Erudition, Skepticism, Credulity: A Sketch of Isaac Vossius

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship Vol. II:

“Isaac Vossius (1618 — 1689), who was born at Leyden, was appointed professor of History at Amsterdam at the age of fifteen. Nine years later he visited Italy, and we find him giving his friend N. Heinsius a graphic account of the difficulties he experienced in seeking admission to the libraries in Rome. In 1649 he left Amsterdam for the court of queen Christina. He taught the queen Greek, and sold her a large number of his father’s valuable mss. She is the ‘Xanthippe’ of his letters to Heinsius. He left Sweden in 1652 owing to a dispute with Salmasius, and, six years later, in an edition of Pomponius Mela, had the satisfaction of noticing some of the geographical mistakes made in his opponent’s work on Solinus. He repeatedly visited Paris, and was tempted to enter the service of France, which would have made it necessary for him to become a Catholic. But he preferred becoming an Anglican, not (like Casaubon) on grounds of real belief, but because he desired to retain the right to a certain degree of speculative freedom. His sponsor in England was John Pearson, the scholarly Master of Trinity, who had been attracted by his work on Ignatius. He received an honorary degree at Oxford (1670), and was presented by Charles II with a prebend at Windsor (1673), but he scandalised his colleagues by reading Ovid during the services in St George’s Chapel, and by saying of one of their number who was absent from Windsor but was loyally doing his duty at his country-living : — ‘ est sacrificulus in pago et rusticos decipit ‘. With his scepticism he combined a singular degree of credulity, and it was possibly the credulity exhibited in his work on the Sibylline Oracles (1679) that prompted Charles II to say of him: ‘He is a strange man for a divine; there is nothing that he will not believe, if only it is not in the Bible ‘. He is said to have been intimately acquainted with the manners and personages of all ages but his own. Evelyn, who met ‘ the learned Isaac Vossius’ at dinner ‘at my Lord Chamberlain’s’, discourses, ten years later, on the erudite note on tacking, which Vossius had introduced into his commentary on Catullus.”

Reading for Deep Erudition

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1.20):

“I have imposed this penance upon the lady, neither out of wantonness nor cruelty; but from the best of motives; and therefore shall make her no apology for it when she returns back:—’Tis to rebuke a vicious taste, which has crept into thousands besides herself,—of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them—The mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions as it goes along; the habitude of which made Pliny the younger affirm, ‘That he never read a book so bad, but he drew some profit from it.’ The stories of Greece and Rome, run over without this turn and application,—do less service, I affirm it, than the history of Parismus and Parismenus, or of the Seven Champions of England, read with it.”

Image result for tristram shandy

Humanism vs. Erudition

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, Vol. III:

“Gesner was one of the foremost leaders of the movement known as the New Humanism. The Old Humanism had aimed at the verbal imitation of the style of the Latin Classics, and at the artificial prolongation of the modern life of the ancient Latin literature. This aim was gradually found to be impracticable, and, about 1650, it was abandoned. Latin was still taught in schools ; it also survived as the medium of university instruction and as the language of the learned world. But the ancient literature came to be considered as a superfluity; neglected at school, it was regarded simply as a waste and barren field, where the learned might burrow in quest of the facts required for building up the fabric of an encyclopaedic erudition. Such was practically the view of the School of Halle.”

Etymology? Leave it to the Prose

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies 1.38:

Prose is speech drawn out and free from the restraint of meter. For the ancients used to call prose productum [drawn out] and straight. Thus, Varro says that in Plautus, the phrase prosis* lectis means ‘read straight through.’ Thus, whatever speech is not contorted by number, but stands straight, is said to be prose, from its drawing forth [producendo] into a straight path.

Others say that prose is so called because it is profuse (profusa), or because it pours forth proruat) and runs on at length, with no limit prescribed to it.

Furthermore, among both the Greeks and the Latins, songs were their chief concern long before prose was. For originally, all things were composed in verse; the pursuit of prose flourished late. Among the Greeks, the first to write prose was Pherecydes the Syrian; among the Romans, Appius Caecus first exercised the composition of prose against Pyrrhus. From that point, others contended in the eloquence of their prose.

*Isidore has conflated prosa with prorsus, meaning “straight onward” or “direct”.


Prosa est producta oratio et a lege metri soluta. Prosum enim antiqui productum dicebant et rectum. Vnde ait Varro apud Plautum “prosis lectis’ significari rectis; unde etiam quae non est perflexa numero, sed recta, prosa oratio dicitur, in rectum producendo. Alii prosam aiunt dictam ab eo, quod sit profusa, vel ab eo, quod spatiosius proruat et excurrat, nullo sibi termino praefinito. Praeterea tam apud Graecos quam apud Latinos longe antiquiorem curam fuisse carminum quam prosae. Omnia enim prius versibus condebantur; prosae autem studium sero viguit. Primus apud Graecos Pherecydes Syrus soluta oratione scripsit; apud Romanos autem Appius Caecus adversus Pyrrhum solutam orationem primus exercuit. Iam exhinc et ceteri prosae eloquentia contenderunt.

