Homage to Scaliger

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship by Anthony Grafton
    Oxford, 359 pp, £27.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 19 814850 X

Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) was a towering figure in the history of European scholarship. During the first half of his career, he virtually created the systematic study of early Latin; during the second, using Oriental as well as Greek and Latin sources, he laid the foundations of our knowledge of the chronology of the ancient world. Born and brought up at Agen in the west of France, he was the son of Julius Caesar Scaliger, a Latin scholar of distinction, who claimed to be descended from those Della Scalas who were lords of Verona during the Middle Ages. So far as he was able, the elder Scaliger gave his son a thorough training: but he greatly preferred Latin to Greek literature, and his Greek left much to be desired. His son reacted against his father’s anti-Hellenism: after his father’s death, at the age of 18, he made his way to Paris, where the famous Hellenists Turnebus and Auratus were active. With help from them and by his own strenuous efforts, he acquired a remarkable command of Greek, and went on to attain proficiency in Hebrew. By 1562, he had taken the fateful step of becoming a Calvinist. He obtained the patronage of Louis Chasteignier, lord of La Roche-Pozay near Poitiers, and in 1565 accompanied him on a diplomatic mission to Italy. Despite his Calvinistic contempt for Italian scholars and the Catholic Church – he preferred talking Hebrew with the learned Jews of Mantua and Ferrara to cultivating the society of Italian Humanists – he was inspired by the sight of Rome and the opportunity to copy inscriptions. Returning home in 1567, he found his studies interrupted by the religious wars of that and the following year. Making his way to Valence, in Dauphiné, he spent two years under the aegis of the great jurist Cujacius, who had an important influence upon his work. After the massacre of St Bartholomew in August 1572, he fled to Geneva, where he had contacts with other Protestant men of letters. Largely owing to the protection of the La Roche-Pozay family, he managed to carry on his work during the wars of the League. But in 1593, the year when Henri IV decided that Paris was worth a mass, he accepted the offer of a chair at the newly founded university of Leiden, which had already become one of the chief cultural centres of Europe. Here he taught such pupils as Daniel Heinsius and Grotius, and here he died in 1609.

Scaliger’s proud and independent character was much affected by his claim to princely birth. In an age when political and religious controversy was carried on in Latin, and eminence in scholarship conferred prestige even in the great world, it was important for the Catholic party to discredit Scaliger, and the Jesuits put up one of their ablest men, Caspar Scioppius, to attack him at his most sensitive point by arguing in a scurrilous pamphlet, ‘Scaliger Hypobolimaeus’, that his claim to be descended from the Veronese dynasts was a fiction. Modern scholarship seems to have shown that the Jesuit was right.

Something must be said about the two men, Jacob Bernays and Mark Pattison, whose portrayal of Scaliger has held the field for more than a century. Pattison is now known mainly on account of his connection with the dreary first husband of Dorothea Brooke in Middle-march. It is no use Gordon Haight’s denying that George Eliot meant to satirise Pattison: John Sparrow has pointed out that in that case it is odd that George Eliot, who was well acquainted with Pattison and his much younger wife, should have chosen to call the author of the Key to All Mythologies by the name of a 16th-century French scholar whose Life Pattison had written. But apart from being the author of a still fascinating autobiography, Pattison had a decisive influence on the scholarship of his time. Born in 1813 as the son of an aggressively eccentric clergyman, he was indoctrinated in childhood in the crudest form of Evangelical belief. As a young don at Oxford, he came under the influence of Newman, and all but went over to Rome; but at the last moment he recoiled, reacting so violently in the opposite direction that, though he was a clergyman and became the head of his college, he virtually lost all belief, serving as a model for Roger Wendover, the formidable rationalist who destroys the faith of the hapless clerical hero of Mrs Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere. At the age of 38, Pattison narrowly missed becoming Rector of Lincoln in an election which he has described in a manner that makes the late C.P. Snow’s account of a somewhat similar affair seem milk-and-water stuff. Pattison took refuge in Berlin as correspondent of the Times, and here he made a connection which had decisive importance not only for his own career but for English scholarship in his time and later. Pattison’s conversion to the German conception of scholarship and the function of a university, which took on great importance after his election to be Rector of Lincoln in 1861, was due to Jacob Bernays.

Bernays (1824-1881) was one of the most striking and one of the most distinguished figures of the great age of German scholarship. The son of a rabbi, he was eminent in Hebrew and Arabic as well as in Greek and Latin scholarship. Starting his career with a brilliant dissertation on Lucretius, he made an important contribution to the establishment of textual criticism as an historical science, but he is chiefly known for his contribution to the history of Greek philosophy. He did valuable work on the obscure, difficult and precious fragments of Heraclitus, and was the author of the suggestion that when Aristotle in his Poetics speaks of tragedy as effecting a katharsis – a cleansing or purification – of the emotions, he is employing a metaphor from medicine: in this connection, it is interesting to note that his niece Martha became the wife of Sigmund Freud. In Breslau Bernays became the first unconverted Jew in Germany to obtain a chair in Classical philology; when eminent scholars at the important university of Bonn decided that they must have him as their colleague, they could do so only by having him made director of a library. Pattison introduced to Bernays the gifted young Oxford Hellenist Ingram Bywater, with decisive consequences for English scholarship.

Bernays had brought out in 1855 a brief but admirable and influential Life of Joseph Scaliger. Pattison published a notable review of this work; later it inspired him to write the Life of another famous French scholar of the 16th century, Isaac Casaubon, and to begin a Life of Scaliger which he left unfinished, though part of it appeared in the posthumous collection of his essays. Pattison saw Scaliger and Casaubon as Protestant heroes struggling against the machinations of Papists, and particularly Jesuits. His natural medium was that of autobiography, and when he wrote the lives of others they took on the pattern of his own.

