerned to refute Jacob Burckhardt’s view that the painters, sculptors, and architects were the true giants of the Renaissance, whereas the scholars were mere midgets, notable only for their vanity and pedantry. In one of the chapters of Bring Out Your Dead, Grafton discusses the influence of classical models on the painting of Albrecht Dürer, and comments that “nowhere does the distance of Dürer’s world from our own come through more clearly than in the great artist’s desire to share the exalted status of a classical scholar.” In another, he describes how the studies of Roman military history and tactics by the Dutch scholar Justus Lipsius (1547–1606) were immediately put into practice by the army commander Maurice of Nassau. “It is bemusing,” he writes, “to see scholarship so firmly in possession of the role that science enjoys now, the source of powerful knowledge that statesmen most need.”

The centrality of classical scholarship to intellectual and practical endeavor is a theme that runs through Bring Out Your Dead. The book is a collection of fifteen miscellaneous essays on the history of scholars and scholarship. All but one of them has been previously published. In them, Grafton frequently reminds us that the early modern period was a time when scholarship was seldom pursued as an end in itself and that its agenda was determined by contemporary preoccupations.

First among these concerns was the need to educate an elite who would administer the public affairs of the state. For this, a training in classical rhetoric, the art of persuasion, was deemed essential. The humanist pedagogy of sixteenth-century Europe taught young men to speak and write in Latin. It was a single model of education which was common to the whole of Western Europe and it greatly facilitated international communication. Even in the later seventeenth century, writes Grafton, “the pursuit of eloquence was still a coherent and plausible as well as a pragmatic and useful enterprise.”

Classical history was equally important because it was believed to furnish moral and political examples of enduring relevance for those entrusted with the conduct of public business. The underlying assumption was that human nature did not change and that political situations could and did recur. The experience of the past, therefore, had a continuing relevance. As Joseph Scaliger wrote of the letters of Cicero, “If we change the names, we can take these letters as if they were made for us.”

In literature, classical models and motifs were of overwhelming importance, whether in poetry, drama, history writing, or literary criticism. In philosophy, classical texts were thought to enshrine ethical and political principles of eternal value. The great Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius advised his students, so Grafton tells us, to study the tragedies of Euripides, the comedies of Terence, and the Satires of Horace because they would find in them, “as in a mirror, the life and conduct of humanity.”

The visual arts of the Renaissance were totally dependent on close interaction with classical models. The architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the sculptor Donatello spent long hours excavating ruins and measuring Roman buildings. “By the end of the fifteenth century,” writes Grafton, “the classical monuments in Rome had become an essential stop on the itinerary of every promising artist and architect.” Artistic concerns helped to stimulate the great antiquarian movement in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy, to which Grafton devotes a splendid essay, enhanced by charming illustrations from a Princeton University Library manuscript, in which a Renaissance artist has attempted to visualize ancient Rome. Essential to this antiquarian enterprise was the comparison of evidence from literary texts with that from coins, artifacts, inscriptions, and the ruins of buildings. From such antiquarianism grew the modern notion that the monuments of the past should be preserved because of their historical importance. Flavio Biondo’s Roma Instaurata (“Rome Restored,” (1444–1446) and Pirro Ligorio’s Anteiquae Urbis Imago (“Image of the Ancient City,” 1561) are crucial documents in the history of the historical imagination.

Religion provided a further incentive for the investigation of the classical past. The Reformation stimulated a great debate into the nature of the early Christian Church. Protestants denied the claim of the Roman Church to be in the direct line of descent from the early Christians and even questioned whether Saint Peter had ever set foot in Rome. In response, the Counter-Reformation Church encouraged the excavation of the Roman catacombs where the early Christians had buried their dead; and the Vatican Librarian, Cesare Baronio, devoted his life to compiling an enormous history, the Annales Ecclesiastici, which set out the history of the Church in overwhelming detail. Pope Sixtus IV exorcised the Egyptian obelisks which the emperors had brought to Rome as proof of their power and rededicated them as Christian monuments. But the idea that the hieroglyphs contained ancient hermetic wisdom was less easily disposed of and in the seventeenth century the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1601– 1680), the subject of one of Grafton’s current research projects, decoded them in a search for the pious insights of the Egyptian sages.

One of Grafton’s favorite themes is the way in which the classical inheritance inspired not just imitation but creative or subversive reworking. He reminds us that Alberti challenged Vitruvius on architecture and the elder Pliny on painting; in his own buildings he “combined classical and modern elements in radically novel ways.” In a stimulating essay on the historical philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) he shows how the Neapolitan sage saw the founders of Egypt and Sparta not as sage legislators but as “brutish primitives…of gigantic size and untrammeled appetites.”

