“Well-manned flower of holy Athens”: Aristarchus claims that the song is dithyrambic because it includes the story of Cassandra and he entitles it “Cassandra”, and he says that Callimachus made a mistake in classing it among the Paeans, not understanding that the refrain is common to dithyrambs also; similarly Dionysius of Phaselis. (P.Oxy. 2368, col. i)
You`ve just read a fragment of an ancient Greek scholarly commentary on the poems of Bacchylides, conserved on the scraps of a 2nd century AD papyrus. For the hardcore classicist, this is a precious glimpse into the lost world of Hellenistic erudition. Scholarly editions and classifications, terminological polemics, transmission of knowledge through references and quotes, abbreviation and compilation of authoritative opinions: an intellectual fabric which could seem essentially familiar to a modern humanities scholar, despite the obscure topic and the absence of proper footnotes. After all, the mirage of the lost libraries of Antiquity and the reinvention of philologia in the Renaissance played a key role in the development of academia – and who wouldn`t indulge a bit in the idea of continuing, more or less directly, the heritage of ancient scholars? However, the hardcore classicist should also be the first to point out the hiatus between ancient Greco-Roman scholarship and our higher education & research establishment. From writing materials and institutional articulation to its very ends as an intellectual pursuit (as far as we know them), ancient scholarship represents not just a past paradigm, but a fundamentally different tradition, which lived its life and eventually died out together with the socio-political and symbolic systems in which it was rooted. No wonder that, even for the same well-intentioned classicist, some ancient polemics may seem irreducibly alien, naïve or convoluted, if we judge them with the standards of our humanities. While some traditionalists may resent this alterity as a bitter sentence, I actually think that this difference provides us with the rare luxury of an independent case-study through which we might better understand our own scholarly tradition and its often clamoured late 20th -century crisis.
Critical approaches of individual research domains have been everywhere for thirty years by now, and the idea of a loose comparison of today`s intellectual landscape with the ancient scholarly tradition has also been circulating for some time on a more-or-less anecdotic level. But how many of these critical studies explore a network of knowledge to its full extent, from theoretical models to gossips, from ideological standpoints to the very form of the published text and all those subtle details which make it look truly “professional”? How would a study on the transmission of knowledge in a modern branch of humanities look like, if we were to use the tools of classicists who analyse Greco-Roman scholarship? Will the transition from text to hypertext prove as crucial and/or destructive as the one from scroll to codex, almost 2000 years ago? And what about the undeniable publishing inflation recorded in these last decades? In case you thought our scholars are proficient, you might like to know that the Aristarchus cited at the very beginning of this post wrote, according to some sources, no less than 800 scholarly commentaries (hypomnemata). None of them survives today.
These, I think, are only a few reasonable questions in a viable research project. But since this post can only serve as a leaned-back starting point for a complex discussion, I would go beyond the methodologically correct and challenge for once my readers to imagine the end of contemporary scholarship. Neither as a science-fiction scenario, nor as a culturally relativist vanitas vanitatum, but as an introspection into our personal understanding of the true ends of research in humanities. Imagine your scholarly articles being read with the same eyes you read about the polemics between Callimachus, Aristarchus and Dionysius (for the sake of the argument, classicists please abstain). And then, perhaps, radically abridged for the needs of a society with no universities or research centres as we knew them. As far as I`m concerned, this just gave me an idea for a future post…
Translation of the Greek commentary: Ian Rutherford, Pindar`s Paeans. A Reading of the Fragments with a Survey of the Genre, Oxford/New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2001, p. 97 (slightly modified).
Photo credits: P. Oxy. XXIII, 2368, Oxyrhynchus Online
by Theodor E. Ulieriu-Rostás, PhD candidate in Ancient History at EHESS Paris and the University of Bucharest.
This post is part of the weekly series: HUMANITIES TODAY- a series of provocative and interesting posts from people within the academia or the educational sector