Bernays was a far better scholar than Pattison, but even his work has limitations, as Grafton has observed with much acuteness. Rightly seeing Scaliger as a precursor of the monumental scholarship of his own time – Scaliger’s affinity with Mommsen has often been remarked – Bernays represented him as though he were a scholar of the 19th century born before his time. Grafton thinks that ‘the German Jew’s traditional distrust for the culture of Southern Europe’ led him to exaggerate Scaliger’s superiority by underrating his French and Italian contemporaries. Bernays’s Life is on a comparatively small scale, and like Pattison he does not present a detailed picture of Scaliger’s aims and methods against the background of his predecessors and contemporaries. This Grafton has done.

Many who have written about the history of scholarship have been too much concerned to praise their predecessors to understand sufficiently the nature of their work; and few have dealt adequately with details: in this subject if in no other, le bon Dieu est dans le détail. In both these respects, Grafton’s approach is admirable. He points out that the scholars of the period he is writing about very seldom generalise about their purposes and methods, so that these can only be understood by means of a detailed examination of their work. Further, he sees that Scaliger and others can be fully appreciated only in relation to their predecessors as well as their contemporaries. In consequence, a flood of light is thrown, not only upon Scaliger and his associates and adversaries, but upon the entire scholarship of the 15th and 16th centuries. In his refusal to stray into the alluring byways of biography, Grafton goes almost too far. He is right to warn us that much that has been set down to the haughty and imperious character of the supposed descendant of the tyrants of Verona may well be ascribed to the habit of adopting an arrogant and contentious tone which was common among the Humanists of the time. Yet Scaliger was a striking and dominating personality, as much evidence attests. When Grafton writes of Politian’s ‘tail-wagging eagerness to please his patron’, he seems to forget that Lorenzo dei Medici was as deserving of praise, especially from a fellow poet, as any patron or ruler who ever lived.

In the past, most scholars have assumed that the 15th-century scholar who had most influence on Scaliger was Lorenzo Valla, whose ruthless scepticism seems to show an affinity with his. Grafton demonstrates that this was in fact Politian, as I prefer to call him, rather than Angelo Poliziano (I regret that Grafton has not heeded, except in the case of the main subject of his work, the plea of Bywater that we should refer to Renaissance scholars by the Latin forms of their names, as people did during their lifetimes – at least up to the moment when Casaubon gave up calling himself ‘Hortibonus’ – and not the vernacular). Politian not only emended corrupt texts with singular felicity, but drew up a set of rules for the textual critic, based upon those he found in the Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius, the work that served as model for his Miscellaneae. During the 15th century, when copies of Classical texts were multiplying rapidly, often disfigured by the irresponsible conjectures of Humanists who did not even indicate that their conjectures were conjectures, it was desirable to decide which were the most reliable witnesses to the text and to base one’s work on their readings; in default of a science of stemmatics such as we now possess, this had to be done by determining as far as possible which were the most ancient manuscripts. Grafton describes Politian’s methods, and shows how they were handled by his successors.

After the death of Lorenzo the Rome of the two Medici Popes replaced Florence as the main centre of Humanistic activity, until the sack by the Imperial troops in 1527: that and the publication of Budaeus’s Commentarii Linguae Graecae in 1529 mark the moment when the primacy in humane studies shifted to France. Italian scholarship did not perish; in Florence, Petrus Victorius continued the tradition of Politian. But though Victorius was an admirable scholar, he lacked Politian’s genius. Like him, he saw the need to select the oldest and best manuscripts: but where Politian would have used these as the basis of brilliant conjectures of his own, Victorius concentrated on providing a diplomatic copy, while abstaining from conjecture. In Paris the successors of Budaeus – Turnebus, Auratus and Lambinus – practised textual criticism with success, improving the texts by conjectures that were often of the highest quality. The gifted French Latinist Muretus, accused of unnatural vice, exchanged Paris for Rome and Protestantism for the Roman Church. Forming an alliance with the great Venetian printer Paulus Manutius, he became involved in a controversy over method with Victorius and his adherents. Each side was partly right: Victorius did well to insist on the importance of determining which were the best witnesses and establishing their readings, but Muretus justly asserted the importance of using wide knowledge and divinatory flair to establish the right reading.

Seeing the merits of both sides, Scaliger managed to combine the advantages of both. In his early twenties he developed a powerful technical apparatus; he liked to boast of being virtually self-taught in Greek, but Grafton shows that he learned much about textual criticism from Turnebus and Auratus and, later, much about the systematic reconstruction of archetypes and lost works from the great jurist Cujacius. At 24 he published valuable conjectures on Varro’s treatise on the Latin language; at 33, he brought out a brilliant edition of the ancient lexicon of Festus, a work of great importance for the early history of the language. His edition of the Latin love poets Catullus, Propertius and Tibullus was done in haste, and its arbitrary conjectures have been much decried: yet Grafton shows that Scaliger’s attempt to reconstruct the archetype of Catullus, although it failed because the manuscript evidence did not suffice, was an ambitious effort to apply new and original methods. People interested in Bentley or in Housman know that Scaliger was their predecessor in the difficult task of editing the astronomical poet Manilius: this was an astonishing performance, motivated, as Grafton shows, by the wish to confute the followers of Ramus, who had demanded an astronomy without hypotheses – such as he mistakenly believed existed in ancient Babylonia and Egypt. Grafton shows that Scaliger derived much from the polemic against astrology left unfinished at his early death by Pico della Mirandola.