Home Philosophy Nietzsche philosophy of history
Early meta-history and context
Among the philologists
Historical events, whether the corruption of ancient texts or the representation of that corruption by historians themselves, take place within historical contexts. To better understand why Nietzsche held the particular metahistorical presuppositions he did, we turn now to Nietzsche’s own historical context. As philology in the early nineteenth century was the crown jewel of the historical disciplines, and the battle between two groups of competing philologists indicative of the in-fighting between critical and speculative historians, Nietzsche’s unique place in this field at one of its most formative moments is intrinsically interesting for the development of his meta-history.
Among the eighteenth-century philosophers of history in Germany, none were greater than Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). For Winckelmann, “The universal and predominant characteristic of the Greek masterpieces is a noble simplicity and tranquil grandeur both in posture and expression.” Winckelmann was positively consumed by the notion of ‘classical perfection,’ and it was this notion, he believed, that should serve as an educational model for his contemporary German culture. “The only way for us to become great, and indeed - if this is possible - inimitable, is by imitating the ancients.”3 Lessing’s Laokoon perceived within the majesty of antiquity the life blood of his contemporary culture, prompting Nietzsche’s appellation as “the most honest [ehrlichste] of theoretical men.” And for Herder, a detached or impartial vision of history became untenable and even undesirable. The precondition for understanding a poem, a tragedy, or a work of art is a prior acquaintance with, and ideally even an assimilation of, the viewpoint of the author. We must feel our way into history: einfiihlen. And once we do we will intuit, if never deduce, that history’s successive epochs are akin to the stages of growth, maturation, and decline found in every organic being, none more perfect, none less valuable or necessary.
German Classicism of the nineteenth century is heralded by the emergence of Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824). He was the first German to matriculate as a Studiosus Philologiae. As a lecturer at Ilfeld, he concentrated his efforts on the Homeric question and wrote several introductions to Greek and Roman philosophy. During his twenty-three years as professor at Halle, he offered lectures on more than fifty different subjects in antiquity, some ofwhich were attended by Goethe. His attention to the methods of philology led to his systematization of all that could be proven of the ancients, lifting philology from a series of interesting portraits of antiquity to a comprehensive and methodologically independent science. But his lectures were not intended purely for the dissemination of factual knowledge. The stimulation of student minds was Wolfs primary concern. His pedagogical ideal can be summarized as “purely human education,” an “elevation of all the powers of the mind and soul to a beautiful harmony of the inner and the outer man.” Even his famous Prolegomena to Homer (1795), concerning which Schopenhauer would express to Wolf his admiration and on which Nietzsche relied for his own Homeric studies, arose out of a pedagogical motivation, as his students were sorely lacking a solid introduction in German. And while there was some variance in his work's reception, it was much welcomed by that other great reformer ofeducation, Wilhelm von Humboldt, as well as by the Schlegels, and at times by Goethe. His lectures on the ‘Encyclopedia of Philology’10 beginning in 1785 aspired to nothing less than a complete comprehension of classical antiquity itself and the entirety of its manifold aspects.
Our antiquity considered as a whole is at the same time a world unto itself; as such it strikes every species of observation in its own way and offers another something else in order to educate and practice its trade, to broaden its knowledge through what is worthy of wisdom [Wissenswirdiges], to sharpen its sense for truth, to make finer its judgment of the beautiful, to lend its dreams weights and rules, and to awaken all the powers of the soul through its adducent tasks [anziehende Aufgaben] and practices, and to shape them in proportion.
