Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.02.43

Ingo Gildenhard, Martin Ruehl, Out of Arcadia: Classics and Politics in Germany in the Age of Burckhardt, Nietzsche and Wilamowitz. BICS, Suppl. 79.   London:  Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2003.  Pp. vii, 208.  ISBN 0-900587-90-3.  £45.00.  

Reviewed by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Wellesley, MA
Word count: 4212 words

We have here the proceedings of a conference held at Princeton University in April, 1999. From a brief introduction by the two editors we learn that the conference "brought together European and American specialists from different disciplines -- classics, ancient and modern history, as well as literature -- to address a central theme: the gradual erosion of the neohumanist, emancipatory legacy of philhellenism in the Wilhelmine era [1888 - 1918] and the increasing susceptibility of classical scholars to illiberal, nationalist and -- especially after World War I -- racist beliefs." The first essay in the book, by Egon Flaig, is entitled "Jacob Burckhardt, Greek Culture, and Modernity." The author starts by informing us that "the masterpieces of nineteenth-century historiography are fraught with political agendas" and that "under the veneer of disinterested historical scholarship, their authors consistently pursue decidedly contemporary concerns." "This essay," its author tells us, "offers a case study of one scholar who did so in an extreme fashion, Jacob Burckhardt; the extent to which his obsessive fear of current political developments determined the account of the crumbling of the Greek polis in his Griechische Kulturgeschichte is truly astonishing, yet rarely recognized."

Flaig points out that Burckhardt saw from the start that the kind of liberalism represented by Benjamin Constant, which held that the people should govern not directly, but through their elected representatives, offered no security against the danger of the tyranny of the masses; whenever reflection prevailed over customs or traditions, political equality was bound to lead to the levelling of social and economic hierarchy. The ancient Greeks, Flaig writes, could not find a way out of democracy; but modern nation states avoided the anarchy of civil war because they maintained large standing armies. "After a series of serious social upheavals," Flaig continues, "these modern states would turn into ruthless military dictatorships." "Here," he tells us, "the much lauded Basel prophet erred."

But did he? It has often been observed that Burckhardt predicted the events of the twentieth century a good deal more accurately than any other writer. Having lived through the civil war in Switzerland and the sectarian war of the Sonderbund of 1847 and having meditated on the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, he had been prepared for the revolutionary years that began in 1848. He belonged to the patriarchate of Basel, and he was keenly aware that its power gave protection against the tyranny of the masses.

Flaig regards Burckhardt's worries about cultural continuity and the rule of the masses and his insistence that the citizen must be prepared to fight against those who threaten his country as deeply reactionary and indeed proto-fascist. But Lionel Gossman in a brief comment on an earlier version of Flaig's essay rightly dismisses this opinion, reminding us of how during the National Socialist period in Germany Alfred von Martin courageously promoted his view of Burckhardt as an opponent of that kind of thing. He points out that Burckhardt was an old-fashioned liberal who was more concerned with the individual as personality than with the individual as a bearer of rights and a subject of moral decisions.

The title of Gossman's own essay is Dante's line "Per me si va nella città dolente," and its subtitle is "Burckhardt on the Polis." He first describes the treatment of the Greek polis and of the comparison between them and the Swiss cantons by Grote, Freeman and Burckhardt's senior colleague, Wilhelm Vischer-Bilfinger. Then he proceeds to an excellent treatment of Burckhardt's Griechische Kulturgeschichte, showing how for Burckhardt the democratic polis is the most illiberal of all. "It is not hard to see," he writes, "how [Burckhardt's account of it] could be construed as part of a conservative account of privilege. But it is also a powerful restatement, in the age of Blood and Iron, of a classic liberal, anti-Machiavellian view of the state found in Benjamin Constant and, before him, in Montesquieu."

Next comes Martin Ruehl's essay "1871: Nietzsche contra Wagner on the Greek State." Ruehl draws attention to a short essay of Nietzsche entitled Der Griechische Staat, written early in 1871, the year of The Birth of Tragedy (Nietzsche, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Colli and Montinari I, 767-8), which belonged to an early draft version of that work, about 120 pages long. In this essay Nietzsche calls in question the "neo-humanist, emancipatory image of the Greek polis" to be found in Wagner's aesthetics, and also stresses the love of competition shown by its inhabitants. Nietzsche had already begun to be influenced by Burckhardt, who had been his colleague at Basel since 1869, and in 1870 was busy in preparing the lectures on the history of Greek civilization which led finally to the writing of his Griechische Kulturgeschichte. In 1871 Nietzsche had already begun to move towards the political ideas put forward in his later writings. Ruehl suggests that this may have originated as part of the Birth of Tragedy, but may have been removed at the request of Wagner. At the time of the suppression of the Paris Commune in May, 1871, Nietzsche and Wagner were on different sides. When Nietzsche presented a version of this essay as a birthday present to Cosima Wagner in December, 1872, it was not well received at Tribschen.

