Acceptance Speech – Rome 15.11.2000


Martin Litchfield West

2000 Balzan Prize for Classical Antiquity

For his masterful editions and explanations of Greek poetry from Homer to the Attic tragedy as well as for his groundbreaking research in the alleged and still violently debated relationships between Greece and the Orient.

Balzan Prize Awards Ceremony 2000
Rome, Accademia dei Lincei, 15 November 2000

Mr. President, 
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen, 

The International Balzan Foundation has conferred an exceptional honour upon me with this Prize, and I will at once express my immense gratitude to all who have been involved in the process. When I received the news of the award two months ago, it came as a total surprise, especially to one who cannot claim to have developed the study of Classical Antiquity in any previously unknown direction, or enriched it with any new concepts or methodology. I practise a style of philology that I learned forty years ago and have seen no reason to change; set in my ways from an early age, I have ignored the changing fashions of scholarship and slept through the noise of the bandwagons that pass in the night. I have from time to time asked new questions and explored neglected fields, but whenever I have done so, I have used traditional procedures.

When I say “traditional”, I am of course referring to a particular scholarly tradition in which I was nurtured at St. Paul’s School in London and the University of Oxford. One of the many ways in which I count myself fortunate is that I was an undergraduate in Oxford at a time when Eduard Fraenkel, though long retired from his Latin Chair, was still actively lecturing and holding seminars on the German model, something which so far as I know he introduced to Oxford and which continues to this day. It was not just that he made us scrutinize texts as we had never scrutinized them before, as we had never imagined that they could be scrutinized. He enrolled us in his own venerable line of tradition. He spoke of Leo and Wilamowitz and Wackernagel, great scholars of another time whose seminars he himself had attended in Berlin and Göttingen, and we felt that through him we had a direct line of contact with them. My doctoral work was supervised by a scholar of a very different character and temperament, Hugh Lloyd-Jones. It was difficult not to be energized by his tremendous brio, his impatience with unnecessary accumulations of irrelevant references, his desire to drive straight to the point, his instant and often caustic judgments on issues and on persons, and his view that the worst failing in a scholar is to be boring – something of which no one has ever accused him. He did me the great service of sending me to Germany for a semester in my first year of graduate work.

There I studied with Reinhold Merkelbach at Erlangen, and made the acquaintance of several others who have established themselves over the last four decades as the leading German Hellenists: Rudolf Kassel, Winfried Bühler, and the Balzan Prizewinner of 1990, Walter Burkert. All of them have remained my good friends. It was Reinhold Merkelbach who opened my eyes to the relevance of ancient Near Eastern texts to my studies; the investigation of oriental influences on Greek literature and myth has remained an important strand in my work. It is not, to be sure, a strand characteristic of the traditional Anglo-German philology in which I was brought up. But the methodology is no different: reading texts, trying to determine exactly what the author wrote, what he meant by it, and where that meaning belongs in a literary-historical context. But if I associate such an approach with a particular scholarly tradition, and declare my allegiance to it, at the same time it must be remarked that scholastic tradition is a potentially dangerous thing, misleading and limiting, and one must try as hard as one can to be independent of it. When we are taught at school and college about the history of a country or of its literature, our teachers do not, generally speaking, reconstruct this history before our eyes from the original sources; they feed us with the syntheses that learned men have already made, with the fables convenues, with the conclusions in which most people have acquiesced. There is no avoiding it at the stage of education. But the consequence is that we are imbued with the conventional wisdom before we acquire the ability to make our own assessment of the evidence. It is difficult then not to see the evidence through the lenses of the tradition in which we stand, difficult to escape from the preconceptions that have been programmed into us. When we look back at the history of interpretation, we can see how scholars in the past were often blinkered or led astray by the hermeneutic traditions prevailing at the time. How can we not be the prisoners of our own tradition? 

Our best hope is always to go back to the primary sources and to work from them, forming a judgment on where their evidence takes us before we pay attention to the secondary literature and the constructions enshrined in it. The special feature of the tradition from which I come is that it teaches one to do this. It is a tradition that aims to transcend itself, to avoid building up hypotheses and interpretations without continual recourse to the factual evidence. Much of my work has been devoted to the attempt to establish facts: to answer such questions as when a particular work was composed, whether or not it was composed (or wholly composed) by its supposed author, whether the supposed author was a real or a fictitious person, what was the original text at such and such a place. It cannot be denied that these are questions of a very traditional sort.

It is heartening to know that such a distinguished body of scholars as the members of the Prize Committee have discerned sufficient value in work of such a basically old-fashioned kind to merit so extraordinary a reward. It will, I trust, give encouragement to all those younger scholars who dare to uphold the old canons of scholarship as they engage with new problems.

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