Worlds Made of Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West
by Anthony Grafton
Harvard, 432 pages, $29.95

Alas, poor Casaubon! Your name, thanks to George Eliot, has become a byword for dryasdust pedantry and pseudomonastic self-absorption. The creaky scholar of Eliot’s novel Middlemarch is so devoted to his work eternally in progress, the Key to All Mythologies , that he barely seems to notice that he has married a lovely and ardently gifted young woman”and, not incidentally, has thereby ruined her life. He’s the perfect caricature of the scholar, “dead from the waist down,” as Robert Browning said. Almost everyone who reads Middlemarch pictures Casaubon as a doddering old greybeard, though, in fact, Eliot makes it clear that he is solidly middle-aged. He just seems to have been born old.

But as A.D. Nuttall points out in a book that borrows its title from Browning, the figure from whom Eliot drew her character’s name”the great sixteenth-century humanist and scholar Isaac Casaubon”was anything but dry as dust. At the end of a day spent wholly in reading, he would write in his diary Hodie vixi (“Today I have lived”), but he could also complain of the “lifelessness” of his existence when he was separated from his wife and their nineteen”yes, nineteen”children. He was energetic in other realms as well, prodigiously learned in the whole of Greek literature and philosophy and in the Church Fathers; he edited the ancients’ manuscripts and wrote immense commentaries on them. A Huguenot, he spent much of his career in Geneva, but the fair-­minded­ness of his patristic scholarship in an age of bitter controversy led many to suspect him of Catholic leanings. Late in his life he moved to England and seems to have found the Anglican way deeply congenial to his temperament.

As Anthony Grafton explains in his fascinating new book, Worlds Made of Words , Isaac Casaubon’s passion for learning combined with scrupulous scholarly integrity made him an exemplary member of the Republic of Letters”a loose, free-form, international community of scholars that began in the later fifteenth century, more or less. The name, Respublica Litterarum , is as old as the community, and indicates its aspirations to egalitarianism”or rather meritocratism, since, ideally anyway, one earned membership by intellectual and social virtue rather than by being scooped under the wing of any sort of sovereign. The community had a “strict code” of ethics: “Write to another scholar and you engaged yourself to reply to future letters in reasonable time, to give credit to your correspondent for information received and suggestions accepted, and to call him or her a friend”a term that had a strong formal meaning.”

The maintenance of such propriety was, if necessary, not a sufficient condition for citizenship:

Any young man, and more than a few young women, could pay the price of admission. If they mastered Latin and, ideally, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic; became proficient at what now seem the unconnected skills of mathematics and astronomy, history and geography, and physics and music; visited any recognized scholar . . . bearing a letter from a senior scholar, and greeted their host in acceptable Latin or French, they were assured of everything a learned man or woman would want: a warm and civilized welcome, a cup of chocolate (or, later, coffee), and an hour or two of ceremonious conversation on the latest editions of the classics and the most recent sightings of the rings of Saturn.

If this sounds like the platonic ideal of the scholarly life, Grafton means it to: Though he shows the varying ways that citizens of the republic betrayed its ideals”through competitiveness, self-aggrandizement, polemical exaggeration, religious partisanship, and general dishonesty”there’s no question that he believes the Republic of Letters one of the sweetest and most delightful forms of human community ever invented, and he mourns its passing.

As well he should. One way to view the republic, Grafton says, is “as a sort of Pedantic Park”a world of wonders, many of them man-made, inhabited by scholarly dinosaurs.” Indeed: There were giants on the earth in those days.

A collection of essays and reviews on a more-or-less common theme, Grafton’s Worlds Made by Words does not form a consecutive argument. Though some of the essays are brilliant and none are less than interesting, the inevitable spottiness of the history it lays out is frustrating at times. A significant number of the early republicans were, like Casaubon, Huguenots of the Re­formed persuasion and therefore opposed to much Catholic teaching and to papal authority. This resistance to the prevailing religious authority of their world seems fitting to many of us moderns: That persons egalitarian and meritocratic in matters of scholarship would hold similar views in matters of religion makes sense. The ideal citizen of the republic, beyond any question, is Erasmus, who famously had at best an ambivalent relation with the formal structures of the Catholic Church.

And consider this other representative (though far less famous) figure: Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, a humanist scholar from Siena who wrote in polished and incisively witty Latin about the election of the pope:

The richer and more influential members of the college [of cardinals] summoned others to their presence. Seeking the papacy for themselves or their friends, they begged, made promises, even tried threats. Some threw all decency aside, spared no blushes and pleaded their own cases, claiming the papacy as their right . . . . Each [of them] had a great deal to say for himself. Their rivalry was extraordinary, their energy unbounded. They neither rested by day nor slept by night.

Ah, the ironic distance of the true intellectual! The only problem with this familiar narrative is that Piccolomini was describing his own election as Pope Pius II. Let us grant that Pius II was not among the nobler popes, and that there is irony not just in his narrative style but in the name he chose on his election to the Holy See: It remains the case that citizenship in the republic was compatible, and understood to be compatible, with almost any attitude toward what we now call “organized religion.”

