Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.22

RESPONSE: Bierl/Calder on O'Donnell on Bierl/Calder

Anton Bierl, Karl-Marx-Universität, Leipzig
William M. Calder III, The University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign
Robert L. Fowler, The University of Waterloo, Ontario

R. L. Fowler (BMCR 2 [1991] 199) suggests that an explanation is wanted for the opposition of some classicists to work in the history of their own discipline. The review of Bierl-Calder-Fowler's editio princeps of the letters of Wilamowitz to Gilbert Murray by J. J. O'Donnell at BMCR 3 (1992) 94-96 provides an opportunity as it is an example of just this sort of opposition.

1. For a reason he never reveals, O'D. thinks that the only reason to publish letters of a great scholar is to provide (94): "Vorarbeiten to the exhaustive biography." The letters of a great man have value in themselves. The letters of Darwin, Einstein, Freud and Nietzsche have a value of their own. They are primary sources. Biographies based on them come and go. Within the field of classical studies Wilamowitz is the equal of these men in science, mathematics, psychology and philosophy. An enemy of classics might say that classics are so trivial that it is a waste of time to edit letters of their greatest practitioners. Someone who believes that classics are worth teaching the young cannot possibly agree. Hence distinguished scholars have edited the letters of Winckelmann, Justi, Droysen, A. Furtwängler, A. E. Housman, Gibbon, Jowett, Karl Lachmann, Hans Lietzmann, Th. Mommsen, Otto Jahn, Mark Pattison, J. A. Symonds, F. A. Wolf, Sir William Jones, and many others. Such letters contain textual emendations, exegesis, unpublished book reviews, brutally frank appraisals of colleagues, among much, much else.

2. American Classicists often seem unable to understand that Wilamowitz is of compelling interest to scholars who do not know the Greek alphabet. Like Th. Mommsen, J. G. Droysen, or Otto Jahn, he is a foremost product of nineteenth century Prussia. Thousands and thousands of copies of his books were sold and read. He influenced all sorts of educated people. He influenced the history of education and universities in Prussia, which until 1914 was the world's center for scholarship in the humanities and the natural sciences. He influenced literary figures and corresponded with them. Rilke's Alcestis was inspired by Wilamowitz' translation of the play. The performance of his translations of Greek tragedies permanently influenced the modern history of European theater. Officers read his war speeches at the front. He performed diplomatic missions for the state. He was rector of two of the greatest universities in Europe, Göttingen and Berlin. He was constantly interviewed and cited by the press of his day. He received the Order of Merit along with the greatest statesmen, thinkers, writers and artists of his time. He did not just emend Athenaeus. Because no American classicist ever attained such eminence, O'D. cannot conceive that any classicist ever did. He is wrong.

3. O'D. makes an error that many classicists make. He took a doctorate in medieval studies and has published his revised dissertation on Cassiodorus. He believes that this qualifies him to review competently the editio princeps of 63 documents illustrating Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Wilhelmine Prussia. Presumably he would object if Bernhard vom Brocke, the great figure in the history of nineteenth century Prussian higher education, dismissed as trivial his book on Cassiodorus. Presumably O'D. would not review a monograph on the Hellenistic coinage of Cappadocia. But he thinks that because he is member of a classical department he is competent to evaluate the history of classical studies in Europe, although he has never publshed in the subject. This is simply not the case. Wissenschaftsgeschichte is as much a specialized discipline as numismatics. Indeed often a practitioner of a subject is its worst historian. Fritz Stern has a lot more to say about Einstein than a modern physicist. Bronze Age archaeologists simply cannot deal with the new Schliemann-Forschung. They must either ignore it or inveigh against it.

