BMCR 2021.02.18

Classical learning in Britain, France, and the Dutch Republic, 1690-1750

, Classical learning in Britain, France, and the Dutch Republic, 1690-1750: beyond the ancients and the moderns. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 256. ISBN 9780198861690 $80.00.


This monograph offers a persuasive re-examination of Classics around the turn of the seventeenth century. It complicates the narrative of the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, shifting our focus onto academic polemics, and argues that our understanding of scholarship in this period should be contextualised within a wider framework of scholarly networks and national and international socio-political debates. The author’s decision, in a fairly slim monograph, to examine Classical scholarship within a pan-European context is ambitious. Given this, the relatively narrow timeframe chosen (1690-1750) is sensible. Verhaart is interested in a few carefully chosen scholars (outlined on p.17), but contextualises them fully. The book is stratified into an exploration of individual academics in Chapter 2, the effects of scholarly communities in Chapter 3, and finally the background of wider society in Chapter 4. The structure is productive, and Verhaart is flexible enough to provide context throughout, so that even in Chapter 2 we are alerted to the national and international political implications of individual scholars’ work where relevant, while Chapter 4 is built around case studies of two individual scholars, set into a wide synchronic context.

Verhaart uses his “Introduction” to set out the methodology of the book and offer a brief doxography and chapter summary. He argues strongly that our understanding of Classical scholarship in this period should look beyond the borders of France and Britain (although Verhaart really broadens his horizons only as far as the Dutch Republic). He also highlights a key dichotomy: philologists vs. philosophers. This contest between different conceptions of Classics “arose from the larger Quarrel between ancients and moderns” (16); emphasising the rivalry between philologists and philosophers will, Verhaart argues, “bring clarity because it avoids asking one simple binary, between ‘ancients’ and ‘moderns’, to do a bewildering variety of different kinds of work” (ibid.). I would have liked him to justify more clearly why he proposes to replace one “binary” with another.

Chapter 2 (“The Construction of Humanism”) starts usefully by explaining the distinction between philosophy and philology. This is carefully set into diachronic context back to antiquity. After all, as Verhaart points out, the “words and deeds” paradigm is as old as the Iliad (36). The main thrust of the chapter is to contrast two Dutch-based scholars: Pieter Burman and Jean Le Clerc, who both read and edited earlier Humanist thinkers in line with their own, very different views of Classical learning. A brief discussion of Justus Lipsius, a sixteenth-century Flemish humanist who wrote a self-deprecating satire on over-enthusiastic philologists, provides vital diachronic context for a more prolonged consideration of Pieter Burman, the seventeenth-century Dutch philologist who criticised Lipsius’ interest in ethics and (together with his nephew, also Pieter) promoted the French philologist Henri Valois. Verhaart then focusses on Burman Sr’s revised edition of the works of George Buchanan, which had originally been edited clean of anti-Jacobite political sentiment by Thomas Ruddiman. This brings in a Scottish connection and sets Burman’s scholarship in the synchronic context of Jacobitism and anti-Jacobitism. That a Dutch scholar felt able to intervene in Scottish politics through his scholarship does much to prove one of Verhaart’s central theses: that eighteenth-century scholarship can only be understood when placed in a pan-European context. This section is fascinating, although Verhaart’s analysis of Berman’s “completely apolitical version of Buchanan’s text” could have been more nuanced (59): Verhaart intimates that Burman Sr shared Buchanan’s scepticism of monarchy (59f.); was it really an apolitical choice to allow Buchanan’s political interventions to stand without paratextual comment?

Chapter 2 then moves onto Jean Le Clerc and his edition of Erasmus. Though not uncritical, Le Clerc saw Erasmus as “a symbol of the right relationship between classical scholarship and other scholarly disciplines such as theology, with philology as a first step to more elevated subjects” (62). Le Clerc activates Erasmus in defence of his popularising, moralising vision for Classics and uses him to justify polemical scholarship. Verhaart thus demonstrates how Le Clerc’s reading of Erasmus, and the Humanists of previous centuries more generally, activated them as a model for the “return to an idealized age of scholarship when those who interpreted antiquity were at the heart of both the intellectual and social life of the world around them” (67). This section is informative, and while the two competing visions of Humanism set out by Burman and Le Clerc are not extensively compared, Verhaart does set the stage for a conflict discussed in the following chapter.

Chapter 3, ‘Sex and Scholarship’, returns to Pieter Burman (we only now get a full account of his life) and his decision to work on an edition of Petronius. This choice of a controversial text is contextualised as a riposte to moralising theologicians; Burman’s “text-critical take on ancient literature led him to simply ignore moral considerations in favour of discussions on stylistic, rhetorical, or grammatical aspects of the text” (77). But the picture quickly becomes complicated by a sex scandal involving Burman and a young woman whom he allegedly impregnated; the (im)morality of the text becomes a vehicle through which to discuss the (im)morality of the editor, despite Burman’s supposed detachment from moral questions. True to Verhaart’s interest in scholarly networks, he then widens out the scope to look at other individuals, not only Le Clerc but also the British Classicist Richard Bentley, who intervened in the quarrel on Burman’s side. Verhaart portrays Bentley in similar terms to Burman; a difficult figure socially, whose personal moral flaws impacted his detached scholarly editorship of a morally problematic text (in Bentley’s case, Horace). Verhaart demonstrates the difference between Bentley’s philological approach to Horace Epode 8 and André Dacier’s earlier, philosophical commentary on the same poem, and the careful comparison does much to support Verhaart’s wider argument. The final part of the chapter zooms out to look at other examples of philologists whose form of scholarship was associated with immorality, taken from across Europe. Bentley and Burman’s friendship is also briefly placed into the wider political context of the period, although this could have been given more attention.

