1902 Encyclopedia > Johann Jakob Reiske

Johann Jakob Reiske
German scholar and physician

JOHANN JACOB REISKE (1716-1774), scholar and physician, was born 25th December 1716, in the little town of Zörbig in Electoral Saxony. From the Waisen-haus at Halle he passed in 1733 to the university of Leipsic, and there spent five years. He lived alone without teacher or friend, heard no lectures, but studied con-tinually without order or aim. He tried to find his own way in Greek literature, to which German schools then gave little attention; but, as he had not mastered the grammar, he soon found this a sore task and took up Arabic. He was very poor, having almost nothing beyond his allowance, which for the five years was only two hundred thalers. But everything of which he could cheat his appetite was spent on Arabic books, and when he had read all that was then printed he thirsted for manuscripts, and in March 1738 started on foot for Hamburg, joyous though totally unprovided, on his way to Leyden and the treasures of the Warnerianum. At Hamburg he got some money and letters of recommendation from the Hebraist Wolf, and took ship to Amsterdam. Here D'Orville, to whom he had an introduction, proposed to retain him as his amanuensis at a salary of six hundred guilders. Reiske refused, though he thought the offer very generous ; he did not want money, he wanted manuscripts. But when he reached Leyden (6th June 1738) he found that the lectures were over for the term and that the MSS. were not open to him. His money too was gone, and he passed a miserable summer. By and by things mended: D'Orville and A. Schultens helped him to private teaching and reading for the press, by which he was able to live, and his great power of work enabled him still to find time enough for his own studies. He heard the lectures of A. Schultens, and practised himself in Arabic with his son J. J. Schultens. Through Schultens too he got at Arabic MSS., and was even allowed sub rosa to take them home with him. Ultimately he seems to have got free access to the collection, which he recatalogued—the work of almost a whole summer, for which the curators rewarded him with nine guilders.

In spite of his hardships Reiske's first years in Leyden were not unhappy, till he got into serious trouble by introducing divers emendations of his own into the second edition of Burmann's Petronius, which he had to see through the press. His patrons withdrew from him, and his chance of perhaps becoming professor was gone. D'Orville indeed soon came round, for he could not do without Reiske, who did work of which his patron, after dressing it up in his own style, took the credit. But A. Schultens was never the same as before to him; Reiske indeed was too independent, and hurt him by his open criticisms of his master's way of making Arabic mainly a handmaid of Hebrew. Reiske, however, himself admits that Schultens, though he had reason to complain of his scholar's want of respect towards him, always behaved honourably to him. In 1742 by Schultens's advice Reiske took up medicine as a study by which he might hope to live if he could not do so by philology, and at medicine he worked hard for four years, still continuing the tasks that brought him bread as well as his Greek and Arabic studies. In 1746 he graduated as M.D., the fees being remitted at Schultens's intercession. It was Schultens too who coquered the difficulties opposed to his graduation at the last moment by the faculty of theology on the ground that some of his theses had a materialistic ring. On June 10, 1746, he left Holland and settled in Leipsic, where he hoped to get medical practice.

But his shy proud nature was not fitted to gain patients, and the Leipsic doctors would not recommend one who was not a Leipsic graduate. In 1747 an Arabic dedication to the electoral prince of Saxony got him the title of professor, but did not better his circumstances. Neither the faculty of arts nor that of medicine was willing to admit him among them, and he never delivered a course of lectures. He had still to go on doing literary task-work, but his labour was much worse paid in Leipsic than in Leyden. Still he could have lived and sent his old mother, as his custom was, a yearly present of a piece of leather to be sold in retail if he had been a better manager. But, care-less for the morrow, he was always printing at his own cost great books which found no buyers. And so for many years he lived in such misery that he often did not know where to find bread to still his hunger. His academical colleagues were hostile; and Ernesti, under a show of friendship, secretly hindered his promotion. His slashing and unsparing reviews made bad blood with the pillars of the university.

At length it 1758 the magistrates of Leipsic rescued him from his misery by giving him the rectorate of St Nicolai, and, though he still made no way with the leading men of the university and suffered from the hostility of men like Ruhnken and J. D. Michaelis, he was compensated for this by the esteem of Frederick the Great, of Lessing, Karsten Niebuhr, and many foreign scholars. The last decade of his life was made cheerful by his marriage with Ernestine Müller, who shared all his interests and learned Greek to help him with collations. In proof of his gratitude her portrait stands beside his in the first volume of the Oratores Graeci. Reiske died August 14, 1774, and his MS. remains passed, through Lessing's mediation, to the Danish minister Suhm, and are now in the Copenhagen library.

