Essays and Addresses/On Present Tendencies in Classical Studies

On the Present Tendencies in Classical Studies  (1889) 
by Richard Claverhouse Jebb

From Essays and Addresses. The author's Inaugural Address as President of the Philological Section in the Philosophical Society of Glasgow: Feb. 20, 1889.


The institution of a Section of Philology in the Philosophical Society of Glasgow may justly be regarded as an event of some interest, even in the history of a Society so distinguished and so useful as this has been. I am bound to say at the outset that I have no claim to even the least share in the merit of having promoted this addition to the fields of work which the Society comprehends; that credit belongs, I believe I may say, to Dr Colville, Mr James Morison, and other gentlemen who have co-operated with them; and when they did me the honour—one which I appreciate highly—of inviting me to become President of the Section, I felt considerable hesitation in occupying a place which ought rather, as it seemed to me, to have been filled by one of them. I am not a comparative philologist; and if Philology, in relation to this Section, was to bear the specific sense which is sometimes attached to it in this country, then I had assuredly no title to become President of it. But I was reassured on this point by learning that Philology, as the subject of this Section, was intended to be taken in that larger and undoubtedly fitter sense of the word which it bears in other countries, and to which the usage of scholars ought certainly to fix it in our own—that is to say, the study of language and of literature without distinction between ancient and modern, and without exclusion of anything which is needed for the full comprehension and illustration of either. By permitting the establishment of this new Section, the Philosophical Society of Glasgow gives a proof that it interprets the word philosophy in its oldest and widest sense—the love of knowledge.

The remarks which I have the honour of addressing to you this evening are intended to be in the nature of an inaugural address for the Section; so, in selecting my subject, I was obedient to two conditions, both of them somewhat difficult to fulfil: first, that the subject must have somewhat of a general character; next, that it must belong to that part of the wide domain of Philology with which I was in some degree conversant.

If we wish to comprehend the forces which are at work in the classical studies of the present day, it is well first to glance backward for a moment and to see how those forces have been prepared. Some four centuries have now elapsed since the interest in classical antiquity was revived, after the neglect or oblivion of the middle ages.

The general course of classical scholarship since that time has shown certain successive tendencies, and they are those which might naturally have been expected. The first century or so after the revival—the period from about 1450 to 1550—was one in which men were chiefly occupied with the beauty of classical expression. The form so far excelled anything with which they had been familiar that it fascinated them; their first ambition was to reproduce something of this beauty in their own writing. This is the period of the Latin stylists, occupied with the imitatio veterum, and best represented by the name of Erasmus; though he, of course, was much more than a stylist.

Erasmus was 31 years old at the death of Savonarola, the hero of George Eliot's "Romola," a novel which helps one to realise the intellectual and social atmosphere of that time in Italy. Then, when the first novelty of classical style had worn off a little, came the desire to grasp the matter contained in the classical books. Between 1550 and 1650 we have Joseph Scaliger, with his great effort, at once erudite and brilliant, to frame a critical chronology of the ancient world; and Casaubon, with his indefatigable labours in the study of ancient manners. Thus, within the first two centuries after the revival of letters, we find curiosity drawn successively towards the two most obvious aspects of the rediscovered treasure—the beauty of its form, and next, the wealth of its contents. But now a third phase sets in, represented by Bentley, in the late 17th and early 18th century. He was struck by the fact that the classical texts, which had hitherto been accepted with comparatively little criticism, have come down to us in a very corrupt state. He was as much interested as Scaliger and Casaubon in the realien of classical study; but he felt that, before we could make further progress in a sound way, we must be sure of the ground under our feet—we must purify the texts.

Bentley died in 1742. For about a century after his death we may say, speaking broadly, that no new and distinct tendency manifested itself in classical studies; none, that is to say, which was more than a continuation of lines marked out by such men as Erasmus, Scaliger, Casaubon, and, above all, by Bentley, who is peculiarly remarkable for the fecundity of his work in germs or hints, which successors developed. In his own country his successors followed him mainly in the track of textual criticism; but in Holland and Germany he has always been recognised also as the maker of an epoch in historical and literary criticism (as represented especially by his Letter to Mill, and his "Dissertation on Phalaris"), so that Bunsen could say—"historical philology is the discovery of Bentley—the heritage and glory of German learning."

