Repertory of Conjectures.

Laudator Temporis Acti posted this amusing passage from R.D. Dawe’s Repertory of Conjectures on Aeschylus (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1965):

One reason why so much endeavour is spent on conjectural emendation is because it is surrounded by an aura artificially created by its own practitioners. Those who think that it constitutes the crown and summit of all scholarship have only to glance in the following pages to see what drunken angles that crown can assume.

I enjoyed it but wasn’t planning to post it myself; it made me curious, however, so I tried Google Books and discovered the preview included the entire introduction, which is well worth your time. He starts by quoting Wecklein (at length, in Latin), whose Appendix conjecturas minus probabiles continens is his precursor in listing worthless conjectures for textual emendation, and continues:

I mention the prospective editor. The earth does not of course groan beneath the weight of those who will greet the publication of this book as removing the last obstacle between themselves and a fresh (i.e. Wilamowitz rehashed) edition of Aeschylus. But the text of this author is so very problematic that it is difficult to discuss any aspect of his art for long without being compelled to touch on textual problems; and it is my hope that this book may shorten by weeks or even months the preliminary labours of a wider circle of scholars, those who are dedicated to advancing our understanding of Aeschylus in whatever way most attracts their interest.

The Introduction to a work of reference is not a usual place for a man to disclose to the public the indignant ruminations of his spirit. But it is not possible to compile a Repertory of this kind without becoming a prey to sombre reflections, which I now put briefly before the reader, in the belief that what I have to say may be seen, if once the work is done, to apply mutatis mutandis to the criticism of many other classical authors.

The ages of Aeschylean scholarship roll on in Hesiodic progression. Wecklein may have lived in an age of heroes, and looked back to one of gold. But we live seventy years after, and the quality of conjecture offered on Aeschylus in those seventy years is not such as to encourage the thought that of all nature’s miracles, man is the finest. This is no cause for surprise: the quantity of Aeschylus available for emendation remains almost constant, and the law of diminishing returns is bound to operate in its fullest severity when a few thousand lines of poetry have been studied word for word, letter for letter, accent for accent, for hundreds of years by acute minds in almost every civilised country in the world.

He goes on in this vein — we get the “One reason” passage quoted above — and then he complains about the “false ascription of conjectures”:

I do not propose to catalogue here all the false ascriptions, which would take up an unwarranted amount of space, but, prompted by the remark of a reviewer of a new edition of Ovid’s Amores, who commented on the notable coincidence whereby the only living scholars cited by the editor in his apparatus as the authors of conjectures all happened to live within a mile or two of each other in Cambridge, I quote only those places where Murray wrongly believed himself or one of his Oxford friends to be the author of a conjecture. […] To find over thirty of these, in a text which is not extravagant in admitting conjectures, suggests that the total proportion of false ascriptions will be so huge as to render the apparatus as useless from this point of view as it is in its presentation of manuscript readings.

I wish expressly to repeat that this is nothing unusual. Wecklein recorded that his experience was the same […]

Now it may be objected that it is of no particular importance who made a conjecture: all that matters is whether or not it is a good one. Not only would I agree with this, but I would strongly urge that we ought to observe in practice the logical consequences of this argument. If it should prove to be the general experience that a large number of conjectures are being wrongly ascribed, why not suppress altogether the names which accompany them? When we read a History of Greece, we do not expect to be constantly told who first proposed this dating or that interpretation. […]

I was particularly smitten with his final paragraph:

The commemoration of benefactors and the defiance of the laws of probability are fairly harmless forms of indulgence. But one might have hoped that by now classical scholarship would have dissociated itself from irrelevant nationalism. It is however an easily verifiable principle of the practice of textual criticism that those who were fortunate enough to be born in the same country as yourself have indisputably greater claims on your attention than those who live on the wrong side of the Channel, the Rhine, or the Alps. