BMCR 2003.01.05

Teaching the English Wissenschaft. The Letters of Sir George Cornewall Lewis to Karl Otfried Müller (1828-1839). Spudasmata, 85

, , , Teaching the English wissenschaft : the letters of Sir George Cornewall Lewis to Karl Otfried Müller (1828-1839). Spudasmata ; Bd. 85. Hildesheim: Olms, 2002. xxv, 119 pages : portrait ; 21 cm.. ISBN 3487115581. EUR 18.80.

To the general public, Sir George Cornewall Lewis (1806-1863) is nowadays known only, if at all, as a leading British statesman, a liberal Member of Parliament (1847-1852, 1855-1863) who from 1855 to his death served successively as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Secretary for War. Lewis was a man of many talents; he had enjoyed a thorough classical education at Eton and Oxford; in his later years he published inter alia on political theory and linguistic problems.1

In classical scholarship Lewis is especially known for his Inquiry into the Credibility of Early Roman History, published in two volumes in 1855 and translated into German in 1858. In this work he took critical issue with Niebuhr’s Roman History, which in his view showed the virtues of the new German classical scholarship with respect to source criticism but also its vices with regard to replacing the doubtful accounts of the ancient sources with bold speculations. Lewis did not accept the “divination”, which Niebuhr claimed for himself, as a secure methodological basis. Or, as Lewis had put it in a review essay on George Grote in 1850: “The general character of the most eminent German writers on antiquity is, that they are sceptical as to received facts, but credulous as to their own hypotheses, or the favoured hypotheses of some of their own school. They reject, and often with perfect justice, accredited legends and fables; but they substitute unauthorised imaginations of their own”.2 Grote, again, in his review of Lewis’ Inquiry claimed that “to protest against the Niebuhrian license of substitution and reconstruction” should not lead to “an opposite extreme. We cannot disallow the constructive imagination of the historian, nor lighten his responsibility by tying him down to a literal sequence”.3

In the midst of the 19th century, English classical scholarship had become more acquainted with German Altertumswissenschaft. That was not only due to the lively and controversial discussion on Niebuhr4 but also to efforts of some English scholars in the foregoing decades to focus the interest of their fellow-countrymen on the new developments in German scholarship at a time when few dons were able to read German and most of them were inclined to let German works “remain in the obscurity of their native language”.5 One of the driving forces was Lewis, who already during his time at Oxford (1824-1828) had “read and knew not only the classical writers themselves, but also terrific German treatises … about the Classics, which no intellectual voluptuary would touch or look at”, as a contemporary had put it (quoted XII). Lewis had started with a translation of August Boeckh’s Staatshaushaltung der Athener, which was published in 1828, and then took on — in collaboration with Henry Tufnell — the translation of Karl Otfried Müller’s Die Dorier which appeared in 1830 ( The History and Antiquities of the Doric Race).

Karl Otfried Müller (1797-1840) had obtained his doctoral degree in Berlin as a pupil of Boeckh; on the recommendation of Boeckh and due to the support by the influential Göttingen historian Arnold Heeren, he was, at the age of only twenty-two, appointed as an Extraordinarius at Göttingen in 1819 and promoted to a full professorship there in 1823. Since Müller had also had to teach archaeology (due to a Göttingen tradition going back to Heyne) the Hanoverian government gave him a grant for study trips to the collections of antiquities in Paris and London. During his stay of almost five months in London, Oxford and Cambridge (1822) Müller impressed his acquaintances by his mastery of English (XIX). In his work Müller followed Boeckh’s lead that a truly scientific approach to antiquity should reconstruct the totality of life in the ancient world. Die Dorier (1824) was part of a project called Geschichten hellenischer Stämme und Städte which he had started with a work on Boeotia, Orchomenos und die Minyer (1820). With his Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie (1825) Müller became involved in the controversies between the camps of Sachphilologie and Wortphilologie headed by Boeckh and Gottfried Hermann, respectively.6 His work on Die Etrusker (1828) became pathbreaking for 19th century Etruscology. On his first trip to Greece, Müller died on August 1, 1840 subsequent to a collapse he suffered when copying inscriptions in the broiling sun of Delphi.

Müller’s work and its impact in England, France and Italy has been evaluated in a recent collective volume, co-edited by Calder.7 The present edition is a welcome addition to this work. Besides a short introduction with basic information on Lewis and Müller (XI-XX) it contains fifty-five letters from Lewis to Müller from 1828 onwards which have survived in Müller’s Nachla at Göttingen; however, Müller’s letters to Lewis — which were probably written in German (2) — are unfortunately not preserved. The edition shows all the qualities known from the numerous publications on the history of (German) classical scholarship by William Calder III (together with various collaborators) during the past decades. (In this case there is no statement concerning the division of labour with his co-editors.) The footnotes give all possible information on ancient texts as well as on modern authors and works which are mentioned or alluded to in the letters and are a mine of bio-bibliographical references. There is also a select bibliography and an index personarum.

