The Magazine

In the Beginning .  .  .

How the study of words leads to thought

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By SUSAN KRISTOL
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It takes a daring man, or a very erudite professor, to name a book Philology. Hardly anybody seems to know what the word means. And for that very reason, the professional organization of classicists to which I belong—the American Philological Association (APA)—is currently in the process of jettisoning its name. If nothing else, James Turner should feel some vindication, because the move by the APA reinforces his subtitle: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. 

Founded in 1869, the APA is the second-oldest learned society in America, serving the professional needs of scholars of ancient Greek and Latin language, literature, and history. Following a decade of discussion, the membership of this venerable organization has finally acknowledged that its name is too arcane, a relic of a bygone era, and has voted to rename itself the Society for Classical Studies. Why the change? In 2012, then-president Jeffrey Henderson, an expert on the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes and therefore surely not unaware of the comic aspects of this process, offered this explanation: 

[T]he term philology has become so obscure to all but practitioners as to impede our efforts to gain broader public (even academic) visibility, and we are not readily found when people search online (for instance in Google) for information about classics and the classical world.

The APA’s move away from the word “philology” was thus motivated mainly by a desire to become more accessible to nonprofessionals. In fact, the APA has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help it become a “gateway” rather than a “gatekeeper.” But to hold onto a bit of its past, the APA will retain its original Greek motto on its new masthead “as an essential design element,” typeset as it would have appeared in antiquity, using the uppercase Greek alphabet, with no spaces separating the words. Transliterated into Roman script, it reads: PSYCHESIATROSTAGRAMMATA. As the current APA president writes: “[T]hose who can read and understand it will appreciate it; for those who don’t read Greek, it will reinforce the identity of the organization and evoke the Classical world.” 

Aristophanes, where are you when we need you?

The APA’s motto (in case you don’t read Greek) means “Literature, the physician of the soul.” A lofty sentiment; but has philology ever served as a healer? After reading Philology, sad to say, one would have to conclude that the answer is no, unless your soul’s particular sickness is a longing to emend textual errors in a manuscript of Euripides, be a champion when your family plays the dictionary game of Balderdash, run a literary salon, or (like Dorothea’s husband in Middlemarch) write The Key to All Mythologies. Turner’s book, impressive in its scholarship and clear about his love for the humanities, does not make such grand claims for the power of philology (“the love of words”). 

Instead, he takes readers on a detailed journey beginning with the Presocratics, with the bulk of the book devoted to the 19th and early 20th centuries. We learn how the Hellenistic philologists of Alexandria and Pergamum compared multiple copies of manuscripts to arrive at the truest text, and about the marginal symbols, grammar books, glossaries, antiquarian ramblings, and etymological and phonetic studies they invented to help achieve their goal. Roman grammarians took this methodology and ran with it in their typically thorough way. After the division of the Roman Empire, as the Scholastic movement came to dominate the monastic world, philology suffered, barely surviving the Medieval period as a “thin and pale” shadow of its former self. 

Interestingly, the very term “Middle Age[s],” or medium aevum, is a philological construct, invented around 1600 as a result of newfound philological interest in historical phases. (When you think about it, of course, people living in the “Middle Ages” had no idea they were doing so.) But at last, with the resurgence of classical studies in Northern Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries, philology came roaring back.