I found this chapter both intellectually rewarding and thrillingly written. The evocative nature in which Verhaart conjures up the various synchronic connections between Berman’s critics and supporters brought the author’s argument to life and well-demonstrated the complicated network of voices at play. This in turn underlined the monograph’s central thesis. At times in Chapter 3, Verhaart misses the opportunity to add nuance to his argument, in particular with his portrayal of Burman as a strict philologist uninterested in discussing morality or politics. To give one example (which Verhaart does set out briefly), Burman often used his scholarship to challenge religious prudery; thus, “in his Oration in Defence of Comedy he argued that comedy as a form of public entertainment had always played an important role in society… by teaching [audiences] about virtue, often through negative examples” (85). Given religious sensibilities about staging drama in eighteenth-century Utrecht, this was a very liberal point to make and not the act of a disinterested philologist, a point that Verhaart obfuscates. But if the author’s argument could be more refined (and what argument could not be), it is nevertheless very convincing.

In Chapter 4, “The Quest for Civic Virtue”, Verhaart zooms out further to “highlight the interplay between historical scholarship, political thought, and the popular imagination by demonstrating how philosophy and scholarship of an often popularizing nature interacted in the eighteenth century to create a particular conception of antiquity” (122)—how Classics became an adaptable weapon in wars over politics and religion. Obviously, this is a story that has been told many times before, but Verhaart’s contribution is well-presented. Despite the chapter’s broader focus, Verhaart still utilises case studies, focussing on two ancient historians—Conyers Middleton, a Brit, and the Frenchman Charles Rollin. Middleton exemplifies the relationship of politics and religion to scholarship in that his transformation from a high-church Tory to a low-church Deist Whig was influential in his decision to work on Cicero. He attributed to Cicero several Whiggish and Deist virtues: religious scepticism, a respect for democracy, moderation, and the ability to combine scholarship with political action. Verhaart’s analysis of Middleton is engaging, as is his account of how Middleton’s Cicero was received, which is used to integrate the work into its synchronic context and further exemplify the dichotomy between philologists and even moderate philosophers like Middleton. Verhaart’s discussion of his work’s influence on Voltaire is particularly fascinating.

The counter-example is Rollin, who was a Jansenist and wrote inter alia a Histoire romaine and a Histoire ancienne. Within his textual criticism/ethics dichotomy, Verhaart contextualises Rollin in the latter camp. His moralising interpretation of ancient history again had both a religious context in that he demonstrated ideals of morality through Roman exempla, and a political context in that he used the Roman Republic to advocate mixed constitutionalism, a position also advocated in Britain by the Whigs. Therefore, although Rollin’s religious views were very different from Middleton’s, they were politically aligned. Verhaart again addresses the reception of Rollin’s works, which were hugely successful. I do think more could have been made here of his popular reception outside the French elite, although this is certainly addressed (197).

Finally, Verhaart offers a brief conclusion, sufficient to reiterate his key points, and incorporates it into a larger discussion about why “only in the nineteenth century did the fascination for Athens and its democracy catch up with the enchantment for Rome” (201). He finishes with a brief look at the conflict between philosophia and philologia in the nineteenth century, leaving us with the tantalising claim that “the divide between [them]… can thus be traced as one of the driving forces behind the rise of German classical scholarship in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (206).

There are aspects of this monograph that can be criticised. Despite the grand claims made in the “Introduction”, it adds to our existing understanding of the development of Classics as a discipline rather than fundamentally reshaping it—which is not to say it isn’t a valuable and well-constructed contribution. Very much to his credit, Verhaart is aware of this: his “monograph is by no means the final word on the problems and issues it raises and discusses” (202) and his promise to further develop his ideas in a future monograph is welcome. I was surprised that Verhaart did not discuss Anne Dacier, despite promising to do so in his Introduction (17). The silence about her Aristophanes was felt most keenly in Chapter 3; it certainly would have been illuminating to consider gender as well as sex when considering the translation of ‘immoral’ texts. I also find it irritating to be given quotes in a foreign language without accompanying translation – which was particularly egregious in this volume because of the lack of consistency. Only French was routinely left untranslated, while quotes in Latin were given in English (e.g. 174).

Overall, however, Verhaart should be commended for developing such a convincing argument and presenting it in such an enjoyable way. The book is well-produced, with a useful bibliography and index and no major typographical errors. Verhaart touches on many of the key academic and social debates of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and is able to synthesise them into a coherent narrative without too much oversimplification or confusion; this is no mean feat. The book does much to commend itself to any academic interested in the history of scholarship or Classical Reception. And the book’s ability to move seamlessly between the Dutch Republic, Britain and France will only broaden its interest.