Reiske certainly surpassed all his predecessors in the range and quality of his knowledge of Arabic literature. It was the history, the realia of the literature, that always interested him ; he did not care for Arabic poetry as such, and the then much praised Hariri seemed to him a grammatical pedant. He read the poets for their bearing on history, and cared less for their verses than for such scholia as supplied historical notices. Thus for example the scholia on Jami furnished him with a remarkable notice of the prevalence of Buddhist doctrine and asceticism in 'Irak under the Omayyads. In the Adnotationes Historical to his Abulfeda (Abulf. Annates Moslemici, 5 vols., Copenhagen, 1789-91) he collected a veritable treasure of sound and original research ; he knew the Byzantine writers as thoroughly as the Arabic authors, and was alike at home in modern works of travel in all languages and in ancient and mediseval authorities. He was interested too in numismatics, and his letters on Arabic coinage (in Eichhorn's Repertorium, vols, ix.s-xi.) form, according to De Sacy, the basis of that branch of study. To comprehensive knowledge and very wide reading he added a sound historical judgment. He was not, like Schultens, deceived by the pretended antiquity of the Yemenite Kasidas. Errors no doubt he made, as in the attempt to ascertain the date of the breach of the dam of Marib.

Though Abulfeda as a late epitomator did not afford a starting-


Iiis version and notes certainly laid the foundation for research in Arabic history. The foundation of Arabic philology, however, was laid not by him but by De Sacy. Reiske's linguistic knowledge was great, but he used it only to understand his authors ; he had no feeling for form, for language as language, or for metre. He was diligent in lexicographic collections, but cared nothing for etymology or for any speculations that transcended the historical data before him. This narrowness of interest was the counterpart of his hatred for pedantry and strong love of reality. His greed for historical facts made his studies a sort of vast foray in Arabic literature, but with this he is not to be reproached. s

In Leipsic Reiske worked mainly at Greek, though he continued to draw on his Arabic stores accumulated in Leyden. Yet his merit as an Arabist was sooner recognized than the value of his Greek work, partly perhaps because his talents were really at their best in dealing with a literature which suffers little injustice through lack of interest in its form, but mainly because his contemporaries in Greek learning were narrow and had not .the judgment to appreciate him. Reiske the Greek scholar has been tightly valued only in recent years, and it is now recognized that he was the first German since SyIburg who had a living knowledge of the Greek tongue. His reputation does not rest on his numerous editions, often hasty or even made to booksellers' orders. The text was never his main concern, and he often let received readings stand against his own judgment. The valuable matter lies in his remarks, especially his conjectures. He himself designates the Animadversationes in Scriptores Graecos as flos ingenii sui, and in truth these thin booklets outweigh his big editions. Closely following the author's thought he removes obstacles whenever he meets them, but he is so steeped in the language and thinks so truly like a Greek that the difficulties he feels often seem to us to lie in mere points of style. His criticism is empirical and unmethodic, based on immense and careful reading, and applied only when he feels a difficulty ; and he is most successful when he has a large mass of tolerably homogeneous literature to lean on, whilst on isolated points he is often at a loss. Phonetics, dialects, orthography were indifferent to him; metre he did not understand. His corrections are often hasty and false, but a surprisingly large proportion of them have since received confirmation from MSS. And, though his merits as a Grecian lie mainly in his conjectures, his realism is felt in this sphere also; his German translations especially show more freedom and practical insight, more feeling for actual life, than is common with the scholars of that age.

Reiske was essentially a pioneer, who neither left any complete performance behind him nor marked out for others a sharply defined method of research. This was partly due to his unhappy circumstances, but mainly to his passionate interest in all history and all letters, which never allowed him to linger in any one field. The son of the Zörbig tanner, driven by a natural instinct to Arabic lore, devoured by eager desire to view the unknown treasures of distant ages and lands, is an attractive figure amidst the pedants of learned Germany as it then was. Reiske was not amiable, but he was a real character—a character, too, sustained by genuine piety when the deep waters threatened to close over his head.

For a list of Reiske's writings see Meusel, xi. 192 sq. His chief Arabic works (all posthumous) have been mentioned above. In Greek letters his chief works are Constantini Porphyrogeniti libri II. de ceremoniis aulm Byzant., vols. i. ii., Leipsic, 1751-66, vol. iii., Bonn, 1829; Animadv. ad Gnecos auctores. 5 vols., Leipsic, 1751-66 (the rest lies imprinted at Copenhagen); Oratorum Grace, qum svpersunt, 8 vols., Leipsic, 1770-73; App. crit. ad Demosthenem, 3 vols., ib., 1774-75; Maximus Tyr., ib., 1774 ; Ptutarchus, 11 vols., ib.. 1774-79; Dionys Italic., 6 vols., ib., 1774-77; Libanius, 4 vols., Altenburg, 1784-97. Various reviews in the Acta Eruditorum and Zuverl. Nachrichten are characteristic and worth reading.

Compare D. Johann Jacob Reiskens von ihm selbst aufgesetzte Lebensbeschreibung,
Leipsic, 1783. (J. WE.)

The above article was written by: Julius Wellhausen, Ph.D., Professor of Semitic Languages, University of Marburg.

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