Reason's role in classical studies. A reflection on the scholarship of Bentley, Porson, and Housman

English Classical Scholarship: Historical Reflections on Bentley, Porson and Housman, by C. O. Brink. New York: Oxford University Press. 243 pp. $22.50. There's more in this elegant, passionate little book than the title might suggest to the general reader. The author, Kennedy Professor Emeritus of Latin at the University of Cambridge, England and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, has written an apology for a life spent with hard books and dead languages, a defense of a calling that is seen by some as a life of reason.

What makes a classical scholar tick?

Nobody I know can answer that with more authority than C. O. Brink. His monumental, three-volume study of Horace's literary criticism, published by Cambridge University Press, helps as few books have in remedying the problem addressed in the preface to that study: ``We have lost the tradition of classical literary criticism. . . .'' Through a complete study of every aspect of Horace's art and thought, which presume that tradition, Professor Brink has helped restore it to us.

The tradition went soft, according to Brink, when the critical alertness went out of it in the 19th century. The heroes of Brink's tradition are: Richard Bentley (1662-1742) -- some readers may remember the caricature of him in Pope's ``Dunciad''; Richard Porson (1759-1808), who was quite famous in his time for his remarks on I John 5:7 (``For there are three that bear record in heaven . . .'') but almost entirely forgotten today; and Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) who, as the author of ``A Shropshire Lad'' (1896), is known best of all.

As Brink shows in this remarkably readable historical study, these three men had at least one thing in common: a confidence in reason. Each worked with books that had suffered at the hands of ignorant transmitters for centuries; each had little to go on but his own knowledge of the way those long-lost words should work. Each had to trust his instincts. Each came up with results that have made it possible to ``know the classics,'' and not just read them.

This confidence in reason made Bentley see a forgery where his literary peers saw authentic letters from the sixth-century B.C. tyrant Phalaris. According to Brink, reason made Bentley discover time and time again the right word when he had in front of him the wrong word. Rational intuition based on real knowledge of the language did what centuries of ``literary'' taste could not. Bentley called it ``pure reason, the light cast by sense and necessity. . . .''

And it was reason that pointed Porson in the direction of the great Greek tragic authors -- Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides -- when nobody else was reading them. For Brink, the fact that Porson limited his life work to Athenian tragedy does not detract from the prudence and ``felicitous daring'' he brought to this new field of study. His ability to concentrate on the most minute aspect of the words in front of him makes Porson a hero in the tradition of classical scholarship. As Brink points out, the sine qua non of classical scholarship is that it be critical. Reason must be critical even of itself: Brink explains, ``If, by definition, reason must govern rational discourse, perception must indicate the limit of exactness to which reason can be pursued.''

Which brings us to the champion of critical reason, A. E. Housman. Lately, Housman has attracted biographers who build lurid stories around his alleged homosexuality. Brink dismisses these as he would textual conjectures based more on the taste of the times than on real knowledge of Housman.

We can, therefore, focus only on Housman's work as a scholar and poet. What a work it is! Housman articulated better than anyone else the job of the classical scholar: We must not foist our own taste upon the ancients, he wrote, ``our first task is . . . to acquire, if we can, by humility and self-repression the tastes of the classics.''

``Humility and self-repression'' -- hardly virtues in this analytical age! Brink's portrait of Housman will be of great interest to those who like ``On Wenlock Edge the Wood's in Trouble,'' or ``On the Idle Hill of Summer,'' or another of Housman's poems. The virtues of the classical scholar, once grasped in terms of reason, are those of the poet. And as a poet, Housman depended on subtle shades of meaning, subterranean links between words and images, and musical unity -- artistic means discovered only in the intense quiet communion of a man and his book. Housman could of course be merciless when confronted by the assumption of spiritual or scientific superiority.

Humble he was not, in this most human of senses. Yet Brink points out that Housman was not only humble before the classical texts, but also in his own sense of himself in the history of classical scholarship. ``Bentley would cut up into four of me,'' he once wrote. ``They may compare me with Porson if they will -- the comparison is not preposterous -- he surpassed me in some qualities as I claim to surpass him in others.''

For Brink, the critical reading of classical texts begins with the 17th century: That is, it is a distinctly modern phenomenon. It builds on Renaissance humanism but, in the hands of Bentley, Porson, Housman, Brink, and others, scholarship becomes a matter of scientia, knowledge, rather than just taste. In words that any good Latin teacher can accept with gratitude, Brink says ``. . . critical scholarship or science, as I understand it, is essentially self-fulfilling -- it establishes what it can establish, and has done.''

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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