The Consolation of Philology

By Legaspi, Michael L. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, October 2015 | Go to article overview

The Consolation of Philology


Legaspi, Michael L., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


The Consolation of Philology by Michael L. Legaspi Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities BY JAMES TURNER PRINCETON, 576 PAGES, $35

She appeared to him in the darkest of times. In the early part of the sixth century, the sun had set on the western Roman Empire. Its greatest intellectual, a highborn official named Boethius-among the last in his era to embody the old synthesis of Christian and classical learning-had fallen out of favor with the Ostrogoth ruler Theodoric. Boethius found himself in a dungeon near Milan, awaiting execution and fighting off despair. It was then, says Boethius, that the majestic figure of Lady Philosophy appeared to him in his cell and stirred him to banish his fears, accept her strong medicine, and regain the straight, right road.

To judge from the growing body of literature on the decline of the liberal arts, there are many today who fear that the humanities themselves are headed for a fatal loss of prestige and patronage, victims, like Boethius, of barbarians in power. At the end of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre draws a parallel between our time and the decline of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, suggesting that we too live in a cultural twilight, at the beginnings of "new dark ages which are already upon us." Despair, now as then, is a real temptation.

It may not seem so at first, but a new book by Notre Dame history professor James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, is Boethian, a book intended to console. Boethius, a cerebral and sensitive soul, conjured the stern, commanding presence of Lady Philosophy to hearten him in the hour of need. Turner, a blithe and voluble historian, contemplates the dim condition of humanistic scholarship and conjures a very different personage with which to edify the academic faithful. The hero of Turner's book is Old Man Philology, now a forgotten figure "coated with the dust of the library," who totters along in obscurity.

Yet the Old Man was once young and strong. Turner's aim is to show that philology, which refers to a great deal more than the study of language, "reigned as king of the sciences, the pride of the first great modern universities," a monarch who used to be "chic, dashing, and much ampler in girth." As king, he held the allegiance of sturdy minds, of people intensely interested in all facets of human life: words, texts, events, ideas. In their research, scholars took delight in the strangeness and particularity of things. The rich world of philological scholarship sparkled with variety, but like the Roman imperium, it also had a distinctive, if fragile, unity.

This latter point should not be missed. Turner did not invent the word philology, of course, but he has succeeded beautifully in bringing its form and features to light. Turner shows that, instead of being merely a disciplinary label or term of convenience for the study of texts and languages, philology involved a particular way of ascertaining the truth of the human situation. Philology was, as he puts it, a "paradigm of knowledge." The axioms within this paradigm stipulate that present realities have their roots in a tangled past. The best way to understand these realities is therefore to trace their development in different contexts, reconstruct historical relationships, and so understand the uninterrupted flow of past eras into the present one. In this way the philologist fills in leaves, twigs, and branches on a great sprawling family tree of human culture, language, and history. In both method and results, the variegated pursuits of philology amount to "one, big old thing."

In good philological fashion, Turner traces the history of this unitary phenomenon from its origins in antiquity to the twentieth century. He begins his story in ancient Greece, where public debate, philosophical speculation, and rhetoric fostered a love of language. But philology did not emerge as a textual enterprise until the Hellenistic period, when, for example, scholars at the great library in Alexandria faced the challenge of organizing and editing ancient works, the Homeric corpus above all. …

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