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American Philological Association

Classical Philology and Humanism


Author(s): Werner Jaeger
Source: Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 67 (1936), pp.
363-374
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/283246
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Vol. lxvii]

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XXV.-Classical Philology
and Humanism1
WERNER
UNIVERSITY

JAEGER
OF CHICAGO

The disruptionof Westerncivilizationwhichwe are witnessing, with the rise of the doctrinethat cultureand knowledge
are nationalisticpossessions,dividinggroupfromgroup,rather
than expressionsof kinship binding the heirs of a common
heritage into closer union, dismays not only disinterested
philosophersand educators,but men of foresight
and good will
in all walks of life. It is of deep concernto classical scholars,
forin the past it has been theirprimaryfunctionto transmit
fromgenerationto generationone of the great unifyingtraditions. This is the heritage,received fromthe ancient world,
of classical humanism. What especially troubles those who
like myselfstill seek to performthis functionis a division
withinour own group whichhas widened withinthe last halfcenturyas a resultof the application of scientificmethodsto
thestudyofclassical literatureand archaeology. Undoubtedly
thesemethodshave in a multitudeofways renewedthevitality
of our subject, and have increased both our knowledgeand
understandingof the ancient world. But the extremeconcentrationupon themin our day and the narrowspecialization
which they have produced threaten to obscure and nullify
our main service to society,never more needed than today,
of keeping alive and developing the universal tradition of
humanism. That a reconciliationbetween the older conception of humanistic studies and the newer type of classical
scholarshipis possible and is indeed being effectedI believe.
But a conflictbetween them in varyingdegreesof acuteness
still exists, which must be resolved if the study of antiquity
is to performits noblest functionin the modernworld.
1 I am greatly indebted to Professor G. L. Hendrickson of Yale University
for his extraordinary kindness in revising and condensing my article for
publication.
It owes much of its present form to his generous assistance.

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364

WernerJaeger

[1936

I recallveryvividlyhow afternine yearsspent in a classical


school of the old type I entered the university,and learned
as one of the achievements of scientificscholarship that
"humanism" was a pseudo-Greekword of recentorigin,and
that both the word and its content of meaning were under
strictban fromthe vocabulary of classical philology. It was
a painful shock to the traditionand creed in which I had
been brought up, by teachers who had held before me the
august ideal of humanism, receiving authority from such
venerable names as Humboldt, Winckelmann,and Goethe.
At firstI saw no chance of bridgingthe gap betweenthisolder
tradition of humanism as a cultural ideal, and the exact
scientificscholarshipwhichwas offeredme by my philological
and archaeological teachers. I should indeed have been
temptedto abandon altogethermy classical studies had I not
observed that in the best of my teachers,behind the rigidity
and a certain bigotryof scientificmethod, there glowed an
ardor which gave to the interpretationof ancient literature
warmthand vitality. In them I discerneda conflictbetween
the rigorousphilologistand the humanist,in which however
the humanistwas only admittedapologetically.
I speak of my own experiencebecause it was typical of the
situationin Germany,and it may serveas a pointof departure
for consideringwhat reconciliationis possible between these
conflictingconceptions of classical study. It is a problem
which our generationhas inheritedfromits immediatepredecessors,and I have outlinedit in thispersonalformsuspecting that my own case is not isolated, but symptomaticof
wider concern.
The antagonism between the newer science of antiquity
and the older humanismwas perhapsmost acute in Germany,
which formed the center and starting point of that exact
critical scholarshipwhich had revolutionizedthe humanistic
studies of earlier centuries. But German example spread
quickly to the whole world and it trainedcompetitorsin the
same avenues of approach to classical study and involved

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Vol. lxvii]

