Friedrich August Wolf

The German classical scholar and philologist Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824) laid the foundations for modern philology through his scientific treatment of the classical period.

Friedrich Wolf was born at Hagenrode near Hanover on Feb. 15, 1759. When the 18-year-old Wolf entered the University of Göttingen, already proficient in several ancient and modern languages, he demanded that he be enrolled in the faculty of philology. The fiery young scholar was unaware that such a faculty did not exist in the university. The rebellious Wolf persisted, however, and he indeed was enrolled as he desired, only to leave the university 2 years later completely disillusioned by the curriculum and his professors.

In 1783 Wolf became professor of philosophy and pedagogy at the University of Halle, where he taught for the next 23 years. In his early career he published studies on Plato, Hesiod, Lucian, Demosthenes, Herodian, and Cicero. Both these studies and his lectures did much to revive interest in classical studies in Germany. He saw classical philology as a science in itself. His lectures were famous, and he developed a great following among the students, many of whom saw him as a debunker. It is reported that even the great Goethe came to hear the lectures. Wolf lectured on literature, survivals, geography, art, coins, and on almost every aspect of the classical world, with the notable exceptions of philosophy, politics, and economics. Many of these courses were posthumously published on the basis of auditors' notes.

The Napoleonic invasion in 1806 caused the closing of the university, and Wolf went to Berlin, where he helped to reorganize the university and became a professor. His essay outlining the best approaches to classical study might be described as a literate syllabus, and in that sense, a most unusual work indeed. The central theme was that we should avoid the endless and mere collection of particular facts. Rather, we must begin with a conception of the animating spirit of an age, that which binds all the particulars together and makes them meaningful. He died in Marseilles on Aug. 8, 1824.

The work for which Wolf will always be known is the Prolegomena to Homer (1795). Written in Latin, it has been termed "one of the cardinal books of the modern world." The main argument of the book is that the Homeric epics in the form that we know them were of composite authorship. That contention was not a new or radical one. It had been advanced by the scholars of Alexandria in the late classical period, by Perizonius, by Giambattista Vico, and by Robert Wood in 1769 in a work which was translated into German. Indeed, some critics have seen Wolf's preoccupation with establishing his originality as a grave moral fault in that the time would have been better spent, from the standpoint of the development of scholarship, in the application and refinement of his critical methods.

Wolf's argument that the Iliad and the Odyssey were of composite authorship rested upon the then firmly held belief that writing for literary purposes was unknown prior to Solon (late 7th century B.C.). Thus it would be impossible to compose and transmit long epics. The "Homer" we know is really a blending of various poems written by different authors, probably about the mid-6th century B.C. Wolf admitted that several of the poems were probably composed by a poet named Homer. The Wolfian thesis, however, was perceptively criticized by subsequent scholars who felt that even if everything that Wolf said was true, the next—and most obvious—question would be: who did the "blending"? Thus, in reply to Wolf, we have the famous scholarly joke that the Homeric poems were not composed by Homer but by an entirely different individual whom we now know as Homer. Furthermore, the hypothesis upon which his whole argument rested, concerning the beginning of literary writing, has now been definitively refuted. Thus, this "cardinal book of the modern world" is now read only by litterateurs with antiquarian interests.

Despite the erroneous central contentions of the book, it was of great significance for modern scholarship because of the critical methods that Wolf used. It did more than any other single work to inspire the modern critical approach to the analysis of ancient texts, and it is credited with leading directly to the 19th-century "higher criticism" of the Bible. For these reasons, he is often regarded as the founder of modern philology.

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Further Reading on Friedrich August Wolf

The best brief sketch in English of Wolf's life and work is the noted essay in Essays by the Late Mark Pattison, edited by Henry Nettleship (2 vols., 1889; repr. 1967). For Wolf's analysis of the Homeric texts see John E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship (1908). More recent discussions of Wolf's life and work are in James Westfall Thompson, A History of Historical Writing (2 vols., 1942), and John L. Myres, Homer and His Critics, edited by Dorothea Gray (1958).