Ruehl admirably shows how Burckhardt and Nietzsche concurred in their dread of the danger of mass movements, in their exaltation of the heroic individual and in their movement away from the liberalism of the old German philhellenism towards "a new, radically anti-democratic conception of politics and culture, paired with an 'aesthetic immoralism.'" By drawing attention to the importance of Nietzsche's essay Der Griechische Staat he has usefully supplemented the valuable account of the relationship of Nietzsche and Burckhardt in Stefan Bauer's Polisbild und Demokratieverständnis in Jacob Burckhardt's Griechischer Kulturgeschichte.

The next essay is by Andreas Urs Sommer, and is entitled "On the Genealogy of the Genealogical Method: Overbeck, Nietzsche and the Search for Origins." At Basel Nietzsche became acquainted with Franz Overbeck (1837-1905), who became Professor of New Testament Studies and Ancient Church History in 1871. Overbeck strongly argued for a sharp distinction between the original form of Christianity, still closely related to Judaism and not intended for a wider external public, and the Patristic Christianity, closely related to the Greco-Roman culture of the time, that started about the middle of the second century. "It is in the nature of all canonization to render its objects unrecognizable, and one might say with some justification that all the writings in the New Testament ceased to be understood the moment they were canonized."

In the Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche had assumed that the culture of archaic Greece was normative for the future. But in the second Untimely Meditation he departed from this belief, and in abandoning the ideas and ideals of metaphysics in Human, All Too Human, he also abandoned the normative conception of origins. As Sommer puts it, "he is no longer interested in the origin (Ursprung) of a phenomenon, but in its provenance or descent (Herkunft)." "What Nietzsche formulates here," Sommer writes, "is a sketch of the program of the genealogical method which he will put into action in the Genealogy of Morality."

In Nietzsche's view, our moral concepts are not the product of practical reason, but "rest on the gradual self-empowerment of the large masses, which prevailed over the values of the few 'naturally' strong." "His later work," according to Sommer, "focusses on the difference between the original and the originated, which frequently occludes the original almost entirely."

Sommer argues that Overbeck actually anticipated Nietzsche's disbelief in normative origins. He believes that Overbeck "considered Christianity, perhaps even religion as such, as an historically obsolete phenomenon, whose death certificate he issued with his Church historical studies," but that "he was evidently unwilling to share such philosophical reflections with the public," and renounced the attempt to convince the greater public of the truth of his theory.

We should note that Uvo Hoelscher in his contribution to Altertumswissenschaft in den 20er Jahren (ed. H. Flashar, 1995) observed that Walter F. Otto had taken an important clarifying step beyond the historicism and rationalism of the nineteenth century, comparable with the step beyond liberal theology taken by Karl Barth. He thought that Otto had been influenced by Nietzsche, but Barth by Overbeck.

The fifth essay is again by Flaig, and is called "Towards Rassenhygiene: Wilamowitz and the German New Right." Flaig first examines Wilamowitz's Staat und Gesellschaft (1910; 2nd.edn., 1923). He finds that in this work Wilamowitz is inconsistent in his use of the notion of race; in the first part of the work he conceives of race in a biological sense, arguing that both Greeks and Phoenicians owed their exceptional vivacity to the mixing of races, but in the second part he argues that the unique spirit of the Greeks has nothing to do with "racial purity." But in Der Glaube der Hellenen, Flaig argues, Wilamowitz operates with a peculiar conception of "faith," an individual religion of the heart believed in by an elite and distinct from the religion of the masses with its cult and the bond among its members; Wilamowitz carried to extreme lengths the belief common to Droysen and Harnack that Christian religion owed more to Greece than to Israel. Like Walter F. Otto, Flaig claims, Wilamowitz believed in the real existence of the Greek gods, but at the same time he believed in a specially Greek monotheism different from that of Judaism, to which he was profoundly hostile. Using the vocabulary of the new "eugenics," he argues, Wilamowitz was advocating a kind of Rassenhygiene akin to that later associated with National Socialism.

