Housman on Thought #2



At the very beginning, to see what pure irrelevancy, what almost incredible foolishness, finds its way into print, take this instance. It had been supposed for several centuries that Plautus' name was M. Accius Plautus, when Ritschl in 1845 pointed out that in the Ambrosian palimpsest discovered by Mai in 1815, written in the fourth or fifth century, and much the oldest of Plautus' manuscripts, the name appears in the genitive as T. Macci Plauti, so that he was really called Titus Maccius (or Maccus) Plautus. An Italian scholar, one Vallauri, objected to this innovation on the ground that in all printed editions from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the name was M. Accius. He went to Milan to look at the palimpsest, and there, to be sure, he found T. Macci quite legibly written. But he observed that many other pages of the manuscript were quite illegible, and that the whole book was very much tattered and battered; whereupon he said that he could not sufficiently wonder at anyone attaching any weight to a manuscript which was in such a condition. Is there any other science, anything calling itself a science, into which such intellects intrude and conduct such operations in public?

But you may think that Mr Vallauri is a unique phenomenon. No; if you engage in textual criticism you may come upon a second Mr Vallauri at any turn. The manuscripts of Catullus, none of them older than the fourteenth century, present at 64:23 the verse

heroes saluete, deum genus! o bona mater!

The Veronese scholia on Vergil, a palimpsest of the fifth or sixth century, at Aeneas 5:80, "salue sancte parens," have the note: "Catullus: saluete, deum gens, o bona matrum | progenies, saluete iter[um]" — giving gens for genus, matrum for mater, and adding a half verse absent from Catullus' manuscripts, and scholars have naturally preferred an authority so much more ancient. But one editor is found to object: "The weight of the Veronese scholia, imperfect and full of lacunae as they are, is not to be set against our manuscripts." There is Mr Vallauri all over again: because the palimpsest has large holes elsewhere and because much of it has perished, therefore what remains, though written as early as the sixth century, has less authority than manuscripts written in the fourteenth. If however anyone gets hold of these fourteenth century manuscripts, destroys pages of them and tears holes in the pages he does not destroy, the authority of those parts which he allows to survive will presumably deteriorate, and may even sink as low as that of the palimpsest.

Again. There are two manuscripts of a certain author, which we will call A and B. Of these two it is recognised that A is the more correct but the less sincere, and that B is the more corrupt but the less interpolated. It is desired to know which, if either, is better than the other, or whether both are equal. One scholar tries to determine this question by the collection and comparison of examples. But another thinks that he knows a shorter way than that, and it consists in saying "the more sincere is, and must be for any critic who understands his business, the better manuscript."

This I cite as a specimen of the things which people may say if they do not think about the meaning of what they are saying, and especially as an example of the danger of dealing in generalisations. The best way to treat such pretentious inanities is to transfer them from the sphere of textual criticism, where the difference between truth and falsehood or between sense and nonsense is little regarded and seldom even perceived, into some sphere where men are obliged to use concrete and sensuous terms, which force them, however reluctantly, to think. I ask this scholar, this critic who knows his business, and who says that the more sincere of two manuscripts is and must be the better, I ask him to tell me which weighs most, a tall man or a fat man. He cannot answer; nobody can; everybody sees in a moment that the question is absurd. Tall and fat are adjectives which transport even a textual critic from the world of humbug into the world of reality, a world inhabited by comparatively thoughtful people, such as butchers and grocers, who depend on their brains for their bread. There he begins to understand that to such general questions any answer must be false; that judgement can only be pronounced on individual specimens; that everything depends on the degree of tallness and the degree of fatness. The way to find out whether this tall man weighs more than that fat man is to weigh them, and the way to find out whether this corrupt manuscript is better or worse than that interpolated manuscript is to collect and compare their readings, not to ride easily off on the false and ridiculous generalisation that the more sincere manuscript is and must be the better.

But that is what the incompetent intruders into criticism can never admit. They must have a better manuscript, whether it exists or no, because they could never get along without one. If Providence permitted two manuscripts to be equal, the editor would have to choose between their readings by considerations of intrinsic merit, and in order to do that he would need to acquire intelligence and impartiality and willingness to take pains, and all sorts of things which he neither has nor wishes for, and he feels sure that God, who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, can never have meant to lay upon his shoulders such a burden as this.

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24 Dec 2005 / Contact The Project / Exit to Philology Page