1902 Encyclopedia > Daniel Albert Wyttenbach

Daniel Albert Wyttenbach
Swiss classical scholar
(1746-1820)




DANIEL ALBERT WYTTENBACH (1746-1820), a famous classical scholar, was born at Bern, of a family whose nobility and distinction he loved to recall. In par-ticular, he was proud of his descent from Thomas Wytten-bach, professor of theology in Basel at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries, who numbered the Reformer Zwingli and other distinguished men among his pupils. Wyttenbach's own father was also a theological professor of considerable note, first at Bern, and then at Marburg. His removal to Marburg, which took place in 1756, was partly due to old associations, for the elder "Wyttenbach had studied there under the famous Christian Wolff, and embodied the philosophical principles of his _master in his own theological teaching. Soon after the Wyttenbachs settled in Germany the great war broke out, .and the region around Marburg suffered severely, so that the scenes and excitement of military life must have powerfully affected the growth of the boy's somewhat . sensitive character. After a careful preliminary education, partly in the schools of Bern and Marburg, partly by private tutors, and always under the eye of a severe but conscientious and affectionate father, young Wyttenbach entered at the age of fourteen the university of Marburg, and passed through a four years' course there. His parents intended that he should become a Lutheran pastor. The first two years were given up to general education, principally to mathematics, " philology," and history. The professor of mathematics, Spangenberg, acquired great influence over young Wyttenbach. He is said to have taught his subject with great clearness, and with equal seriousness and piety, often referring to God as the supreme mathematician, who had constructed all things by number, measure, and weight. " Philology " in the German univer-sities of that age meant Hebrew and Greek. These two languages were generally handled by the same professor, and were taught almost solely to theological students. Wyttenbach's university course at Marburg was troubled about the middle of the time by mental unrest, due to the fascination exercised over him by Bunyan's Pilgrim's Pro-gress. Like Bunyan himself, he believed that he was doomed to perdition, and that he had committed the inex-piable sin against the Holy Ghost. The disorder was -cured by Spangenberg. The principal study of the third year was metaphysics, which took Wyttenbach entirely captive. The fourth and last year was to be devoted to theology and Christian dogma. Wyttenbach had hitherto submitted passively to his father's wishes concerning his career, in the hope that some unexpected occurrence might set him free. But he now turned away from theological lectures, and privately devoted his time to the task of deepening and extending his knowledge of Greek literature. His father was wise enough to leave him to follow his own bent. To use Wyttenbach's own words, he looked up to every Greek book as a temple of wisdom. But the struggle for knowledge was hard, and taxed all his powers. He possessed at the time, as he tells us, no more acquaint-ance with Greek than his own pupils at a later time could acquire from him during four months' study. He was almost entirely without equipment beyond the bare texts of the authors. Each author only yielded after a pro-tracted siege. But Wyttenbach was undaunted, and four years' persistent study gave him a knowledge of Greek such as few Germans of that time possessed. His love for philosophy carried him towards the Greek philosophers, especially Plato. He describes himself as walking about the meadows near Marburg, conning portions of his text of Plato, which he had taken to pieces for easier carriage. During this period Ruhnken's notes on the Platonic lexicon of Timseus fell into his hands. Ruhnken was for him al-most a superhuman being, whom he worshipped day and night, and with whom he imagined himself as holding converse in the spirit. Taking up the works of Julian, he emended them on the principles of Ruhnken. When Wyttenbach was twenty-two he determined to seek else-where the aids to study which Marburg could not afford. His father, fully realizing the strength of his son's pure passion for scholarship, permitted and even advised him to seek Heyne at Gottingen. From this teacher he received the utmost kindness and encouragement, and he was urged by him to dedicate to Ruhnken the first fruits of his scholarship. Wyttenbach therefore set to work on some notes to Julian, Eunapius, and Aristsenetus, and Heyne wrote to Ruhnken to bespeak his favourable consideration for the work. Before it reached him Ruhnken wrote a kind letter to Wyttenbach, which the recipient " read, re-read, and kissed," and another on receipt of the tract, in which the great scholar declared that he had not looked to find in Germany such knowledge of Greek, such power of criticism, and such mature judgment, especially in one so young. Wyttenbach was now able with boldness to devote himself to the career of a scholar. He studied with ardour the works of the great scholars of the Nether-lands, and