Seth Benardete, “A. E. Housman”

For Nathaniel Cochran

Seth Benardete, “A. E. Housman”

Benardete begins by telling us Housman was a great scholar. So great he had a specific wish for how he wanted to be remembered. In his field, with two other scholars, he would compose “the triumvirate of textual emendation.” Inasmuch he advanced knowledge, he would provide a good, and justly acquire a noble reputation on his terms. There are shades of being no less than a philosopher, as Benardete tells it. Housman’s “probity and love of truth” were so fundamental they created the appearance of generosity. His vices, perhaps, stemmed from his intellect and erudite aspirations. A “just estimation of himself and others was always combined with a cutting nastiness that seems to be a superfluous display of wit and… bitterness.” Truth can be bitter, and someone who is just simply because he knows better, we expect, would have no time or concern for social graces. (1)

“Textual emendation” initially appears a narrow, too-specialized problem. Most people don’t read, still fewer engage classics. Of the few, only a select hang on every word, seeking design if there is any. Making matters more complicated is the lack of certainty in merely rooting out corruption from a text. “Whatever solution it [textual criticism] arrives at is meant to satisfy only the immediately surrounding area where the corruption is found; it is not designed to handle the larger question which of two or more possible readings the author in fact chose, for the author had the design of the whole in mind and the critic is forbidden by the rules of his craft to take the whole into consideration.” The critic’s tools isolate a part, rather than grapple with the whole. Shouldn’t this commonsense assumption – nay, method – grant us access to the past?

Housman took that assumption and ran with it. Benardete says as much: he did not acknowledge “that emendation necessarily has to be understood as a probe and not as a tool of certainty.” Rather, he thought “certainty could be gained through a thorough understanding of an author’s style; “poetry [for Housman] was primarily a question of diction and not of fiction.” What strikes me, in this critique, is his purported lack of imagination in bringing the imagination of the past to light.

It is beyond my competence to do more than paraphrase Benardete’s experience with Housman’s editions and those of other classical editors. Notes which inform the reader of history concerning the work, other classical texts which may be related, and difficulties well-known to classicists are not present in Housman’s editions. In their place are witty comments on other editors, “a deep grammatical understanding of passages,” and his own Latin, “clear and Ciceronian as Lambinus’.” Housman is a brilliant combination of artist and scholar. He can further our understanding by keeping our focus on the text, not on the manuscript tradition and other concerns.

Or maybe not. Benardete’s last words are biting: “All the careful exactness of Housman goes along with a pettiness of spirit that at least at times is out of control and expresses a contempt for whatever he does not understand.” Why such a harsh judgment? I think because of the attempt to render historical considerations, the opinions of other scholars, moot by declaring oneself a better reader. (2) The attempt’s arrogance is not readily apparent, as it can present itself in a more democratic guise. Anyone can read well, if they simply pay careful attention. It goes without saying that disagreement with those who said you can read well by paying attention can be a pretty painful process. They have certain biases; Benardete notes Housman’s preference for almost childish sentimentality.

Not that such sentimentality is wrong, but maybe scholarship is the search for something better. Benardete cites with approval Lessing’s “Laocoön,” and I remember some passages in “The Homeric Hero,” Benardete’s dissertation, where he was quoted. Lessing said the barbarity of the Trojans meant Priam could not risk them publicly weeping for their dead. Their high-spiritedness implies the weeping would get out of hand and they would be unable to fight. By contrast, the Greeks were allowed to weep; they could be trusted to show order and courage as well as mourn. Lessing is approving, saying the Greek way is that of civilization. Benardete praises Lessing’s depth of insight, but the grounds for a critique are elsewhere in the dissertation. The Trojans are more natural, not artificially put together like the “well-greaved Acheans.” Their virtue is akin to civic virtue, not the military virtue driving Greek conquest and plunder. The Greek heroes getting their way, attempting immortal status, has at least this irony: in more than one way, they throw away their humanity.


1. Benardete does not depict Housman’s problem as generally as I do. I say openly that someone who really loved truth might be terribly obnoxious. Benardete goes the route of depicting Housman as singular in his love of truth.

2. I do not think there is any hidden criticism of Leo Strauss here. An open mind is a paradox. At the same time I stay open to esoteric interpretations, I have to keep in mind the historical record that other scholars have worked to establish. The only people I will criticize are those who think there are easy answers, as if habits of mind or one specific method of scholarship could magically fix problems with interpretation that have puzzled people for thousands of years. Or, better yet, people who think they can rebuild a country because of their interpretations of certain books.