Wednesday, June 26, 2013


The Weakness of Modern Latin Studies

J.A. Willis, "The 'Silvae' of Statius and Their Editors," Phoenix 20.4 (Winter 1966) 305-324 (at 321-324):
What will help us to decide whether the archetype was right or wrong in any given reading? The answer is very simple: knowledge of Latin language and literature will help us, and nothing else will.

It is precisely in this area that one sees the weakness of modern Latin studies. The sum of our knowledge of Latin has certainly increased, if one thinks of the knowledge that is available in books. Such careful and penetrating studies as Hofmann's Lateinische Umgangssprache or Löfstedt's commentary on the Peregrinatio Aetheriae deserve the very greatest respect, and the editorial activities of the nineteenth century in such works as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum can be considered as the works of giants. But the textual critic cannot proceed upon the basis of reference-books. With the finest Persian dictionary and grammar in the world, I should be a very poor editor of Persian poetry; and I should be a very conservative editor. What makes a good critic, or rather what is indispensable to a good critic, is that prompta et accurata scientia, as Ernesti called it, of Latin poetical language which can only be gained by reading and rereading the Latin poets until one has absorbed every convention, every mannerism of thought, feeling, and expression, until one breathes the same air as they did. This has been the achievement of but a few men: Heinsius, Bentley, and who is the third? Markland and Housman, much as their minds and characters differed, perhaps come nearest to them. But below this level of almost superhuman accomplishment there have been many scholars who achieved a very close familiarity with Latin, whose criticism of Latin poetry was less effective than one would have expected because of a certain lack of sensitivity to poetry: Scaliger, Casaubon, Salmasius, J. F. Gronovius were of this class.

Now it is this personal familiarity with Latin authors which is missing in general in the twentieth century. We do not read enough Latin. I suppose there are few modern professional classical scholars who do not feel some shame when they consider how little they have read, and how little time they devote to general reading in Latin or Greek authors, compared with the time they spend in the other pursuits of human life. If a man would but read Latin poetry for one hour each day, he could finish the Corpus Poetarum in a year; but I have yet to meet a man who has read all of Silius Italicus and Claudian. Yet laziness is not the cause of this neglect—or not the prime cause. Most of us are working too hard at being professional classical scholars to have any time left to read the classics. There are two principal causes of the decline of personal familiarity with Latin: one is the decline in the general status of Latin; the other is the growth of metaclassics.

It was said of the Middle Ages that "quiconqu' a pensé, n'a pensé qu'en Latin," and to a very great extent this dictum might be truly applied to the Europe of the renaissance up to the eighteenth century. When Scaliger read books, they were in Latin (or Greek or Arabic or Syriac or Hebrew as the case might be); when Graevius, Spanheim, the Gronovii, the Ernestis, the Gesners read and wrote, they did so in Latin without a second thought. The exception is one which proves the rule: Bentley wrote his immortal dissertation in English simply because it was to play its part in a controversy of contemporary English literary criticism, and Lennep translated it into Latin to make it more generally available to scholars. The fierce currents of nationalism and egalitarianism overthrew the facundia Latina which was at once aristocratic and international. "Die Muttersprache des Abendlandes" was driven from the company of the educated to that of the learned. Latin gradually ceased to be the language of the older professions, and after the days of Gauss it soon lost its place in the newer physical sciences. Even as a vehicle of discussion among classical scholars themselves it is at its last gasp, and an attempt four years ago to revive its study in the church has been nullified by the forces of modernity. The books which once would have been written and read in Latin are now written and read in German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish; and we are lucky if they are not written in Polish, Russian, or Hungarian. Thus inevitably we are further off from Latin than our predecessors, for whom all that they needed to read would be in Latin books or manuscripts.

But as we survey the corpse of Latin, we must remember that we ourselves have been the grave-diggers. The classics are still there for us to study, but we have made it impossible, or at least inadvisable, for a professional classical scholar to study them. This paradox is at once understood if we consider the normal training of a man who earns his living teaching classics in a university. Unless he is very lucky indeed, he will not read and write Latin or Greek fluently when he leaves school. In consequence much of his time as an undergraduate will be spent in mastering the structure and vocabulary of the languages. If he is a good student, he will be able, by the time that he takes his B.A., to read Latin and Greek authors with fair fluency. At this stage he could do nothing better, sub specie aeternitatis, than to spend two or three years reading the major classics; for he will certainly have read relatively little in his undergraduate course. But in fact at this point he will usually secure a scholarship which will enable him to devote his full time to research. What this means, in most cases, is that his supervisor will suggest a subject and tell him how to use Engelmann-Preuss, Klussmann, Lambrino, Herescu, Bursian, and L'Année Philologique. The student then prepares a bibliography and works through it. Most of the works which he consults will be written in German, a fair sprinkling in other modern languages, a very, very little in Latin. But the worst feature of it all is that, when he opens a volume of Cicero, or Livy, of Statius, or of Juvenal, it will not be in order to read them, but to look up a passage and see whether Schmidt or Braun or Pizza or Pasta has the right of it. When he writes his thesis, it is almost bound to begin with a Geschichte der Frage, and for every reference to an ancient author there will be ten to the works of modern scholars. Thus, while in theory he has been "researching" in classics, his true field of study has been metaclassics—the vast agglomeration of books, dissertations, articles, and programmes which clusters round the Greek and Roman writers.