in his morning and evening petitions prayed that it might be given him to see Valckenaer and Ruhnken in the flesh. By Heyne's advice, he now worked hard at Latin, which he knew far less thoroughly than Greek, and we soon find Heyne praising his progress in Latin style to both Ruhnken and Valckenaer. He now wrote to ask their advice about his scheme of coming to the Netherlands to follow the profession of a scholar. Ruhnken strongly exhorted Wyttenbach to follow his own example, for he too had been designed by his parents for the Christian ministry in Germany, but had settled at Leyden on the invitation of Hemsterhuis. Valckenaer's answer was to the same effect, but he added that Wyttenbach's letter would have been pleasanter to him had it been free from excessive compliments. These letters were forwarded to the elder Wyttenbach, with a strong recommendation from Heyne. The old man had been himself in Leyden in his youth, and entertained an admiration for the scholarship of the Netherlands; so his consent was easily won. Young Wyttenbach reached Leyden in 1770. According to his own description, he approached the gates of the city with a feeling of religious awe such as might have passed over an ancient visitant to Athens and the Acropolis. As he neared Ruhnken's door, the words of Homer " surely there is some god within " were in his mind. He was delighted to find the great man entirely free from the pomposity and assumption which had made many of the German professors disagreeable to him. A year was spent with great contentment, in learning the language of the people, in attending the lectures of the great "duumviri" of Leyden, and in collating MSS. of Plutarch. At the end of 1771 a professor was wanted at Amsterdam for the College of the Remonstrants. By the recommendation of Ruhnken, Wyttenbach obtained the chair, which he filled with great success for eight years. His lectures took a wide range. Those on Greek were repeated also to the students of the university of Amsterdam (the "Athenaeum"). In 1775 a visit was made to Paris, which was fruitful both of new friendships and of progress in study. About this time, on the advice of Ruhnken, Wyttenbach began the issue of his Bibliotheca Critica, which appeared at intervals for the next thirty years. The object professed in the preface was to help in rescuing classical studies from the neglect into which they had fallen, by creating an interest in new works of merit, through critical notices, embody-ing the results of original research by the writer himself. It was in fact a kind of critical review written by one man. The methods of criticism employed were in the main those established by Hemsterhuis, and carried on by Valckenaer and Ruhnken, and the publication met with acceptance from the learned all over Europe. In 1777 the younger Burmann (" Burmannus Secundus ") retired from his professorship at the Athennaum, and Wyttenbach hoped to succeed him. When another received the appoint-ment, he was sorely discouraged. Only his regard for Ruhnken and for Dutch freedom (in his own words " Ruhnkeni et Batavse libertatis cogitatio ") kept him in Holland. For fear of losing him, the authorities at Amsterdam nominated him in 1779 professor of philosophy. Some of his lectures given in this capacity were worked up for publication ; in particular a treatise on logic belongs to this period. In philosophy Wyttenbach never shook off the influence of Wolff, and the Kantians were irate because he failed to appreciate their master. In 1785 Toll, Burmann's successor, resigned, and Wyttenbach was at once appointed to succeed him. His full title was " pro-fessor of history and eloquence and Greek and Latin liter-ature." He had hardly got to work in his new office when Valckenaer died, and he received a call to Leyden. Greatly to Ruhnken's disappointment, he declined to abandon the duties he had so recently undertaken. In 1787 began the internal commotions in Holland, afterwards to be aggra-vated by foreign interference. Scarcely during the re-maining thirty-three years of Wyttenbach's life was there a moment of peace in the land. He held entirely aloof from factions, and yearned continually after quiet and reconciliation. About this time two requests were made to him for an edition of the Moraliaol Plutarch, for which a recension of the tract " De sera numinis vindicta " had marked him out in the eyes of scholars. One request came from the famous " Societas Bipontina," the other from the delegates of the Clarendon Press at Oxford. Wyttenbach, influenced at once by the reputation of the university, and by the liberality of the Oxonians in tendering him assistance of different kinds, declined the offer of the Bipontine Society,—very fortunately, since their press was soon destroyed by the French. The fortunes of Wyttenbach's edition curiously illustrate the text "habent sua fata libelli." The first portion was safely conveyed to Oxford in 1794. Then war broke out between Holland and Great Britain. Randolph, Wyttenbach's Oxford correspondent, advised that the next portion should be sent through the British ambassador at Hamburg, and the MS. was duly consigned to him " in a little chest