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365

them in the same problem. There remained,to be sure, in


many countriesan unbrokenhumanistictraditionwhichcould
not be entirelyoverwhelmedby the new scholarship,but
broadlyspeakingits effectwas to create an undecidedconflict
and a feelingof uncertaintyabout the legitimacyof the one
conceptionof our functionor of the other. It would be interestingto attempta characterizationof the classical scholarship
of the different
countriesof Europe as modifiedby the impact
of the new criticalstudyof antiquity,but it would take us too
far afield. Let it sufficeto say that America, perhaps more
than any other country,has inclinedto the modernGerman
type of classical study, although individual Americanshave
criticisedit sharply.
Thus, speaking generally,in the universityworld of the
nineteenthcenturythe old humanismhad givenway moreand
more to scientificresearchin classical philologyand archaeology, though not without some resistance. What was the
cause of this change? How did it happen that philological
study, the child of humanism,had turned against it? The
beginnings of this development go back to times when
humanismwas still dominant. Humanism, which was in its
origins the creation of the great Italian poets of the early
Renaissance and of the neo-Latin poets and prose writers,
competingwith the ancientsin theirown formsand language,
had by the end of the sixteenthcenturynarrowedto a sterile
erudition. From this later phase of humanisma new antiquarian and criticalstudy of the ancient worlddeveloped, no
longer looking to the re-creationof a modern literatureon
ancient models, but to a comprehensiveknowledge of the
ancient world. The cardinal point in this developmentwas
reached in the second halfof the eighteenthcentury,when for
the firsttime the historicalsense awoke in reaction against
the rationalism of the age of reason. The German neohumanism of Winckelmannand Humboldt and Goethe was
to be sure in no small degree determinedby the abstract
rationalismof the earlier time. It sought an absolute ideal

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366

WernerJaeger

[1936

of man, and found in the Greeks the one revelationof the


highestharmonyand completenessof human life.
But the type of classical scholarship which grew up in
Germanyat the end of the eighteenthand in the early nineteenth century was animated by a new feeling,a newly
awakened historical sense. Its goal was the knowledge of
ancient lifeas a whole. The spiritualvalues of literaturestill
held theirplace supreme,but a new elemententeredinto this
study, an impulse to understandthem not in isolation, but
against the backgroundof theirtime. That meant the reconstructionof the historyof their time. Not the old history,
which was a mere re-tellingof the storyas recordedby the
ancient historians,but a historyput togetherfromsources of
every kind-inscriptions, archaeological monumentsand remains, papyri fromthe dry sands of Egypt, fragmentsof lost
works of literaturesalvaged by antiquarian or grammatical
lore, nothing in short overlooked which might serve to fill
a gap of knowledgeand complete the reconstructionof the
past. Great provinceswhichup to that time had owed scant
allegiance to general classical scholarship such as Greek
philosophyor Roman law-were reclaimed for the classical
scholarand compelledto pay theirtributeto the centralwhole.
In.place of a limitednumberof classical models, to which
the old humanism had paid homage, there was now set up
as the goal of study a panorama of historicaldevelopment
extendingthroughcenturies. A particularcuriosityand interestattached to all that was new, to the discoveryof facts
or materials, literary or archaeological, which were before
unknown. The great culminatingpoints of antiquity lost
favorin comparisonwiththe earlyand the late. The example
of Mommsen'spenetratingstudiesof Rome kindledthe youthful Wilamowitzto a similarbreadth of view in his studies of
the classical and Hellenisticperiodsof Greece. He was eager
to know all that had existed fromthe earliest times to late
antiquity. When asked what his research had to offerin
place of the old classical ideal forthe education of youth,his

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answer was: a survey of the whole development of one of


the highestcivilizationsin all the stages of its history. The
dominatingspiritof this formulationof purposewas historical
and scientific,not humanistic. Other scholars went further
and declared that the functionof classical scholarshipwas to
serve as a tool forthe historian,or again, that preciseknowledge of ancientidiomin language or in art was onlya pathway
leading to 'higher' historicalconclusions.
It was accounted heresy and bumptiousnesswhen as a
young man, in my inaugural address as professorat Bale, I
protestedagainst such views and theiracceptance as axioms,
and defended the contemplationand understandingof the
immortalmasterpiecesof ancient art and literatureas an aim
in itself. I went even furtherand contended that the r6le
of historyand all its apparatus of researchwas ratherto give
them background and setting. That which led even so
sympathetica scholar as Wilamowitz to protest repeatedly
against the old classicismwas the fact that the pictureof the
ancient world, as conceived of and as representedby the
humanists, was grossly idealized and simplified. They did
not in truth aim to understandthe real life of the classical
world at all. Their only care was fortypes and ideals which
they found in certain works of the great authors, and these
they took over without furtherinquiryas pertinentto their
own lives and times. In historical evolution they had no
interestand indeed no conception of it. Obviously no one
with a developed historical feeling could contemplate with
complacencythe notionthateven thegreatestworksofancient
art and literaturerepresentedfinaland absolute standards of
human perfection. History goes on and must go on. Thus
the road back to the old humanismcould not be retraced.
The question of humanismhowever arose again when the
position of the classics in education and in general public
esteem began to be menaced. In some instanceseven before
the World War, but especially since then, in almost every
Western countrymanifestationsof a revival of this question
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368

