1902 Encyclopedia > Friedrich August Wolf

Friedrich August Wolf
German philologist, classical scholar and critic
(1759-1824)




FRIEDRICH AUGUST WOLF (1759-1824), was born in 1759 at Hainrode, a little village not far from Nordhausen, in the province of Hanover. His father, who was village schoolmaster and organist, was in his way an enthusiast in education, and gave his son whatever advantage is to be gained by the earliest possible cultivation. In time the family removed to Nordhausen, and there young Wolf went to the grammar school, where he soon acquired all the Latin and Greek that the masters could teach him, besides learning French, Italian, Spanish, and music. This, however, was in the earlier and (as he himself regarded it) the idler part of his schooltime. He pre-sently took his education into his own hands, devoted himself entirely to classics, borrowed books wherever he could, and rapidly stored his young and powerful memory with their contents. The precocity of his attainments was only equalled by the force of will and confidence in his own powers which characterized him throughout life.
After two years of solitary study, at the age of eighteen, Wolf went to the university of Gottingen. His first act there was a prophecy—one of those prophecies which spring from the conscious power to bring about their fulfilment. He had to choose his "faculty," and chose one which then existed only in his own mind, the faculty of " philology." What is even more remarkable, the omen was accepted. He carried his point, and was enrolled as he desired.
Wolf's relations with Heyne, who was then the chief ornament of Gottingen, form an unpleasant chapter, which may well be passed over here. Heyne was a scholar of little force or originality, but he was one of those who, by their power of assimilating and transmitting the thoughts of others, often rise to the highest reputation. Wolf soon left him, and fell back upon the university library, from which he borrowed with his old avidity.
During the years 1779-83 Wolf was a schoolmaster, first at Ilfeld, then at Osterode. His success as a teacher was striking, and he found time to publish an edition of the Symposium, which excited notice, and led to his pro-motion to a chair in the Prussian university of Halle.
The moment was a critical one in the history of educa-tion. The literary impulse of the Renaissance was almost spent; scholarship had become dry and trivial. A new school, that of Locke and Rousseau, sought to make teach-ing more modern and more human, but at the sacrifice of mental discipline and scientific aim. Wolf was eager to throw himself into the contest on the side of anti-quity. In Halle (1783-1807), by the force of his will and the enlightened aid of the ministers of Frederick the Great, he was able to carry out his long-cherished ideas, and found the science of philology. By one of England's insular aberrations, the word " philology " threatens to be confined to the study of the forms of language. Wolf defined it to be "knowledge of human nature as exhibited in antiquity." The matter of such a science, he held, must be sought in the history and education of some highly cultivated nation, to be studied in written remains, works of art, and what-ever else bears the stamp of national thought or skill. It has therefore to do with both history and language, but primarily as a science of interpretation, in which historical facts and linguistic facts take their place in an organic whole. Such was the ideal which Wolf had in his mind when he established the philological seminarium at Halle.


Wolf's writings make little show in a library, and were always subordinate to his teaching. During his time at Halle he published his commentary on the Leptines (1789) —which suggested to his pupil, Aug. Boeckh, the Public Economy of Athens—and a little later the Prolegomena to Homer (1795). This book, the work with which his name is chiefly associated, was thrown off in comparative haste to meet an immediate need. It has all the merits of a great piece of oral teaching—command of method, sug-gestiveness, breadth of view. The reader does not feel that he has to do with a theory, but with great ideas, which are left to bear fruit in his mind (see HOMER).
The Halle professorship ended tragically, and with it the happy and productive period of Wolf's life. He was swept away, and his university with him, by the deluge of the French invasion. A painful gloom oppressed his remaining years (1807-24), which he spent at Berlin. He became so fractious and intolerant as to alienate some of his warmest friends. He gained a place in the depart-ment of education, through the exertions of W. von Humboldt. When this became unendurable, he once more took a professorship. But he no longer taught with his old success; and he wrote very little. His most finished work, the Darstellung der Alterthumswissenschaft, though published at Berlin (1807), belongs essentially to the Halle time. At length his health gave way. He was advised to try the south of France. He got as far as Marseilles, and was laid in the classic soil of that ancient Hellenic city.
The chief source of this sketch has been the admirable article by
Mr Mark Pattison in the North British Review of June 1865, soon
(we believe) to be reprinted by the Clarendon Press. Since the
date of that article Wolf's Kleine Schriften have been edited by
G. Bernhardy (Halle, 1869). The works not included in that col-
lection are the Prolegomena, the Letters to Heyne (Berlin, 1797), the
commentary on the Leptines (Halle, 1789), and a translation of the
Clouds of Aristophanes (Berlin, 1811). To these must be added
the Vorlesungen on Iliad i.-iv., taken from the notes of a pupil,
and edited by Usteri (Bern, 1830). (D. B. M.)







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