Contemporaries of Wolf were Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), Goethe (1749-1832), Schiller (1759-1805), and the Schlegel brothers, August Wilhelm (1767-1845) and Friedrich (1772-1829). The direction in which each took Wolf s conception of classical studies is telling. Of the five, Humboldt concentrated his efforts on reforming the German educational system, and accomplished this to a significant degree from his post as the educational secretary of the Prussian Home Office and in his influence upon the newly founded University of Berlin. As a founder of the neo-humanist historical tradition, Humboldt maintained the purpose of study of history to be bound more to the formation of young minds than to the endless accumulation of facts. With a sentiment Nietzsche would echo in his 1874 Nutzen undNachteil, Humboldt writes:
It is in this way that history is related to active life. History does not primarily serve us by showing through specific examples, often misleading and rarely enlightening, what to do and what to avoid. History's true and immeasurable usefulness lies rather in its power to enliven and refine our sense of acting on reality, and this occurs more through the form attached to events than through the events themselves.
As a student at Leipzig, his friend Goethe consumed a healthy portion of philology, syncretizing the aims of Winckelmann, Lessing, and Herder.  Ever fascinated by antiquity, Goethe relied heavily on Wolf s Prolegomena for his own palinode, Homer wieder Homer.14 His dramatic works such as Torquato Tasso, Egmont, and Iphigenie auf Tauris exemplify Weimar Classicism, though he himself was later rather critical of Winckelmann's conclusions, a point evident in his 1805 essays.15 Schiller’s poetry reflects its author's deep affinity for ancient literature, culture, and philosophy. And his conception of the past is imbued with a constant eye toward a comparison with the contemporary. In his Ueber naive und sentimentali- sche Dichtung (1796-1797), a work that influenced Nietzsche’s own work on tragedy, Schiller portrays Greek culture as the very paradigm that must advance humanity itself, in sharp distinction to the self-alienating culture of his contemporary Germany. As for the Schlegel brothers, a predominant theme in August Wilhem’s Ueber dramatische Kunst und Litteratur (1808) and in Friedrich’s Vom Wert des Studiums der Griechen und Romer (17951796) is the revision of the German notion of self-cultivation along the lines of the ancient models; through the study of antiquity, we acquire an apprehension of the concepts ‘noble,’ ‘good,’ and ‘beautiful,’ through which we accordingly constitute the humane structure of our lives. Friedrich Schlegel would later argue that such idealist self-construction was ultimately a delusion, and that the historian’s representation of the past was a reflection of himself. One common thread that unites them all is a characteristic disdain for critical analysis of sources, codices, and the analysis of grammar, in preference to their exposition of the classical world according to their own educational, artistic, and cultural purposes. Although their influence is nearly absent in Nietzsche’s philological publications, it is pronounced in The Birth of Tragedy, On the Future of our Educational Institutions, On Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense, and the notes to the proposed Wir Philologen, all of which will be discussed in our fourth chapter.
The birth of professional philology served as counterpoint to the Romantics. A generation after Wolf, Gottfried Hermann (1772-1848) and August Boeckh (1785-1867) became heads of two rival schools, the first of which has sometimes been labelled the ‘positive’ or ‘critical’ school, approaching antiquity with the tools of textual emendation, codices, and literary criticism, while the second, being more concerned to effectively demonstrate the writ-large spirit of antiquity and to implant that ideal into the hearts of their students, was variously named the ‘hermeneutical,’ ‘antiquarian,’ or ‘humanistic’ school. (To avoid confusion in these labels, though, I will refer to them as Sprach- and Sachphilologen respectively.) The Sachphilologen sought to construct classical worldviews, while the
Sprachphilologen tried to tear down their speculative fancies in the name of philological certainty and interpretive precision. Nietzsche, as we shall see, was on the front lines of this debate during his education at both Bonn and Leipzig.