Grafton freely acknowledges this fact, and, for someone interested in the intellectual history of Western religion, one of his more interesting chapters is on the Jesuits, many of whose members possessed citizenship in the learned republic and who, added together, cover the whole field of options in relating faith to learning.

If there is any historical period likely to be associated with the Republic of Letters, it is the eighteenth century, the age of Enlightenment: Consider in this light of the title of Dena Goodman’s 1996 book The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment or the work of Robert Darnton, which consistently sees the Republic of Letters as finding its fullest flowering and best home in eighteenth-century France. Yet Grafton sees this era as the one in which the Republic of Letters “reached its natural end,” and neither Voltaire nor any of the other luminaries of the various enlightenments (Kant, Hume, Diderot) are considered in Worlds Made of Words. Grafton silently passes over this extraordinary period in European intellectual history in order to deal with certain developments that he sees as the modern heirs of the republic: the rise of the discipline of intellectual history, the emergence of the “public intellectual,” the recent creation of vast digital libraries. (The heirs are manifestly inferior to their great predecessors, but Grafton writes about them incisively.)

Since Worlds Made by Words is not an argument but a collection of essays and reviews about the republic, this is one of the places where we are left to piece together the parts of the story that Grafton chooses not to tell. Why does he think that the Republic of Letters died during the period that others see it at its peak?

There’s one suggestion: the replacement of Latin by French as the official language of the republic. Grafton does not explicitly deplore this, but, especially in one essay on Renaissance Latin and its decline, he shows the virtues of a scholarly community built around Latin. Not only did it provide a universal language affiliated with no particular existing culture or polity, but it also, through its arcaneness, created a linguistic space in which matters of great delicacy could be explored and debated. Scholars who wouldn’t have dreamed of talking about sex in their native tongues wrote of it freely in Latin.

But I think”though I am not sure that Grafton would agree”that this story suggests another reason for the decline of the republic. If you take Grafton’s view, the republic flourished from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries and then declined; if you take the more familiar view, it flourished in the eighteenth century and then declined. But all agree that it had effectively ceased to function by the nineteenth century.

Is it purely accidental that this decline and fall followed so closely after Voltaire and his allies enlisted the republic in a campaign against organized religion? If there is any one figure we are likely to associate with the French Enlightenment, it is Voltaire, and if there is any one belief that we are likely to associate with Voltaire, it is his insistence that the task of the philosophe is to Ecrasez l’infame ”crush the infamous one, the Church”even though he knew perfectly well that in more violent times the system of dual citizenship had worked quite well for multitudes of scholars.

Voltaire and his successors increasingly pressed the view, sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly, that citizenship in the Republic of Letters was incompatible with membership in the Catholic Church or any other church with a comparably full theology. But this could only drive away larger numbers of people who had once been happy and productive members of the international community of scholars. (This history is being repeated today, as some scientists and philosophers”Jerry Coyne, Daniel Dennett”insist that religious belief of almost any kind is incompatible with a commitment to science and that everyone must therefore choose this day whom they will serve.)

Grafton shows that in the republic’s early centuries the bracketing of religious differences tended to confuse those who did not understand, or did not follow, the community’s distinctive practices. When Isaac Casaubon failed to employ his vast knowledge of Scripture and the Church Fathers to refute Catholicism, many observers assumed that this meant he was sympathetic to the Catholic cause and ripe for conversion. They could not understand that he was simply trying to assess the historical evidence fairly, which in his case meant that he could not fully sympathize with a French Catholicism that was increasingly Ultramontane or with the hard-line Calvinists within whose orbit he was educated. His loyalties to the Republic of Letters would not allow him to place his learning at the service of partisanship.

This refusal tended to make life difficult for Casaubon, and eventually he left France for England. He did not find England’s communities all that they should have been, but while at Oxford he did become fascinated with the recently opened Bodleian Library and, Grafton explains, was especially pleased that the books in the library did not circulate. “The library is open for scholars seven or eight hours a day,” he wrote to a friend in France. “You would see many scholars there, eagerly enjoying the feasts spread before them. This gave me no little pleasure.”

Three hundred and fifty years later, a scholar sat in that same library”Duke Humfrey’s Library, as the oldest part of the Bodleian had come to be called”and over a period of several years read every volume from the sixteenth century that the library contained. Eventually he wrote a book about what he had read, a book supposedly about the nondramatic literature of that period but, in fact, a sweeping intellectual history of the whole century. He managed the extraordinary feat of admiring and celebrating”within the limits set by scholarly honesty”some of the great enemies of that period, notably Sir Thomas More and William Tyndale, who were, he argued, far closer to each other in theology and ethics than they had been able to discern.

The scholar’s name was C.S. Lewis, and Isaac Casaubon would have loved both his learning and his charity. Just after finishing that book, Lewis was named to a chair at Cambridge University, and in his inaugural address he referred to himself as one of the last examples of Old Western Man”a “dinosaur,” he said, and, we may add, remarkably like the other dinosaurs that roam Pedantic Park. I would say “May their tribe increase,” but that seems unlikely, as I think Anthony Grafton would agree. May it at least not die out.

Alan Jacobs , a First Things contributing writer, is professor of English at Wheaton College.