WernerJaeger

[1936

have been seen. In Germany the periodical Die Antikehas


for the past dozen years presented in non-technicaland
attractiveformthe resultsof philologicaland archaeological
research. In the English speaking countriesand in France
thisrevivalhas been markedby the greatseriesof translations
with originaltexts, such as the Loeb Classical Library,and
de France. Their extraordinary
the Collectiondes Universites
success is a symptom of an unsuspected interest. At the
congressof the AssociationBude in Nice in 1935 the whole
problem of humanism played a leading part; and impulse
was given to make of the next meeting a world congress
dealingwiththistheme,contemplatingan internationalorganization of the friendsof humanism.
As has been said, some of these movementsgo back to a
time shortlybeforethe World War. It was not until then
that we had faced the consequencesof the great spiritualand
had come about
social revolutionwhich,almostimperceptibly,
during the nineteenthcentury. One manifestationof this
revolutionwas the decline of classical studies in the schools.
The risingmasses of the population were without an intellectual tradition,while on the otherhand the class whichhad
enjoyed a classical education and maintained its traditions
was eitherin declineor no longersure of its own ideals. The
classical scholarshipof the universities,trainedin the modern
school of philologicaland archaeological research,had at its
disposal undreamed-oftreasuresof knowledgeand illustration,
but it looked at esthetic and ethical humanism,which had
earlier been the driving force of classical education, as the
lost faithof its childhood. Thus that which had constituted
the innerforceand inspirationof these studies in school and
college,was now withoutsupportfromits recognizedleaders.
The decline went on. There were experimentswithout end
and a hundredrecipeswere tried,but therewas lack of faith.
When the teacherin the schoolsoughtaid fromthe scholarship
of the universityhe was told that faithwas a private affair;
that it was not the businessof scholarshipto establishvalues,
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but to investigateand discovertruth. But in fact,as we have


seen, scholars were unable to justifyhumanisticeducation in
termsof the older faith. The defensetook on an organized
form; societies were formed,groups of alumni, influential
personagesin social and political life,all were invokedto stem
the adverse tide; but no betterargumentswereadvanced than
the incomparable formal training affordedby the ancient
languages, and the great importanceof knowingthoroughly
the historyof Greece and Rome. But the truthwas that the
unique position of the so-called 'ancient world' had been
shaken by the disclosure of ancient civilizationswhich had
long preceded it. Thousands of years had been added to
'ancient' history,and (as in philosophy)historicalrelativism
seemed to be the inescapable consequenceof new perspectives
in the long historyof mankind. Thus the old hierarchyof
values had disappeared; and fromthe firstplace in the announcements of university courses classical philology was
compelledto assume a modest or even minorplace among its
alphabetical sisters.
The war revolutionizedeverythinghere as elsewhere. It
threwus back to the very foundationsof our existence-to a
consciousnessand realizationthat classical antiquitywas one
of those foundations,in somethingmore than the sense of a
merehistoricalinfluence. It was a crisisthat served to reveal
the true position of the ancient world in the scheme of our
present time. It is a lasting law of the human spirit that
wheneverone of its fundamentalvalues seems to have lost
meaningand significance,it must be traced back to its origins
for re-assessment. This is the law of renaissance, since
' renaissance' is not merelythe name of a particularevent and
time. It is a rhythmin the spiritual movementof history,
recurringfromtime to time,a concomitantof the pressureof
the spiritual atmosphere. Confidenceand self-assertionare
promotedby a returnto the culminatingpoints of life,and a
revival of innervalues modifiesour conceptionof historyand
sets it in a new light.

