On the Future of our Educational Institutions - Homer and Classical Philology

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The Iliad is not a garland, but a bunch of flowers. As many pictures as possible are crowded on one canvas; but the man who placed them there was indifferent as to whether the grouping of the collected pictures was invariably suitable and rhythmically beautiful. He well knew that no one would ever consider the collection as a whole; but would merely look at the individual parts. But that stringing together of some pieces as the manifestations of a grasp of art which was not yet highly developed, still less thoroughly comprehended and generally esteemed, cannot have been the real Homeric deed, the real Homeric epoch-making event. On the contrary, this design is a later product, far later than Homer's celebrity. Those, therefore, who look for the "original and perfect design" are looking for a mere phantom; for the dangerous path of oral tradition had reached its end just as the systematic arrangement appeared on the scene; the disfigurements which were caused on the way could not have affected the design, for this did not form part of the [Pg 166]material handed down from generation to generation.

The relative imperfection of the design must not, however, prevent us from seeing in the designer a different personality from the real poet. It is not only probable that everything which was created in those times with conscious sthetic insight, was infinitely inferior to the songs that sprang up naturally in the poet's mind and were written down with instinctive power: we can even take a step further. If we include the so-called cyclic poems in this comparison, there remains for the designer of the Iliad and the Odyssey the indisputable merit of having done something relatively great in this conscious technical composing: a merit which we might have been prepared to recognise from the beginning, and which is in my opinion of the very first order in the domain of instinctive creation. We may even be ready to pronounce this synthetisation of great importance. All those dull passages and discrepancies—deemed of such importance, but really only subjective, which we usually look upon as the petrified remains of the period of tradition—are not these perhaps merely the almost necessary evils which must fall to the lot of the poet of genius who undertakes a composition virtually without a parallel, and, further, one which proves to be of incalculable difficulty?

Let it be noted that the insight into the most diverse operations of the instinctive and the conscious changes the position of the Homeric problem; and in my opinion throws light upon it.

[Pg 167]We believe in a great poet as the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey—but not that Homer was this poet.

The decision on this point has already been given. The generation that invented those numerous Homeric fables, that poetised the myth of the contest between Homer and Hesiod, and looked upon all the poems of the epic cycle as Homeric, did not feel an sthetic but a material singularity when it pronounced the name "Homer." This period regards Homer as belonging to the ranks of artists like Orpheus, Eumolpus, Ddalus, and Olympus, the mythical discoverers of a new branch of art, to whom, therefore, all the later fruits which grew from the new branch were thankfully dedicated.

And that wonderful genius to whom we owe the Iliad and the Odyssey belongs to this thankful posterity: he, too, sacrificed his name on the altar of the primeval father of the Homeric epic, Homeros.

Up to this point, gentlemen, I think I have been able to put before you the fundamental philosophical and sthetic characteristics of the problem of the personality of Homer, keeping all minor details rigorously at a distance, on the supposition that the primary form of this widespread and honeycombed mountain known as the Homeric question can be most clearly observed by looking down at it from a far-off height. But I have also, I imagine, recalled two facts to those friends of antiquity who take such delight in accusing us philologists of lack of piety for great [Pg 168]conceptions and an unproductive zeal for destruction. In the first place, those "great" conceptions—such, for example, as that of the indivisible and inviolable poetic genius, Homer—were during the pre-Wolfian period only too great, and hence inwardly altogether empty and elusive when we now try to grasp them. If classical philology goes back again to the same conceptions, and once more tries to pour new wine into old bottles, it is only on the surface that the conceptions are the same: everything has really become new; bottle and mind, wine and word. We everywhere find traces of the fact that philology has lived in company with poets, thinkers, and artists for the last hundred years: whence it has now come about that the heap of ashes formerly pointed to as classical philology is now turned into fruitful and even rich soil.[2]

And there is a second fact which I should like to recall to the memory of those friends of antiquity who turn their dissatisfied backs on classical philology. You honour the immortal masterpieces of the Hellenic mind in poetry and sculpture, and think yourselves so much more fortunate than preceding generations, which had to do without them; but you must not forget that this whole fairyland once lay buried under mountains of prejudice, and that the blood and sweat and arduous labour of innumerable followers of our science were all necessary to lift up that world [Pg 169]from the chasm into which it had sunk. We grant that philology is not the creator of this world, not the composer of that immortal music; but is it not a merit, and a great merit, to be a mere virtuoso, and let the world for the first time hear that music which lay so long in obscurity, despised and undecipherable? Who was Homer previously to Wolf's brilliant investigations? A good old man, known at best as a "natural genius," at all events the child of a barbaric age, replete with faults against good taste and good morals. Let us hear how a learned man of the first rank writes about Homer even so late as 1783: "Where does the good man live? Why did he remain so long incognito? Apropos, can't you get me a silhouette of him?"

We demand _thanks_—not in our own name, for we are but atoms—but in the name of philology itself, which is indeed neither a Muse nor a Grace, but a messenger of the gods: and just as the Muses descended upon the dull and tormented Boeotian peasants, so Philology comes into a world full of gloomy colours and pictures, full of the deepest, most incurable woes; and speaks to men comfortingly of the beautiful and godlike figure of a distant, rosy, and happy fairyland.

It is time to close; yet before I do so a few words of a personal character must be added, justified, I hope, by the occasion of this lecture.

It is but right that a philologist should describe his end and the means to it in the short formula [Pg 170]of a confession of faith; and let this be done in the saying of Seneca which I thus reverse—

"Philosophia facta est qu philologia fuit."

By this I wish to signify that all philological activities should be enclosed and surrounded by a philosophical view of things, in which everything individual and isolated is evaporated as something detestable, and in which great homogeneous views alone remain. Now, therefore, that I have enunciated my philological creed, I trust you will give me cause to hope that I shall no longer be a stranger among you: give me the assurance that in working with you towards this end I am worthily fulfilling the confidence with which the highest authorities of this community have honoured me.

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