The new tendency which has come into classical studies during the last forty or fifty years might be described, for the sake of brevity, as the spirit of science. I wish to explain, as clearly as possible, exactly what I mean by this statement.

If we consider the first three centuries after the revival—the time from Erasmus to Bentley—we see that the general characteristic in the history of classical scholarship was the predominance of the individual genius. A man of powerful personality would arise and make an epoch. The work which he did was emphatically his own; he was bound by no rules or methods, except such as he might have framed for his own guidance; if he resorted to conjecture, he employed it with entire freedom, making his own sense of fitness the ultimate test. Bentley is, of course, the strongest example of this, and he is also the most apposite for our purpose, since his influence was so strongly felt by succeeding scholars. Thus, in the preface to his Horace, he says—"I give more things on conjecture than by the help of manuscripts. . . . Shake off the exclusive reverence for scribes. Dare to have a mind of your own." This attitude was natural in pioneers like Bentley and the men before him. It was, indeed, the only possible one at that period. But before the middle of the present century had been reached, several causes had contributed to modify the classical scholar's view of his relation to his materials. First of all, many generations had now been busied with the work of illustrating classical antiquity. A large literature of criticism and comment had been accumulated. In studying this literature an intelligent reader could not fail to be struck with the fact that every critic had done that which was right in his own eyes. Individual insight and taste had had the freest scope, and had accomplished wonders; but was it not time to see whether an agreement was possible on some general principles? To take two provinces of classical learning in which this need had long been apparent—etymologies of a purely conjectural and sometimes absurd nature were often given to Greek or Latin words; and in textual criticism conjectures were often propounded, and even received, without any reference to the manuscripts, but simply because they struck the critic as good in themselves. Another defect in the treatment of classical antiquity had hitherto been the absence of any systematic attempt to bring the evidence of the literature into relation with the evidence of the monuments,—the buildings, statues, stones, vases, coins, inscriptions, and other relics of the civilisation to which the literature belonged.

Under the influence of such perceptions as these, new branches of special knowledge were gradually developed. Within the last half-century a science of language has been created by the application of the comparative method to linguistic study. The old haphazard etymologising has been banished for ever; derivations which satisfied Plato, and which could not have been disproved by Bentley, can now be refuted by every possessor of an elementary textbook. The study of manuscripts, as such, has become the science of palæography; and if any one desires to realise what arduous labour it has enlisted, it is enough to look at the well-known work of Gardthausen, published ten years ago, which is devoted exclusively to Greek palæography. Textual criticism, aided, in some respects, by scientific palæography, and in others by the progress of linguistic research, has lost very much of the vague and arbitrary character which belonged to it in old days. The degree in which it has now approximated to the condition of a science may be seen, for example, in the chapter on "Methods of Textual Criticism," in Drs Westcott and Hort's "Introduction to the New Testament." Again, the systematic study of inscriptions has opened up a vast field, which has demanded, and still demands, the best work of many minds; and this new science of epigraphy has shed abundant light on every other department of antiquarian study. It is enough to allude to a single example—Mommsen's "History of Rome." But a passing notice is also due to the fact that, in the case of classical Greek, the body of evidence which has now been collected from Attic inscriptions is so large that it enables us to correct spellings of Greek words which have hitherto been taken on the faith of our relatively late manuscripts. Meisterhans, in his "Grammar of Attic Inscriptions," has lately presented this evidence in a compact and lucid form. As to the study of monuments, whatever their form or their material—monuments of art or of handicraft,—this vast domain has now so many provinces, and each province has been so laboriously cultivated, that to be an expert of first-rate authority in any one of them requires not only natural gifts, but the devotion of a lifetime. Excavations in the classical lands are from time to time revealing objects which have an importance for others besides the specialist to whose branch they belong; sometimes they compel the literary scholar to reconsider some of the views which a long tradition had sanctioned. For instance, quite lately an archæological architect has affirmed, as the result of a close inspection, that the Dionysiac Theatre at Athens had no permanent stage before at least the second half of the 4th century B.C., and that in the days of the great dramatists the actors stood on the same level with the chorus. As you are aware, I have not exhausted the list of those special studies connected with classical scholarship which have had their birth, or found their maturity within the last half-century; for instance, we might add Comparative Mythology and Comparative Syntax; but this imperfect outline is enough for our present purpose.