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370

WernerJaeger

[1936

The values of life are historicalvalues, which means that


life in the past has shaped their form. The mind is not a
white paper, receiving only the immediate impressionsof
surroundingnature and social environment. It is a living
thing,taking shape continuallyfromthe record of past experience. Historyis more than a recordof externaltemporal
facts; it is a repositoryin whichabiding values are constantly
accumulating. It is more than the memoryof the past; it is
the spiritualpresenceof the imperishable. The historianin
the usual sense of the word is the recorderof events as events;
but behind him stands the sympatheticscholar,versed in the
mediumof a work of literatureor art, guardian of tradition,
able to interpretto us the abiding values whichhave had and
continueto have meaningforour life.
The newerhistoricalstudy of the classics of ancient literature and art interpretstheir values and measures them by
standards differingfromthose which the old humanism invoked. But this newer type of study exists and should
continue to exist only on the assumption that these values
exist. It cannot in the long run maintainlife if it sinks to a
to its subject matter.
mere techniqueand method,indifferent
The very standards of exactness which it vaunts have developed fromthe beliefthat it was dealing with the fragments
of a worldwhichwas believed to be of unlimitedvalue. The
older classicists' conception of the significanceof ancient
literatureand art restedupon a dogmatic assumptionthat its
monumentswere to be regardedas settingabsolute standards
of excellence,timelessand perfect. It was derived immediately fromlater Greek and Roman writers,who canonized the
masterpiecesof earlier centuriesas a galleryof models to be
foreverimitated. Each author and each work had its place
in a fixedcanon which admitted no newcomers,and to each
was attached a carefullyweighedpredicationof attributesor
qualities.
When with awakening historical sense this whole unreal
and abstract structurecollapsed, the monumentsof Greek

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and Roman literaturestood forthfreshand new,in the fullness


of theirliving formand content,the expressionof individual
men and times. They were free to be read and understood
as they were, without thoughtof furnishingmodels of excellence or of having any relationto educational ends.
But though they were released from a role which their
authors can never have contemplated,there emanates from
them neverthelessan emotion and spiritualelevation,educative in the highestsense, which no one can fail to experience
who approaches them with earnest purpose to understand.
Even the strictmasterywhich scholarsseek is most rewarded
where this spiritualinfluenceis most deeply felt. Appreciation will have different
degreesof clarity,fromthe vague stir
of enthusiasm,and realizationthat one's own lifeis involved
in the poet's words, to the sharp and distinct perceptionof
exact meanings. There is no limitto'the intensification
of our
understandingof the spiritualworld. An estheticnaturewill
perhaps respondmore immediatelyto the fascinationof form.
But the worksof the ancients representto us somethingstill
more comprehensive-a world of the highest human values.
The best way to explain this is perhaps to go back to the
views which the Greeks themselves held of poetry and of
spiritualcreation.
To themthe workof art was nevera mereobject of esthetic
pleasure. It was the bearer of an ethos,a feelingor intention
of the artist which has sought ideal expression,and foundit.
It was true to life,not realisticin the narrowsense of mere
verisimilitude,but true in the perfectionor excellence (arete)
of the object represented. The subject of theirart is always
man in all the essential relationsof his existence to life, to
nature,and to destiny. Where poetryceases and the content
of thoughtcalls for prose-oratory, history,philosophy-the
same rule holds. The literatureof the Greeks offersthus a
splendid spectacle: the strivingof the human spirit for the
abiding expression of its ideals, the moulding of human
excellence (its arete) fromthe heroic stage of the epic to the

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[1936

later phases of the tragic,the political,the philosophicalman.