well pro-tected by pitch." After sending Randolph a number of letters without getting any answer, Wyttenbach in disgust put all thought of the edition from him, and a shudder ran through his frame whenever Plutarch was mentioned. At last, after simultaneous letters had been despatched to a good many delegates of the Clarendon Press, the missing box was discovered in a forgotten corner at Hamburg, where it had lain for two years and a half. The work was finally completed in 1805. Meanwhile Wyttenbach received repeated invitations to leave Amsterdam, which were refused. One came from his native city Bern, another from Leyden, where vacancies had been created by the refusal of professors to swear allegiance to the new Dutch republic set up in 1795, in which Wyttenbach had acquiesced. But he only left Amsterdam in 1799, when on Ruhnken's death he succeeded him at Leyden. Even then his chief object in removing was to facilitate an arrangement by which the necessities of his old master's family might be relieved. His removal came too late in life, and he was never so happy at Leyden as he had been at Amsterdam. Before long appeared the ever-delightful Life of David Ruhnken. Though written in Latin, this biography deserves to rank high in the modern literature of its class. It is composed in a style that is lucid, flowing, and graceful, not imitated from any one ancient author, but (a few grammatical matters apart) such as we can imagine that some gifted Roman of the classical time might well have struck out for himself. One of Ruhnken's friends called it "a Milesian tale," partly from the fascin-ation of the style, and partly because the book often took such a wide range that Ruhnken was lost amid extended observations springing out of his relation to the classical studies of his age. Of Wyttenbach's life at Leyden there is little to tell. The continual changes in state affairs greatly disorganized the universities of Holland, and Wyttenbach had to work in face of much detraction; still his success as a teacher was very great. In 1805 he narrowly escaped with his life from the great gunpowder explosion, which killed 150 people, among them the Greek scholar Luzac, Wyttenbach's colleague in the university. One of Wyttenbach's letters gives a vivid account of the disaster. During the last years of his life he suffered severely from illness and became nearly blind. After the conclusion of his edition of Plutarch's Moralia in 1805, the only important work he was able to publish was his well-known edition of Plato's Pluedo. Many honours were conferred upon him both at home and abroad, and in particular he was made a member of the French Institute. Shortly before his death, he obtained the licence of the king of Holland to marry his sister's daughter, Johanna Gallien, who had for twenty years devoted herself to him as housekeeper, secretary, and aider in his studies. The sole object of the marriage was to secure for her a better provision after her husband's death, because as the widow of a professor she would be entitled to a pension. Johanna Gallien was a woman of remarkable culture and ability, and wrote works held in great repute at that time. On the festival of the tercentenary of the foundation of the university of Marburg, celebrated in 1827, the degree of doctor was conferred upon her. Wyttenbach died of apoplexy in 1820, and he was buried in the garden of his country house near Amsterdam, within sight, as he noted, of the dwellings of Descartes and Boerhaave.
Although his work can hardly be set on the same level as that of Hemsterhuis, Valckenaer, and Ruhnken, yet he was a very eminent exponent of the sound methods of criticism which they established. These four men, more than any others after Bentley, laid the foundations of Greek scholarship as it exists to-day. The precise study of grammar, syntax, and style, and the careful criticism of texts by the light of the best manuscript evidence, were upheld by these scholars in the Netherlands when they were almost entirely neglected elsewhere on the Continent, and were only pursued with partial success in England. Wyttenbach may fairly be regarded as closing a great period in the history of scholarship. He lived indeed to see the new birth of German classical learning, but his work was done, and he was unaffected by it. Wyttenbach's criticism was less rigorous, precise, and masterly, but perhaps more sensitive and sympathetic than that of his great predecessors in the Netherlands. In actual acquaintance with the philosophical writings of the ancients, he has probably never been surpassed. In character he was upright and simple-minded, but shy and retiring, and often failed to make himself appreciated. His life was not passed without strife, but his few friends were warmly attached to him, and his many pupils were for the most part his enthusiastic admirers. Wyttenbach's biography was written in a somewhat dry and lifeless manner by Mahne, one of his pupils, who also published some of his letters. His Opuscula, other than those published in the Bibliotheca Critica, were collected in two volumes (Leyden, 1823). (J. S. R.)








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