The Case of Wagner

Page 24 of 36

These questions, however, are not asked as a rule: The sway of philology over our means of instruction remains practically unquestioned; and antiquity has the importance assigned to it. To this extent the position of the philologist is more favourable than that of any other follower of science. True, he has not at his disposal that great mass of men who stand in need of him—the doctor, for example, has far more than the philologist. But he can influence picked men, or youths, to be more accurate, at a time when all their mental faculties are beginning to blossom forth—people who can afford to devote both time and money to their higher development. In all those places where European culture has found its way, people have accepted secondary schools based upon a foundation of Latin and Greek as the first and highest means of instruction. In this way philology has found its best opportunity of transmitting itself, and commanding respect: no other science has been so well favoured. As a general rule all those who have passed through such institutions have afterwards borne testimony to the[Pg 125] excellence of their organisation and curriculum, and such people are, of course, unconscious witnesses in favour of philology. If any who have not passed through these institutions should happen to utter a word in disparagement of this education, an unanimous and yet calm repudiation of the statement at once follows, as if classical education were a kind of witchcraft, blessing its followers, and demonstrating itself to them by this blessing. There is no attempt at polemics: "We have been through it all." "We know it has done us good."

Now there are so many things to which men have become so accustomed that they look upon them as quite appropriate and suitable, for habit intermixes all things with sweetness; and men as a rule judge the value of a thing in accordance with their own desires. The desire for classical antiquity as it is now felt should be tested, and, as it were, taken to pieces and analysed with a view to seeing how much of this desire is due to habit, and how much to mere love of adventure—I refer to that inward and active desire, new and strange, which gives rise to a productive conviction from day to day, the desire for a higher goal, and also the means thereto: as the result of which people advance step by step from one unfamiliar thing to another, like an Alpine climber.

What is the foundation on which the high value attached to antiquity at the present time is based, to such an extent indeed that our whole modern culture is founded on it? Where must we look for the origin of this delight in antiquity, and the preference shown for it?

[Pg 126]

I think I have recognised in my examination of the question that all our philology—that is, all its present existence and power—is based on the same foundation as that on which our view of antiquity as the most important of all means of training is based. Philology as a means of instruction is the clear expression of a predominating conception regarding the value of antiquity, and the best methods of education. Two propositions are contained in this statement: In the first place all higher education must be a historical one; and secondly, Greek and Roman history differs from all others in that it is classical. Thus the scholar who knows this history becomes a teacher. We are not here going into the question as to whether higher education ought to be historical or not; but we may examine the second and ask: in how far is it classic?

On this point there are many widespread prejudices. In the first place there is the prejudice expressed in the synonymous concept, "The study of the humanities": antiquity is classic because it is the school of the humane.

Secondly: "Antiquity is classic because it is enlightened——"


It is the task of all education to change certain conscious actions and habits into more or less unconscious ones; and the history of mankind is in this sense its education. The philologist now practises unconsciously a number of such occupations and habits. It is my object to ascertain how[Pg 127] his power, that is, his instinctive methods of work, is the result of activities which were formerly conscious, but which he has gradually come to feel as such no longer: but that consciousness consisted of prejudices. The present power of philologists is based upon these prejudices, for example the value attached to the ratio as in the cases of Bentley and Hermann. Prejudices are, as Lichtenberg says, the art impulses of men.


It is difficult to justify the preference for antiquity since it has arisen from prejudices:

1. From ignorance of all non-classical antiquity.

2. From a false idealisation of humanitarianism, whilst Hindoos and Chinese are at all events more humane.

3. From the pretensions of school-teachers.

4. From the traditional admiration which emanated from antiquity itself.

5. From opposition to the Christian church; or as a support for this church.

6. From the impression created by the century-long work of the philologists, and the nature of this work: it must be a gold mine, thinks the spectator.

7. The acquirement of knowledge attained as the result of the study. The preparatory school of science.

In short, partly from ignorance, wrong impressions, and misleading conclusions; and also from the interest which philologists have in raising their science to a high level in the estimation of laymen.

[Pg 128]

Also the preference for antiquity on the part of the artists, who involuntarily assume proportion and moderation to be the property of all antiquity. Purity of form. Authors likewise.

The preference for antiquity as an abbreviation of the history of the human race, as if there were an autochthonous creation here by which all becoming might be studied.

The fact actually is that the foundations of this preference are being removed one by one, and if this is not remarked by philologists themselves, it is certainly being remarked as much as it can possibly be by people outside their circle. First of all history had its effect, and then linguistics brought about the greatest diversion among philologists themselves, and even the desertion of many of them. They have still the schools in their hands: but for how long! In the form in which it has existed up to the present philology is dying out; the ground has been swept from under its feet. Whether philologists may still hope to maintain their status is doubtful; in any case they are a dying race.


The peculiarly significant situation of philologists: a class of people to whom we entrust our youth, and who have to investigate quite a special antiquity. The highest value is obviously attached to this antiquity. But if this antiquity has been wrongly valued, then the whole foundation upon which the high position of the philologist is based suddenly collapses. In any case this antiquity has[Pg 129] been very differently valued; and our appreciation of the philologists has constantly been guided by it. These people have borrowed their power from the strong prejudices in favour of antiquity,—this must be made clear.

Philologists now feel that when these prejudices are at last refuted, and antiquity depicted in its true colours, the favourable prejudices towards them will diminish considerably. It is thus to the interest of their profession not to let a clear impression of antiquity come to light: in particular the impression that antiquity in its highest sense renders one "out of season" i.e., an enemy to one's own time.

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