What the Romans did

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • English Classical Scholarship: Historical Reflections on Bentley, Porson and Housman by C.O. Brink
    James Clark, 243 pp, £11.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 227 67872 9
  • Latin Poets and Roman Life by Jasper Griffin
    Duckworth, 226 pp, £24.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 7156 1970 5
  • The Mirror of Myth: Classical Themes and Variations by Jasper Griffin
    Faber, 144 pp, £15.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 571 13805 5

Classical education is one thing, critical scholarship is another, and in his sketch of the history of Classical education in England, built around a detailed treatment of its three most celebrated figures, Professor Brink is concerned above all to describe and to make a case for the element of critical scholarship that Classical education may contain. Textual criticism is an important kind of critical scholarship, but it is not the only kind: one must discover what the authors actually wrote, but one must also determine the reliability of the documents and monuments surviving from the Ancient world.

Among the Humanists of the Renaissance only the occasional man of genius like Lorenzo Valla or Politian (Angelo Poliziano) made a critical approach to the ancient texts they studied. During the 16th century, eminent French scholars like Scaliger and Casaubon did so with notable effect, but most scholars were content to list readings in variorum editions and to collect historical ‘antiquities’. Until the 17th century this country remained, in this respect, on the fringe of Europe. Then Thomas Gataker, who turned down the Mastership of Trinity, practised critical scholarship in his commentary on Marcus Aurelius, and John Pearson, an eminent theologian, who was successively Master of Jesus, Master of Trinity and Bishop of Chester, displayed it in brilliant emendations of the text of Aeschylus.

In 1662 Richard Bentley, one of the greatest critical scholars, was born near Wakefield. In 1700 he became Master of Trinity, and despite continual battles with the fellows survived until the age of 80. Bentley was an outstanding textual critic. His famous edition of Horace has been thought to contain too many ingenious, even wild conjectures, but Professor Brink, who believes the text of Horace to be less well preserved than many scholars have allowed, is disposed to rate Bentley’s work particularly high. Many of his emendations, especially those in his edition of the astronomical poet Manilius, are certain or highly probable. But Brink is rightly concerned to point out that Bentley was more than a textual critic: he did epoch-making work – particularly in his famous dissertation which demonstrated the spuriousness of the letters attributed to the Sicilian tyrant Phalaris – towards establishing the methods by which truth may be elicited from ancient documents. Brink prefers to dwell on his friendship with Newton and savants, his promotion of science as well as humane studies, and his plans for college and university reform, rather than on the unedifying history of the many quarrels in which he was involved: indeed, he reproves Wilamowitz for having found these amusing. He does not approve of people who derive a low enjoyment from the story of how Bentley applied his emendatory skill to the text of Paradise Lost, explaining its corrupt state by the claim that it had been wilfully distorted by an amanuensis who had exploited Milton’s blindness. Quoting learned authorities, he gives Bentley credit for having raised important questions regarding Milton.

Those Englishmen who carried on the work of critical scholarship after Bentley concentrated on one aspect of his legacy: his textual criticism. But they neglected the rest. Richard Porson devoted his remarkable powers, when he was not drunk, to the emendation of the dialogue parts of Attic drama, and the same was true of a group of gifted English scholars active during the half-century before 1825, the year of what Housman called the ‘successive strokes of doom’ which consigned Dobree and Elmsley to the grave and Blomfield to the bishopric of Chester. Brink shows how Housman adapted a remark of Wilamowitz in order to make this famous sentence, and shows us why it is amusing.

But after this time critical scholarship was little practised in 19th-century England, and when it did appear it was for many years outside the universities: for half a century no Oxford or Cambridge scholar produced anything comparable to Grote’s history of Greece and his work on Plato and Aristotle. Although Classical education flourished in the public schools and in the ancient universities, critical scholarship had little part in it. Teachers in these institutions were far more interested in translation from English into the Ancient languages, and in the inculcation of received notions about history and philosophy. Brink remarks that ‘the change poses an historical problem of some complexity’, but gives no kind of answer; nor do we find one in Robin Jenkyns’s elegant coffee-table book, The Victorians and Ancient Greece, or in the far more searching Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain by F.M. Turner. One important cause of this failure was that though the universities became increasingly secularised during the century, especially after the University Commission of the Fifties, they were not quickly emancipated from the long domination of the clergy. Of course many clergymen, including Bentley, have been critical scholars, but in general people accustomed to training others in the acceptance of established orthodoxy do not readily adopt a critical attitude towards documents. In Germany, where the universities were strictly secular, the atmosphere was very different.

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