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Friedrich August Wolf

Friedrich August Wolf (February 15, 1750 - 1824), German philologist and critic, was born at Hainrode, a little village not far from Nordhausen[?], in the province of Hanover.

His father was the village schoolmaster and organist. In time the family removed to Nordhausen, and there young Wolf went to the grammar school, where he soon acquired all the Latin and Greek that the masters could teach him, besides learning French, Italian, Spanish and music. The precocity of his attainments was only equalled by the force of will and confidence in his own powers which characterized him throughout life.

After two years of solitary study; at the age of eighteen, Wolf went (1777) to the university of Göttingen. His first act there was a prophecy--one of those prophecies which spring from the conscious power to bring about their fulfilment. He had to choose his "faculty," and chose one which then existed only in his own mind, the faculty of "philology." What is even more remarkable, the omen was accepted. He carried his point, and was enrolled as he desired. CG Heyne was then the chief ornament of Göttingen, and Wolf and he were not on good terms. Heyne excluded him from his lectures, and brusquely condemned Wolf's views on Homer.

Wolf, however, pursued his studies in the university library, from which he borrowed with his old avidity. During 1779-1783 Wolf was a schoolmaster, first at Ilfeld, then at Osterode. His success as a teacher was striking, and he found time to publish an edition of the Symposium of Plato, which excited notice, and led to his promotion (1783) to a chair in the Prussian university of Halle.

The moment was a critical one in the history of education. The literary impulse of the Renaissance was almost spent; scholarship had become dry and trivial. A new school, that of Locke and Rousseau, sought to make teaching more modern and more human, but at the sacrifice of mental discipline and scientific aim. Wolf was eager to throw himself into the contest on the side of antiquity. In Halle (1783-1807), by the force of his will and the enlightened aid of the ministers of Frederick the Great, he was able to carry out his long-cherished ideas and found the science of philology.

Wolf defined philology broadly as "knowledge of human nature as exhibited in antiquity." The matter of such a science, he held, must be sought in the history and education of some highly cultivated nation, to be studied in written remains, works of art, and whatever else bears the stamp of national thought or skill. It has therefore to do with both history and language, but primarily as a science of interpretation, in which historical facts and linguistic facts take their place in an organic whole. Such was the ideal which Wolf had in his mind when he established the philological seminarium at Halle.

Wolf's writings make little show in a library, and were always subordinate to his teaching. During his time at Halle he published his commentary on the Leptines of Demosthenes (1789)--which suggested to his pupil, Aug. Boeckh, the Public Economy of Athens--and a little later the celebrated Prolegomena to Homer (1795). This book, the work with which his name is chiefly associated, was thrown off in comparative haste to meet an immediate need. It has all the merits of a great piece of oral teaching--command of method, suggestiveness, breadth of view. The reader does not feel that he has to do with a theory, but with great ideas, which are left to bear fruit in his mind. The publication led to an unpleasant polemic with Heyne, who absurdly accused him of reproducing what he had heard from him at Göttingen.

The Halle professorship ended tragically, and with it the happy and productive period of Wolf's life. He was swept away, and his university with him, by the deluge of the French invasion. A painful gloom oppressed his remaining years (1807-1824), which he spent at Berlin. He became so fractious and intolerant as to alienate some of his warmest friends. He gained a place in the department of education, through the exertions of Wilhelm von Humboldt.

When this became unendurable, he once more took a professorship. But he no longer taught with his old success; and he wrote very little. His most finished work, the Darstellung der Alterthumswissenschaft, though published at Berlin (1807), belongs essentially to the Halle time. At length his health gave way. He was advised to try the south of France. He got as far as Marseilles, and, dying there on August 8 1824, was laid in the classic soil of that ancient Hellenic city.

Mark Pattison wrote an admirable sketch of Wolf's life and work in the North British Review of June 1865, reproduced in his Essays (1889); see also J.E. Sandys, Hist. of Class. Schol. iii. (1908), pp. 51-60. Wolf's Kleine Schriften were edited by G Bernhardy (Halle, 1869). Works not included are the Prolegomena, the Letters to Heyne (Berlin, 1797), the commentary on the Leptines (Halle, 1789) and a translation of the Clouds of Aristophanes (Berlin, 1811). To these must be added the Vorlesungen on Iliad i.-iv., taken from the notes of a pupil and edited by Usteri (Bern, 1830).


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