1902 Encyclopedia > Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl

Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl
German scholar best known as a student of Plautus
(1806-76)




FRIEDRICH WILHELM RITSCHL (1806-1876), an eminent German scholar, was born in 1806 in Thuringia. His family, in which culture and poverty were hereditary, were Protestants who had immigrated several generations earlier from Bohemia. Ritschl was fortunate in his school training, at a time when the great reform in the higher schools of Prussia had not yet been thoroughly carried out. His chief teacher, Spitzner, a pupil of Gottfried Hermann, divined the boy's genius and allowed it free growth, applying only so much either of stimulus or of restraint as was absolutely needful. After a wasted year at the university of Leipsic, where Hermann stood at the zenith of his fame, Ritschl passed in 1826 to Halle. Here lie came under the powerful influence of Reisig, a young " Hermannianer" with exceptional talent, a fascinating personality, and a rare gift for instilling into his pupils his own ardour for classical study. The great controversy between the "Realists" and the "Verbalists" was then at its height, and Ritschl naturally sided with Hermann against Boeckh. The early death of Reisig in 1828 did not sever Ritschl from Halle, where he brilliantly attained the doctorate, and in 1829 became privat-docent, in 1832 an extraordinary professor. He began his professorial career with a great reputation and brilliant success, but soon hearers fell away, and the pinch of poverty compelled his removal to Breslau, where he reached the rank of " ordinary " professor in 1834, and held other offices. The great event of Ritschl's life was a sojourn of nearly a year in Italy (1836-37), spent in libraries and museums, and more particularly in the laborious examination of the Ambrosian palimpsest of Plautus at Milan. From this journey Ritschl's whole temperament and intellect received a new and richer colouring, and the remainder of his life was largely occupied in working out the material then gathered and the ideas then conceived. Bonn, whither he removed on his marriage in 1839, and where he remained for twenty-six years, was the great scene of his activity both as scholar and as teacher. The philological seminary which he controlled, although nominally only joint director with Welcker, became a veritable offtcina litterarum, a kind of Isocratean school of classical study; in it were trained many of the foremost scholars of the last forty years. The names of Georg Curtius, Ihne, Schleicher, Bernays, Ribbeck, Lorenz, Vahlen, Hiibner, Biicheler, Hel-big, Benndorf, Riese, Windisch, Brugmann, who were his pupils either at Bonn or at Leipsic, attest his fame and power as a teacher. In 1854 Otto Jahn took the place of the venerable Welcker at Bonn, and after a time suc-ceeded in dividing with Ritschl the empire over the philo-logical school there. The two had been friends, but after gradual estrangement a violent dispute arose between them in 1865, which for many months divided into two hostile forces the universities and the press of Germany. Both sides were steeped in fault, but Ritschl undoubtedly received harsh treatment from the Prussian Government, and pressed his resignation. He renounced not only Bonn but Prussia, though strongly attached to his country, which he had often refused to leave when plied with advantageous offers. He accepted a call to Leipsic, where he died in harness in 1876.

Ritschl's character was strongly marked. The spirited element in him was powerful, and to some at times he seemed overbearing, but his nature was noble at the core ; and, though intolerant of inefficiency and stupidity, he never asserted his personal claims in any mean or petty way. He was warmly attached to family and friends, and yearned continually after sympathy, yet he established real intimacy with only a few. Both at Breslau and at Bonn he complained of isolation, which (though he. was himself unconscious of the fact) was in part the natural fruit of his own superiority. The interests of his pupils were at all times dear, perhaps even too dear, in his eyes. He was far from being a dreamy scholar; his talent for practical affairs would have secured him eminence in almost any walk of life, and he was credited with diplomatic finesse. That Ritschl had a great faculty for organization is shown by his administration of the university library at Bonn, and by the eight years of labour which carried to success a work of infinite complexity, the famous Priscse, Lcttinitcttis Monumenta Epigraphica (Bonn, 1862). This volume presents in admirable facsimile, with prefatory notices and indexes, the Latin inscriptions from the earliest times to the end of the republic. It forms an intro-ductory volume to the Berlin Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, the excellence of which is largely due to the precept and example of Ritschl, though he had no hand in the later volumes.





