Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609) was the tenth child and third son of Julius Caesar Scaliger and Andiette de Roques Lobejac.
Born at Agen in 1540, he was sent when twelve years of age, with two younger brothers, to the college of Guienne at Bordeaux, then under the direction of Jean Gelida . An outbreak of the plague in 1555 caused the boys to return home, and for the next few years Joseph was his father's constant companion and amanuensis.
The composition of Latin verse was the chief amusement of Julius in his later years, and he daily dictated to his son from eighty to a hundred lines, and sometimes more. Joseph was also required each day to write a Latin theme or declamation, though in other respects he seems to have been left to his own devices. But the companionship of his father was worth more to Joseph than any mere instruction. He learned from him to be not a mere scholar, but something more—an acute observer, never losing sight of the actual world, and aiming not so much at correcting texts as at laying the foundation of a science of historical criticism.
After his father's death, he spent four years at the University of Paris, where he began the study of Greek under Turnebus. But after two months he found he was not in a position to profit by the lectures of the greatest Greek scholar of the time. He determined to teach himself. He read Homer in twenty-one days, and then went through all the other Greek poets, orators and historians, forming a grammar for himself as he went along. From Greek, at the suggestion of Guillaume Postel, he proceeded to attack Hebrew, and then Arabic; of both he acquired a respectable knowledge, though not the critical mastery which he possessed in Latin and Greek.
The name of Jean Dorat then stood as high as that of Turnebus as a Greek scholar, and far higher as a professor. As a teacher he was able not only to impart knowledge, but to kindle enthusiasm. It was to Dorat that Scaliger owed the home which he found for the next thirty years of his life. In 1563 the professor recommended him to Louis de Chastaigner , the young lord of La Roche Pozay, as a companion in his travels. A close friendship sprang up between the two young men, which remained unbroken till the death of Louis in 1595. The travellers first went to Rome. Here they found Marc Antoine Muretus, who, when at Bordeaux and Toulouse, had been a great favourite and occasional visitor of Julius Caesar at Agen. Muretus soon recognized Scaliger's merits, and introduced him to all the men that were worth knowing.
After visiting a large part of Italy, the travellers passed to England and Scotland, taking as it would seem La Roche Pozay on their way, for Scaliger's preface to his first book, the Conjectanea in Varronem, is dated there in December 1564. Scaliger formed an unfavourable opinion of the English. Their inhuman disposition and inhospitable treatment of foreigners especially impressed him. He was also disappointed in finding few Greek manuscripts and few learned men. It was not until a much later period that he became intimate with Richard Thompson and other Englishmen. In the course of his travels he had become a Protestant.
On his return to France he spent three years with the Chastaigners, accompanying them to their different châteaux in Poitou, as the calls of the civil war required. In 1570 he accepted the invitation of Cujas, and proceeded to Valence to study jurisprudence under the greatest living jurist. Here he remained three years, profiting not only by the lectures but even more by the library of Cujas, which filled no fewer than seven or eight rooms and included five hundred manuscripts.
The massacre of St Bartholomew—occurring as he was about to accompany the bishop of Valence on an embassy to Poland—induced him with other Huguenots to retire to Geneva, where he was received with open arms, and was appointed a professor in the academy. He lectured on the Organon of Aristotle and the De finibus of Cicero with much satisfaction to the students but with little to himself. He hated lecturing, and was bored with the importunities of the fanatical preachers; and in 1574 he returned to France, and made his home for the next twenty years with Chastaigner.
Of his life during this period we have interesting details and notices in the Lettres françaises inédites de Joseph Scaliger, edited by M Tamizey de Larroque (Agen, 1881). Constantly moving through Poitou and the Limousin, as the exigencies of the civil war required, occasionally taking his turn as a guard, at least on one occasion trailing a pike on an expedition against the Leaguers, with no access to libraries, and frequently separated even from his own books, his life during this period seems most unsuited to study. He had, however, what so few contemporary scholars possessed—leisure, and freedom from financial cares.
It was during this period of his life that he composed and published the books which showed that with him a new school of historical criticism had arisen. His editions of the Catalecta (1575), of Festus (1575), of Catullus, Tibullus and Propertius (1577), are the work of a man who not only writes books of instruction for learners, but is determined himself to discover the real meaning and force of his author. He was the first to lay down and apply sound rules of criticism and emendation, and to change textual criticism from a series of haphazard guesses into a "rational procedure subject to fixed laws" (Pattison).
