Balzan Prize 2002 for the History of the Humanities
A Premature Autobiography? – Rome, 13.11.2002
1. A strange journey
For thirty years, I have been walking down an imaginary street-a long, winding, cobbled lane. Its inhabitants are the dead-but only the dead of a particular kind: scholars, who did their best to understand old texts, recreate lost beliefs, and reconstruct lost institutions. I seek out their houses, knock at their doors, and beg for a few minutes of their time. And they, in their humanity, allow me to interrupt their studies and welcome me, as they welcomed contemporaries who called on them, armed with the proper letters of recommendation. They show me the thickly annotated books on their shelves, let me examine the crabbed and crowded pages of their notebooks, allow me to read and copy letters they have received from colleagues and drafts of the letters they have sent, even give me access to the first and second drafts of their own treatises. At the end of long days in their company, I return home, exhausted, my own notebooks full of extracts, and try to understand what they have told me and shown me.
These men-and a few women-devoted their lives to the preservation of traditions. They examined, compared and emended manuscripts and inscriptions. They assembled information about slavery and marriage, food and dress, death and religion in societies other than their own. They charted the positions of the ancient societies they studied in time and space, creating minutely detailed maps and tables that even now, centuries after their time, continue to serve as the foundations of our knowledge. And they drew lessons, endlessly, from the treasuries of ancient experience that they brought back to life: lessons about the relevance of ancient politics to modern states and of ancient laws to modern societies. They too, in other words, spent their lives wandering down endless ancient streets, conversing with men and women who died centuries before them-with the Greek and Roman poets, philosophers and politicians who, they believed, held the keys to the kingdoms of wisdom and morality.
How did an American-born in the 1950s in a typical suburb, raised watching Technicolor movies about the old West-end up trying to join this endless conversation across the centuries? It was partly a matter of chance. Early reading of the Iliad and Odyssey convinced me, before I reached my teens, that I wanted-needed-to learn Greek. Classics were in decline, and though an excellent, frightening teacher offered good courses in Latin in our town, our school then offered no classes in Greek (a few years later, the schools repaired this deficiency, when Varian Fry, who had spent his twenties saving Jewish writers and artists in unoccupied France, began to teach early morning courses in Greek). So my parents, ever generous, found me a tutor. A few years later, they sent me to a boarding school, founded in the eighteenth century and still steeped in tradition, where I could learn Latin and Greek in a rigorous way. Homer proved as magical in Greek as I had expected him to be, and more so. I thought, for many years, that I would become a teacher of the classics in my turn. But even in these early years, other models for studying the past caught my attention as well. The Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, T.H. White’s magical books about King Arthur-these interested me in other pasts besides the Greek one, and suggested that bringing the past back to life was an intellectual and artistic enterprise of deep interest.
But it was at the University of Chicago that I found my path-one suggested, almost dictated, by the curriculum undergraduates followed there. A peculiar institution, the most austere and scholarly of American universities, Chicago dedicated itself, in the sixties, to conversations about tradition and its maintenance. Every student had to take a yearlong course on what was traditionally called “Western Civilization”-a course that began with the Greeks and ran to the middle of the twentieth century. We read endless original sources, in translation, with learned, gifted teachers-in my case, an ancient historian named Charles Hamilton, and the great historian of modern Italy, Eric Cochrane, who, some years later, supervised my doctoral dissertation. Our professors challenged us, over and over again, to think about traditions-how they persisted and how they changed, how the same text could take on different meanings in new contexts, how the same term could change its connotations in the hands of new writers. The course fascinated me-so much so that I took it twice, the second time with one of its originators, Christian Mackauer, a German émigré who had written for the Frankfurter Zeitung in the thirties and later devoted his life to teaching Chicago undergraduates to think hard about the past.
Other courses at Chicago gave my new interest direction. Hanna Holborn Gray introduced me to the study of Renaissance humanism, and I found that I could apply my training in Greek and Latin to a mare magnum of absorbing texts that almost no one had examined before me. Noel Swerdlow initiated me into the history of science, and I discovered a rich modern literature that offered a new version of intellectual history. Historians of science also examined traditions, some of which stretched back to ancient Greece or Mesopotamia. But they asked not what ideas their subjects held, but how they had worked, what methods and practices they had adopted and how they had applied these to particular objects. Why not, I wondered, ask questions like these about the history of history and other forms of scholarship as well? Other members of Chicago’s extraordinary group of young historians, assembled by William McNeil, offered stimulation and provocation of many kinds: from Keith Baker, who told me about a stimulating French writer on history named Michel Foucault, to Lester Little, who first suggested that I might find the world of late Renaissance humanism rewarding to explore.