In all that he did Ritschl exhibited rare genius combined with a precision unsurpassed. But to bring out to the full his great powers the zest of discovery was indispensable. When he was on the track of a new idea, he worked with a fiery energy which triumphed over his almost life-long physical weakness, and left him no peace till every difficulty was cleared away. But the toil of carrying his discoveries to their consequences he was only too apt to leave to feebler hands than his own. He was fertile in great projects, and struck out the main ideas which should guide them, but one only did he pursue to absolute completion, the Priscie Latinitaiis Monumenta,—precisely because, from the nature of this work, he was buoyed up from first to last by the occurrence or the expectation of novelty. The results of Ritschl's life are mainly gathered up in a long series of monographs, for the most part of the highest finish, and rich in ideas which have leavened the scholarship of the time.

As a scholar, Ritschl was of the lineage of Bentley, to whom he looked up, like Hermann, with fervent admiration. His best efforts were spent in studying the languages and literatures of Greece and Rome, rather than the life of the Greeks and Romans. He was sometimes, but most unjustly, charged with taking a narrow view of "Philologie." That he keenly appreciated the importance of ancient institutions and ancient art both his published papers and the records of his lectures amply testify. He had in reality no prejudice against any department of learning. He was ever anxious to discern precisely the work for which each pupil was fitted, and he despatched many explorers into fields where he could not labour himself. Ritschl for the most part devoted himself to the study of ancient poetry, and in particular of the early Latin drama. This formed the centre from which his investigations radiated. Starting from this he ranged over the wdiole remains of pre-Ciceronian Latin, and not only analysed but augmented the sources from which our knowledge of it must come. Before Ritschl the acquaintance of scholars with early Latin was so dim and restricted that it would perhaps be hardly an exaggeration to call him its real discoverer.

To the world in general Kitschl was best known as a student of Plautus. When he began his studies, the text of that author was like some ancient picture, defaced alike by time and by much repainting. He cleared away the accretions of ages, and by efforts of that real genius which goes hand in hand with labour, brought to light many of the true features of the original. It is infinitely to be regretted that Ritschl's results were never combined to form that monumental edition of Plautus of which he dreamed in his earlier life. For one such palace from the master builder's band we could well have sacrificed some of the abundant material which he left for punier architects to handle. Ritschl's examination of the Plautine MSS. was both laborious and brilliant, and greatly extended the knowdedge of Plautus and of the ancient Latin drama. Of this two striking examples may be cited. By the aid of the Ambrosian palimpsest he recovered the name T. Maccius Plautus, for the vulgate M. Accius, and proved it correct by strong extraneous arguments. On the margin of the Palatine MSS. the marks C and D V continually recur, and had been variously explained. Ritschl proved that they meant "Canticum" and "Diverbium," and hence showed that in the Roman comedy only the conversations in iambic senarii were not intended for the singing voice. Thus was brought into strong relief a fact without which there can be no true appre-ciation of Plautus, viz., that his plays were comic operas rather than comic dramas.

In conjectural criticism Ritschl was inferior not only to his great predecessors but to some of his contemporaries. His emendations do not often present that perfect wedding of art and fortune which we see in the best work of Madvig or Cobet. His imagination was in this field (but in this field only) hampered by erudition, and his judgment was unconsciously warped by the desire to find in his text illustrations of his discoveries. His remedies were often need-lessly violent. But still a fair proportion of his textual labours has stood the test of time, and he forged the weapons which are destined to conquer for us the true text of Plautus, so far as an envious fate permits. Ritschl rendered immense service by his study of Plautine metres, a field in which little advance had been made since the time of Bentley. In this matter Ritschl was aided by an accomplishment rare (as he himself lamented) in Germany—the art of writing Latin verse.

In spite of the incompleteness, on many sides, of his work, Ritschl must be assigned a place in the history of learning among a very select few. His studies are presented principally in his Opuscula collected partly before and partly since his death. The Trinummus (twdce edited) "was the only specimen of his contemplated edition of Plautus which he completed. The edition has been continued by some of his pupils—Goetz, Loewe, and others— and is still (1885) in progress.

The facts of Ritschl's life may he best learned from the elaborate biography by Otto Ribbeck (Leipsic, 1879). An interesting and discriminating estimate of Ritschl's work is that by Lucian Mueller (Berlin, 1877). (J. S. R.)






The above article was written by: J. S. Reid.



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