BMCR 2000.09.08

Friedrich August Wolf: Studien, Dokumente, Bibliographie. Palingenesia 67

, , Friedrich August Wolf : Studien, Dokumente, Bibliographie. Palingenesia ; Bd. 67. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1999. 144 pages : portrait ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515076379. DM 48.

As every graduate student learns, F.A. Wolf (1759-1824), was the founder of modern classical scholarship. He did not do this by being the first to enroll himself as philologiae studiosus at Göttingen, and that story is in any case a legend.1 He did not do this by writing Prologomena ad Homerum. He founded modern classical scholarship by articulating a clear, persuasive vision of what the scientific study of antiquity, Altertumswissenschaft, could be. From Wolf (and his pupil Böckh) derive a vision of classical scholarship as a craft defined by an overarching discipline, practiced with creative economy and graced with communicative breadth. Reinhard Markner and Giuseppe Veltri have produced a useful, unpretentious volume that demonstrates Wolf’s thinking as he worked toward articulating this vision.

At several points in his life Wolf contemplated an encyclopedia of Altertumswissenschaft and outlined its contents. The fragments of Wolf’s outline, edited by Reinhard Markner, occupy the center (pp. 48-75) of this volume. Their influence extends to the essays, letters, and other works in it. Two essays precede the fragments of the Enzyklopädie : Anthony Grafton, “Juden und Griechen bei Friedrich August Wolf,” and Giuseppe Veltri, “Altertumswissenschaft und Wissenschaft des Judentums: Leopold Zunz und seine Lehrer F. A. Wolf und A. Böckh.” A dossier of correspondence between Wolf and Christian Garve and a bibliography of Wolf’s works and works about him round out the volume. I take up the fragments of the Enzyklopädie first.

They are as important, and as deserving of classicists’ attention, as Nietzsche’s better-known aphorisms in Wir Philologen from nearly a century later.2 Wolf’s outline of his understanding of Altertumswissenschaft — for that is what the fragments comprise — can be read as a kind of constitution for the small but influential republic of letters that was nineteenth-century classical philology and as a source of insight into some of the tensions and contradictions that continue to shape the field on which we philologists are playing today.

Wolf distinguishes this modern study sharply from the occupations of Renaissance humanists (p. 57). Wolf’s science of antiquity is grounded in philology; indeed, alte Litteratur and Altertumswissenschaft are synonyms (p. 51). Although its foundation lies in textual study, grammar, and linguistics — philology in the narrow sense — Wolf’s Altertumswissenschaft embraces the complete study of antiquity, and an encyclopedic treatment of it must include history, geography, the history of literature, and “die sogenannten Antiquitäten” (p. 54), by which Wolf means what we might call social history. In addition Wolf includes mythology, art history, and archaeology, with which he groups palaeography, epigraphy, and various ancillary disciplines, in his idea of the comprehensive, scientific study of antiquity.3

In the fragments of his proposed Encyclopädie, Wolf does not give Altertumswissenschaft an explicit epistemology, aesthetics, or hermeneutic rationale. That task would be taken up by his pupil Böckh. In one of the later fragments, however, Wolf offered hints for the task (p. 64). In his introductory “Idee und Grundriss” Wolf does at least situate the scientific study of antiquity in an epistemological context. He connects it with the ancient concept of ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία (p. 50), but his Altertumswissenschaft is very much part of the Enlightenment project to see all knowledge as unified, articulated, ordered in a definite hierarchy, and moving from theory to practice:

Es ist für einen Gelehrten überaus nützlich oder vielmehr unentbehrlich, sich über den Inbegriff der Wissenschaften überhaupt und aller Theile der Gelehrsamkeit im Ganzen, über ihren Umfang und Gegenstände, ihre Verbindung unter einander und wechselseitige Einflüsse, ihren Zweck, Werth und Brauchbarkeit sowol im Allgemeinen, als in besondrer Rücksicht aut das gewählte oder noch zu wählende Hauptstudium, endlich über die bisherige Vervollkommnung und vornehmsten Hülfsmittel derselben, auf eine wenigstens historische Art frühzeitig zu unterrichten (p. 50).

This concept of the order of knowledge, in which Altertumswissenschaft was part of Wissenschaft‘s essential coherence, inspired the generation of Wolf’s pupils and was still being presented as normative within living memory. Thirty years ago, there were still copies of McGuire’s Handbook lying around in seminar rooms; now, who can say what an undergraduate classics major should learn, or in what order?

And who now dares assert that some kinds of classical scholarship are more important than others? Wolf’s concept of Altertumswissenschaft began to unravel almost as soon as it was articulated. No articulated system, of course, can stand against the messy unity of reality, and Wolf bought coherence at the expense of exclusion. First, he relegated the study of material culture to a subordinate role which its advocates increasingly refused to fill. In vain did Wolf assert (p. 65), ” Schriften… liegen durchaus am meisten zum Grunde, und müssen die Basis bilden.” Not only new discoveries, but also political developments in Prussia and elsewhere in Germany enhanced the prestige of archaeology at the expense of text-centered philology;4 both sides of that controversy still find advocates.

More fatally for his project, Wolf increasingly asserted the absolute priority of Greece and Rome and excluded other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world from Altertumswissenschaft. An early fragment of his Enzyklopädie, perhaps from 1785, declares only that the Greeks and Romans have preeminent importance in the formation of the modern world and that their literatures and art excel in forming taste; in contrast, a more detailed and later proposal proclaims a much stronger thesis: the Greeks and Romans have absolute importance and unique originality: “Es gab in alten Zeiten nur 2 Nationen, die eine höhere Geistes-Cultur erlangten, Griechen und Römer” (p. 61). Only the Greeks were original. Only the Romans were truly civilized. The rest are nowhere: “Die übrigen Völker des Alterthums, als Hebräer, Aegyptier, Perser etc. haben sich nur wenig oder gar nicht über diejenige Ausbildung erhoben, die man Civilisation oder Policirung nennen kann, und von höherer Cultur unterscheiden muss.”

