We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or email@example.com
Celenza’s book is an enjoyably readable general-audience treatment of what might seem like an arcane topic: Renaissance philology, or the study of ancient texts (primarily from Greek and Roman antiquity, but also biblical texts and documents from the early church). As an administrator, he told me, “you often find yourself in a position of having to explain things to very educated audiences who have no way of understanding the specialisms of this or that discipline. The idea is to assume they’re intelligent and well-read but not assume that they know anything at all about the topics that you’re talking about.” That facility makes The Italian Renaissance a pleasure to read, informative without feeling dumbed down.
The Renaissance, Celenza says, saw unprecedented quantities of information available to scholars, who used the ancient manuscripts they were turning up in libraries and monasteries to assemble what remains of the classical canon, and along the way developed increasingly precise methods for correcting and authenticating texts. The flipside of that project was the birth of new kinds of skepticism and doubt. For instance, the 15th-century Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla’s recognition that the Latin version of the New Testament used in Western Christendom was an inexact rendering of the Greek opened up the dizzying possibility that hundreds of years of theological exegesis might incorporate translation errors. The 17th-century French Jesuit Jean Hardouin permitted the skepticism inculcated by the new philology to tip over, in his case, into baroque paranoia: This brilliant man became convinced that almost all classical texts were forgeries, the product of a gang of nefarious Italian super-scholars. Celenza is especially interested in parallels to our own information-saturated moment.
I spoke with Celenza about the history of the humanities, philology and philosophy, whether his key figures are avatars of secularity, and how higher education can help students mitigate the perils of information overload.
There are at least three ways of offering a history of the contemporary humanities. You can begin in Greek and Roman antiquity; you can begin in the Renaissance; you can begin in Germany in the early 19th century. What’s at stake for you in picking the middle lens?
I once taught a graduate seminar at Hopkins. In the first half, we read three books: Rens Bod’s A New History of the Humanities, James Turner’s Philology, and a collection put together by Sheldon Pollock and others called World Philology. Those are wonderful, fascinating books. But I noticed a significant gap when it came to the Italian Renaissance. (The exception was a fine chapter by Anthony Grafton in World Philology, but there, he was doing the entire Renaissance — so, he could only give a couple of pages to the Italian 15th century.)
There was so much interesting stuff going on in Italy then, all of these “new” ancient texts — new, that is, to 15th-century thinkers — and this very avid desire to read them, to gather them, to categorize them. By the end of the 15th century, these thinkers have discovered many new ancient texts, creating a body of classical literature that’s basically similar to the one we have today. At that point, there’s this projection into the future of an almost infinite world of scholarship. You’re addressing not just your circle, not just the people in the library that you frequent, but a public of future scholars.
I also see in the 15th century a truly lost period in the canonical histories of philosophy — a dialogue between philology and philosophy at a time when they really were very closely connected to each other.
That leads me right into my next question, which is about philology in its narrow and in its expanded sense. You write: “What we now call ‘philology’ in its narrow sense (editing texts) does not reflect the sometimes-astonishing breadth of what some (not all) Renaissance thinkers understood themselves to be doing when they were ‘making sense of texts.’”
Narrow philology is the attempt to get back to a notionally original authorial meaning, i.e., to produce a version of text with which the author him or herself would agree, often by categorizing and then eliminating manuscripts based on common copying errors.
Then there’s philology in the broad sense — what Sheldon Pollock calls “making sense of texts.” A figure about whom I’ve thought a lot is Marsilio Ficino, who lived from 1433 to 1499. He’s often thought of as the most important Platonic thinker in 15th-century Italy. He translates all of Plato from Greek into Latin; he translates Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and so on. Here’s a Roman Catholic priest, ordained in 1473, who gets deeper and deeper into this Platonic tradition. He’s reading thinkers who were avowedly anti-Christian in their day, but who are saying things that, to him, are interestingly similar to Christian practices. Even if those non-Christian ancient thinkers violently disagreed with Christian theologians in late antiquity, they were in effect arguing about the same questions: How close was the divine to the human? What effects did human ritual activity have on divine presence in the world? And so on.
Ficino, who makes barely any appearance in my new book, represents one among many of these 15th-century thinkers whose encounters with a seemingly recondite ancient past had explosive possibilities. And it was the way they made sense of those texts — the way they did “philology” in that broad sense — that served as the medium of that encounter.