The Language of Non-Thought

Lionel Trilling, The Meaning of a Literary Idea:

We think Aristotle to be a better critic of the drama than Plato because we perceive that Aristotle understood and Plato did not understand that the form of the drama was of itself an idea which controlled and brought to a particular issue the subordinate ideas it contained. The form of the drama is its idea, and its idea is its form. And form in those arts which we call abstract is no less an idea than is form in the representational arts. Governments nowadays are very simple and accurate in their perception of this — much more simple and accurate than are academic critics and aestheticians — and they are as quick to deal with the arts of “pure” form as they are to deal with ideas stated in discourse: it is as if totalitarian governments kept in mind what the rest of us tend to forget, that “idea” in one of its early significations exactly means form and was so used by many philosophers.

It is helpful to have this meaning before us when we come to consider that particular connection between literature and ideas which presents us with the greatest difficulty, the connection that involves highly elaborated ideas, or ideas as we have them in highly elaborated systems such as philosophy, or theology, or science. The modem feeling about this relation- ship is defined by two texts, both provided by T. S. Eliot. In his essay on Shakespeare Mr. Eliot says, “I can see no reason for believing that either Dante or Shakespeare did any thinking on his own. The people who think that Shakespeare thought are always people who are not engaged in writing poetry, but who are engaged in thinking, and we all like to think that great men were like ourselves.” And in his essay on Henry James Mr. Eliot makes the well-known remark that James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.

In both statements, as I believe, Mr. Eliot permits his impulse to spirited phrase to run away with him, yielding too much to what he conceives to be the didactic necessities of the moment, for he has it in mind to offer resistance to the nineteenth-century way of looking at poetry as a heuristic medium, as a communication of knowledge. This is a view which is well exemplified in a sentence of Carlyle’s: “If called to define Shakespeare’s faculty, I should say superiority of Intellect, and think I had included all in that.’’ As between the two statements about Shakespeare’s mental processes, I give my suffrage to Carlyle’s as representing a more intelligible and a more available notion of intellect than Mr. Eliot’s, but I think I understand what Mr. Eliot is trying to do with his — he is trying to rescue poetry from the kind of misinterpretation of Carlyle’s view which was once more common than it is now; he is trying to save for poetry what is peculiar to it, and for systematic thought what is peculiar to it.

As for Mr. Eliot’s statement about James and ideas, it is useful to us because it gives us a clue to what might be called the sociology of our question. “Henry James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.’’ In the context “violate” is a strong word, yet we can grant that the mind of the poet is a sort of Clarissa Harlowe and that an idea is a sort of Colonel Lovelace, for it is a truism of contemporary thought that the whole nature of man stands in danger of being brutalized by the intellect, or at least by some one of its apparently accredited surrogates. A specter haunts our culture — it is that people will eventually be unable to say, “They fell in love and married,” let alone understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say, “Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.”

Now this is not the language of abstract thought or of any kind of thought. It is the language of non-thought. But it is the language which is developing from the peculiar status which we in our culture have given to abstract thought. There can be no doubt whatever that it constitutes a threat to the emotions and thus to life itself.


Advice to a Scholar: Remember Everything!

Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, LII:

“It is also very true that those who have sharper intellects have weaker powers of memory, and those who seize upon things quickly are less apt to retain them. Therefore, Cato’s plan seems particularly relevant to preserving and shoring up one’s memory. He used to say he would think over in the evening everything which he had done, seen, or read during the day, as though he were demanding an account ledger of his daily business; yet he did not want only an account of his business, but even of his leisure time! Thus we too, if we can, will take care to remember everything; if we fail in this, we should at least cling to those things which we have selected as especially important to ourselves.

sed et id quoque perplurimum verum est, acutiores ingenio minus valere memoria, et qui celeriter capiunt, retinent minus. Ad salvandam igitur confirmandamque memoriam, maxime affinis est illa Catonis ratio, qua uti se dicebat, ut quicquid egerat viderat legerat, vesperi commemoraret, tamquam diurni a se negotii rationem exigens, non modo qui negotii, sed et otii quoque volebat reddendam esse rationem. Ita igitur nos omnia quidem, si possumus, reminisci curabimus; si minus, ea saltem quae praecipua nobis delegimus, complectemur.

Modestly Correcting Ovid

Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not (Chapter 7):

The girl said suddenly; they had run into a clearing of the deep underwoods:

‘I’m not stuffy with you over that Latin, though you were unnecessarily rude. And I’m not sleepy. I’m loving it all.’