The two essays that precede Markner’s edition of Wolf’s fragmentary Enzyklopädie explore public and personal implications of Wolf’s gradual definition of the classical world as Greek and Roman. Anthony Grafton’s “Juden und Griechen bei Friedrich August Wolf” ranges widely, as those who know Grafton’s work will expect, through pre-modern and Enlightenment scholarly culture and situates Wolf in the intellectual history of his time. Wolf, Grafton argues, began as a philologist in the comparativist tradition of Scaliger or Casaubon. He studied Hebrew as a youth and used the insights of comparative philology to liberate the Homeric texts from the idea that a historic Homer was their author. Later, however, under the influence of Herder and the Romantics, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and the imperial example of the Prussian state, he focused on Hellenism and made the move from philology to Altertumswissenschaft. Grafton does not in fact have much to say about Jews in Wolf’s work, beyond the well-known influence of Eichhorn’s criticism of the Old Testament on Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum, with its comparison of the Alexandrian recensions of Homer to the Masoretic text of the Pentateuch. There may not be much more to say; as Grafton points out, actual Jews were almost as infrequent among Wolf’s acquaintance as actual Greeks.

One of them, in addition to his correspondent Moses Mendelsohn and the rabbi who taught him Hebrew, was his student Leopold Zunz. Giuseppe Veltri’s “Altertumswissenschaft und Wissenschaft des Judentums: Leopold Zunz und seine Lehrer F. A. Wolf und A. Böckh” examines Zunz and his work in relation to his two teachers, of whom Zunz wrote, “Böckh belehrt mich, allein F. A. Wolf zieht mich an” (p. 41). Zunz, who was born in the year following the publication of Prolegomena to Homer, knew both men during Wolf’s later years in Berlin, when Wolf was excluding the ancient Hebrews from the number of ancient people distinguished by “higher spiritual culture,” yet Wolf’s personal influence on Zunz seems to have been profound. It remains impossible to say to what extent and in what way Wolf’s concept of Altertumswissenschaft as embodied in his lectures and seminar influenced Zunz’s “Wissenschaft des Judentums,” which he began to articulate with Etwas über die rabbinische Litteratur (1818), published only three years after his arrival in Berlin. The influence of Böckh seems as likely, and impossible to distinguish from Wolf’s. Veltri, however, makes the strongest possible case for a connection, even though, as he admits (p. 42), one can say no more than that hearing his two teachers “may” have led Zunz to develop the idea of Judentumswissenschaft.

The correspondence between Wolf and Christian Garve, which makes up the penultimate item in this volume, reveals a great deal about Wolf, despite the fact that only one of the six letters is from him, and perhaps a little more about Garve. Wolf seems to have begun the correspondence by suggesting that Garve undertake a translation of Aristotle’s Politics for a series overseen by Wolf, but the project never came to completion. Garve’s answers begin enthusiastically in August, 1790, and become increasingly petulant, ending seven years later with an anguished, angry epistle in Latin. Wolf must have answered at least Garve’s first letter, but the others, some of which are the length of a short article, seem to have elicited no response. At first Garve appears eager to please and deprecates any claims to knowledge (p. 82); later, he reveals that this modesty must have been false (p. 92). Finally, he makes the fatal mistake of criticizing Wolf’s Prolegomena (pp. 94-97).

To conclude, Markner presents a classified bibliography of Wolf’s works and works about him (pp. 102-144), the first, he claims, since 1824.

At the dawn of the great age of German Altertumswissenschaft and again as its twilight approached, two great figures sketched visions of the discipline. Nietzsche’s aphoristic notes for We Philologists ( Wir Philologen) from about 1875 and F. A. Wolf’s fragmentary introduction to an encyclopedia of Altertumswissenschaft, written nearly a century before, bracket the nineteenth century achievements of Gottfried Hermann, Böckh, Mommsen, the young Wilamowitz, and the other giants of the Humboldtian universities. We Philologists focuses on the contrast between the object of philology, which for Nietzsche is less the entire ancient world than simply classical Greek antiquity, and the moral and intellectual condition of those who profess philology. Nietzsche’s Greeks stand as examples whose moral clarity it is impossible to imitate. The attempt produces despair, if one is an artist, and ridiculousness, if one is a philologue. He hints at the possibility of revitalizing philology by taking a radically clear-sighted look at the Greeks without the distorting mirrors of Roman antiquity, Christianity, or the traditions of classical education. No less than Wolf, Nietzsche wanted Altertumswissenschaft to have overarching discipline, creative economy and communicative breadth. And like Wolf, Nietzsche shrank the boundaries of the worthwhile; now there would be only one example of Geistes-Cultur : the Greeks. From the example of the two Friedrichs there is much to be learned, and in it not a little to be avoided. This book helps to show why.


1. Eduard Schröder, “Philologiae studiosus,” Neue Jahrbücher für das klassische Altertum 32 (1913), 168-171.

2. Conveniently gathered by William Arrowsmith, “Nietzsche: Notes for ‘We Philologists’,” Arion n.s. 1.2 (1973/74), 279-380.

3. On the gradual emergence of archaeology in the modern sense in 19th-century Germany, see Suzanne Marchand, Down From Olympus (Princeton, 1999).

4. Marchand (above, n. 6).