“I Have Always Loved the Holy Tongue”:
Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a
Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship
by Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg
Harvard, 392 pages, $35
Anthony Grafton, professor of history at Princeton University and president of the American Historical Association, is arguably the world’s leading intellectual historian. In his latest work, he has teamed up with Oxford’s Joanna Weinberg to produce yet another compelling account of the strange world of early-modern scholarship. Devoted to legendary classical scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), Grafton and Weinberg’s book re-creates in painstaking detail Casaubon’s little-known forays into Hebrew language, Talmudic learning, and biblical studies. In doing so, they recover a “forgotten chapter in Renaissance scholarship.” What they do not do, though, is tell us why this chapter is worth remembering. Where historians fear to tread, the rest of us may rush in.
In his Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West, Grafton laid bare the intricate workings of that golden age of Western scholarship: the international, ecumenical Republic of Letters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Pedantic polymaths like Casaubon may have been scholarly ascetics, but they were not intellectual hermits. They inhabited a vibrant and noisy scholarly world devoted to the pursuit of truth in all of its historical, scientific, and philological complexity.
Why then, Alan Jacobs asked in his review of Worlds (First Things, August/September 2009), did the Republic of Letters die out? It is a question that Grafton never fully answered in Worlds. Jacobs suggests that the Republic was hijacked by the philosophes in the eighteenth century and co-opted by Voltaire’s militant, anti-ecclesial ideology. This development only served to scatter and drive away those who were out of step with the secularizing program.
If Jacobs is correct, what gave the Republic of Letters its strength and coherence was, at least in part, the piety of its citizens. Without affirming this conclusion, the new portrait of Casaubon offered by Grafton and Weinberg suggests that he was not simply a hard-nosed, eagle-eyed textual scientist applying his philological scalpel to the diseased body of classical tradition but also a devoted servant of the Christian tradition, guided by loyalty to the Hebrew Scriptures, an expansive view of their reliability, and a sincere but limited (because anti-Catholic) ecumenism.
Casaubon was, in fact, a kind of Protestant saint. According to the authors, “Casaubon emerged as a Protestant counterpart to the Baroque saints of the same period, who suffered the pains of martyrdom as they made the mystical ascent—one who suffered his pains, however, in pursuit of human, historical knowledge.” Even the book jacket’s Calvin-like portrait shows Casaubon with long, drawn face, sober expression, and a strong but serene gaze. The story within is not a hagiography, but it does document an astounding fact about Casaubon: The man known to posterity as one of Europe’s greatest classical scholars devoted decades of labor to a field that brought him no real distinction and very little earthly profit: “Hebrew, Hebrew texts, and Jewish tradition.”
Casaubon often put his knowledge to polemical purposes, taking part in disputes between Catholics and Protestants. For example, his famous demolition of the Corpus Hermeticum, a body of ancient wisdom ascribed to the ancient Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus, proved that the Corpus was a late pseudepigraphon—not, as supposedly credulous Catholics believed, an authentic pagan witness to the Christian religion. But Casaubon did not simply want to score points against Catholics; he wanted to defend the honor and uniqueness of the Hebrew prophets.
More polemical yet was Casaubon’s attack on Catholic accounts of the early Church. Church history was not his specialty, yet, under the auspices of King James, Casaubon decided to take on the Annales Ecclesiastici, a massive history written by Cardinal Cesare Baronio to refute Protestant narratives of the Church’s decline.
Grafton and Weinberg follow Casaubon into the labyrinths of biblical chronology, Talmudic learning, and Hebrew antiquities, marking the sources and methods of Casaubon’s polemic. He moves from pedantic criticisms—“small-arms fire, noisy if somewhat inaccurate”—to sustained attacks on Baronio’s ignorance of all things Hebraic, occasions on which Casaubon was provoked “to unlimber bigger guns.” What emerges is a portrait of a precise and energetic polemicist: a fighter. But, in light of his lifelong love of Judaica, he looks more like a man defending his patria than a hired gun in a foreign land.
Grafton and Weinberg explain Casaubon’s zeal in terms of academic territorialism, as though his mission were to impugn Baronio’s credentials as a chronologist. His aim was more fundamental. It was not to show merely that Baronio was wrong on the facts; it was rather to show, through the creation of a massive, cumulative argument, why the facts themselves matter at all. Christian dogma, Casaubon understood, corresponds to a historical reality, or it corresponds to nothing at all. Believing the former, he demonstrated in his scholarship a pious concern for the integrity of the tradition he inherited.
