BMCR 2009.09.44

Response: Liberman on Zehnacker on Liberman on Zehnacker, Pline le Jeune. Lettres: Livres I-III. nouvelle édition

Response to 2009.08.15

Response by

I am deeply sorry that my review of the first volume of Prof. Zehnacker’s Budé edition of Pliny’s Letters seemed to him to be both aggressive and condescending. My aim was not to arouse anger but to invite the editor to reconsider what I think is misled conservatism in textual matters. I shall leave it to the reader to decide who is right or wrong on each passage we deal with (I ask for permission to refer the reader to the short comments I added to my own review on BMCR’s blog), but I should like to challenge here Prof. Zehnacker’s contention that in our field there are two criteria of truth: the testimony of the mss. and the agreement of scholars. He argues I care neither for the one nor for the other. I am surprised that a scholar who puts such a premium on philologorum consensus has deliberately chosen to report almost no conjecture.

Sure, we are greatly indebted to mss. for our knowledge of the text of the Greek and Latin classics, but that does not mean we should trust their testimony blindly, even when they are unanimous in transmitting a given reading. This unanimity is no serious criterion of truth, and a presumably suspect or false reading is not less suspect or false because it stands in all the mss., be they three, ten or a hundred. Their number does not matter, for it is only normal to find in all the mss. a suspect or false reading which stood in their lost common ancestor. If a teacher writes on the blackboard “the moon is a square”, this sentence will not be more true because it is found in the papers of all the students who attended the lecture and faithfully wrote the sentence down. If there were one thousand mss. of Pliny’s Letters, the difficulty of the unanimously transmitted reading interioribus in the sentence de interioribus loquor; nam, dum destringitur tergiturque, audiebat aliquid aut dictabat (3,5,14) would remain exactly the same. Prof. Zehnacker’s translation of interioribus is “the time he spent in the water”. He says: “this meaning is clear ( limpide) and it is accepted by the French translators and, with a very slight difference, by Kasten (“das eigentliche Bad”); moreover the mss. tradition is unanimous: there is no reason to posit cruces”. The meaning of both translations (they are in fact appreciably different) is absolutely clear, but my query is how the Latin interioribus can mean either what Zehnacker or Kasten understands. I think it cannot. No unanimity of manuscripts, translators or scholars can by itself convince me that Pliny wrote interioribus and meant something like lauationibus. If he did, then we should stop making critical editions and begin to publish the text of each ms. as it stands, for no criterion except the fact that a reading is transmitted would enable us to decide what is correct and genuine and what is not. (What I say here is nothing new either in France or elsewhere; the French Louis Havet is one among the many scholars who already stated it.)

I am unable to consider the agreement of scholars as a criterion of truth either in classical philology or in any other field of research. I dare think that scholars’ agreement is worth what each scholar’s opinion is worth, not more. Scholars once agreed that the Epistles of Phalaris were genuine, but the opinion of one scholar prevailed over that of most: he was nevertheless right. Textual truth depends even less on scholars’ unanimity than on that of the mss. In the case of Pliny 3,5,14, scholars do not agree. According to his own principle, Prof. Zehnacker should have indicated this disagreement, unless he thinks that scholars are all the more right as they are near to us in time. Indeed, in 1963 Mynors seems to have found nothing wrong with the reading interioribus; former scholars did query this reading, and I think they were absolutely right. Progress in textual criticism is not purely linear. It is my belief that textual problems must be settled by editors who care for truth and determine it through the exercise of judgment. Judgment, not number or blind acceptance of tradition, is what textual criticism is about.