BMCR 1995.02.03

1995.02.03, Momigliano, Studies in Modern Scholarship, ed. G. W. Bowersock and T. J. Cornell

, , , A.D. Momigliano : studies on modern scholarship. Studies on modern scholarship.. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. xxi, 341 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780520070011 $40.00 (hb).

It was an excellent idea to provide this selection of Momigliano’s superb and famous essays. Some of the English ones have been reprinted before, but they are accompanied here by many new translations. Moreover, the clear focus of the collection, indicated by the title, makes it highly attractive. These are studies on modern scholarship; if any selection is to be made from M.’s vast output, it is wise to concentrate on the kind of essay for which he was best known, and in which he was at his best. The editors have selected well; I have no serious quarrel with what has been omitted, except that a case might be made for throwing in “Le regole del giuoco nello studio della storia antica” ( Sesto contributo alla storia degli studi classici e del mondo antico [Rome 1980 (1974)] 1 ff.). “Modern” seems to mean 19th and 20th centuries: none of the essays on Gibbon, therefore; fair enough. Where a choice existed between several essays on the same subject, one can generally see why the editors have chosen the one they did; but cross-references to the others would have been helpful. Included are chapters on Creuzer; Grote; Rostovtzeff; Burckhardt; De Sanctis; Syme; Croce; Beloch; Bernays; Droysen; Fustel de Coulanges; Reinhardt; Schwartz; Freeman; Meyer; Dumézil; K.O. Müller; Bachofen, Warde Fowler, and Cumont; and the long essay “New Paths of Classicism in the Nineteenth Century,” a rather heterogeneous collection of thoughts on Niebuhr, Mommsen, Max Weber, Fustel again, Usener, Wellhausen, Wilamowitz, and Schwartz again. Scores of other writers are touched on in passing. The volume is a treasurehouse and ought to be owned by anyone at all interested in the history of our discipline, or in history.

M.’s stature is beyond dispute. All his work combines the highest intelligence with the keenest insight and most industrious learning. No one can fail to profit from him, or fail to marvel at the virtuosity with which he conducts the orchestra of ideas resounding on every page. No labyrinth of personal connections, -isms, and historical nexuses seems too complicated for him to find the way through; only occasionally does his lucidity waver, but so great is the respect he commands that one’s first instinct (at least mine) is to assume that the confusion lies with the reader, not the writer.

Inevitably there are judgments with which one disagrees. In a book of thousands it could hardly be otherwise. More to the point they are worth disagreeing with. Contrast the book in which one loses interest because disagreeing toto caelo.—”Oxford went German when the Oxford Movement was defeated” (p. 122), followed by a discussion of Mark Pattison. Oxford—insofar as any one statement can be predicated of the place—did not go German until Eduard Fraenkel arrived. Pattison was not representative. M.’s remarks on him would be given a better perspective by recalling the element of truth in George Eliot’s striking caricature of Pattison as Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch, or Rhoda Broughton’s as Professor Forth in Belinda. He was an utterly repellent person whose memoirs become interesting at precisely those moments when he ceases to speak of himself.—One may doubt the conclusion that Droysen did not continue his Hellenistic history because he did not know what to do with the Jews. That he was the spouse and best friend of Jews hardly seems to support M.’s case, as he seems to think; rather the opposite. Probably he just got interested in other things.—Of the four main elements identified in Fustel’s work on p. 173 (“the development of the organisation of the state from gens to city through curia and tribe; the parallelism of Indian, Greek, and Roman institutions; the evolution of religion from the worship of ancestors to the gods of nature … [and] the link between private property and the history of ancient religion”), it seems incredible that M. chooses the last as the most important for the development of ancient history in the past century, especially since he easily shows elsewhere in the book how weak the theory is (p. 240). He must be thinking only of Fustel’s emphasis on private property, leaving aside its supposed connection with religion.—While the remarks on Wilamowitz on p. 185 are sound and perceptive, the judgment on p. 272 about his religion is very wide of the mark:

It was no accident that Wilamowitz got into trouble with Nietzsche very early. Throughout his long life he was involved in the business of keeping his classicism within an undogmatic, vaguely Christian religious tradition. The man who ended his career at eighty-two with a book on the faith of the Greeks had started to write about Greek religion sixty years before. He was probably no more certain of his own beliefs when he was eighty than he had been when he was twenty-five. He only knew he could not consider himself a Christian in any serious sense.