Casaubon’s piety is even more evident in his leisurely researches. In a particularly astute section, Grafton and Weinberg survey a wide variety of annotations in Jewish prayer books he owned. Here Casaubon the critic is nowhere to be found. Instead, one finds the notes and comments of an appreciative and diligent student. He was, it seems, on a “spiritual quest, which knew no denominational boundaries.” In copying out Hebrew prayers and in wanting to learn from Jews how to pray, he diverged from fellow Christian Hebraists. He took tentative steps across the line separating erudition that furnishes the mind from knowledge that edifies and instructs the heart.
This pious deviation, though, is only surprising given the very restricted understanding of scholarship prevalent today. As good historians, Grafton and Weinberg allow piety a sympathetic hearing. They are not hostile or insensitive to the religious motivations of early-modern scholarship. The problem is that they are not sufficiently interested in it.
Having assumed the real presence of piety, they move on to what excites them: the little puzzles presented by Casaubon’s messy forays into Hebraic studies. They deliver handsomely on promises to “master the code of his quotations” and “rediscover the arguments” that animated Casaubon and his contemporaries. Why these quotations and arguments might still matter today, they do not consider. They shed light on a process they seem to believe no longer yields a product, a form of scholarship that no longer has any content, a rhetoric now emptied of reality.
There is more to be done. Having learned from their work, we must still explore the religious interests and concerns that motivated the vast scholarly enterprises of the early-modern period. As Ann Blair has shown in Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, Renaissance scholars obeyed an “info-lust” that was rooted in efforts undertaken in the thirteenth century to place existing knowledge at the service of theology and biblical exegesis. What’s more, the background of an earlier “traumatic loss of ancient learning” spurred early-modern figures to create vast compendia of learning designed to conserve knowledge and insure Western culture against the ravages of time, chaos, and barbarity.
The drive to gain knowledge and the dread of losing it are, of course, complementary. Both run like crimson threads through Western intellectual history. Augustine set things on a fateful course when he argued that one could use profane learning as the Israelites “plundered the Egyptians.” Centuries on, as Blair notes, Hugh of St. Victor urged his Bible students to “learn everything” and “hold no learning in contempt,” for “nothing is superfluous.” One can detect a similar sentiment, albeit one framed by varied motivations, in the creation of reference works ranging from the dictionaries and commonplace books of the Renaissance to the renowned Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert.
The drive to know is so obvious, so fundamental to the long and complex history of Western scholarship, that it is difficult to take sufficient notice of it. At one level, it must be understood as a basic human response to the world. “All men,” said Aristotle, “desire to know.” But in the case of the chain of scholars stretching from Augustine to Casaubon and beyond, the drive to know must also be understood in terms of Europe’s particular history.
As Rémi Brague has argued in his remarkable book, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, Europe’s roots lie in an understanding of itself as a Roman culture that had to ennoble itself by becoming Greek, and as a Christian civilization that was built on an older, Jewish one. Thus, the drive to know among medievals did not manifest the confident subjectivity of the ancient Greeks or the cultural imperialism of the Arabs. It was rather the animating force in a project that was self-consciously secondary and derivative from the start.
In this connection, Brague adduces a fascinating “massive social fact.” For scholars in other cultures (for example, Chinese or Arab), erudition consists in mastery of one’s own culture, but, historically, “European elites have been selected according to their capacity to assimilate ancient languages.” European culture is characterized by a distinctive ideal: a kind of cultural humility captured nicely by the apostle Paul’s rhetorical question, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
Just as Paul confined his teaching to the message of the cross, a message that he had received, Christian scholars worked to preserve the integrity and intelligibility of the tradition that was handed on to them in the Scriptures and articulated in their creeds. Scholarship for Casaubon and his contemporaries was at once an expression of filial piety and a defense of a beloved spiritual patrimony.
Casaubon the classicist is worth remembering, and his love for the “holy tongue” doubly so. To recognize this love is to bring the pious underpinnings of Western scholarship into view; it is to understand how the pain of scholarly labor coincides with the delight of return to one’s spiritual source.
Sensitive to the pathos of this experience, Grafton and Weinberg include a passage on the book of Job from Casaubon’s diary. In the faith and trials of a real, historical Job one finds “sweet food for the soul” and a “divine example of all the virtues.” Meditating on this fact, he is moved to prayer: “I beseech you, great God, as a suppliant, that reading this may bring me as much utility as it does pious pleasure.” In this instance, the scholar does not see only with a critical eye; he does not evaluate merely by the fluorescent light of expertise. Rather, he lifts his head from the page to pause and pray, expressing the delight in truth that only the suppliant knows.
Michael C. Legaspi teaches philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.