Lewis’ letters begin with his translation of Müller’s work on the Dorians, in which the author himself took considerable interest and obviously made suggestions which impressed Lewis: “We have been much struck with your accurate knowledge of English; in many places indeed you have improved our style, not only in correctness, but in elegance” (14). Lewis himself pointed out that due to “the ignorance of the English public on abstruse & difficult questions of Greek antiquities” he would skip some of Müller’s learned digressions (20) and references to German publications (14). He also indicated that he would change some passages — probably on pederasty — since printing the work at the Clarendon Press presupposed inspection of the manuscript “by one of the clerical officers of the University of Oxford” (4). And he urged clarification of certain points since “the English is far behind the German public in the knowledge of ancient history & Greek literature” (8). More than 700 copies of this translation had been sold in 1836 (84); a second edition appeared in 1839.

From 1834 onwards the correspondence focused on the project of a Greek literary history sponsored by the Benthamite Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, of which Lewis was a member. Müller should write the book and Lewis would translate it. A History of the Literature of Ancient Greece, down to the Death of Isocrates was published in an incomplete version after Müller’s death (1840-1842). In 1836 Lewis wrote that he was “very sanguine as to the success of this work, as there had been nothing hitherto of the same kind, & German philology is now making great strides in England” (86). The bulk of the correspondence is on the exchange of corrections (and the problems with postal delivery and the transfer of money). Again and again Lewis mentioned the fees that Müller would be entitled to. The prospect of earning considerable money had been a very strong motive for Müller, especially from 1837 onwards when Müller had thought of resigning from his chair in consequence of the affair of the Göttinger Sieben (who had been sacked from their professorships after having vehemently protested against the breach of the Hanoverian constitution by king Ernst August).8 In January 1838, Lewis declared that he was prepared to arrange for an advance payment “if you should be in any difficulties on account of the loss of your professorship” (98), and in March 1839 he expressed his hope “that the University of Göttingen is in a more prosperous state” (105) — the loss of Müller’s letters is especially regrettable in this case.

Lewis himself did not often mention British politics though there are some comments on the great debate on the Reform Bill in 1831. The controversies and public disturbances revealed, according to Lewis, “the effect of a violent party struggle in lowering the standard of public morality, & habituating men’s minds to desperate measures, so admirably explained by Thucydides” (50f.); as result of the reform of the franchise he predicted “a House of Commons in which there were many Cleons” (46). And he also stated that political histories of the ancient world by English authors were biased by their projections of contemporary political issues, as had been the case with Mitford’s History of Greece (43f.).

Lewis showed himself always aware of the works of German classicists and their reception in England (86f.) and asked for information on scholars and publications, especially on the progress of Boeckh’s and Niebuhr’s works (35, 37f., 41, 65, 85). He informed his correspondent of publications in English journals (38, 40, 43f.) and especially of the fate of the Philological Museum which, as an English counterpart to Rheinisches Museum, had been launched in 1831 (32f., 41, 45, 52, 56, 58). Müller at last wrote a contribution to this journal (62f.); the Philological Museum, however, had to be given up for financial reasons after two years (70). “Nothing seems to flourish in this country but the lightest & and most frivolous kinds of poetical literature & violent party politics”, Lewis had suspected from the start (33).

All in all, the present collection will not change substantially our view of 19th century Altertumswissenschaft, but it illuminates nicely German-Anglo relationships as a part of this story.


1. Compare J. G. Heinberg, “Lewis, Sir George Cornewall”, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences vol. 9 (1933): 426; K. E. Bock, “History and a Science of Man: An Appreciation of George Cornewall Lewis”, Journal of the History of Ideas 12 (1951): 599ff.; R. Posner, “Sir George Cornewall Lewis. Statesman and ‘New Philologist'”, Historiographia linguistica 17 (1990): 339ff.

2. Edinburgh Review 91 (1850): 63-80, at p. 65.

3. In: G. Grote, Minor Works, ed. A. Bain, London 1873: 207-236, at pp. 209 and 236 respectively.

4. The fundamental study remains E. Bammel, “Niebuhr und England”, in: G. Wirth (ed.), Barthold Georg Niebuhr. Historiker und Staatsmann, Bonn 1984: 131-175; in comparison to it N. Vance, “Niebuhr in England: History, Faith, and Order”, in: B. Stuchtey / P. Wende (eds.), British and German Historiography 1750-1950, Oxford 2000: 83-98, is disappointing.

5. The phrase is taken from the preface to the first issue of the Philological Museum, quoted at p. XV of the present volume.

6. Compare W. Nippel, “Philologenstreit und Schulpolitik. Zur Kontroverse zwischen Gottfried Hermann und August Böckh”, in: W. Küttler et al. (eds.), Geschichtsdiskurs Bd. 3: Die Epoche der Historisierung, Frankfurt am Main 1997: 244-253.

7. W. M. Calder III / R. Schlesier (eds.), Zwischen Rationalismus und Romantik. Karl Otfried Müller und die antike Kultur, Hildesheim 1998. For a bibliography of Müller’s work and of secondary literature see W. Unte / H. Rohlfing, Quellen für eine Biographie Karl Otfried Müllers (1797-1840). Bibliographie und Nachlaß, Hildesheim 1997.

8. See W. M. Calder, in: Calder / Schlesier (eds.), at p. 125f., and J. Rüpke, ibidem, at p. 391f.