We note two examples of O'D.'s naiveté. First he cannot understand (95) the importance of the fact that a Junker whose eldest brother was President of Posen and Knight of the Royal Bedchamber, welcomes a son-in-law whose father is a garbage collector. This does not reveal "contemptuous arrogance." It rather proves that Wilamowitz was far more "democratic" than the Victorian liberal Murray. He liked a man for what he was, not his parentage. If O'D could cite 20 Junkers whose daughters with the blessings of their fathers married the sons of garbage collectors, then citation of Wilamowitz would be banal. But he can not. Next O'D objects to printing the word, "wogs" (95). The context shows that Sir David considered Indian natives to be inferior and expendable. Wilamowitz objected publicly to this view. He, thereby, angered Murray. Someone familiar with the subject would never have raised these objections.

4. Why do some American classicists (Germans and Italians do not) see the history of their discipline as a threat? The editor of AJPh refuses to review books on the modern history of his subject, while a German will write a 100 page review of a 200 page volume of Wilamowitz' letters.1 The "Jaeger Seven" at CW 75 (1981/82) 121-122 (they include a director of the Hellenic Center, a president of APA and an editrix of TAPA) pled that Calder's work be forbidden publication. Why are they not proud of their glorious past? Part of it is Selbsthass. Classicists today are so poorly trained in comparison to the students of Wilamowitz' time that we cannot possibly write work equal to earlier efforts in the field. And the most brilliant men in American society are no longer attracted to classics as they were in Prussia. Marx and Nietzsche began as classicists. The discipline has declined percipitously and knowledge of their past discourages rather than inspires people like O'D.

5. The accurate editing of new source material, and indeed reading it, is drudges' work. O'D. summons us (96) to "The larger project of understanding the organic growth and place of scholarly endeavors in the wider social and political history of European culture." He ought to know as a medievalist that intellectual history, if it is to have any authority at all, must be based on accurately published primary sources. Because we lack them in this burgeoning new field, we must first provide them. Only then may we go on to O'D's "larger project."

6. O'D. writes of our book (96): "Fortunately, it will find few if any readers." He will be disappointed. The book has been reviewed favorably in TLS (April 17 1992) 28 and by Henning Ritter in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (27 May 1992) No. 123 p. N5,2 the New York Times of Germany. Books destined for "few if any readers" are not reviewed in these places. Because O'D. is ignorant of the field and has never contributed to it, he wildly underestimates the worldwide interest in Wissenschaftsgeschichte of which Wilamowitz' letters are part. There is an endless series of international conferences on the subject. Experts receive numerous invitations to lecture throughout the world. A lecture on Wilamowitz or Schliemann will often be reported in the local press. A BBC television documentary has been made about the new Schliemann research and shown throughout the world. FAZ will publish long reports on a Wilamowitz Conference or a Schliemann discussion. 200 offprints are gone in several weeks. A lecture on Sophocles or Cassiodorus goes unnoticed except by a small group of experts or friends. His assertion (96) that "biography of great men has had its day and may reasonably be described as the fit province of lesser talents" is premature. We only now have the best lives yet of J. G. Frazer, Lawrence, C. D. Lewis, MacMillan, Nabokov, Nietzsche, Ramsci, Schliemann, Wilde, and outstanding new ones of Goethe and Wilhelm II, all great men who affected classical studies. They are written by men of considerable talent. Many more are on the way. Wake up and smell the coffee, Mr. O'D.!


  • [1] See Edgar Pack, Quaderni di storia 33 (1991) 191-241; 34 (1991) 235-284 (Wilamowitz-Althoff letters). For a 25 page review of the same book see Wilt Aden Schroder, GGA 242 (1990) 211-236. Scholars do not review in such detail books they think trivial and unimportant.
  • [2] Ritter writes: "Worthy of respect is not only his mastery of the philological calling. What the letters of the Prussian philologist reveal above all and what makes them for philologists still today a goldmine is the scholarly altruism with which Wilamowitz does the work of his British colleague for this planned publication with details, readings, metrical elucidations, meanings... The pages of philological notes to Euripides, to Homer, to the history of Greek literature, give an impression of what was meant then by 'Grosswissenschaft.' O'D. (95) contrarily found "astonishingly little material of interest about ancient literature itself."