The volume of metaclassics is very great. What Schadewaldt alone has written about Homer far exceeds in volume what Homer wrote about the siege of Troy; a year's output on the Dyscolus dwarfs the whole surviving work of Menander into insignificance; no very large bookcase would be needed to hold all the texts of Greek and Latin writers from Homer to the end of paganism, yet to house the books written on them since 1850 would tax the largest of reading-rooms. Most sinister of all is the growth of periodical publications, of which roughly 200 are noted in L'Année Philologique. New ones are constantly being born; old ones are very tenacious of life. But let us return to our scholar in his career.

He has won his Ph.D.; now surely he can apply himself to the serious business of his life, which is to become a truly learned man? Not a bit of it. He must find himself a job; and it is useless to go before a selection committee and say, "I have read the whole of Lucretius, Catullus, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus, and I am halfway through Lucan." He must show that he has published work to his name, and quite clearly and inevitably this published work must consist of articles. Alas, to produce an article he must do much the same as he did for his doctorate: he must find a sufficiently small subject, compile his bibliography, raise his hat on each page to the great names and mention the little names in his footnotes—again without ever reading continuously through any writing in Latin or Greek. The lamentable truth is that to read Greek and Latin authors is never useful and can even be harmful to the aspirant for more recognition and higher pay in classics. How can Smith supinely sit and read his Ovid, when Brown, Jones, and Robinson are preparing articles on "The bucolic diaeresis in Calpurnius Siculus" (proving that it occurs in 13.7% of all lines), "A hitherto unnoticed manuscript of Eutropius" (showing that it is of no value), and "An allusion to Naevius' Bellum Punicum?" (showing that it is probably not)?

The writer is not so cynical as to suppose that force is needed to compel classical scholars to read Greek and Latin literature; he contends merely that every incentive at present works in the opposite direction. To read books about Cicero, or reviews of books about Cicero, or a review of a book on "The last twenty years in Ciceronian studies" will pay off; to read Cicero will not. Hence comes the linguistic weakness of the twentieth century in Latin studies; hence comes it that murmurs which imitate black slumbers are considered the height of poetry, that waves of a river drive Chalcis out, that villas swarm with enormous colossi, and that nymphs take away from a man who knows nothing about it the years which have not been broken off. In the words of Servius: haec tibi quaestio nata est ex incuria veteris lectionis. nam quia saeculum nostrum ab Ennio et omni bibliotheca vetere descivit, multa ignoramus, quae non laterent si veterum lectio nobis esset familiaris.

I have pointed to what I think the superiority of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century critics in dealing with the problems of a corrupt text in a Latin poet. I have also suggested that the reason for this superiority is the much closer and more constant familiarity with Latin which the old critics possessed, and I have pointed to certain factors which have caused this familiarity to diminish. Is the evil incapable of redress? To a certain extent, yes: we shall never again see Latin hold the place in European cultural life which it did two centuries ago. The prostitution of undergraduate courses also has to be accepted: it is a political necessity and part of the price paid for democracy. But the doctoral courses can and should be greatly modified. The pretence that a student who has just taken his B.A. has a good general background of classical studies should be given up, and at least half of the graduate student's energies should be spent in making himself personally acquainted with the Greek and Latin writers, even to the extent of having written examinations. That all doctoral dissertations should be written in Latin, and failed for bad Latin (e.g., magistro meo, qui studiis meis semper favuit, which I have seen on a printed title-page), seems to me another very simple step which might help to halt the decay. At the same time it would tend to lessen the length of theses, which would again be an advantage. To no classical scholar should it be either a hardship or an adventure to write in Latin.

Some apology is due to the reader for an article which may be considered as coming in like a lion and going out like a chimaera, beginning with textual criticism and ending with educational reform. But the internal connexion is, I think, logical enough, and the danger which I think I see is a grave one. I greatly fear that, unless some vigorous steps are taken to reverse a trend which has been more and more visible for the past three generations, the typical classical scholar of the late twentieth century will be a man armed to the teeth with bibliography and methods of research, but with very little else; a man who has read his Schadewaldt but not his Homer, his Fraenkel but not his Horace, his Gomme but not his Thucydides; in short, a man who knows everything about the classics except any actual Greek or Latin. The wolf which I am crying may exist only in my imagination; but it certainly appears to me to be a very formidable animal, and we should do well to consider seriously whether it is real or not; for once it has us in its jaws, our slumbers will be black indeed.

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