What that means is that the disciplinary distinctions we draw today were quite different then. Philology could merge into theology, which could merge into philosophy. This is not to say that there weren’t people then who guarded the boundaries of their disciplines as jealously as modern scholars guard those of their own. But the underlying goals and enterprises were different. And I have found that difference a fascinating lens through which to view the past.
One of the ways in which philology participates in an expanded project has to do with revising one’s attitude toward specifically Christian authority. In the case of Lorenzo Valla, for instance, an apparently technical question — is the fifth-century Latin translation of the Bible accurate — very quickly opens up a whole series of larger questions about the role of the church, the role of the scholar, and the role of the university. Is philology in its expanded sense a secularizing project?
In some ways. Let’s drill down for a second with Valla. When he’s writing his annotations to the Vulgate New Testament — the Latin translation that was notionally authored by Jerome — that text had been in use for almost a thousand years. People had done theology with it as a basis, argued about it, and most importantly had large swaths of it imprinted in their memories from repeated ritual use. By Valla’s day the translation had become an almost sacred thing in itself.
For Valla, the most authentic Christianity is pre-Constantinian Christianity — the Christianity of the early evangelists, of humility, of spreading the life and message of Christ and so on. But in the thousand years since then, a church had grown up that was deeply implicated in every aspect of the fabric of human life in Western Europe. One way to think about Valla and his call to pre-Constantinian Christianity — what he is saying implicitly and sometimes explicitly — is that everyone has gotten it wrong after Constantine. That’s the context in which he’s revising the Vulgate.
What happens when you do something like that — what are the unintended consequences? Once you depart from this seemingly sacred Latin translation, with its thousand years of history behind it, what’s the next step? Maybe we can translate it into any language? Maybe one can believe in only the parts one wants to believe in? In the book, I eventually get to Thomas Jefferson, who in his “Jefferson Bible” literally cuts and pastes the parts of the New Testament that he believes reflect the historical Jesus — which entails cutting all of the supernatural passages, which he considers mistakes.
There’s a tension in philology from the very beginning: On the one hand, as textual scholarship, it is a rationalizing procedure. On the other hand, it participates in two kinds of sacrality: first the ancestor worship implicit in the Renaissance love of Greek and Latin antiquity, and second the more formal sacrality of biblical scholarship. I wonder if there’s a way to think about the humanities’ current plight that picks up on those categories. We are uncomfortable with ancestor worship. And we’re also perhaps further from the sacred texts than we were, say, 50 years ago, when various church traditions had more penetration among the educated classes.
In modern philology as it’s been practiced since the 19th century, the idea has been that the job in reading an ancient text is to find the exact meaning the ancient thinker intended. For 15th-century thinkers it’s different. They may adumbrate some of the scientific techniques of philology, but when they’re doing their ancestor worship, they are almost universally trying to use an ancient source to build something interesting for the present.
I think the problem with some of the humanities today in the narrower philological vein is that there has been an attempt to imitate the natural sciences. The idea is that there’s a huge project which one mind has to ideate but that needs many hands to carry out. That model is very well suited to the natural sciences. And you can do parts of the humanities like that.
But I think there’s something that’s a little bit more magical and important and meaningful and can make our lives better today. But we have to be able to let emotion into the picture.
At the end of the book, I nod to the work of Rita Felski, because I feel that what she’s done on the need of scholars to be attuned to the mood in which they are practicing scholarship, and the work that others like Amanda Anderson have done on the presence of emotion, are more consonant with a vision of how the humanities have been practiced for most of their history, save for the caesura of the modern university.
So some of this has to do with what you call at the end of the book the duality between the humanities as a way of shaping wiser selves, a project of self-formation, and the more technical research work that we’re trained in in graduate school. You say that the element of self-formation needs to be recovered. How?
One of the most interesting things about the Italian humanists was that they had the ability to situate themselves outside of a university context, even those who were part of universities. When I look at the way we organize ourselves, I think that we should remember that there are other audiences out there.
There’s a kind of separation sometimes — and I am talking about research universities — between undergraduate education, on the one hand, and research and graduate education, on the other. It would be fruitful to integrate undergraduates more in what I like to think of as a reciprocally reinforcing conversation among faculty, post-docs (where appropriate), graduate students and undergraduates. The kind of questions that undergraduates tend to ask are often very good ones — they’re the real “why” questions. “Why is this important, why does this matter?” We sometimes forget to ask these questions — we just assume, in an unarticulated way, that it is important and that we’re entitled to do it.
