Archives for January, 2009


How to be a Classical Philologist, pt. 2

Thomas Corsten’s BMCR review of the Choix d’écrits of Louis Robert (2007) spoke to me:

In sum, this book–like each individual publication by Robert–shows clearly the method every epigraphist or, rather, every historian should follow, i.e., to start from the evidence (not from theories), that is from all available sorts of evidence, in this case inscriptions, coins and literature, and from there to move to drawing conclusions. … Robert’s Choix d’écrits as well as everything he has written should be compulsory reading for every student and scholar of antiquity–and especially for the many in our times who are busy destroying the foundation on which all serious research is based: the study of ancient documents.


How to be a Classical Philologist

This is adapted from a passage in Laurand’s Manuel des études grecques et latines (v. 3, VII 353-6). It’s simple, commonsensical, and generally good advice. And classicists need to be reminded now and again to do the actual work of philology lest they be, as one old professor used to say, all hat and no cow.

The Reading of ancient texts.
This is too often neglected. People read about but never read Plato, for example.
How to read (different but indispensable approaches):
‣ In-depth, slow reading (lente, pace Nietzsche)
• understanding all of the questions
• produces much fruit
• one can never read all of Plato in this way, or can read Herodotus but misses the big picture
‣ Very rapid reading
• understanding the big picture, outside connections
• ensures that you never become too narrow-minded
‣ You need calm, privacy, tranquility if you are to be moved by reading the great works.
The Reading of Modern Works.
These should be read in so far as they aid comprehension.
Commentators, critics, historians, philologists, linguists, grammarians, etc. can offer many insights in your goal of understanding ancient texts.
Should you take notes?
Often people take too many, then seeing the futility, never take enough.
How you should take notes:
‣ Briefly give your general impression.
‣ Note the general value of a modern work and how it might be useful.
‣ Consider how useful your note will be. Be economical and practical.
• If the index or some other reference will make it easy to find a reference, you’re wasting time and effort in writing too much.
‣ Use notebooks. Note cards are generally inefficient, inconvenient, and easily lost. They have only limited use in organizing certain kinds of research.

The importance laid upon reading here is at the heart of Housman’s famous remarks in the classic essay on The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism. This long quotation is well worth reading through (and gives context to the harshest of his words often viewed as pure invective):

[It] is only a minority of those who engage in this study who are sincerely bent upon the discovery of truth. We all know that the discovery of truth is seldom the sole object of political writers; and the world believes, justly or unjustly, that it is not always the sole object of theologians: but the amount of sub-conscious dishonesty which pervades the textual criticism of the Greek and Latin classics is little suspected except by those who have had occasion to analyse it. People come upon this field bringing with them prepossessions and preferences; they are not willing to look all facts in the face, nor to draw the most probable conclusion unless it is also the most agreeable conclusion. Most men are rather stupid, and most of those who are not stupid are, consequently, rather vain; and it is hardly possible to step aside from the pursuit of truth without falling a victim either to your stupidity or else to your vanity. Stupidity will then attach you to received opinions, and you will stick in the mud; or vanity will set you hunting for novelty, and you will find mare’s-nests. Added to these snares and hindrances there are the various forms of partisanship: sectarianism, which handcuffs you to your own school and teachers and associates, and patriotism, which handcuffs you to your own country. Patriotism has a great name as a virtue, and in civic matters, at the present stage of the world’s history, it possibly still does more good than harm; but in the sphere of intellect it is an unmitigated nuisance. I do not know which cuts the worse figure: a German scholar encouraging his countrymen to believe that “wir Deutsche” have nothing to learn from foreigners, or an Englishman demonstrating the unity of Homer by sneers at “Teutonic professors,” who are supposed by his audience to have goggle eyes behind large spectacles, and ragged moustaches saturated in lager beer, and consequently to be incapable of forming literary judgments.

I’ve put the most oft-quoted passage in bold italics.

The essential point to my mind is that one should forgo all secondary considerations, such as traditional interpretations, faddish theories, and personal or national interests, and rather seek truth in the evidence. In the case of classical philology, the evidence is to be found in the remnants of the past aided by the proven methods of allied fields (such as archaeology and palaeography). There is a science to much of the study of antiquity, but there is also an art to the study of literature, and it is one that can not be mastered without reading the texts, as much as one can, now for the forest, now for the trees.

But read, damn it!