Despite their apparent preoccupation with dying languages and dead debates, great scholars continued to mold the future by illuminating the past; and some found themselves embattled in the struggle of Christianity against free thought.
Certain minor devotees merit a passing reverence. Charles du Fresne, Sieur du Cange, astonished his contemporaries—who knew him as a lawyer in the Paris Parlement—by issuing (1678) a dictionary of late and medieval Latin in three volumes so meticulous in scholarship that they are still the authority in their field. Pierre Huet discovered and edited a major manuscript of Origen, learned Syriac, Arabic, and chemistry, made eight hundred anatomical dissections, wrote poetry and fiction, and shared with the learned Mme. Dacier in editing for the instruction of the Dauphin the famous sixty-volume “Delphin” edition of Latin classics; he was made bishop of Avranches, and, dying, left the library that is now a treasured part of the Bibliothèque Nationale. The Jesuit “Bollandists” continued their centipedalian Acta Sanctorum. In Paris, under the lead of Jean Mabillon, the Benedictine Congregation of St.-Maur compiled (1668–1702) a twenty-volume history of Benedictine saints; in the process they shed precious light upon the annals and literature of medieval France. Mabillon himself gave a new form to Latin paleography by his De Re diplomatica (1681)—not a manual of diplomacy but a treatise on the date, character, and authenticity of old charters and manuscripts. Completing one of his fat folios, Mabillon wrote: “May it please God not to impute it to me as a crime that I have passed so many years studying the acts of the saints, and yet resemble them so little.” 25
The giant of classical erudition in this age was Richard Bentley, stern master of Trinity College, Cambridge, for forty-two years. His youth was consumed in consuming the Bodleian Library; at twenty-nine he was already among the most learned pundits of Europe in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew literature and antiquities. In that year (1691) he published a hundred-page Epistola ad Millium, a letter to an early John Mill, so accurate and recondite in its scholarship that it gave him a European fame. At thirty he was chosen to give the first series of the lectures for which funds and a name had been provided in the will of the pious chemist Robert Boyle. He responded by arguing powerfully that the cosmic order revealed in Newton’s recent Principia proved the existence of God. This was a great comfort to Newton, who had been accused of atheism. Bentley was appointed to the post of royal librarian, with an apartment in St. James’s Palace. There he met frequently Newton, Locke, Evelyn, and Wren; and from that citadel he fought one of the famous battles in British scholarship.
The contest arose from the English share in the debate on the relative merits of ancient versus modern literature. Sir William Temple opened fire with the essay Of Ancient and Modern Learning (1690), defending antiquity. Bentley would probably have praised the essay had it not praised Phalaris as an example of Greek superiority in literature. Phalaris was a dictator who governed Akragas (Agrigento) in Greek Sicily in the sixth century before Christ. History or legend described him as roasting his enemies in the belly of a brazen bull; but it honored him as a patron of literature, and 148 letters had come down the centuries allegedly from his pen. Charles Boyle, an undergraduate at Christ Church College, Oxford, published the letters in 1695. William Wotton, preparing a second edition (1697) of his Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning, in which he opposed Temple, asked Bentley to judge the authenticity of the letters. Bentley replied that their attribution to Phalaris was a mistake, that they were written in the second century A.D.; incidentally he pointed out some errors in Charles Boyle’s edition. Boyle and his teachers issued a hot defense of Phalaris’ authorship. Jonathan Swift, secretary to Temple, entered the fracas on his master’s side by ridiculing Bentley in The Battle of the Books. The general opinion of scholars supported Boyle, and Bentley’s friends bemoaned the apparent collapse of his reputation. His answer to them deserves remembrance: “No man was ever written out of reputation but by himself.” 26 In 1699 he issued an enlargedDissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris. Not only did it prove his case, but it shed so much light on the evolution of the Greek language that the world of scholarship acclaimed him as worthy to join the line of the Scaligers, Casaubon and Salmasius. Even the style of the letters betrayed their century, said Bentley, and he added:
Every living language, like the perspiring bodies of living creatures, is in perpetual motion and alteration; some words go off and become obsolete; others are taken in and by degrees grow into common use; or the same word is inverted to a new sense and notion, which in tract of time makes as observable a change in the air and features of a language as age makes in the lines and mien of a face. All are sensible of this in their own native tongues, where continual use makes every man a critic. For what Englishman does not think himself able, from the very turn and fashion of the style, to distinguish a fresh English composition from another a hundred years old? Now, there are as real and sensible differences in the several ages of Greek. . ., but very few are so versed and practised in that language as ever to arrive at that subtlety of taste. 27
Here was a scholar who could write English as well as read Greek.