I stayed at Chicago to pursue a doctorate in history, and one day Swerdlow suggested a dissertation topic that would bring together all my disparate interests. Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), a French humanist of Italian descent, edited a long series of Greek and Latin texts, and wielded both philological and astronomical techniques as he tried to reconstruct the whole framework of dates that underpinned ancient and medieval, near eastern and western history. His work fell into the no-man’s-land that interested me most. I had never heard of Scaliger before this conversation, but he seemed an appropriate, even awe-inspiring figure to work on. No one had written about him at length, moreover, since Jacob Bernays, who published a masterly biography in 1855. Swerdlow and Cochrane agreed that only one person could really supervise research on Scaliger: Arnaldo Momigliano, then in his last years as professor of ancient history at University College London. A Fulbright scholarship enabled me to settle in London, where I spent a year doing research in the British Library and attending Momigliano’s seminar at the Warburg Institute. He defined the history of scholarship as a central form of intellectual history, one so demanding that few could usefully pursue it, but also one that shed a uniquely strong light on the formation and life of traditions. He also saw it as a millennial tradition: Renaissance scholars had used the methods of their ancient predecessors to reconstruct the ancient world, and the scholars of the eighteenth, nineteenth and even twentieth centuries remained-or should remain-in dialogue with their early modern successors even as they set out to explore previously unstudied sectors of the ancient world.
Momigliano’s example and guidance enabled me to follow the path that I had discovered at Chicago, and that I have continued to follow over the decades. He gave me a practical way to pursue my interest in antiquity and its interpreters, to take part in the millennial conversation that goes by the anodyne term “classical tradition”-words more suggestive of plaster busts on mantelpieces and graduation speeches than of the passionate arguments that antiquity has always provoked. In the dark halls of an urban college in rainy London-above the preserved bones and plaster bust of Jeremy Bentham, across the street from the Warburg Institute-the long strands of interest and obsession that reached back through Chicago to suburban Connecticut took on the form that they have retained for me to this day.
Momigliano also taught me that learning and scholarship are social, as well as intellectual, pursuits. An intellectual autocrat who remorselessly condemned those who did not meet his standards, Momigliano ran his seminar on strikingly democratic lines. He always took care to thank the friends and students who read and commented on his work. I too had the good fortune, from the start of my research, to find teachers, friends, and, finally, students of my own who offered advice, correction and the brilliant examples of their own work. It seems only appropriate to offer my most heartfelt thanks, at this point, to those whose guidance has meant so much to me, over the years, and whose companionship has meant even more: my first teachers, whom I have already named; Carlotta Dionisotti, and Henk Jan de Jonge, and Charles Schmitt, whose advice did so much to shape my work and whose example of learning and generosity I have tried, over the years, to emulate; and many, many friends of extraordinary tolerance and generosity, especially David Quint, Lisa Jardine, Nancy Siraisi, Ann Blair, Joseph Levine, Peter Miller, Jake Soll-and, sine qua non, Jill Kraye. The study of tradition remains a conversation.
My long voyage through the West’s memory palace of traditions has taken me to many destinations, some of them more predictable than others. Until 1993, when the second and final volume of my study of Scaliger appeared, he and the context he worked in occupied me most of the time. My two books on him represented, when they appeared, something of an experiment in intellectual biography: a massive study of the development of a scholar’s practices and methods, as well as his career and the world in which he pursued it. I followed him into fields I knew and fields I did not, reading what he had read, identifying the predecessors and contemporaries who had meant most to him, trying to understand what he found fascinating in the vast range of ancient books and problems that he explored. In particular, I tried to understand chronology: the formidably technical discipline that, it is usually said, Scaliger created, and that concerns itself with reconstructing past calendar systems and establishing the dates of major historical events. For centuries, chronology has seemed the driest of pursuits; Voltaire remarked that it could establish only the dates on which persons of no significance were born or died. In Scaliger’s day, however, chronology mattered deeply. It laid out the framework within which scholars read the Bible, it analyzed the origins of Christian liturgy, and it imposed a clear pattern on the chaos order of events in the past-a pattern that seemed, to most scholars, to reveal a divine hand at work, and might make it possible to predict the future. Chronology fascinated great astronomers like Regiomontanus and Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, as well as erudite scholars like Carlo Sigonio and Onofrio Panvinio. Scaliger’s books on chronology established him as the great polymath in Europe’s great age of polymaths. They won him the offer of a research professorship at Leiden, a brand-new university and the most innovative one in Europe. And they provoked the formidable attacks of Catholic scholars-especially the Jesuits, whom this stern Calvinist and close friend of Gallicans loathed. The few modern historians who mentioned Scaliger described him as a brilliant innovator who had created a discipline in the teeth of ferocious opposition.
