Saturday, March 04, 2017


Advice to a Student of Philology

"Letter from Niebuhr to a Young Man Who Wished to Devote Himself to Philology," tr. J[ulius] C[harles] H[are], Educational Magazine 1 (1840) 12-22 (at 15-16):
I must frankly beg you to examine your Latin, and to convince yourself that in this respect much is wanting. I will not lay a stress on certain grammatical blunders: on this point I agree entirely with my dear friend Spalding, whom such blunders in his scholars did not provoke, provided his pointing them out availed by degrees to get rid of them. A worse fault is, that you have more than once broken down in a sentence; that you employ words in an incorrect sense; that your style is turgid and without uniformity; that you use your metaphors illogically. You do not write simply enough to express a thought unpretendingly, when it stands clearly before your mind. That your style is not rich and polished is no ground for blame: for although there have been some, especially in former times, who by a peculiarly happy management of a peculiar talent have gained such a style at your age, yet in ordinary cases such perfection is quite unattainable. Copiousness and nicety of expression imply a maturity of intellect, which can only be the result of a progressive development. But what everyone can and ought to do, is, not to aim at an appearance of more than he really understands; but to think and express himself simply and correctly. Here, therefore, take a useful rule. When you are writing a Latin essay, think what you mean to say with the utmost distinctness you are capable of, and put it into the plainest words. Study the structure of the sentences in great writers; and exercise yourself frequently in imitating some of them: translate passages so as to break up the sentences; and when you translate them back again, try to restore the sentences. In this exercise you will not need the superintendence of your teacher; do it, however, as a preparation for the practice of riper years. When you are writing, examine carefully whether your language be of one colour. It matters not to my mind, whether you attach yourself to that of Cicero and Livy, or to that of Tacitus and Quintilian: but one period you must choose: else the result is a motley style, which is as offensive to a sound philologer, as if one were to mix up German of 1650 and of 1800. Try to acquire the art of connecting sentences, without which all attempts at writing Latin are downright torture to the reader; and most especially look carefully to your metaphors: whatever is not quite faultless in them, is intolerable. Hence writing Latin is such an excellent discipline for a good style; and next to Latin, French, which also will not tolerate any absurdities; whereas we Germans in our own language are lamentably indifferent about such matters.
Id. (at 16-17):
You must know enough of antiquity to be aware that the philosophy of young men, down to a much riper age than yours, consisted in silent listening, in endeavouring to understand and to learn. You cannot even have an acquaintance with the facts, much less carry on general reflections,—to let pass the word philosophical,—on questions of minute detail, mostly problematical. To learn, my dear friend, to learn conscientiously,—to go on sifting and increasing our knowledge,—this is our speculative calling through life: and it is so most especially in youth, which has the happiness that it may give itself up without hinderance to the charms of the new intellectual world opened to it by books. He who writes a dissertation,—let him say what he will,—pretends to teach: and one cannot teach without some degree of wisdom; which is the amends that, if we strive after it, God will give us for the departing bliss of youth. A wise young man is a monster.
Id. (at 17):
Antiquity may be compared to an immense city in ruins, of which we have not even a ground-plan; which everyone must make out for himself, and learn to understand, the whole from the parts, the parts from a careful comparison and study of each, and from their relation to the whole. If a person who had only a smattering of architectural knowledge, were totally ignorant of hydrostatics, had scarcely seen the chief ruins of Rome, and never anything beyond it, were to write about the remains of the aqueducts, he would be in much the same case as a student who should write a treatise on some branch of philology.
Id. (at 19-20):
In this matter I am so strict, that I utterly disapprove of the common practice of adopting references, after verifying them, without naming the source whence they are taken; and tedious as the double reference is, I never allow myself to dispense with it. When I cite a passage simply, I have found it out myself. He who does otherwise, assumes the appearance of more extensive reading than belongs to him.

Others may be less strict; nor should I blame them for it, if I can imagine that it is really altogether indifferent to them, whether they are believed to have engaged in more profound researches than they have done; or if, like some persons, they suppose it taken for granted that references are mostly borrowed. But from a young man, were it merely as an exercise of honesty, I demand the most scrupulous truth in literature, as in all other things, absolutely and without exception; so that it may become an integral part of his nature; or rather, that the truth, which God planted in his nature, may abide there. By it alone can we fight our way through the world.
Id. (at 20-21):
I wish you were not so fond of satires, even of Horace's. Turn to those works which elevate the heart, in which you see great men and great events, and live in a higher world: turn away from those which represent the mean and contemptible side of ordinary relations and degenerate ages. They are not fitted for the young; and the ancients would not have let them fall into your hands. Homer, Eschylus, Sophocles, Pindar,—these are the poets for youth, the poets with whom the great men of antiquity nourished themselves; and as long as literature shall give light to the world, they will ennoble the youthful souls, that are filled with them, for life. Horace's Odes, as copies of Greek models, are also good reading for the young; and I regret that it is become the practice to depreciate them, which only a few masters are entitled to do, or can do without arrogance. In his Epistles, Horace is original, and more genial; but he who reads them intelligently, reads them with sorrow; they cannot do good to anyone. We see a man of noble disposition, but who, from inclination and reflection, tries to adapt himself to an evil age, and who has given himself up to a vile philosophy, which does not prevent his continuing noble, but lowers all his views. His morality rests on the principle of suitableness, decorum, reasonableness: he declares expediency (to take the most favourable expression) to be the source of the idea of right (Sat. I.iii.98). Baseness discomposes him, and excites him, not to anger, but to a slight chastisement. That admiration for virtue, which constrains us to scourge vice, and which we see not only in Tacitus, but also in Juvenal,—in the latter disgustingly,—is not found in Horace. Juvenal however you must not read yet, with the exception of a few pieces: nor is this any loss; for even if you might be allowed to read him, it would not be wholesome at your age, to dwell on the contemplation of vice, instead of enriching your mind with great thoughts.

To these poets, and among prose writers to Herodotus, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Plutarch, Cicero, Livy, Caesar, Sallust, Tacitus, I earnestly entreat you to turn, and to keep exclusively to them. Do not read them to make esthetical remarks on them, but to read yourself into them, and to fill your soul with their thoughts, that you may gain by their reading, as you would gain by listening reverently to the discourses of great men. This is the philology which does one's soul good: learned investigations, when one has attained to the capacity of carrying them on, still are only of secondary value. We must be accurately acquainted with grammar, according to the ancient, wide acceptation of that term: we must acquire all branches of archaeology, so far as lies in our power. But even though we were to make the most brilliant emendations, and could explain the most difficult passages offhand, this is nothing but mere trickery, unless we imbibe the wisdom and the magnanimity of the great ancients, feel like them, and think like them.
Id. (at 21):
Leave the commentators and emenders for the present unread. The time will come, when you may study them to advantage.

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