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Prolegomena to Homer, 1795

Prolegomena to Homer, 1795

by Friedrich August Wolf, Glenn M. Most (Translator), James E. Zetzel (Translator)

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The subjects Wolf addressed have dominated Homeric scholarship for almost two centuries. Especially important were his analyses of the history of writing and of the nature of Alexandrian scholarship and his consideration of the composition of the Homeric poems—which set the terms for the analyst/unitarian controversy. His exploration of the history of the


The subjects Wolf addressed have dominated Homeric scholarship for almost two centuries. Especially important were his analyses of the history of writing and of the nature of Alexandrian scholarship and his consideration of the composition of the Homeric poems—which set the terms for the analyst/unitarian controversy. His exploration of the history of the transmission of the text in antiquity opened a new field of research and transformed conceptions of the relations of ancient and modern culture.

Originally published in 1986.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Wolf's Prolegomena has long been recognized as one of the most important books in the history of classical studies. . . . This English translation, with a detailed historical introduction, makes it fully accessible to the modern reader. . . . The analytical and unitarian interpretations of Homer have, indeed, been argued over ever since. It is gratifying that the work which started this famous controversy is available once again."—H. B. Nisbet,Times Higher Education Supplement

"This is the first English translation of Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum, a seminal work for classical scholarship. An introduction places Wolf in the cultural setting of eighteenth-century Germany, especially with regard to Homeric studies, showing how he was influenced by contemporary textual criticism of the Old Testament, and how Wolf's work was originally received."Choice

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Prolegomena to Homer 1795

By F. A. Wolf, Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, James E.G. Zetzel


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-10247-4


Two principal kinds of emendation are normally applied to the books of the ancients, to free them from the many and varied flaws and stains that they have contracted on their long journey into barbarism, and restore them more nearly to their ancient and original form. The one entails more effort and, I might almost say, misery; the other, more leisurely delight. Each, if rightly applied, is useful; but one is more useful. Take someone, even someone poorly equipped with the best aids, who gives us a writer restored to a more correct form, either by conjecture or by the use of a few manuscripts; even if he removes just thirty warts, and leaves a hundred, no one will deny that he has rendered service to literature. And this used to be the way of things, especially in the days when manuscripts had not long begun to be printed, and it was widely expected that new aids would soon appear. Many have imitated this custom from then on, down to our own time, even for those writers who abounded with critical evidence and aids of all sorts. In fact, few authors of new recensions are so diligent and willing to work that they collect all the variant readings from what are often obscure and scattered sources, and especially from old exemplars, and then compare these with the standard text so that they can set about a consistent emendation of it. On the contrary, they generally stop short only when a difficult thought or an error obvious at first sight presents itself, and then they consult variant readings or an old exemplar. But these oracles are usually unresponsive except to those who consult them regularly. A similar method is applied by those scholars — sometimes very learned and expert — who hold that every emendation should depend on the credibility of a selection of manuscripts, or who edit texts, as they are called, in accordance with one exemplar, as if those manuscripts had been destined by the fates to save their author.

A true, continuous, and systematic recension differs greatly from this frivolous and desultory method. In the latter we want only to cure indiscriminately the wounds that are conspicuous or are revealed by some manuscript or other. We pass over more [readings] which are good and passable as regards sense, but no better than the worst as regards authority. But a true recension, attended by the full complement of useful instruments, seeks out the author's true handiwork at every point. It examines in order the witnesses for every reading, not only for those that are suspect. It changes, only for the most serious reasons, readings that all of these approve. It accepts, only when they are supported by witnesses, others that are worthy in themselves of the author and accurate and elegant in their form. Not uncommonly, then, when the witnesses require it, a true recension replaces attractive readings with less attractive ones. It takes off bandages and lays bare the sores. Finally, it cures not only manifest ills, as bad doctors do, but hidden ones too. This method certainly has a place for natural talent and the art of conjecture, but as the credibility of every ancient text rests entirely on the purity of its sources, we must strive above all — and can hardly do so without talent — to examine the properties and individual nature of the sources from which each writer's text is derived; to judge each of the various witnesses, once they are set out by classes and families, by its character; and to learn to follow their voices, and gestures, so to speak, with cunning, but without bias. Indeed, in many cases both the critic, and anyone who would undertake a historical investigation, must emulate the prudent custom of a good judge, who slowly examines the testimony of the witnesses, and gathers all the evidence for their truthfulness, before he ventures to put forward his own conjecture about the case. And indeed, it is impossible that one who relies on a few codices of the common sort and practices conjecture, however cleverly, can often arrive at the genuine text. In resolving questions of law, no amount of talent can make up for a want of wills and documents. Similarly, the acutest talent labors in vain on historical and critical questions, unless it is tempered and controlled by diligent use of manuscripts. In fact these two activities differ more in name than in kind, and they are bound by the same rules of judgment. It is proper that you should attach more weight to talent than to costly parchments. But even genius badly needs to have access to as many codices as possible, so that its judgment about the true reading may rely on their testimony and its divination may find aid of many kinds. The more often, then, that the manuscripts of any author undergo collation, the more a true and consistent recension takes place. For those authors who still suffer from the lack of useful materials, I am inclined to think that the multiplication of forms of their texts harms rather than helps these studies, which are more than tedious enough in themselves. Such authors can presumably be given a sort of review (recognitio), not what is truly called a recension (recensio).