But these works, while proving Scaliger's right to the foremost place among his contemporaries as Latin scholar and critic, did not go beyond mere scholarship. It was reserved for his edition of Manilius (1579), and his De emendatione temporum (1583), to revolutionize all the received ideas of ancient chronology—to show that ancient history is not confined to that of the Greeks and Romans, but also comprises that of the Persians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians, hitherto neglected as absolutely worthless, and that of the Jews, hitherto treated as a thing apart, and that the historical narratives and fragments of each of these, and their several systems of chronology, must be critically compared, if any true and general conclusions are to be reached.
It is this which places Scaliger on so immeasurably higher an eminence than any of his contemporaries. Yet, while the scholars of his time admitted his pre-eminence, neither they nor those who immediately followed seem to have appreciated his real merit, but to have considered his emendatory criticism, and his skill in Greek, as constituting his claim to special greatness. His commentary on Manilius is really a treatise on the astronomy of the ancients, and it forms an introduction to De emendatione temporum, in which he examines by the light of modern and Copernican science the ancient system as applied to epochs, calendars and computations of time, showing upon what principles they were based.
In the remaining twenty-four years of his life he at once corrected and enlarged the basis which he had laid in the De emendatione. With incredible patience, sometimes with a happy audacity of conjecture which itself is almost genius, he succeeded in reconstructing the lost Chronicle of Eusebius—one of the most precious remains of antiquity, and of the highest value for ancient chronology. This he printed in 1606 in his Thesaurus temporum, in which he collected, restored an arranged every chronological relic extant in Greek or Latin.
When in 1590 Justus Lipsius retired from the University of Leiden, the university and its protectors, the States-General of the Netherlands and the prince of Orange, resolved to obtain Scaliger as his successor. He declined their offer. He hated lecturing, and there were those among his friends who erroneously believed that with the success of Henry IV learning would flourish, and Protestantism would be no barrier to his advancement. The invitation was renewed in the most flattering manner a year later. Scaliger would not be required to lecture. The university only wished for his presence. He would be in all respects the master of his time. This offer Scaliger provisionally accepted. About the middle of 1593 he started for the Netherlands, where he passed the remaining thirteen years of his life, never returning to France. His reception at Leiden was all that he could wish. A handsome income was assured to him. He was treated with the highest consideration. His rank as a prince of Verona was recognized. Placed midway between The Hague and Amsterdam, he was able to obtain, besides the learned circle of Leiden, the advantages of the best society of both these capitals. For Scaliger was no hermit buried among his books; he was fond of social intercourse and was himself a good talker.
For the first seven years of his residence at Leiden his reputation was at its highest point. His literary dictatorship was unquestioned. From his throne at Leiden he ruled the learned world; a word from him could make or mar a rising reputation and he was surrounded by young men eager to listen to and profit by his conversation. He encouraged Grotius when only a youth of sixteen to edit Capella; the early death of the younger Dom he wept as that of a beloved son; Daniel Heinsius, from being his favourite pupil, became his most intimate friend. But Scaliger had made numerous enemies. He hated ignorance but he hated still more half-learning, and most of all dishonesty in argument or in quotation. Himself the soul of honour and truthfulness, he had no toleration for the disingenuous argument and the mis-statements of facts of those who wrote to support a theory or to defend an unsound cause. His pungent sarcasm was soon carried to the persons of whom they were uttered, and his pen was not less bitter than his tongue. He resembles his father in his arrogant tone towards those whom he despises and those whom he hates, and he despises and hates all who differ from him. He is conscious of his power, and not always sufficiently cautious or sufficiently gentle in its exercise. Nor was he always right. He trusted much to his memory, which was occasional treacherous. His emendations, if frequently happy, were sometimes absurd. In laying the foundations of a science of ancient chronology he relied sometimes upon groundless, sometimes even upon absurd hypotheses, frequently upon an imperfect induction of facts. Sometimes he misunderstood the astronomic science of the ancients, sometimes that of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe. And he was no mathematician.
But his enemies were not merely those whose errors he had exposed and whose hostility he had excited by the violence of his language. The results of his system of historical criticism had been adverse to the Catholic controversialists and to the authenticity of many of the documents upon which they had been accustomed to rely. The Jesuits, who aspired to be the source of all scholarship and criticism, perceived that the writings and authority of Scaliger were the most formidable barrier to their claims. It was the diet of conversions. Muretus in the latter part of his life professed the strictest orthodoxy; J Lipsius had been reconciled to the Church of Rome; Isaac Casaubon was supposed to he wavering but Scaliger was known to be hopeless, and as long as his supremacy was unquestioned the Protestants had the victory in learning and scholarship. A determined attempt must be made, if not to answer his criticisms or to disprove his statement, yet to attack him as a man and to destroy his reputation. This was no easy task, for his moral character was absolutely spotless.