Above all, Grafton explores the subtle relationship between the new natural philosophy of the Scientific Revolution and the scientific legacy of antiquity. The astronomical, physical, and biological advances of the early modern period were achieved by scholars who engaged in a relationship of creative interaction with the works of Euclid, Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy, and other classical authorities. In Grafton’s words, “the scientist could not perform his function without being enough of a scholar to decode the classical texts that still contained his richest sets of data.”3 This is a theme which he has explored in other works; and he returns to it here, with an essay on René Descartes (originally a review of Stephen Gaukroger’s fine 1995 biography), which stresses the debt of this radical innovator to the classical rhetoric of Quintilian and the work of the Alexandrian mathematicians, Pappus and Diophantus. In Grafton’s view, humanism “contributed a surprising amount to some of the intellectual enterprises that eventually replaced it.”

It was because classical learning was vital in so many ways to the life of early modern Europe that it was crucial to have scholars capable of producing reliable editions of classical texts which would eliminate their corruptions and elucidate their obscurities. Equally essential were historians and antiquarians who could reconstruct the political, religious, and legal institutions of antiquity, so as to make these texts fully intelligible.

Of course, some of these scholars allowed themselves to be carried away by the thrill of the chase. Grafton has a highly enjoyable essay on Jean Hardouin (1646–1729), the immensely learned French Jesuit who managed to convince himself that, with the exception of Cicero, Pliny, Virgil’s Georgics, and Horace’s Satires and Epistles, the whole of classical literature was a forgery, concocted in the Middle Ages by an atheistical sect. Among the works which Hardouin declared to be spurious were the philosophy of Plato, the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the Aeneid of Virgil, the Odes of Horace, the poetry of Ovid and Juvenal, the Confessions of Augustine, the writings of the rabbis, and the scholastic philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Grafton observes that Hardouin’s critical extravagances were but an extension ad absurdum of the growing tendency of antiquarians to place more weight on the evidence of coins and inscriptions than on written texts. But he argues that the real driving force behind Hardouin’s historical nihilism was a concern to defend the Catholic Church against Protestant attack by expunging forged and faulty testimonies from the Christian record.

Grafton finds a similar example of excessive scholarly skepticism in the reception in the 1660s and 1670s of the newly discovered Cena Trimalchionis (“Trimalchio’s Feast”) from Petronius’ Satyricon. The Cena‘s obsolete vocabulary and grammatical solecisms were intended by the author to represent lower-class speech. But because this diction did not conform to expected standards of classical Latinity, many scholars rejected the work as a forgery. Only those who were literary enough to appreciate the Cena‘s resemblance to the neo-Latin satire of their own day were able to appreciate this strange work for what it was.

To Grafton, the follies of scholars are as instructive as their triumphs. He is fascinated by all the apparatus of scholarly life and he revels in tracking down the ancient origins of modern academic practices: reading with a pen in one’s hand, making and arranging notes, composing footnotes and references, writing book reviews, disparaging the work of one’s colleagues, and engaging in ferocious learned controversy about matters of immense triviality. In Bring Out Your Dead he has a striking essay on what he calls the “polyhistors,” the immensely erudite German encyclopedists who wrote vast Latin compendia in which they tried to encompass the whole of human learning. Grafton also shows a keen interest in the mechanics of book production and in the relationship between the author and the publisher. An essay here on the role of the printer’s corrector is a foretaste of a work he has in progress on the history of proof correction. This is a topic with a great many modern implications, for the corrector’s intervention could radically affect the meaning and reception of the work and thereby contribute, if not to the death of the author, at least to a diminution in his status.

Grafton is also fascinated by the emergence of an international community of scholars in the form of a Republic of Letters, whose members communicated by correspondence and learned journals across national and confessional boundaries in a common language: Latin at the beginning of the seventeenth century, French by the end. A true cosmopolitan himself, he reveals an obvious sympathy with this ideal of an international commitment to scholarly truth and rational argument. But he sadly admits that “many érudits seemed to find their loyalties as Protestants or Catholics far more compelling than their identities as tolerant, open-minded citizens of the Republic of Letters.”

By the early eighteenth century, the public utility of classical scholarship was beginning to dwindle. For this, the antiquarians were themselves partly to blame. For the more that scholars found out about ancient Greece and Rome, the more they realized how different these ancient societies were from the modern world. The writers like Lipsius, who had sought to provide modern rulers with guidance derived from ancient texts, had been frankly unhistorical in their approach. They ripped passages out of context and cobbled them together in an artificial amalgam of material drawn from different periods. In Grafton’s words, this was “not to interpret the ancient world but to exploit it.” Lipsius, he notes, abandoned “the effort to understand the past on its own terms, in his desire to make the ancient experience accessible.” By contrast, the growth of a more historical attitude to antiquity and a concern to recreate the past as it really was made the whole attempt to draw modern lessons from ancient experience intrinsically anachronistic. In the later sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne argued that the past differed so radically from the present that it was ridiculous to expect it to illuminate contemporary problems.

