Academic Year:

Research Program:
NEC International

Wolfson College, Oxford University

Research Fellow


Research project: The Last Humanist? David Ruhnken and the Beginnings of 'Classical Scholarship'

Humanism Becomes Classical Scholarship:

The last ten years have seen a transformation in our understanding of Renaissance humanism. It created, in the wake of the example of Erasmus, a republic of letters, and recent scholarship has begun to take the ‘republican’ nature of that republic seriously. It became an alternative source of intellectual and personal authority, separate from the court and the church, to whose preferment structures earlier version of humanism had been so indebted. The increasing parochialism of intellectual life in the seventeenth century is another on dit of recent work in early modern intellectual history. The internationalisms of earlier generations were ever less in evidence by the middle of the seventeenth century.  By the time we reach the eighteenth century, the boundaries between ‘polite’ and ‘professional’ scholarship became more pronounced, as the specialization of knowledge increased, and newly literate classes emerged who had never been to university.  Furthermore, there has been  a profound ‘nationalization’ of the previously more international world, with, in particular, the foundations of the later Hellenism of the German-speaking lands causing profound divisions across Europe.  For all the changes, one of the most important disciplines of the early modern university, philology, continued to provide ‘defenders of the text’, seemingly blissfully unaware (as traditional historiography has it) that their intellectual world, and the university curricula, were beginning to change profoundly.  Against that backdrop, it is worth asking: when did humanists become self-conscious of the historicity of their own discipline? There are many answers to this question.  One would be to ask about the relation with other disciplines, chiefly the ‘Queen’ of the disciplines, Philosophy. A second answer would be to examine the changing professional profile of a given philologist. And  a third interesting response would be to say: humanisn changes when humanists began to edit the works of their predecessors, as if they were part of the ancient world. To all these three responses, David Ruhnken is of exemplary interest.

David Ruhnken may be seen as a kind of echo of Richard Bentley’s own summation of the humanist project. Bentley’s own student, Tiberius Hemsterhuys, on whom Bentley had so tumultuous effect, was the teacher of the Pomeranian-born Ruhnken. Ruhnken’s endeavours are deeply informed by the most rigorous philology of Bentley and Hemsterhuys, but exist in a world in which humanism has become Altertumswissenschaft. Ruhnken’s own relationship with the great F. A. Wolf will prove an invaluable counterpoint throughout the proposed project, both in respect of the nationalism of Wolf’s project, and in the relative division of labour between the Greek and Roman worlds.