Flaig is not the first to have regarded Wilamowitz as a proto-Nazi. On pp. 56-79 of Wilamowitz nach 50 Jahren (edd. W.M. Calder III, H. Flashar and T. Lindken, 1985), L. Canfora anticipates Flaig by setting out to prove Wilamowitz to have been a kind of National Socialist avant la lettre. In a review of the book in which Canfora's piece appeared (Classical Review 36 [1986], 400-1 = Academic Papers, 1990, ii 400-1)), I dealt briefly with his thesis. I remarked that Wilamowitz belonged to the Prussian aristocracy of his time, which had a strong strain of nationalism and militarism and that he did all he could to promote the German cause in the First World War. But I pointed out that though Wilamowitz, like many persons of his type, may have thrown out the odd remark that sounded anti-Semitic, he was certainly not anti-Semitic in his practice and that a letter published in the same book as Canfora's piece (p.612) showed his utter contempt for racial theories about Aryanism. I wrote that "he would have despised Hitler as a socialist and a guttersnipe, and, though he would have derived pleasure, had he lived on, from the triumphs of 1939-41, July 1944 would have found him in full sympathy with the conspirators, who were indeed people of his own kind." But a more detailed and more effective refutation of Canfora's thesis will be found in the review of the book in which it appeared by Rudolf Kassel (Göttinger Gelehrter Anzeiger 234, 1987 = Kleine Schriften, 1991, 541-4); anyone who is sympathetic to Flaig's essay would do well to take a look at it.

The next essay, by Suzanne Marchand, is entitled "From Liberalism to Neoromanticism: Albrecht Dieterich, Richard Reitzenstein, and the Religious Turn in Fin-de-Siècle German Classical Studies." Marchand spares us an extensive discussion of liberal and historicist classicism, having dealt with it in her book Down From Olympus (reviewed by me in International Journal of the Classical Tradition 5.3 [1999], 456-6). So she starts by touching on the immense increase of detailed knowledge of the ancient East that accumulated during the nineteenth century. She complains that for a long time Hellenists took little notice of this; the disastrous failure of the study of the migration of religious symbols and ideas of Friedrich Creuzer (Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker, 1810-12) for a long time put them off it. But the school of Hermann Usener at Bonn taught many students of ancient Greece and Rome the value of knowing about oriental religion, astrology, etymology and comparative folklore. Now there arose a second Oriental Renaissance. This brings her to a brief mention of Bachofen, Burckhardt and Nietzsche, and of the Psyche of Nietzsche's friend Rohde, and she goes on to list important artifacts not deriving from classical antiquity, including Minoan art and Egyptian papyri. She finishes by observing that "as information and artifacts from the Orient poured in, the uniqueness of classical antiquity -- and Christianity -- began to look rather more questionable." In a section entitled The Origins of Religionsgeschichte Marchand gives a useful sketch of the new critical history written by historians of Christianity, starting with W. M. L. de Wette's denial of the historicity of the Jewish holy books, and going on to F. C. Baur, who as she puts it "rewrote Gibbon with a positive twist," the controversial life of Jesus by D. F. Strauss in the 1830's, the movement of the study of Christianity away from Judaism and Jewish scholarship effected by Albert Ritschl, and the high degree of scepticism applied to the early history of the Church by Ritschl's famous pupil, Adolf von Harnack, who despite conservative opposition became professor in Berlin and wielded immense influence. Harnack was a close friend of Wilamowitz. The radical Old Testament criticism initiated by De Wette was continued by Julius Wellhausen, another friend of Wilamowitz, who in Marchand's words "revived Herder's highly unflattering portrait of Hellenistic Judaism."

But for the next generation, Marchand remarks, the liberal generation and the rationalist dogmatics of Ritschl and Harnack had not gone far enough. For the first time since Creuzer, the origin of religions came to be investigated; a second Oriental Renaissance came into being, and she mentions Sir James Frazer, Ernest Renan and Fustel de Coulanges. Eduard Meyer combined his expertise in Greek religion with vast knowledge of Oriental religions and Mommsen was not unsympathetic to young scholars belonging to the new movement such as Richard Reitzenstein. Marchand notes that Hermann Usener at Bonn, who combined comparative ethnological analysis with phenomenological hermeneutics, trained an impressive list of pupils. But she remarks that this movement made little impression on Wilamowitz, who wrote "Über andere Völker habe ich kein Urteil; die Griechen kenne ich," Der Glaube der Hellenen, 1931, p.288, n.3).

Marchand devotes a whole section to Usener's pupils Albrecht Dieterich and Richard Reitzenstein. Dieterich started by working on Greek magical papyri, demonstrating how they displayed Gnostic, Egyptian and Orphic influence. His study of a Mithras liturgy showed that it displayed parallels with Christian doctrine. Later in Mutter Erde he used telluric religion to try to explore "the basic forms of religious thought."