The embodimentof these values in art was to be sure only
what the Greek could create out of his Greek environment,
and we have learned not to separate worksof the spiritfrom
their proper environment,as the older humanists did. We
have learned to feel them more vividly and individuallyby
them to the time and place and atmosphereof their
referring
origins. This does not mean however that we should see
theseworksresolvedinto the historyof theirtimeand become
merelysources for our knowledgeof a bygone age. On the
contrarythe effortto grasp them in theirfirstsettingcauses
us to understandbetterhow and why they had the strength
to rise above their time into the regionsof permanenceand
timelessness.
It is preciselythis timelessnesswhichhistoryrecords. The
revelation of heroic humanityin Homer did not seem antiquated to the Greeks of a later and more rationalperiod. It
maintained its validity far beyond a thousand years, and
remained the foundationof culture throughsuccessive centuriesof Greek life. In a similarway each new period made
its contributionto that which the Greeks at the culminating
point of theirconsciousness,in the fifthand fourthcenturies
before Christ, called their teaching, their lesson (paideia).
Since they sought to mould the universal in the individual,
in literatureas well as in the plastic arts,theircreativethought
transcendedthe bounds of their own national existence,and
in missionaryspirit they early strove to extend theirculture
to other people. Thus Isocrates attributes to this Greek
paideia an educational functionfor the whole of humanity.
The Romans in Cicero's time proved the best interpretersof
this continuingfunctionof the Greek spirit,and expressedit
by their renderingof the Greek paideia with the Latin
humanitas,the ideal manifestationof man. It is fromthis
meaning of the Latin word, as the spiritual developmentof
man throughart and thoughtand literature,that our concept
of humanismand its name has come.

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Thus even in antiquity the problem was propounded: to


explain the mysteriouscircumstancethat ideals and standards
of excellenceshaped under particularhistoricalconditionsby
a particular people could maintain their validity and their
inspirationfor other times and other peoples, and become in
fact human culturein a universalsense. Effortswill be made
again and again to explain this quality of Greek cultureand
its Roman derivative. For us it is enough to know that it is
so, and its truthis proven by the experienceof the centuries
since its origin.
I have attempted to show that the nature and the tasks
of modernclassical study need not stand in any antithesisto
the older humanism. They are ratherthe formof humanism
suited to our times and to the modern habit of scientific
thoughtand inquiry. We must not abandon nor fail to use
any of the achievementsof the exact scholarshipof our day.
On the other hand I maintain and champion the essential
truthof the older humanism:that knowledgeand studyof the
ancient world is a unique civilizingand creative power in the
lifeof nations and of individuals.
The formsand moulds which the ancient world created as
the expressionof theirhighestcultureare not forus ultimate
ends to attain and to reproduce,but theyremainthe foundation stones upon which is built our occidental civilization.
This civilization is a product of repeated recurrenceto the
ancient tradition,fromwhichin turnit has drawn impulse to
new creation. One 'renaissance' has succeeded anotherfrom the Carolingian time, through the great Renaissance,
down to the neo-Hellenismof the early nineteenthcenturymarking periodic returns to the regeneratingpower of the
common source. The reciprocal influencesof the classical
inheritance and of original creation, each upon the other,
constitute the underlyingunity of the spiritual life of the
Westernworld.
Humanism itselfis an expandingterm,and what was once
applied only to the study of the Greco-Romanworld has its

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[1936

application to all literaturesand languages and art which are


capable of making contributionto the human spirit. The
study of peoples and tongues which lie outside the circle of
Greek and Roman origins furnisheswindows, so to speak,
throughwhichthe Westernspiritis able to contemplateother
races and alien ideals, to contrastthemwithitself,and to learn
from them. It is the open-minded receptivityof Greek
curiosityand inquiry-(historiain the proper meaning), still
livingin modernresearch,whichimpelsus to enrichourselves
in this way with what the Greeks called "the wisdom of the
barbarians."
The nationsof the modernworld,severedby boundariesof
space and language and national usage, understand one
another only to the degree in which they understand the
spirituallanguage which is the common hereditaryidiom of
our being. In so far as we live for the task of shaping and
developingmankindaccording to the laws and potentialities
of man's nature, we live in a world which I venture to call
hellenocentric-a spiritual world revolvingabout the sun of
Hellenic wisdom. The planets of thisworldwill not fade into
darknessso long as this centralsun does not lose its splendor.

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