Leaving aside the reasons for his quarrel with Nietzsche, which were largely personal, and where they were not, had nothing to do with Christianity, the remarks on Wilamowitz’ religion are inconsistent with his intelligence and could only be right if, like many intelligent people, he left his reason behind when he entered the realm of religion. But they are not right. From the age of 18 to 82 he called himself a Platonist and meant it. Wilamowitz seems vague about Christianity only because Plato seems vaguely Christian; one would no more reasonably fault him on these grounds than one would fault Jesus himself for being only vaguely Jewish. Elsewhere in the book M., though not hostile, is less than warm towards Wilamowitz; certain aspects of his character did not appeal to him, as is plain from “Premesse per una discussione su Wilamowitz,”Sesto contributo (Rome 1980 [1973]) 337-49.—To complain two years after the publication of ATL III that “[w]e have no up-to-date history of … the Athenian empire” (28) seems petulant, and to argue in an inaugural lecture at University College, London in 1952 that “all students of ancient history know in their heart that Greek history is passing through a crisis” (16), quite apart from questions of tact, seems a tendentious exaggeration that must have baffled anyone within a hundred miles of a practising historian—Gomme, for instance, or Jacoby, or Wade-Gery; to say nothing of the archaeologists.—Finally, the trenchant comment that opens “New Paths of Classicism in the Nineteenth Century” (223):

In our time there is a great danger that those who talk most readily about historians and scholars may not know too much about history and scholarship. Housman’s homosexuality or Wilamowitz’ erratic behavior with his father-in-law Mommsen are easier to describe than Housman’s achievements as an editor of Manilius or Wilamowitz’ understanding of Aeschylus.

Similar thoughts were expressed in a review of Herbert Butterfield’s Man on his Past (1956 ), reprinted in Quinto contributo (Rome 1975) 891 ff. (I translate):

In our time there is a danger that the study of the history of historiography will become a specialty in its own right, with the consequence that we will have Ranke scholars who do not know the history of the papacy, and Mommsen scholars who do not know Roman public law; instead of researchers who examine the history of a problem in order to solve it, we have all too often students of the history of a problem who are not interested in the problem.

And again in “Le regole del giuoco,” already cited:

To judge a modern study in Greco-Roman history without knowing the ancient sources is in the better case impressionistic; in the worse and more common case it is a sign of arrogant ignorance. A great part of what we hear about Gibbon, Niebuhr, Grote, Meyer, Rostovtzeff—to say nothing of lesser or insignificant figures—, not being grounded in a knowledge of the documents on which these historians worked, is useless.

One sees what he means, of course, and M. was hardly unaware of the part that personality plays in scholarship. One can only agree that the personalia have their place, and should be kept there. But in itself there is no reason why classical scholarship and classical scholars cannot be studied as a phenomenon of western society by someone who is not a classicist. Historians of science, though they need to know something of science, are not often scientists, and are probably not interested in the same kinds of questions as the scientists themselves. To some readers M. may be too severe in his concentration on politics, philosophy, and religion; humans are made of more than this. And in point of fact, the part played by Housman’s homosexuality in his personality is a great deal more difficult to describe than his achievement as an editor of Manilius.

The personality of these essays is strong. The overriding interest in biography and the belief in the greatness of individuals; the pursuit of true historical judgment and the abomination of relativism while recognizing the inescapability of context; the assessment of the universal in history allied with insistence on the primacy of empirical investigation and respect for evidence; the simple love of ideas—all are combined in a powerful persona. The implicit and explicit exhortation to historians to assess their position over against their predecessors makes it certain that, all the while M. was taking the measure of his illustrious subjects, he was taking his own. A better example of a man building his own monument with his life’s work is hard to think of. One volume of the Contributi followed another like megaliths. The earliest essay in the volume, as Cornell notes in the excellent introduction to the book, is clearly programmatic.

M. was justified in his assessment of himself as a scholar. But the place in his life and character of the book’s most persistent Leitmotif—liberty and liberalism—will surely become the subject of heated debate, once the new evidence concerning his relations with the fascist party in the 30’s, to which Bowersock alludes in the introduction, is published. Any assessment must wait till then. But whatever the outcome of the debate, M.’s scholarship remains. Cornell in the introduction quotes M. himself: “The fact that Georges Dumézil was, we are told, a supporter of the Action française is not an argument against his theories on Indo-European society. In an age of ideologies, we must be careful to submit scholarly results to the sole legitimate criterion of evaluation, which is the reliability of the evidence.” De Man was different: the revelations instantly showed his theories up for what they were, a hoax of a philosophy that implicitly suspended morality and thus the need to excuse one’s actions. Momigliano’s essays shall be read as long as history is read, and we are grateful to the editors for the service they have done.