Biography in the World of Ancient History
Had I realized, I should have preferred something from earlier in his career: something to the topic of ancient history, bearing the imprint of his own hand in the final shaping. The judaic essays were in proof at the time of his death, but the book bears something of the feel of an ad hoc assemblage. I have but glanced into Scholarship so it is too early to tell if my disappointment in its focus is justified. (In the case of M.I. Finley I should welcome posthumous collections— Economy and Society in Ancient Greece was compiled during his lifetime and contains marvelous pieces; but the few stray essays I have found elsewhere suggest that others exist equally worthy of collection and republication in book form, as I imagine would personal correspondence and perhaps other likely ephemera.) The introduction indicates that biography was of seminal interest to Momigliano:
The conviction that biography was an important tool for the historian was undoubtedly rooted in Momigliano's abiding concern to work out the tangled fabric of his own life. This is a subject that seems to underlie the work he undertook at the very end of his life on Marcel Mauss and the concept of the person, to say nothing of those remarkably candid revelations about his childhood prepared for the Pagine ebraiche in the last months before his death. The relation between his academic career and his scholarship is almost certainly mirrored in his attempts to see the relation between world and scholarship in the great figures whom he studied in the essays presented in this volume.
While candid talk about his childhood is intriguing, even tantalizing, a footnote to this little description leads only to the Italian edition of his essays on Judaism—more precisely to its introductory matter—but it is hard to guess which revelations are meant. Surely the conditions of his childhood education are remarkable, but how far are we willing to go (or how deep to dig) in order to learn some trivial tidbit about an author?
I've never been drawn to biography or autobiography. For years, I harbored an intention to read all of Plutarch's Lives and felt like a big failure for not acting upon it. They may be considered a pinnacle of the genre. I've read a few (scattered) chapters and found it rewarding; as a historical source he tells us a lot, and a good anecdote (whether true or not, whether particularly relevant —to whatever—or not) is always pleasurable. However, absent some strong intrinsic drive to find out about a specific person, the genre itself pales. Depending on the focus of one's interest, even good anecdotes can become a distraction. Biography may help in coming to an analysis of The Waste Land (and I've happily enjoyed at least two biographies of Eliot, though scant remembering), but—as distinct from historical description or philology—it is easy to feel that criticism devolves thereby into something less pure. Still, in today’s press and literary journals, book reviews inevitably rely on a surplus of biographical detail about the author under scrutiny, often supplying nothing but that, beyond a superficial mention of the work in question—so the popular (let us not say vulgar) appeal of biography cannot be gainsaid. Besides, that detail adds the human touch. We are not really so attracted to absolute purity after all.
Particular details, as from Momigliano's essay on Gertrud Bing (from Essays on Ancient and Modern Judaism) can be informative and broadening of one's perspective even when one is only marginally interested in the figure or figures talked about:
Warburg died before he was required to make final decisions to salvage the institute from Nazi destruction. Saxl, who was from Vienna where Hitler had grown up, was quick in grasping the consequences of the situation. He got help in order to transfer the institute unexpectedly to England, while Bing not only assumed the responsibility for the material transfer of the institute but also took care to recreate the patrician ethos of Hamburg in the predicament of London life. It was obvious to both Saxl and Bing that in London the institute should operate as a center to aid and organize those—Jews in the great majority—whom Nazis and Fascists had chased away from their homes and their lands. Because of the hospitality and relative security they enjoyed in England, Saxl and Bing were able to develop a strong sense of solidarity with other persecuted people. From 1934 onward, the institute began to provide daily public and private charity for the refugees, which constitutes a title of honor for the institute. But Saxl and Bing believed that, in London, the institute should continue to be a center for the manifestation of German Jewish culture. Although it now has become a part of the University of London and of English culture, the Warburg Institute continues to this day to derive its ideas from Germany, Austria, Burckhardt's Switzerland, Warburg, E. Cassirer, and, in a broader sense, Usener, Nietzsche, Freud, and Riegl. There is one major point in which the institute has remained loyal to Warburg's original idea: within the institute, men and women of different religions and nationalities were expected to meet and cooperate, not by eliminating or repressing what is their own as individuals, but by creating a basis to share in a common experience. The liberalism of Saxl and Bing was so spontaneous and fresh as to appear innate.
