The Birth of Philology

Again, from the Prolegomena ad Homerum by F. A. Wolf:

“This story allows us a chance to make a few overarching comments about the birth of the practice of criticism. And this also permits us to evaluate the nature of the recensions which were reportedly made in that period. For I don’t think that anyone will be surprised today that the Greeks of the time—who were by chance more men of genius than of learning,—even though they were completely estranged from the polymathy to which kings eventually provided ample time, that they were already starting to turn their attention to that art which is the collected sum of the various disciplines of literature and antiquity.

Indeed, all the foundations which would guide the ancients to the art of criticism already existed at that time. Among them I would put in first place the ancient method of preserving songs by only the use of memory; in the second, the errors and frauds perpetrated in ascribing authorship; and in the third, the many kinds of easy mistakes made by untrained hands in preparing the first manuscripts.

But even if this last case would precipitate a need for this art after many generations, anyone who is familiar with the Greeks will easily see that their genius would not have been able of declining so severely or so eagerly to such nitpicking concerns if their writings were only corrupted in the way that most books are. Let it stand as the singular fate of the monuments of Homer and his peers that in some sense they forced philology to be born—and that they did so even before the word for Critic or Grammarian was commonly spoken.”

Haec narratio nobis occasionem offert in universum dicendi nonnulla de ortu studii critici, ex quibus existimare liceat de conditione earum recensionorum, quae hoc saeculo offeruntur factae esse. Nunc enim nemo, puto, mirabitur, Graecos iam tum, quum prosperrima sorte sua ingeniosiores essent quam doctiores, et ab illa [corrupt text] cui reges deinde otium praebuerunt alienissimi, animum paullatim applicuisse ad eam artem, quae tota collecta est ex multiplici doctrina litterarum et antiquitatis. Etenim quae causae maxime perduxerunt veteres ad criticam artem, iam tum eaedem exstiterant omnes. In quibus primo loco posuerim modum illum conservandorum olim Carminum ope unius memoriae, proximo errores et fraudes in prodendis auctoribus eorum, tertio varios facillimosque lapsus rudium manuum in primis exemplaribus parandis. Sed etsi haec postrema causa eius- modi est, ut post aliquot saecula istius artis desiderium necessario fuisset allatura, tamen qui Graecos norit, facile intelliget, ad tam minutulas curas ingenium eorum nec tam mature-nec tanto studio potuisse descendere, si sola omni scripturae communia menda libros corrupissent. Maneat igitur, singularem fortunam Homericorum et supparum monumentorum extudisse quodammodo philologam criticen, idque etiam antea, quam nomen Critici aut Grammatici vulgo auditum esset.

J.E. Sandys attempts to put Wolf’s accomplishment in historical context. Sandys also provides an overview of what he sees as the differences between classical scholarship at large and philology.

Jakobson: “ is the art of reading slowly”

Nietszche: “the art of reading well” (die Kunst gut zu lesen)

Vico: “By philology, I mean the science of everything that depends on human volition.”

Novalis: “Philology in general is the science of literature.”

[H/T to Patrick Burns (@diyclassics) for these last two]

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