The spirit represented by these new special studies is the spirit of science; that is to say, in each department the aim is to ascertain the facts as correctly as possible, and, when the range of facts has become large enough to warrant generalisation, to deduce general rules or principles, with a view to making the further study of the subject a methodical and, as far as possible, an exact study. In everyone of the special branches to which I have referred there are now certain propositions which are accepted as axiomatic; if a man's work conforms to these, it is allowed as scientific—he is advancing on the true path; if it does not, his work may be clever, interesting, even brilliant, but it is not scientific. A single illustration may serve to point the contrast in this respect between the present time and even thirty-five years ago. It was about then that a very clever and very laborious Englishman published a work on which he had spent years. It was called "The One Primeval Language," and was intended to show that the inscription on the Sinaitic Rocks could be translated back into this one primeval language by means of a correspondence with the Arabic alphabet, which the author had devised on purely hypothetical grounds. One, at least, of the acutest judicial minds of that day—the late Lord Lyndhurst—was quite convinced by this process. On the other hand, M. Renan has described it as a mystification anglaise. It would not be possible now for a clever and learned man, as this man was, to produce such a work: the scientific feeling in linguistic matters has become too widely diffused.

Surely, you will say, it is a matter for rejoicing that the scientific spirit has thus entered the domain of scholarship, and has thus changed the reign of caprice to the reign of law. Of course it is so in the main: without that spirit the gains of the last fifty years could not have been won. But there is another aspect of the matter on which I should like to say a few words, for it is too often forgotten. It cannot be doubted that the analogy of the natural sciences has indirectly helped the tendency towards a scientific rigour in the provinces of scholarship at which we have glanced. The whole atmosphere of our century has been charged with the influences of science—the science which has made this age so memorable in the history of material progress; the very associations of our word science press this analogy on the mind; we have no neutral-tinted word like Wissenschaft, applicable to thorough knowledge of any kind, and not suggestive of one kind rather than another. In our colloquial language "scientific" has become a favourite substitute for "accurate," "thorough," "skilful"; we speak familiarly of scientific cricket, scientific whist, and what not. In special provinces of scholarly research this bent shows itself in a desire for exact methods, precise formulas, everything, in short, that can increase the resemblance to the processes of the natural sciences. The resulting tendency is to make each of these special branches of learned research highly technical, and to render it more and more a mystery reserved for initiated experts. But, it may be asked, is not this inevitable? Is it not an inseparable condition of advanced research? Doubtless, to a great extent; but the point which I desire to suggest is that the prevalent intellectual bent of the age often pushes the love of technicality, regarded as a sign of superior knowledge, unnecessarily far, and that the consequence is to isolate each special department from all the others a good deal more than is either requisite or desirable. Another cause contributes: the better minds usually desire to be thorough in what they do; the vastness of the field of scholarship—of Philology in the large sense—makes them feel that thoroughness is impossible unless they restrict themselves to one plot of ground; when they have chosen it, their interest becomes concentrated on it and on those who are doing the same special work, and they soon cease to care much whether they are understood by others.

We gladly recognise that such specialists are doing invaluable service, in their several lines, to the cause of knowledge; but we may also wish that the desire to be scientific was more uniformly tempered by a regard for the nature of the materials with which all scholarship has to deal. Those materials are the creations of the human intellect, whether as seen in the evolution of language, or of literature, or of art. When principles, determined with a scientific precision, have assured the student of language that a kinship is possible between two words, one of the elements in the probability which he may have to consider is the precise usage of these words, as attested by literature; and here it is no longer enough to be logically exact; it is necessary to possess also that delicate instinct for expression which is called the literary sense. The textual critic who is seeking to amend a corrupt passage may have full command of everything that palæography can tell him, and of all the particular facts concerning the MSS. of his author; he may also be a perfect grammarian; but what will these things avail him unless he has also an adequate sympathy with his author's mind, and unless his procedure is controlled by the literary taste which such an insight bestows? We remember the legendary emendation in As You Like It—whether it is more than legendary I do not know—by which the words—

                               "books in the running brooks,
          Sermons in stones,"

were corrected into

                               "stones in the running brooks,
          Sermons in books."