But in general no one disputes any of these points. In Homer, however, the oldest poet, doubts clearly exist as to whether so much weight should be given to the authority of such recent manuscripts. For none of them is even so old as the latest Latin writers. Those that date before the twelfth or eleventh century are few and far between. This doubt may carry the implication that these sources cannot enable us to restore Homer's work to the genuine, pure form which first poured from his divine lips. If so, I shall say later how willingly I follow this school of thought and line of reasoning. But when I consider the fates of ancient books, sometimes unexpectedly favorable, and see that we have Herodotus, Plato, Xenophon, others of the same period, whom we have received from the hands of the same scribes, restored so nearly to their original luster — then I can find no reason, unless perhaps the texts of the ancient bards that have come down to us are worse than the rest, why we should trust the latter so much less than the former. Moreover, thanks to the Alexandrian critics, who flourished after [Herodotus, Plato, and Xenophon], we doubtless read a Homeric text more correct in many passages than the one that they themselves could read. Finally, it is surprising how many of the variant readings found in authors who quote Homer — variants of any significance, and which are not simply errors resulting from a faulty recollection [of the passage] — are found in almost identical form in those manuscripts. For newness in manuscripts is no more a vice than youth in men. In this case, too, age does not always bring wisdom. Insofar as each follows an old and good authority well, it is a good witness. True, I attach somewhat more weight to the apparatus of scholia and glossaries than to bare parchments. But I have learned from many cases in point that only by using both sets of material together can we restore these poems to a form that is neither unworthy of them nor inconsistent with the canons of learned antiquity. And at this point we will have to stop. If we demand the bard in simon-pure condition, and are not content with what contented Plutarch, Longinus, or Proclus, we will have to take refuge either in empty prayers or in unrestrained license in divination.


Once I gave up hope, then, that the original form of the Homeric Poems could ever be laid out save in our minds, and even there only in rough outlines, it seemed appropriate to investigate how far the ancient evidence would take us in polishing these eternal and unique remains of the Greek genius. I thought this study the first and most necessary of the many tasks that their better illustration requires. Hence in this edition I set out to give a sample of that more accurate sort of recension the nature of which I sketched above. Scholars agree that this has not yet been done for Homer. For the previous editors, who did not have enough aids to work with, could not have formed such a plan even if they had wanted to. Hence for the most part, unless some rag of a scholium or a variant from Eustathius or a manuscript aroused them, they rested, sleeping peacefully, on the apparent clarity of his thoughts. So Homer's extraordinary reputation has brought him poverty and emaciation, while others have waxed fat on their faults. Had he presented the obscurities of Lycophron, it would be astonishing if troops of porters had not brought him light long since from all sides. I will not reproach any of those who edited the poet in the past for having made so little effort to collect the manuscripts and remains of scholia from libraries. That is more a matter of luck than of talent or industry. Yet some, like Bergler, spurned even the riches of that sort that they were offered. Others, like the Italian editors, had the opportunity to use them in their vicinity. In these affairs, as I said, chance rules. But as to the fact that none of them collected the materials readily available in common authors, grammarians and lexicographers, or used them to establish the text — that, perhaps, can be imputed only to negligence and frivolity. For who can begin to study, for example, Apollonius Dyscolus, the Etymologicum Magnum, Hesychius, without seeing at once that they conceal many readings and dittographies? No one would need to have this pointed out to him. But it is less trouble to trust the suggestions offered, as it were, by one's divining rod in the course of editing, than to work consistently at one task with so many texts from so reharbative a branch of learning. What is worse, every book of Homer reveals that the editors have not even worked continuously through Eustathius — who is universally acknowledged to be the best interpreter of Homer — or collected the useful things that he includes.