I do wonder if a certain level of taking that on faith might be necessary for the humanities to work. I just saw numbers this morning that showed another 7½-percent decline in humanities enrollments across institutional types. Is that a problem that can be resolved or redressed in the university or does it reflect a larger set of cultural factors that are beyond redress at the level of higher-education institutions themselves?
There are two ways to think about it. One is from the outside. In the last 20 years, the people who have been held up as successful have been tech entrepreneurs, so the move toward ever more STEM partially reflects where our society has gone. But from the inside, I do think that we in the humanities, since the 1980s, have not done the best job of speaking for ourselves about why we’re valuable. I’m a firm believer that we need specialized scholarship that’s often going to be illegible to non-specialists. But I also believe that everyone doing that kind of work should try to find time to train themselves to address audiences that aren’t specialists in that specific field.
If there’s anything the humanities are good for, it’s long-form reading. That’s something we need to learn how to talk about, especially now when we’re faced with unprecedented waves of information coming at us. In the case of vaccine skepticism, reading that information correctly is literally a matter of life and death. And for our students, who are under stresses of all sorts, there is a profound need to find ways to concentrate, to engage in “slow reading,” if only to counter some of the ill effects of information saturation.
I am personally profoundly skeptical that the classroom is where we can learn to read well enough to navigate all this information. Your book is one of the reasons I’m skeptical: the chapter on Jean Hardouin, a brilliant textual scholar who succumbed to a kind of hermeneutic paranoia — he decided that almost all ancient texts were forgeries. The Hardouin case teaches us so much about the pathologies of interpretation, the pathologies of learning. Those seem to me to be more broadly available now than in Hardouin’s time.
These are errors against which no amount of learning or even native intelligence is proof. People develop heuristics about what to believe. Some people have much better, much more functional heuristics than others, but there’s often very little relationship between their skill as a reader in the ways that matter in a humanities classroom and their development of those heuristics. Someone like Mark Crispin Miller, a media-studies professor with a Ph.D., thinks that Covid vaccines might be a sinister conspiracy. My late father-in-law, on the other hand, who had a ninth-grade education, couldn’t wait to get his vaccine. There may be in general a positive correlation between level of education and vaccine acceptance, but it’s not obvious that it has anything to do with what’s learned in college. The formation of good heuristics is a political problem, but what if it’s not one we can address in the classroom?
I want to be able to feel hopeful about our future. The people who are university students now are going to be our future leaders, and this really is an inflection point in the history of information — in how people take in information, how they interpret it, and how they sort its importance in their own lives. Those of us who teach and administer universities need to craft ways for students to make sure they are makers of information, makers of discovery and truth, and not just passive recipients of received knowledge.
Students today need to learn about becoming algorithmically literate, and they also need to mark time off for slow reading, which can lead to reflective habits of thought.
Remember, Hardouin was an outlier. What worries me now is that there are too many people who are outliers. There are people literally dying because of the way they took information in.
A lot of this is about semiotics and symbols. If you think about the vaccinations — these are not miracles; they represent the work of hundreds of thousands of scientists and agencies and universities. Those agencies have symbols, like a Dr. Fauci. If all of a sudden he somehow becomes a symbol of something you don’t like, you then have this portal: You go through it and you can enter into a conspiracy theory where vaccines have chips in them.
I don’t think that anything we can do can cure large-scale societal ills. But we can do more than we’ve been doing for the small population who are attending universities, to equip them with more robust hermeneutic tools.
There’s been a great diminution of trust in institutions in general, especially over the last 30 years. Universities are a subset of those institutions, and in our current discourse they often represent powerful symbols of elite institutions disconnected from the world, rather than what they are — engines of discovery. Universities should be developing public voices to try to let people know the benefits that they bring. If you leave your house in the morning, you’re going to pass by 50 things that have their origins in universities: a drug in the CVS, a regulation that was originally part of a policy class, and so on. But we are not good at telling folks about it. So maybe another way to think of it, beyond the specific pedagogic praxis of the humanities, is about larger ways in which academic disciplines need to learn to speak to an outside world that’s quite skeptical.