Turning first to Hermann, we find the establishment of philological positivism, the view that all that can be claimed of the past must be verifiable by textual evidence.  In his work on grammar, the De emendanda ratione Graecae Grammaticae2 in his dissertation on the term ‘аито^,’ and in his ‘Four Books on the particle av,’ Hermann insisted on the central importance of syntactical perfection as the prior condition of any knowledge of antiquity. A hermeneutical rendering of classical texts without a grounded insight into the myriad uses and meanings of the words and grammar of those texts would prove empty. “Indeed the language of a people, as the living image ofits spirit, is what most characterizes its essence; more important still is that only through it can what a people truly is be conceptualized and understood.” Not a fanciful construal of the ancient world - like something out of Holderlin, Goethe, or Schiller - but a certain, precise, and elemental philological method should be the aim of established scholars’ research, as well as their sole pedagogical goal. For how could an author such as Goethe teach us anything about the ‘spirit’ of Iphigenia or Prometheus without an adequate knowledge of the history of the emendations of the Aeschylean texts? Sprachphilologie exists, as Nietzsche quotes Hermann, “ut recte intellegantur scripta verterum [so that the writings of antiquity be rightly understood].” Among Hermann’s many respected students at Leipzig, of particular note are Moritz Haupt and Theodor Bergk, and also, interestingly enough, Friedrich Ritschl.
August Boeckh exemplified a methodology antithetical to that of Hermann.25 The student of Wolf and Schleiermacher, Boeckh sought to explain from the broad scope of a comprehensive worldview what he considered the most pedagogically important aspects of antiquity. The aim of studying the classics was to eventually emulate the classical models; and, to accomplish this task, one must sense the overarching spirit of the classics - “a complete system, cast by the hand of a master”2 - something which a single-mindedly technical focus on individual words and phrases was likely to retard. Unlike Hermann and his later followers, Boeckh viewed grammatical and technical scholarship as a mere tool toward the more interesting and more pedagogically valuable portrayal of antiquity as a whole.
An outline of the whole by a scholar and connoisseur [...] with a breadth of vision and conceptual rigor is especially necessary today - and not, as before, simply a collection of raw unorganized data hastily thrown together; most classical scholars, especially the younger ones, are ever more inclined to blindly follow a kind of philology which, though not to be despised in itself, is nonetheless oriented principally toward the tiniest details, and is hardly even a study of words - just syllables and letters.
Boeckh’s magisterial endeavor, the Corpus Inscriptionum Graecorum, which was the first rigorous edition of such a huge body of learning, earned only harsh criticism from Hermann. “[Boeckh] had generally accepted the transcripts on trust, and his restorations had often done violence, either to the evidence of those transcripts, or to the laws of the Greek language.” His lectures were never pure scholarship, the point on which Hermann scoffed; they stand, however, as a profound application of previous generations of scholarship to holistically conceived branches of classical learning, such as economics and methods of inscription. Among his prize students at Berlin was Nietzsche’s professor Otto Jahn. And although Ritschl studied under Hermann, the great historian of philology John Edwin Sandys claims he was personally “among the warmest admirers of Boeckh.”
The generation ofclassical scholars that followed was effectively polarized into either the camp of Boeckh or else the school of Hermann. Among the Sachphilologen, we find Gottfried Bernhardy (1800-1875). In a somewhat Hegelian vein, Bernhardy conceives of grammar as the ‘instrument’ of the system of classical learning, while criticism and interpretation are classified as its ‘elements.’ The interplay between them was to lead to a synthesis of historiographical perfection. In his most widely read works, the History of Roman Literature (1830) and the History of Greek Literature (1836-1845), both of which Nietzsche owned, Bernhardy sets a standard seldom met for both grandeur and thoroughness. Excepting his Hegelianism, Bernhardy’s system of synthesis and division was to a degree the model after which Nietzsche patterned his own attempt at a ‘Geschichte der griechischen Literatur’32 and an ‘Encyclopadie der klassischen Philologie.’33
Following the critical school of Hermann was Karl Lachmann (1793— 1851), who largely codified textual criticism into a strict methodological discipline - something he believed was not sufficiently respected by those poets, artists, and musicians more concerned with generalizations about the “true majesty of antiquity.”34 He maintained that a complete understanding of an historical period or culture could only be achieved by a thorough apprehension of the particular work; that apprehension, in turn, can only be attained by the aid of the results of several generations’ effort in the form of repeated critical examination.35 Along with his close friend Moritz Haupt (1808-1874), Lachmann maintained an almost religious devotion toward the teachings of Hermann. Among the most important students of this pair - one who actually obtained his doctorate under Haupt - was none other than Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931).