J. G. Droysen had shown how the conquests of Alexander had exposed a vast region to Greek influence, initiating the Hellenistic period, and set out to provide knowledge of the Oriental religions that were active in that period. Over two hundred years earlier Casaubon had shown that the Corpus Hermeticum was later than Christianity, and now Reitzenstein showed that it had an important influence on the Greek religion of the Hellenistic period. Next while Adolf Deissmann was showing how the Greek of the New Testament and in Greek version of the Old Testament related to classical Greek and to the contemporary world, Reitzenstein, and also Franz Cumont, was demonstrating the importance of the mystery religions of the Hellenistic world, dealing first with Egyptian and later with Iranian religion. Reitzenstein went on to study Mandaean documents, which seemed to contain pre-Christian Gnostic ideas, and Manichaean manuscripts found in Chinese Turkestan; later he concentrated on Iranian religion. His lack of attention to Jewish influences on Christianity was shown by Eduard Schwartz and others to have been excessive, and his orientalizing has rightly been judged to have gone too far; but Marchand justly remarks that "his work, if deeply flawed, did at least create a wider and more complicated debate on Christian origins than that permitted by liberal theology." As she remarks, the liberal school of thought held out against the Neoromantics for a long time; "it would be 1932 before Wilamowitz, Harnack and Eduard Meyer left the stage."

The next essay, by Ingo Gildenhard, is entitled "Philologia Perennis? Classical Scholarship and Functional Differentiation." Philologia Perennis is the title of a notable Festrede delivered by Rudolf Pfeiffer to the Bavarian Academy in 1961, and Gildenhard starts by remarking that in Pfeiffer's History of Classical Scholarship classical philology figures as one continuous undertaking that began in Ptolemaic Alexandria and continues today. But he goes on to remark that on or about 8 April, 1777, when Friedrich August Wolf insisted on being written down as philologiae studiosus, the nature of the classics changed, first in Germany and then everywhere else, and that "philology has been a hotly contested notion ever since." Gildenhard goes on to examine the different notions of philology entertained by Usener, Wilamowitz and Werner Jaeger.

Usener explained his view of philology in a Rektoratsrede delivered at Bonn in 1882, entitled Philologie und Geisteswissenschaft. Following Boeckh, he took it to be "not a "science" Wissenschaft) but a method -- the main method, in fact, of a comprehensive historical and cultural science." Owing to the discovery of strong oriental influences, research cannot be organized along strict national boundaries, and academic historians must now explore "all manifestations of cultural life." Usener conceived the study of classical antiquity as "part of a comprehensive science of humanity." The philologist must know the language of the sources and understand the procedures of recension and interpretation, but he cannot understand a text in "philological isolation"; he must "stand in dialogue with general bodies of knowledge and feed into agendas of enquiry that go beyond the interpretation of an individual text, author or culture." Gildenhard remarks that Usener "anticipated by over a century many impulses that have only recently come into their own, such as the pursuit of ethnography and anthropological perspectives, the use of comparative methods, and the transdisciplinary approach towards defining research agencies."

Now to Wilamowitz. In a letter of February 1883 he is polite about Usener's lecture, but stresses the overwhelming need for the teacher of philology to give its subject life, thus reasserting its status as not simply a method of research, but as a genuine science. By means of "a peculiar mixture of science and religion," the philologist must transport his audience into "an encounter with the ancient world itself."

In fact there is nothing in Wilamowitz's letter that is irreconcilable with the general view outlined by Usener. But Gildenhard finds it necessary to go on to examine the inaugural lecture which Werner Jaeger gave when he became professor at Basel in 1914, which was entitled Philologie und Historie.

Jaeger insists on the existence of essential differences (innere Merkmale) which separate the philologist and the historian. For him the two represent "two autonomous ways of life that reside in themselves" and are "forces of value in our spiritual existence"; in his view "the historian wants to establish and explain facts, the philologist wishes to view eternal truths." Jaeger laments that "no longer do we have the kind of unified culture that characterized antiquity, the Middle Ages, or even, still, the eighteenth century." "Nowadays," he writes, "enlightenment, individualism, and the banishment of the comprehensive spirit of religion and the church from state and society are ceaselessly generating new forms of instability in personal and public life." For Jaeger the philologist is the guardian of cultural continuity; as Gildenhard puts it, "philology turns into theology," and a discourse which began as a critical disquisition turns into a sermon."