It is no exaggeration to say that emendations like this—yes, and worse—have repeatedly been proposed in the texts of Greek poets by excellent scholars who, on the "scientific" side of their work, leave nothing to be desired. Or turn to the study of history—Mr Freeman will not permit us to call it "ancient"—the history of Greece or Rome. It frequently happens that our estimate of character or motive, our view of a political situation, or our conception of a social phase, must depend on something beyond the mere power to construe our classical author's words according to the rules of grammar; it must be effected, further, by our perception of the tone which his form of expression conveys. In Archæology, again, take what branch of it we will, the literary evidence is often important in its bearing on the monuments, and often depends on nice points of interpretation. Nor can any aid to the comprehension of Greek art be more valuable than that which is given by a true sympathy with the spirit of Greek literature; for the same mind is in both.

If, then, classical studies are to be cultivated with the best result, it is not enough that the spirit and the ardour of scientific research should animate every department of them; it is also essential that in every department the spirit of science should be associated with the literary and artistic sense; a sense which will not only invest the specialist's own work with a higher value, but will also quicken his appreciation of the place which his special work holds in relation to other provinces of scholarship. There is a passage in Gibbon's memoir of his own life where the historian speaks of his early studies in mathematics. He cannot regret, he says, that he ceased to pursue them before the habit of rigid demonstration had impaired the delicacy of his feeling for the finer shades of moral evidence. Whether such a result was necessary, we need not pause to consider. I refer to his remark because it indicates in that great scholar a consciousness that the scientific habit of mind is not, taken by itself, an adequate equipment for dealing with such problems as meet the scholar and historian. In our generation, and more especially in this country, that noble old conception of classical studies which is implied in the term "humanities" has rather fallen into the background—partly from the causes which I have indicated, partly also because we have had so many English translations, and because the practice of Greek and Latin composition (especially verse) has not of late years held quite so prominent a place in school studies as it formerly did. Already, however, one may perceive signs of a reaction in this respect—so far, at least, as prose composition is concerned. And I believe that this reaction will be further strengthened as the study of modern languages is gradually established among us on a sound and thorough basis. That expectation may seem paradoxical, and yet I think it is reasonable. For, when people have fully realised that intellectual grasp of a modern language can be more surely tested by the power of composing in it than by the power of using it colloquially, then they will be less disposed to disparage the value of the same test in Greek and Latin. Then, too, perhaps we shall no longer hear that Nature cries aloud to us to teach the classical languages chiefly by an oral use of Dr Ollendorff's method. There is indeed one essential difference, as regards composition, between modern languages and the classics, which should be well noted here. It depends on the difference between idiomatic writing, and writing which is merely correct in point of grammar. In a modern language, when the learner knows only that he is grammatical, but doubts whether he is idiomatic, he can easily decide the point by an appeal to living authority. But in Greek and Latin, the only gauge of idiomatic truth is that which is furnished by the literature; and while it is comparatively easy to ascertain the rules of grammar, it requires very careful study—study which tasks not only intellect, but feeling and taste—to seize that subtle reflection of a living personality which in language appears as idiom, and which can still be apprehended, though sometimes but dimly, and with an inevitable element of uncertainty, in the literary records of the ancient world.

In conclusion, I would venture to say that I believe the time to be auspicious for the establishment of this new Section in the Philosophical Society of Glasgow. There are abundant proofs in this great city, as elsewhere, that the studies which this Section embraces were never being pursued with more earnestness, or with more varied energy, or with better hope, than now.


  1. The author's Inaugural Address as President of the Philological Section in the Philosophical Society of Glasgow: Feb. 20, 1889.