Gallery of Philologists
Richard Bentley
27 January 1662 - 14 July 1742

Richard Bentley

Bentley learned his first Latin from his mother. He entered St John's College, Cambridge, in 1676, and after taking his MA in 1683, became tutor to the son of Dr Edward Stillingfleet, Dean of St Paul's. But his most notable pupil was himself. For six years he read intensively in Dean Stillingfleet's library, the best private collection in England. In 1689 he followed his pupil to Wadham College, Oxford, where he gained access to the unmatched resources of the Bodleian and other Oxford libraries. Again he read. Two years passed. Then John Mill, who was preparing an edition of the Chronicle of John Malalas, asked Bentley to look over the proofs and make remarks on the text. Bentley's "Letter to Mill," more than a hundred Latin pages long, was published as an appendix to the edition.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff thus describes the event:

The year 1691 saw the publication of the Epistula ad Millium as an appendix to an edition of the Chronicle of Malalas, of which Oxford possessed the only manuscript. Its author was Richard Bentley, who at twenty-nine was still entirely unknown and living there as tutor to an undergraduate. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Not only was it packed with emendations such as no one else could have produced at that time, it contained a collection of the fragments of Ion of Chios, revealed an unprecedented familiarity with the ancient grammarians, including the formidable Hesychius, and, finally, established the completely unknown fact that synapheia prevails in Greek anapaestic systems right through to the catalexis. Actually, in this maiden effort we already have the whole of Bentley - the happy knack of the emender, the exact observation which enabled him to arrive at fixed rules, the vision that showed him what the great tasks of scholarship were.

Like his contemporary and correspondent Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who wrote masterpieces only when someone asked him to, Bentley here shows himself to be authorially at the disposal of others. It was the same with his next major production, the exposure of the Epistles of Phalaris. Phalaris was a cruel Sicilian tyrant of the 06th century, the Epistles were 148 letters in Greek, signed by Phalaris and presenting him as a humane and kindly monarch. A 1696 edition of the letters by Charles Boyle had assumed them genuine. At the request of his friend William Wootton, Bentley supplied for second edition of Wootton's book on Ancient and Modern Learning a note exposing the letters as forgeries. Boyle replied with a scathing defense of the letters, called by Alexander Dyce "a tissue of of superficial learning, ingenious sophistry, dexterous malice and happy raillery." Bentley could not but reply, and the resulting Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris (1699) demolished them and their defender. The whole incident was written up by the young and cantankerous Jonathan Swift, on the anti-Bentley side, as The Battle of the Books. But for all who could think as well as read, Bentley had settled the matter forever, and Boyle, for one, never ventured to respond. Swift appended a to the fifth edition of his Tale of a Tub a burlesque Appendix, satirizing learning as such, and Pope weighed in, if that is the word we want, with his Dunciad. All of which is little more than the screams of the dying: a protest on behalf of the still popular but nevertheless doomed idea that the Familiar is the True.

Bentley's appointment in 1700 to the mastership of Trinity College (Cambridge) inaugurated a period perfunctory in scholarship (his Horace edition of 1712, hastily gotten together, though still with an index of over 200 pages, the more solid Terence of 1726, and the creditable Manilius of 1739, are its only fully formed fruits), and rich only in squabbling, invective, and a thirty-year war of petitions. That war still sputters on at the present time, some scholars defending Bentley's actions, and others excoriating his memory.

Bentley's true mastership was not of some College, but of philology. In that field, he left a permanent influence, not only in England, but in the Netherlands and later in Germany. Speaking for Germany, Bunsen calls Bentley "the founder of historical philology." Much of his work looked toward the future; it envisioned enterprises which he did not himself have the temperament, or the manuscript evidence, to complete. He got far enough with a planned edition of Homer to discover that the lost letter Digamma was still metrically effective, but he himself never completed that work. His annotated copy of Homer (the Stephanus edition of 1566) was lent to Christian Gottlob Heyne, who used it in his Iliad edition (Leipzig, 1802). In this way, indirectly but at last, Bentley's discovery of the Digamma was made known.

Amidst all this, we come to Bentley's last monument, and if also incomplete, it was at least an impulse from within. In 1716 and again in 1720, he proposed a critical edition of the Greek New Testament. The 1720 prospectus included a sample (the last chapter of Revelation), an outline of critical principles, and a prediction: a Greek text based on early manuscripts would differ from the accepted text in some 2,000 places. Subscriptions were collected, but the money had to be returned: Bentley, who by then was eighty and feeble, died before the work could be carried out. He had once said that eighty years was enough to read everything worth reading. Dealing with everything worth editing turned out to be a longer matter.

The New Testament project carried Bentley to the point of openly formulating the principles on which a corrupt text may be improved. The project itself was realized a century later by Lachmann. Lachmann appended a list of divergences from the received text. His figure agreed with Bentley's prediction: about 2,000. The agreement may rank as the most extensively corroborated conjectural emendation of all time.


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