After several scurrilous attacks by the Jesuit party, in which coarseness and violence were more conspicuous than ability, in 1607 a new and more successful attempt was made. Scaliger's weak point was his pride. In 1594, in an evil hour for his happiness and his reputation, he published his Epistola de vetustate et splendore gentis Scaligerae et JC Scaligeri vita. In 1601 Gaspar Scioppius , then in the service of the Jesuits, whom he afterwards so bitterly libelled, published his Scaliger hypototimaeus ("The Supposititious Scaliger"), a quarto volume of more than four hundred pages, written with consummate ability in an admirable and incisive style, with the entire disregard for truth which Scioppius always displayed, and with all the power of his accomplished sarcasm. Every piece of scandal which could be raked together respecting Scaliger or his family is to be found there. The author professes to point out five hundred lies in the Epislola de vetustate of Scaliger, but the main argument of the book is to show the falsity of his pretensions to be of the family of La Scala, and of the narrative of his father's early life. "No stronger proof," says Mark Pattison, "can be given of the impressions produced by this powerful philippii, dedicated to the defamation of an individual, than that it had been the source from which the biography of Scaliger, as it now stands in our biographical collections, has mainly flowed."
To Scaliger the blow was crushing. Whatever the case as to Julius, Joseph had undoubtedly believed himself a prince of Verona, and in his Epistola had put forth with the most perfect good faith, and without inquiry, all that he had heard from his father. He immediately wrote a reply to Scioppius, entitled Confutatio fabulae Burdonum. It is written, for Scaliger, with unusual moderation and good taste, but perhaps for that very reason had not the success which its author wished and even expected. In the opinion of the highest authority, Mark Pattison, "as a refutation of Scioppius it is most complete"; but there are certainly grounds for dissenting, though with diffidence, from this judgment. Scaliger undoubtedly shows that Scioppius committed more blunders than he corrected, that his book literally bristles with pure lies and baseless calumnies; but he does not succeed in adducing a single proof either of his father's descent from the La Scala family, or of any single event narrated by Julius as happening to himself or any member of this family prior to his arrival at Agen. Nor does he even attempt a refutation of the crucial point, which Scioppius had proved, as far as a negative can be proved—namely, that William, the last prince of Verona, had no son Nicholas, the alleged grandfather of Julius nor indeed any son who could have been such grandfather's.
But whether complete or not, the Confutatio had no success—the attack of the Jesuits was successful, far more so than they could possibly have hoped. Scioppius was wont to boast that his book had killed Scaliger. It certainly embittered the few remaining months of his life, and it is not improbable that the mortification which he suffered may have shortened his days. The Confutatio was his last work. Five months after it appeared, on January 21, 1609, at four in the morning, he died in Heinsius's arms. "The aspiring spirit ascended before the Infinite. The most richly stored intellect which had spent itself in acquiring knowledge was in the presence of the Omniscient" (Pattison).
Of Joseph Scaliger, the only biography in any way adequate was that of Jakob Bernays (Berlin, 1855). It was reviewed by Mark Pattison in the Quarterly Review, vol. cviii. (1860), since reprinted the Essays, i. (1889), 132-195. Pattison had made many manuscript collections for a life of Joseph Scaliger on a much more extensive scale, which he left unfinished. In writing the above article, Professor Christie had access to and made much use of these manuscripts, which include a life of Julius Caesar Scaliger. The fragments of the life of Joseph Scaliger have been printed in the Essays, 1. 196-245. For the life of Joseph, besides the letters published by M Tamizis de Larroque (Agen, 1881), the two old collections of Latin and French letters and the two Scaligerana are the most important sources of information.
For the life of Julius Caesar, the letters edited by his son, those subsequently published in 1620 by the President de Maussac, the Scaligerana, and his own writings are full of autobiographical matter, are the chief authorities. M. y Bourousse de Laffore's Etude sur Jules César de Lescale (Agen 1860) and M Magen's Documents sur Julius Caesar Scaliger et sa famille (Agen, 1873) add important details for the lives of both father and son. The lives by Charles Nisard—that of Julius et Les Gladiateurs de la république des lettres, and that of Joseph Le Triumvirai littéraire au seizième siècle—are equally unworthy of their author and their subjects. Julius is simply held up to ridicule, while the life of Joseph is almost wholly based on the book of Scioppius and the Scaligerana. A complete list of the works of Joseph will be found in his life by Bernays. See also JE Sandys, History of Classical Scholarship, ii. (1908), 199-204. A technical biography is Anthony T. Grafton, Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship, 2 vol. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983, 1993).
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