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.
During the Reformation, humanists’ work on Christian texts and Hebrew scripture, studied at times with the assistance of Jewish teachers, could prove dangerous if their linguistic comparison of different translations of sacred books led to suggestions that the official text contained errors. This period, and the following century, were marked by a lack of formal boundaries between disciplines. It was a world populated by polymaths like Erasmus, Isaac Casaubon, and Joseph Scaliger. This is Turner’s favorite period, a golden age to which he hopes the humanities may one day return.
The scope of this review won’t allow a detailed treatment of all of the humanities disciplines discussed by Turner. Suffice it to say that, as time went on, philology became the possession of the academic world, not of erudite outsiders, and academic pursuits became more and more segregated from one another: “By 1800 philology strained against its own skin,” Turner explains. The dominant position of classical learning began to be threatened. With the rise of anthropological research in the latter part of the century, moreover, came an emphasis on ancient barbaric rites and customs—what Turner calls “the weirding of Greece and Rome.” No longer the unique source of moral lessons and paradigms, classical studies was toppled from its pedestal and became a modern discipline like any other.
The change happened surprisingly quickly. Turner reports that at Harvard in 1856-57, the study of classics consumed 40 percent of students’ class time before senior year; by 1884-85, the Greek and Latin requirement had been eliminated entirely. He writes: “This revolution left teachers of Latin and Greek looking and feeling more like professors of geology or history” rather than defenders of a special area that was necessary for all educated men and women to know. The professional rigor that entered the field also transformed archaeology and ancient history. During this period, other parts of the philological world congealed into disciplines: art history, anthropology, and various types of religious studies. “Disciplinarity” had triumphed over the onetime “collective integrity” of the humanities.
Turner’s historical survey is thorough and covers a lot of ground, and an engaging sense of modesty emanates from the author himself. For those interested in intellectual history, Philology is worth reading. But Turner is most concerned about the detrimental effect that disciplinary divisions have had on humanistic learning, with scholars increasingly being forced to focus on narrow areas, seeking what I like to refer to as “a niche with a twist.” Turner does not say so, but this narrowing may be one cause of academics’ inability to make good on the promise of the APA’s motto that literature can “heal the soul.”
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the field of classics was under attack for being irrelevant to, say, the urban crisis or Watergate or the Vietnam war. But at least there were generalists who taught popular survey courses like “The Greek Hero” and Latinists who could bring Catullus’ poetry to life, or make a compelling (if controversial) case that the founding of Rome, as depicted by Virgil’s Aeneid, was a criminal act typical of a tyrannical, imperialist power. Although graduate students were warned against the great sin of being a popularizer, there was still a sense that the content of these great works of literature was being read and debated.
Today, although there are surely many exceptions, the trend in humanities seems to be the embrace of meta-literature (which is interested in showing how the text is self-conscious of its status as a text) rather than the central issues raised by the texts. A case in point is this course description for an upcoming freshman seminar at an Ivy League university:
The course covers a wide range of Greek literary and philosophical works as well as modern critical and philosophical writings on the Greeks. The focus throughout is on the status of language, the many forms of discourse that appear in literature, and the attempts the Greeks themselves made to overcome the perceived inadequacies and difficulties inherent in language as the medium of poetry and philosophy. The course inquires into the development of philosophy in the context of a culture infused with traditional, mythological accounts of the cosmos. It asks how poetic forms made an accommodation with philosophical discourse while creating an intense emotional effect on the audience; and discusses how these issues persist and are formulated in our own thinking.
“The focus throughout is on the status of language”? This sounds like a wonderful course for a graduate student, but couldn’t an 18-year-old freshman, anxious to talk about the meaning of life, simply study Plato’s Apology or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex without having to address “the perceived inadequacies and difficulties inherent in language”? The course’s focus on language is especially ironic given this introductory disclaimer: “Knowledge of Greek and Latin is not necessary, since all texts are in translation.”
But, gentle reader, despair not. The basic, gut-wrenching questions that emerge so clearly in ancient Greek and Latin works—questions about fate, immortality, individualism, courage, and justice—are still of interest today, even if they are not particularly on view in the university world. Few would consider the Marine Corps a likely repository of humanist inquiry, but the Commandant’s Professional Reading List actually contains a surprising number of books relating directly or indirectly to the ancient world: The Landmark Thucydides, The Mask of Command by John Keegan, The Warrior Ethos and Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay (a comparison of veterans suffering from PTSD with the soldiers of Homer’s Iliad), and James A. Warren’s American Spartans (a history of the Marines).
Meanwhile, the popularity of movies like Gladiator and 300 (about the Battle of Thermopylae), inaccurate though they may be, shows a hunger for the values of the ancient world. When a book written for today’s military starts with a quotation from Plutarch and anecdotes about Sparta, and when lines from Gladiator appear in an online list of “Unsung Manly Movie Quotes for Every Occasion,” it is clear that the world of antiquity still appeals to something deep within us. It’s just a shame that the custodians of the ancient world—philologists who have devoted their lives to mastering living and dead languages and difficult, technical areas like numismatics, epigraphy, and paleography—often seem unprepared for the task of inspiring students, or the general public, to appreciate its richness.
James Turner, however, is not chiefly concerned with “the big questions,” leaving those for political theory and philosophy, which (he clearly states) are not philological disciplines. In his epilogue, he returns to his vision of the lost world of humanists without boundaries, lamenting the way modern academia has divided the traditional humanities disciplines into artificial segments, their borders policed by each academic department. This, to him, is the true crisis of humanistic scholarship, and he hopes that the humanities may one day realize that they are more than “a set of isolated disciplines, each marooned on its own island.” Perhaps, he muses, the humanities will regain their “primal oneness.”
Turner is surely right that over-specialization has had a detrimental effect on the humanities. But with 81 percent of humanities professors identifying themselves as liberals, 1,500 history professors signing an open letter to chastise Israel, and three-quarters of English departments no longer requiring students to study Shakespeare, does anyone think that the worst problem in today’s humanities is too much “disciplinarity”?
Susan Kristol has a doctorate in classical philology.