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Closing the book on philology

In January of 1876, when Nietzsche’s ardor for both Wagner and Schopenhauer was finally waning, Nietzsche sent a poignant letter to Ritschl that seeks a reconciliation of sorts. “I stand to you and your most honorable wife as always, in the same love and thankfulness, even when I remain silent. [...] bin ich, der ich war [I am who I was].”[1] Soon after, Ritschl died. For his part, though, Nietzsche never forgot the debt he owed to his former mentor, and in a mature reflection to Georg Brandes, Nietzsche recalls with pride that his early career had attracted the attention of “der alte Ritschl, damals der erste Philolog Deutschlands [old Ritschl, who at that time was the top philologist in Germany].”[2] And in that same year of his life, he writes in Ecce homo, “Ritschl -1 say it with reverence - the only scholar ofgenius on whom I have laid eyes to this day. He was characterized by that agreeable corruption which distinguishes us Thuringians and which makes even Germans sympathetic.”[3]

What, finally, can be definitively said that Nietzsche learned from Ritschl and Jahn in terms of historiography? It is too simple to presume that Nietzsche’s later methods of critical reading, which admittedly is a kind of philology, can be read tout court as the result of his early training under Ritschl.99 As to their actual methods, Ritschl and Jahn were closer than has been commonly assumed: both insisted on rigorous training, technical mastery, and systematicity. With respect to the objects-to-be-studied, Nietzsche stands closer to Sprach than Sachphilologie. The fact that Nietzsche never took an abiding interest in archeological research, vase paintings, or numismatics may result from his rejection of Jahn’s mark on those fields. The fact that he shows almost no interest in the lifelong passion of Ritschl, namely Plautus, may also indicate a certain rejection. Then again, the reason behind Nietzsche’s thematic preferences may be no deeper than a matter of personal taste. It is thus not possible to sort out from lectures, correspondence, or even philological articles, where the influence of Ritschl began, where that of Jahn waned, or vice-versa. In fact, once matters of scope have been accounted for by the limitations imposed on Nietzsche by either research experience or his position in the field (presuming one tends to take on bolder projects as a professor than as a student), it becomes unfeasible to delineate their immediate influence even apart from that of Nietzsche’s earlier teachers at Pforta like Volkmann or Koberstein. In the precise period when one would expect to find the definitive stamp of either mentor, 1864-1868, the lesson is not so much revolution as it is progression.

Furthermore, it cannot be maintained that Nietzsche’s reaction against his teachers is tantamount to a rejection of their methods. Nietzsche’s attack on Jahn has little in common with his critique ofphilologists or historians; however unsavory, it was alternately aesthetic, political, and personal, but as such went nowhere as a critique of philology itself. Ritschl’s demanding source criticism was never the issue either, at least when taken in the correct dosage. While he and Nietzsche no doubt disagreed as to what that quantity was, the more serious problem for both lay with those who saw its value restricted to assemblages of bare, disconnected, and sterile ‘petits faits.’100 Clear from the pedagogical observations quoted earlier from Ritschl himself, Nietzsche would not have associated the Hermannian ‘philology for the sake of philology’ with Ritschl - and in fact there exist no published mentions of either Ritschl or for that matter of Jahn as having possessed precisely these sins. His attitude toward Ritschl from 1872-1874 was marked by resignation more than vehemence.101 Ritschl’s later ‘weaknesses’ in judgment - slipping rigor, longing for approbation in place of thankless truth, growing unwillingness to fight strong opponents and loyal students alike - are attributed to old age rather than philological method. In short, Nietzsche chose Schopenhauerian metaphysics over Ritschl’s empiricism and the Wagnerian artist over Jahn’s democratic enlightenment. Nietzsche’s final word about the entire philological civil war came in 1875: “Wort-und Sachphilologie - dummer Streit! [word- and thing-philology - stupid fight!].”102


Ribbeck (1879-81) i, 456. 101 See Nietzsche to Rhode, March 19, 1874; KSB 4, 210.

NF spring-summer 1875, 5 [106]; KSA 8, 67.

  • [1] Nietzsche to Ritschl, January 12, 1876; KSB 5, 131. Notice the inversion of the phrase Ritschl hadwritten to Nietzsche years before: “Werde, der du bist.” Ritschl responded with a short postcard fromLeipzig on January 14 of that same year. KGB 11/6 (1), 274. Nothing more passed between the two,though Nietzsche and his wife Sophie exchanged heartfelt words following Ritschl’s death.
  • [2] Nietzsche to Brandes, April 10, 1888; KSB 8, 288. 4 EH “klug,” 9; KSA 6, 295.
  • [3] 99 Contrary to Benne (2005), 101.
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