As I read the books that mattered most to Scaliger, as I followed the development of his own books in the field, a different story emerged. it became clear that he had not invented chronology at all. He saw himself as reconstructing a field invented by ancient scholars like Ephorus and Eratosthenes. His own work rested on foundations laid both in antiquity and, more surprisingly, in his own time-partly by well-known figures like Copernicus, partly by men now forgotten, like the brilliant chronologer Paulus Crusius, who first used the data provided by the ancient astronomer Ptolemy to establish what remain the central dates of Greek history. He engaged in debates not only with contemporary Jesuits, but also with much less reputable figures, like the Dominican Giovanni Nanni da Viterbo, who forged a series of texts on ancient history that appeared in 1498 and still dominated ancient history almost a century later, when Scaliger entered the field. His own achievement, finally, was not the restoration of order in the past, but the creation of chaos. In the Byzantine world chronicle of George Syncellus, Scaliger discovered evidence that the kingdoms of Egypt and Babylon had existed before the biblical Flood, and even before the biblical date for the Creation. Dates that openly contradicted the biblical account of time could not be true. But data preserved in sources that were clearly not forgeries must be preserved, published and explicated. For the century and more after Scaliger’s Thesaurus temporum appeared in 1606, the new evidence he brought to light fascinated, troubled, even obsessed every scholar who worked on chronology or the Old Testament, from Newton to Vico. It wrenched at, and eventually destroyed, what had seemed the flawless, solid biblical framework for world history. By the time he died in 1609, so it seemed, Scaliger inherited the same territory of doubt that more obvious rebels of his time, like Bruno and Campanella, had already explored and settled.
The research needed to reconstruct Scaliger’s achievement brought me into contact with a vast range of scholarly problems and traditions, many of which I explored in shorter books and articles. Study of his work as an editor of Latin texts led me to the history of textual commentary and interpretation, to which I have devoted many articles and a short book, Commerce with the Classics. Examination of the major role that forgeries, ancient and modern, played in his thought and that of his friend Isaac Casaubon, led me to dedicate articles and a little book to the work of Forgers and Critics. And reading the later works of classical scholars on the themes that mattered most to him-especially those of German scholars-led to a collaborative study of Friedrich August Wolf, and to a long series of further monographs.
My research on Scaliger’s philology and that of his period was naturally accompanied by work, over the years, of a very different kind: teaching the cultural and intellectual history of early modern Europe to very able students. The development of chronology and similar technical fields should not, it seemed to me, form the subject of lecture courses and seminars aimed at undergraduates. But other forms of research did bear more directly on my courses. The history of education in early modern Europe-and, later on, the history of the ways in which scholars interpreted texts for young aristocrats-formed a natural addition to my work on Scaliger, and one that involved canonical figures like Erasmus. A series of studies-several of them conducted in collaboration with Lisa Jardine-treated these topics. In further monographs, similar to these in method, I tried to shed light on the later history of scholarship and education, down into the twentieth-though not yet the twenty-first-century.
In particular, one of Princeton’s most intensive and rewarding programs for undergraduates-the Program in European Cultural Studies, founded by Carl Schorske and carried on in later years by Jerrold Seigel, Robert Darnton and others-gave me the chance to develop courses on art, science, and courtly culture in Renaissance Europe. Teaching in collaboration with an immensely learned and generous art historian, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, sharpened my interest in and extended my knowledge of the history of art. In the end, giving these courses inspired me to write a number of essays, to collaborate with Nancy Siraisi and Bill Newman in organizing two collections of essays, to produce books on Cardano and Alberti, and to undertake a study of the tradition of learned magic in the Renaissance, on which I am currently engaged.
Intensive engagement with teaching has shown me how rewarding it can be to try to communicate the sort of work I do to an audience not wholly composed of professional scholars. My efforts to do this have resulted in many essays and reviews, some of which Harvard University Press has recently collected, and in a short work on the long history of the footnote.
Research plans for the next twenty years and more continue to occupy me. In the next few years, I hope to research and write-among other things-a history of Renaissance Europe and a study of the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher in his world, the latter in collaboration with Ingrid Rowland. I hope to continue and complete a study, already begun, of proofreading and the origins of the modern editor, and to complete a collaborative study of the library of Caesarea in the fourth century, the latter in collaboration with a young scholar, Megan Williams. I hope to edit Scaliger’s correspondence. Above all, I hope to reconstruct, in a book on a very large scale, the chronological scholarship and debates of the seventeenth century-the further history of that explosive collision of the classics and the Bible, theology and hermeneutics, philology and astronomy that Scaliger’s work helped to bring about. The support and encouragement offered by the Balzan Foundation will ease these tasks in countless ways, and I should like to close by thanking the Foundation and its advisers, with all my heart, for the distinction they have conferred upon me.