One particularly delightful essay is reprinted in both books (given the latitude of posthumous selection, why choose something that is already available?), on Jacob Bernays. Originally published in English in a German publication, it is marred only by extensive quotation (in German) that is not translated, even by footnote, which handicaps the lay generalist reader as myself. Momigliano writes that Bernays
found an intellectual home as a teacher of classics and of Jewish philosophy in the newly created Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar of Breslau. It is not possible to evaluate here the importance of the Breslau seminary from the moment in which it was opened by Zacharias Frankel in 1854 to its destruction [by the Nazis] in 1938. The seminary's object was to train rabbis and teachers of the Jewish religion in up-to-date scientific methods. It also hoped to reinterpret the Jewish orthodox heritage through scholarly research.... The thirteen years during which Bernays taught at the seminary between 1854 and 1866 were the most creative of his life.
It is unlikely I shall read Bernays. Most of what he wrote seems hard to find (or not available at all) in English. Yet Momigliano writes of him as an aspiring scholar could only hope one day to be written about:
One does not have the immediate sense of a premature death in the case of Jacob Bernays because every piece he wrote was a self-contained masterpiece. His control of philological techniques had been exceptional since his youth. Few have ever had a similar command of the language of Greek philosophy. He was good at emending texts, but above all an interpreter of rare thoroughness and acumen. He expressed himself in a lucid and minutely polished style and created a new type of philological treatise—short, closely argued, confined to the essentials, never deriving his assumptions from the work of another. He never worked on a subject he did not consider intrinsically important. To his treatises he appended notes or excursuses, each of which was a little dissertation in its own right about points of the history of classical scholarship, of lexicography, of philosophy. His articles in learned journals were relatively few and in certain cases supplemented someone else's contributions, but even these articles were, as a rule, self-contained pieces of the highest distinction. I mention as an example his paper "Philon's Hypothetika und die Verwunschungen des Buzyges in Athen" (1876), which begins by clarifying the title of a lost work by Philo and ends by throwing much light on an Athenian rite. But if I had to choose a few pages for an anthology I would probably choose the little note published in Rheinisches Museum (1862) with the title "Ein nabatäischer Schriftsteller." Bernays emends an unintelligible sentence of Ammonius, the commentator of Aristotle, by identifying in it the name of a Nabataean God which he had read in Hesychius. By successive steps he conjures up a whole group of Greek writers in the Arabian city of Petra—a new paragraph in the history of Hellenism.
Then, after commenting on the "lengths German historians and theologians went in trying to eliminate Judaism from civilization," Momigliano concludes:
Mohammedans, and, to a lesser extent, Catholics received analogous treatment. This explains why Jewish and Catholic scholars were particularly committed to establishing standards of objective interpretation of unpopular beliefs,doctrines, historical periods. Bishop Karl Josef Hefele, Père Delehaye, Cardinal Ehrle are obvious names in this connection; so is the name of Ignaz (Isaak Iehuda) Goldziher, the secretary of the Jewish community of Budapest, who introduced new understanding into the study of Mohammedan law and theology. Bernays is not quite in the same category. He neither needed nor wanted polemical attitudes: he never argued about his faith in public, and perhaps not even in private. But he worked in the same direction. It is not by chance that he met with sympathy, especially from Usener, who among the free thinkers was most aware of the problems of free thinking. In his mild way Usener had told Wilamowitz of their radical difference: "Sie suchen die Schöpfungen des Willens in der Geschichte, ich das unwillkürliche, unbewusste Werden."
Reading so many names—unknown to me—it is impossible not to recall Finley's eloquent final paragraph to his essay "The Ancestral Constitution" reprinted in The Use and Abuse of History (to which he notes pertinently "I have made no changes in the style"):
Mr Vice-Chancellor, my ancestral piety, at any rate, can scarcely be faulted. Without straining in the least, I have invoked by name twenty-five Cambridge men, a few admittedly still too young to qualify as proper ancestors. I close with the twenty-sixth, Hugo Jones, whose premature death a year ago was such a bitter loss to Cambridge and to the international world of historical learning. I will not dwell on the personal loss, after fifteen years of close cooperation and friendship. Today's lecture would perhaps not have interested him much: he always preferred to study institutions rather than ideas about them. But he would surely have agreed that ancient history is a practical subject.