In the seventeenth century, the onslaught on ancient learning grew more insistent. In his Discourse on Method (1637), René Descartes disparaged inquiries into antiquity, on the grounds that “one who is too curious about the practices of past ages usually remains quite ignorant about those of the present.” In the age of the Scientific Revolution, it became painfully obvious that classical teachings about the nature of the physical world were seriously outdated. Authors as different as Francis Bacon, Giambattista Vico, and the neo-Latin writer John Barclay agreed in arguing that each age had its own “spirit” or “genius” and that ancient texts were too remote to be models for the modern era. The scholars and antiquarians had only themselves to blame for the growth of the view that their work was essentially irrelevant to the needs of their own day. For it was they who had brought about what Grafton calls “the complex, paradoxical, and drawn-out process by which humanity gradually learned that the past is a foreign country.” Their very success led to their obsolescence. That is one reason why it is so hard today for the humanities to secure public funding.

Grafton freely and generously admits that he derives much of his material from scholars who have preceded him. For although the history of learning has been largely ignored by supposedly “main-line” historians, there has, over the past two centuries, been a vast amount of research into the subject by classicists, art historians, and students of Renaissance humanism, philosophy, and historiography, Grafton’s endnotes give some idea of the scale of Continental, particularly German, scholarship on which he has been able to draw. He himself is deeply conscious of standing in a long tradition and is proud to follow in the steps of giants like Paul Oskar Kristeller, the historian of humanism, Erwin Panofsky, the art historian, and, above all, Arnaldo Momigliano, whose essay “Ancient History and the Antiquarian” (1950) has been the stimulus to much subsequent inquiry, and whose personal inspiration has had a profound influence on Grafton’s life and work.

Grafton’s own contribution to this tradition has been fourfold. First, his research on Scaliger has given him firsthand knowledge of many of the most remote and demanding branches of humanist learning. Secondly, his omnivorous curiosity and astonishing energy have made him uniquely well-acquainted with the bibliography, ancient and modern, of huge tracts of learning. Thirdly, he has done more than his predecessors to bring the history of scholarship into the mainstream and to relate it to the broader history of social and cultural change. Finally, and perhaps most important, he is a superb expositor. He writes with such wit, eloquence, and baroque exuberance, and his prose is so free from obfuscating academic jargon, that he succeeds in engaging the reader’s interest in what would otherwise seem impossibly arcane subject matter.

Grafton is not infallible, of course. He has written so much, and at such speed, that trivial slips inevitably, though very rarely, appear. When he implies that the Anglo-Saxon homilist Aelric was a king, or gives the wrong initial to the author of that immortal skit on academic politics, Microcosmographia Academica, the effect is curiously reassuring. For it shows that even Homer can nod.

In one respect only is there ground for serious complaint; and that is Grafton’s readiness to recycle his work. The implicit pun in the title of Bring Out Your Dead is a wry reminder that most of its contents have been published previously. It does not, however, warn us that the essays it contains often overlap with one another or that they, in turn, frequently reuse material or make points which can be found, often at greater length, in Grafton’s earlier work. Each of his essays is so elegantly composed that it seems churlish to criticize them for being repetitious. But Grafton’s readiness to reprint his old articles, lectures, and reviews, without much attempt at reediting, or indeed providing them with an adequate index, gives the misleading impression of an academic who is trying artificially to inflate his oeuvre. His achievement is far too great to need any reinforcement of this kind.

Perhaps the real key to the motivation of this remarkable scholar is to be found in the final essay in Bring Out Your Dead, which is devoted to the German Jewish professor Jacob Bernays (1824–1881), whose brother became Sigmund Freud’s father-in-law, and whose biography of Joseph Scaliger (1855) held the field until the appearance of Grafton’s own magnum opus. Grafton observes that, unlike other German scholars of the day, Bernays laid no great claim to innovation. Instead he saw himself as one link in a chain of tradition. Grafton adds that

it seems only reasonable to identify his attitude as a peculiarly Jewish one: the attitude of one who held that the only way back to canonical texts lay through the whole history of their interpretation, that the best way to form a scholarly life was to ponder the personal example of great scholars, and that the best way to form a style of inquiry was through the systematic study of one’s predecessors. Bernays, the most brilliant of German classical scholars, differed from the rest because he preserved a rabbinic sensibility in the midst of a modern, scientific age.

This eloquent passage surely comes very close to autobiography. For it is this same “rabbinic sensibility” which has made Anthony Grafton into one of the outstanding historians of our time.

  1. 1

    Anthony Grafton, “The Origins of Scholarship,” The American Scholar (Spring 1979), pp. 236–261.

  2. 2

    Anthony Grafton, Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1983–1993). The only review to receive this work with less than rapturous enthusiasm, by H.D. Jocelyn in Liverpool Classical Monthly, Vol. 9, No. 4 (April 1984), pp. 55–61, now appears as something of a curiosity.

  3. 3

    Humanism and Science in Rudolphine Prague: Kepler in Context,” in his Defenders of the Text: the Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science, 1450–1800 (Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 203.

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