Barnes accuses Henricus Stephanus, not unjustly, of having used Eustathius in a slapdash way. True, that most laborious of men was perhaps unwilling to cite what he had not used in correcting the text when he wrote his hasty notes. For in those days one's labors could safely be concealed; now, as customs have changed, we are compelled to reveal them. Thus from the second Aldine edition on, I believe, several of the early editors did not completely neglect this grammarian, though they did not mention him. For I see that they, too, accepted some readings which they could hardly have found anywhere else. But I do not find consistency in the collation. Not even the Roman edition — the one that contains the text along with Eustathius' commentary — clearly shows that. Admittedly, Barnes boasts that he has "plundered Eustathius' inmost treasures." But both other scholars and Valckenaer, one of the few who had read Eustathius through with real care, have pointed out how unreliable he is in these and other claims. Yet even Barnes — in other respects an incompetent man, and one without rigorous training — should not be deprived of his title to praise: that he was the first to derive anything from ancient writers which his successors could use, and that he also drew some good corrections from these sources. Clarke, who later expunged Barnes's many rash corrections, was an expert grammarian, but he consistently reveals a genius ill-adapted to work of this kind and to any sort of serious critical work. He disregarded the authorities for readings, which should of course be sought in old manuscripts, and contented himself for the most part with the small collection of variants given in the Appendix of the former vulgate editions and by Stephanus and Barnes. He rarely turned aside to Eustathius or the scholia where others had run into problems, or he himself needed support for his opinion. He [treated] the rest of the text lightly, and gently, and with astonishing moderation — sometimes even in Barnes's purest nonsense he finds nothing wanting but "a sufficient reason." Ernesti set out to reprint Clarke's edition in quite a different spirit and with a different store of learning, though he did so not on his own initiative but at the request of his publisher. I consider him more admirable for the work he did on this project, which was not his own, than for what he did on some of his own projects, which he was more eager to bring to completion. In it he did signal service to the text of Homer both by collating many manuscripts and by deciding what was the correct reading, which he did most acutely at many points. But he also saw, and pointed out in his preface to vol. 5, how much work would have to be done before the poet could be published in a perfectly pure and correct form. He thus did not hold anything remotely like the wrong-headed view of those who even today seem to consider the text, which took its present shape little by little and as chance determined, as genuine and, almost, as literally inspired by the Muses. They follow the example of the Buxtorfs, who used to claim the same thing for their Hebrew text. They prohibited the application of any conjecture, almost of any human reason, to it, revering as literally inspired by God even those passages that scholars now consider entirely corrupt.


Ernesti, too, would have been completely astonished that such excellent and extensive materials survived for editing Homer as have appeared in the last seven years. At this point, we must devote a few words to the appreciation of Villoison's outstanding service. He was the first to publish the two Venetian manuscripts of the Iliad, with a mass of scholia that provides a far greater supply of material both old and relevant to determining the fate and textual condition of these poems than all the rest of the manuscripts put together, and which surpasses in its critical and grammatical riches not only Eustathius but all the scholiasts of all the poets. A certain partiality in praising the book may perhaps be forgiven in one to whom a long and laborious course of study has endeared it. But even a superficial comparison between it and the similar materials that had previously been published will make anyone form the same opinion of it. Some of those who felt differently had not read scholiasts recently; others, encouraged to expect too much by the editor's first claims, resented the fact that they received less than they had hoped for. Some, apparently, since they had heard that the names of Zenodotus, Aristarchus, Crates, Alexion, and many other Alexandrians were often mentioned there, and that the readings of editions of which only the faintest record had come down to us as well as many scholars' individual works were cited, thought that it would provide us with their very commentaries and diorthoseis, assembled into a single work. At last the book appeared, famous because scholars had waited so long for it, less than half as long as Eustathius. And it provided only excerpts from the works of critics and commentators. They were not made with the method that one of us would now use when taking notes: sometimes they were rather full, sometimes rather short. They were stuffed with readings, but these were not taken from the earliest sources, and were not adequately equipped with explanations of the arguments in their support. They contained much that related to Homeric learning and literature; little that helps to form a sense of poetic qualities; nothing at all that depicts the poet's age in terms of its own opinions, customs, and general tenor of feeling and thinking — not to mention the further stock of learned and unlearned trivia, with which these scholia too reveal the date of their origins.


Excerpted from Prolegomena to Homer 1795 by F. A. Wolf, Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, James E.G. Zetzel. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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