For Gildenhard Usener (born 1831), Wilamowitz (born 1848) and Jaeger (born 1888) are "three almost contemporary philologists," but they "embraced radically different notions of philology," and he attributes the difference to the difficulty of practicing the study of ancient Greece and Rome in a "functionally different society." This term is a product of modern social theory, and, though Gildenhard admits that this and other similar expressions are "atrocious verbal monstra," he feels obliged to make use of them in order to "make scientific (not common) use of empirical data." "What sets modern society apart from all previous social orders," he writes, "is its high degree of functional differentiation"; "clusters of social practices, such as art, education, science, politics and economics, gradually began to differentiate themselves from the larger societal whole and, over time, acquired a certain level of internal autonomy." But is this really a very new development? Gildenhard himself remarks that the origins of this phenomenon can be traced to the late Middle Ages, and one might make a case for its having begun much earlier. In approaching the classics scientifically, Gildenhard argues, scholars were "sawing away at the proverbial branch on which they were sitting; a strong belief in the special value and wider, non-scientific significance of which they were in charge." But it seems to me perfectly possible for a modern classical scholar who in the course of his researches does not shrink from investigation of the driest topics, in his teaching and in his writing about certain aspects of art and literature, at the same time to aim at giving his audience an exciting experience of great art. That was the view of Wilamowitz, who cannot be accused of having flinched from the professional scholar's duty to tackle even the austerest parts of his material. It is true that some learned persons who perform a useful task are incapable of such an achievement; but some at least of these can be cordoned off into what Housman called "the chain-gangs working in the ergastula of Munich." What Gildenhall calls "Usener's shockingly mundane view of philology" becomes less shocking when one has taken note of this reflection.

Returning to Usener, Wilamowitz and Jaeger, Gildenhard writes that in Usener's view philology "remains entirely a part of the subsystem science; a method, even if an extraordinarily important one, of scientific research." But Gildenhard qualifies this by remarking that Usener was a Christian, who "identifies a reunited Christianity as the ultimate aim of his scholarly efforts." Wilamowitz, he observes, "elevated science into a religion," and "fervently believed in the moral value of scientific research," but at the same time he describes him as "ignoring, even despising, many of the critical instruments that scholarly research had already made available...such as the strict definition of concepts or the importance of method, especially cross-cultural comparison." Jaeger, he thinks, "throughout his career endeavoured to reconcile his commitment to scholarship with public proselytizing for his personal faith in classical antiquity," and "in the end was unable to resolve in any convincing fashion the paradox between spirituality and science that defined his attitude towards antiquity." Exactly; torn between these alternatives, Jaeger ended up by spending years on so dull a production as Paideia. Albert Henrichs has remarked that Jaeger is now less highly esteemed than such contemporaries as Jacoby, Reinhardt and Pfeiffer (Altertumswissenschaft in den 20er Jahren, ed. H. Flashar, 1995, 452).

Gildenhard concludes that Usener, Wilamowitz and Jaeger "are prime incarnations of Professor Janus; all three, he writes, "were thoroughly committed to the production of scientific knowledge and practised classical scholarship at the highest level...yet by trying to endow their research with special scientific meaning, purpose and value they all sought to countervail...the inexorable logic that inheres in modern science." He contrasts "the perspicacious, down-to-earth and internally coherent theorizing Usener offers...with the ideologically driven responses of his two interlocutors." "Social theory," he argues, "offers a more abstract and comprehensive account of the societal environment in which classicists are asked to perform, and may thereby help us better to understand the factors behind the tensions and tussles that have come to define our field and to clarify the options and choices we have (to make) in shaping its future." "In a functionally differentiated society," he writes, "the environment classicists inhabit is composite, including various scientific and educational contexts," and "the challenges that ensue as classicists travel from one context to another elude the heuristic grasp of binary schemes." I find all this as useless as it is boring.

In an appendix "on historicization" Gildenhard deals at some length with "the fifth volume of G. W. Most's inspiring series Aporemata: Kritische Studien zur Philologiegeschichte"; "the immense value of the collection as a whole and of Most's preface is the problematization of a problem that tends to be taken for granted." No doubt the reader who has enjoyed Gildenhard's survey will be in a hurry to peruse the five inspiring volumes.

Looking back at the volume, it seems to me that "the increasing susceptibility of classical scholars to illiberal, nationalist and -- especially after World War I -- racist beliefs" has not in effect loomed so large as the introduction suggests it will, and where it has been mentioned has been a good deal exaggerated.

Gossman and Ruehl are the only contributors who show literary skill, and most of the book makes dull reading. Its dreariness is somewhat mitigated by its containing many references to relevant literature which could be useful, but unfortunately it has only a very brief and unsatisfactory index.

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