Thursday, July 07, 2016


Recipe for the Writing of Classical Dissertations

John Herington (1924-1997), "Litterae Inhumaniores," Arion 3rd ser. 5.1 (Spring-Summer, 1997) 7-21 (at 14-16, with notes at 21):
It is perhaps no caricature of the present system—and if it is in any serious degree a caricature, I hope this may be forgiven as an understandable attempt to draw attention to an urgent problem—to say that we have a well tried recipe for the writing of classical dissertations, which will now be described. There exists a periodical called L'Année Philologique, which lists and indexes all publications bearing on classical studies, in all languages, from the year 1926 until the present. (One may note in passing that its volumes become on the whole progressively thicker, with a sudden and pronounced expansion in girth during the years around 1950; examining the sequence rather as palaeobotanists study tree rings, our innocent observer might deduce that there has been a vast upswing in classical learning from that period onward. How right he would be this time, let the reader judge.) The student chooses, or is assigned, a dissertation topic, which broadly speaking may be one of three kinds. He or she may study an obscure author (shall we say Aeneas Tacticus?), with some moderate prospect of saying something about his manner or message that has not actually been put in print before, at any rate since 1926. He may study one or more of the great authors, in which case he had better select a minor aspect (Cloud Imagery in Euripides? The Donkey in Old Attic Comedy?), or a minor stylistic or metrical point (The particle gar in Demosthenes?). Or he may take an option which is still less usual in classical studies than in others: he may apply to any one of the classical writers a recently developed psychological, linguistic, or literary critical methodology2 (A Structuralist Analysis of Pindar's First Olympian Ode to Hieron of Syracuse?). Once a topic is obtained, the route is clear, if laborious. You work through the Année Philologique, and collect a complete bibliography of all monographs or articles that might seem to bear on the topic; by this day and age the list will in most cases prove to be surprisingly long, no matter how abstruse, minute, or methodologically novel the topic may be. These contributions you read thoroughly, regardless of their intellectual and stylistic quality, and you would be well advised to card-index what you find. This process will consume a very great deal of time and energy, even if—following what seems to be a rather widespread gentlemen's agreement—you discard any bibliographical items that are (a) written in any of the modern languages that are not usually read by students or professors in this field, such as Finnish or Japanese, and (b) date from before 1926.3 It is a serious and insufficiently considered question, whether this vast labor will leave you free to widen your knowledge and understanding even of the classical authors in their original languages, let alone of the major authors in the modern languages that you have learned at the behest of the Graduate School. (And yet, our observer might well ask, is the best way to take the measure of Virgil's mind and style really to plow through yet another tired secondary tract on the poet, rather than sinking oneself in the texts of Homer or Dante?) But never mind; you have now the material for a dissertation. The first chapter will concern what literary scholars regularly refer to—and that without even the flicker of a smile—as The Literature; in it you will describe the contributions of your predecessors to the topic in hand, with appropriate castigation or adulation (it should not be forgotten that under our system those of them who are alive are very apt to be perceived, not as fellow-enquirers into a mighty heritage, but either as potential business rivals or as potential employers). You may next introduce whatever previously unnoticed scrap of evidence, or novel slant, you may have come up with in the course of your researches; and in the subsequent chapters you may rake over the previously known material in the light of this. The text of these chapters must absolutely be accompanied by a broad stream of footnotes, in which, above all, you will demonstrate to your readers that you really did read and digest The Literature.

2. It might be surmised that the enormous proliferation of such methodologies during the last thirty years is actually due, in part, to the even more frantic quest for that originality which the Graduate School demands. For the student, the advantages of developing or applying a new methodology will be quite obviously [sic: read obvious]: a near total originality, or the semblance of it, will result. The disadvantage to that ideal humanistic community which we are trying to outline in these pages is less obvious, but it is there: a near-total breakdown of communication, since in order to open a dialogue at all one must master an ever-increasing number of obsolescent jargons, disciplinary and even (quite often) personal. But to pursue this culture-historical question fully would require a separate article.

3. It is in practice very rare even for those students who range beyond the volumes of L'Année Philologique to search back beyond about 1870, even though an enormous amount of superb factual and analytical work on the classics was carried out before that date. I have been told of a student who took the trouble to read all the studies on the philosopher Empedokles ever produced since the invention of the printing press (a manageable project, for once, because Empedokles survives only in fragments). He reported that in his judgment all the major lines of research on this author had been pretty well explored before about 1700 AD.
Related post: The Weakness of Modern Latin Studies.

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