One figure, though not strictly a philologist, whom no account of the nineteenth century can overlook is Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886). Although it had since Wolf been commonplace in philology, Ranke is credited with the introduction of critical rigor to historiography generally: the systematization of methods and demands for both positive evidence and objectivity. The historian’s first and only duty was to elucidate the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist [as it really was].”36 Historical inquiry must excise the subjective element as far as possible and represent the past as unadulterated and free of prejudice as the scientist who articulates without judgment the objects of her inquiry. Subjective intrusions that result in account selectivity, presumptions about human psychology, and the like, not only diminish the scientific rigor of the field, they engender dangerously valueladen judgments that ought to be below the historian's professional dignity.37 In contradistinction to the later historians Treitschke and Droysen, Ranke believed history should remain unsullied by contemporary interests, especially politics and religious values. Among the vast number of nineteenth-century historians influenced by Ranke, two of his most      
prominent were Heinrich von Sybel, whose lectures Nietzsche attended enthusiastically at Bonn, and Jakob Burckhardt, whose importance for Nietzsche’s historiography we will outline a bit later on.
Although this historical sketch is all-too-general, it is a fair summary of the two major opposing trends of philological scholarship in which Nietzsche was raised as a scholar: those who felt that historiography should, like the natural sciences, only present demonstrable facts, and those who considered those facts as a means to a particular pedagogical end. The stage is now set for us to discuss the two most important philologists with respect to Nietzsche: the putative Sprachphilolog Friedrich Ritschl (1806-1876) and Sachphilolog Otto Jahn (1813-1869). Nietzsche would have been made familiar with both men and their methodological tendencies from his days at Schulpforta. His teacher and supporter Dietrich Volkmann completed his studies under Ritschl, whereas Karl August Koberstein was mentor to the young Jahn.
A letter to his mother and sister in November of 1864 expresses the first impressions these Philologen made on Nietzsche. “To even imagine knowing these heroes of Wissenschaft - men such as Ritschl, who held a lecture on philology and theology for me, and such as Otto Jahn, who, like me, does philology and music without making one or the other accidental - exerts a great influence on me.” The structure of their introduction to his family is telling. Nietzsche had intended to attend Bonn as a student of theology, with the eventual aim of following his deceased father’s footsteps into a parsonage. His heart, as his family feared, strayed more toward music than sermon. Ritschl, whose father was the minor theologian and Thuringian minister Friedrich Ludwig Ritschl, offered the possibility of a philology shaped by both the discipline and rhetorical thunder of Pietism. Jahn, the very secular son of a lawyer, represented the prospect of combining philology with the guilty secular pleasure of music. Whereas Ritschl’s name meant duty, Nietzsche’s first glance at Jahn must have promised the fulfillment of his own wishes. Jahn was a first-rate philologist, musician, and, like Koberstein, a connoisseur of German literature, especially romantic literature and literary history. The decision to follow a respectable career in the academy instead of the enticing but unstable life of a musician was one faced in a similar fashion and at the same age by both Jahn and Nietzsche. Jahn’s ability to engage both interests professionally may have appeared a viable solution to Nietzsche’s own predicament. Yet although a certain respect for Jahn is expressed from 1865 to 1868, and while it is tempting to believe there should have been a friendship, there is hardly evidence of a personal bond between them.  Nietzsche was glad to please Jahn with his first substantial work at Bonn, “Simonidis lamentatio Danaae.”44 But the degree to which he adopted Jahn’s philological methods in that essay - we will see that they were not so different than Ritschl’s when it came to individual philological subjects - is impossible to determine.
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