He hesitated for a minute. It was a silly-girl thing to say. She didn’t usually say silly-girl things. He ought to snub her for her own sake…

He said:

‘I’m rather loving it, too!’ She was looking at him; her nose had disappeared from the silhouette. He hadn’t been able to help it; the moon had been just above her head; unknown stars all round her; the night was warm. Besides, a really manly man may condescend at times! He rather owes it to himself…

She said:

‘That was nice of you! You might have hinted that the rotten drive was taking you away from your so important work…

‘Oh, I can think as I drive,’ he said. She said:

‘Oh!’ and then: ‘The reason why I’m unconcerned over your rudeness about my Latin is that I know I’m a much better Latinist than you. You can’t quote a few lines of Ovid without sprinkling howlers in…It’s vastum, not longum…”Terra tribus scopulis vastum procurrit”…It’s alto, not coelo…”Uvidus ex alto desilientis.”…How could Ovid have written ex coelo? The “c” after the “x” sets your teeth on edge.’

Tietjens said:


‘That’s purely canine!’ she said with contempt.

‘Besides,’ Tietjens said, longum is much better than vastum. I hate cant adjectives like “vast.”…’

‘It’s like your modesty to correct Ovid,’ she exclaimed. ‘Yet you say Ovid and Catullus were the only two Roman poets to be poets. That’s because they were sentimental and used adjectives like vastum…What’s “Sad tears mixed with kisses” but the sheerest sentimentality?’

‘It ought, you know,’ Tietjens said with soft dangerousness, ‘to be “Kisses mingled with sad tears”…”Tristibus et lacrimis oscula mixta dabis.”‘

‘I’m hanged if ever I could,’ she exclaimed explosively. ‘A man like you could die in a ditch and I’d never come near. You’re desiccated even for a man who has learned his Latin from the Germans.’

‘Oh, well, I’m a mathematician,’ Tietjens said. ‘Classics is not my line!’

‘It isn’t,’ she answered tartly.

A long time afterwards from her black figure came the words:

‘You used “mingled” instead of “mixed” to translate mixta. I shouldn’t think you took English at Cambridge, either! Though they’re as rotten at that as at everything else, father used to say.’

‘Your father was Balliol, of course,’ Tietjens said with the snuffy contempt of a scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge. But having lived most of her life amongst Balliol people she took this as a compliment and an olive branch.

Some Do Not... by Ford Madox Ford

Surgery Beneath the Scholar’s Dignity

Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages I.4.6:

“It was the ordinary practice in the Italian Universities for a Medical Doctor to read the relative parts of this treatise while the Professor of Surgery performed the dissection and another Doctor pointed out to the students the various bones or muscles as they were named by the reader. By the Statutes of Florence food and wine and spices were to be provided to keep up the spirits of Professors and Students during this unwonted ordeal. The importance of Surgery in Italy as compared with its neglect in the Northern Universities is indicated by the different position occupied by its teachers. Not only was Surgery taught by Doctors of Medicine, but the latter were allowed to engage in surgical practice, an employment which was looked upon by the Doctors of Paris as a degrading manual craft, entirely beneath the dignity of a sage learned in all the wisdom of Aristotle and Galen.”

Brandy and Novels: Enemies of Greek Scholarship

Recollections of the Table Talk of Samuel Rogers, to which is added Porsoniana:

“I believe, with you, that Burney was indebted to Porson for many of those remarks on various niceties of Greek which he has given as his own in different publications. Porson once said to me, ‘A certain gentleman’ (evidently meaning Burney) ‘has just been with me; and he brought me a long string of questions, every one of which I answered offhand. Really, before people become schoolmasters, they ought to get up their Greek thoroughly, for they never learn any thing more of it afterwards.’ I one day asked Burney for his opinion of Porson as a scholar. Burney replied, ‘I think my friend Dick’s acquaintance with the Greek dramatists quite marvellous; but he was just as well acquainted with them at the age of thirty as he is now: he has not improved in Greek since he added brandy-and-water to his potations, and took to novel-reading.’ Porson would sometimes read nothing but novels for a fortnight together.”

Related image
Louis Charles Moeller, ‘Men Drinking Punch’

A Scholar Kills His Horse

Philogelos 9b:

A scholar, wishing to teach his horse not to eat so much, stopped giving it food. Later, when the horse died of hunger, the scholar said, “Ah, I’ve suffered a great loss! Just when he learned not to eat, he died!”

    β: Σχολαστικὸς θέλων τὸν ἵππον αὐτοῦ διδάξαι μὴ τρώγειν πολλὰ οὐ παρέβαλλεν αὐτῷ τροφάς. ἀποθανόντος δὲ τοῦ

ἵππου τῷ λιμῷ ἔλεγε· Μεγάλως ἐζημιώθην· ὅτε γὰρ καλῶς ἔμαθε μὴ τρώγειν, τότε ἀπέθανεν.