Thursday, September 02, 2004

i'll see your philology, and raise you a philosophy

as dennis will remember, several days ago i lamented to him regarding the following comment from allan bloom's essay 'the study of texts', which can be found in his book giants and dwarfs:

Almost all modern scholarship, beginning with classical philology, started from the assumption that its fundamental ideas were superior to those of the authors it studied and placed these authors in a context alien to them. Even such as idealist and realist, liberal and conservative are profoundly misleading although they seem to us as natural as night and day.

i was chagrined by the assertion that classical philologists, from the very inception of the discipline, saw themselves as prima facie superior to the ancients, for that, it seems, would make those scholars rather uncharitable and condescending toward their predecessors. while i am still not ready to accept this diagnosis in any holistic sense (though i am trying to keep my eyes much more open for evidence thereof), i cannot think it was mere coincidence that, almost immediately after reading bloom's words, i came across this statement in m.i. finley's book the ancient greeks (which, by clicking on the link, you may purchase for as little as $0.47) in his discussion on the dark age and the homeric poems:

Nothing can make up for the nonexistence of contemporary Greek writing, whether narrative or religious or administrative. And so we, like the Greeks, must fall back on the Iliad and the Odyssey. Here again, surprising as it may seem, we know far more than the Greeks, for not only has modern philology made its contribution....

i realize the parallel to bloom's words is not necessarily a close one --there is no use here of labels for the ancients such as 'liberal', 'conservative', or anything else, and he goes on in the same paragraph to rehabilitate the poems as more than 'merely poetic fiction'. but in spirit, perhaps there is a similarity in finley's statement to the very thing which bloom criticizes, viz., that it seems strange to say that we are more knowledgeable about the greeks' own poetry than the greeks were themselves.

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