In 1699 the unanimous vote of the six bishops appointed by William III to nominate for the vacancy raised Bentley to the mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge. He reformed student discipline, improved the curriculum, and built an “elaboratory” for chemistry and an observatory for astronomy; but he so alienated the faculty by his pomp and overbearing ways, and his affection for money, that he was twice sentenced to removal from his office; he fought back, and kept his post to the end. Meanwhile he edited a large number of Greek and Latin classics, encouraged and financed the second edition of Newton’s Principia, demolished Anthony Collins in Remarks on a Late Discourse of Freethinking (1713), and ventured rashly from his field by editing Paradise Lost with pedantic corrections of Milton’s grammar and text. He made an enemy of Alexander Pope by saying of his translation of the Iliad, “A pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” “The portentous cub,” Bentley reported, never forgave him. In The Dunciad (April, 1742) Pope ridiculed him as
The mighty scholiast, whose unwearied pains
Made Horace dull, and humbled Milton’s strains. 28
In July Bentley died from a complication of Pope and pleurisy. He was the greatest and most insufferable scholar that England ever produced.
Meanwhile another Englishman, Thomas Stanley, broadened the British mind with the first English History of Philosophy (1655–62), and surprised his readers by devoting the last of its four volumes to “Chaldaic [Arabic] Philosophy.” Scholarship was venturing beyond ancient Rome and Greece to the Near and Middle East, with disturbing results. Edward Pococke discovered and edited four Syrian versions of the New Testament Epistles (1630); for him Oxford established its first chair of Arabic, and his lectures there opened English eyes to Islamic civilization. In France Barthélemy d’Herbelot’s lifework, an immense Bibliothèque orientale (1697)—subtitled Universal Dictionary Containing Generally All That Concerns a Knowledge of . . . the Orient—was a revelation of Arabic history and learning, and played a part in that broadening of intellectual horizons which burst all bonds in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Students wondered at the wealth of Arabic poetry, historiography, philosophy, and science; they noted how the Arabs had preserved Greek science and philosophy while these were being forgotten in the Dark Ages of Western Europe; they learned that Mohammed was no mere imposter but a subtle statesman; and they were puzzled to find no more crime, and no less virtue, in Islam than in Christendom. The relativity of morals and theology became a dissolving ferment in the Christian mind.
Studies of Oriental—including Egyptian and Chinese—chronology undermined the Jewish calculation that the world had been created in 3761 B.C., and the computation (1650) of James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, that the Creation had occurred “at the beginning of the night before Monday, the 23rd of October, 4004 B.C.” 29 Spinoza, as we shall presently see, was inaugurating (1670) the “higher criticism” of the Bible—the study of it as a human production rich in grandeur and nobility, in errors and absurdities.
The most learned Biblical critic of the seventeenth century, in an attempt to answer Spinoza, brought down upon his head the thunder of Bossuet for finally conceding much of what the philosopher had claimed. Richard Simon, a blacksmith’s son, had joined the Oratory at Paris, and had been ordained a priest (1670). In that year he wrote a pamphlet defending the Jews of Metz, who had been accused of murdering a Christian child. In 1678, after years of research including studies with several rabbis, he prepared to publish his Histoire critique du Vieux Testament. He proposed en passant to refute Spinoza’s arguments against the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. He admitted that the books of the Old Testament were not entirely the work of the authors to whom they were ascribed; that Moses could not have written all the Pentateuch (which described Moses’ death); and that the Biblical books had been considerably altered from their first form by the scribes and editors who had transmitted them. Simon struggled to keep his orthodoxy and imprimatur by holding that these revisers too had been divinely inspired; but he confessed that all existing copies of the Old Testament were so mangled with repetitions, contradictions, obscurities, and other difficulties that they could offer only a frail basis for a dogmatic theology. He thought to turn this point against the Protestants by contending that their belief in the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures left them helpless against textual criticism, while a loyal Catholic could survive such scholarship by accepting the interpretation put upon the text by the Roman Church. In any case, Simon concluded, the divine inspiration of the Bible applied only to matters of faith.
The general of the Oratory sanctioned the publication of Simon’s book. But while it was in the press some of the proof sheets came under the eye of the “Great” Arnauld of Port-Royal. He was alarmed. He showed the sheets to Bossuet, who at once denounced the volume as “a tissue of impieties and a bulwark of free thought,” which would “destroy the authority of canonical scripture.” 30 Bossuet appealed to the secular authorities to
prevent publication of the book. They confiscated the entire issue of thirteen hundred copies, and reduced them to pulp. Simon retired to an obscure curacy in Normandy, but he found ways of having his manuscript printed in Rotterdam (1685). Four years later he published his Histoire critique du Nouveau Testament. He proposed to complete his labors with a new translation of the Bible; he finished his version of the New Testament; but Bossuet, shocked by the freedom with which Simon handled the sacred text, persuaded the Chancellor to suppress the book (1703). Simon abandoned his enterprise, burned his papers, and died (1712).
His work on the Old Testament elicited forty refutations, indicating its irrefutability. With Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus it remains one of the landmarks in the modern study of the Bible. Leibniz, reading these early critiques, warned that this line of inquiry, if continued, would destroy Christianity. 31 It is still too early to say whether Leibniz was right.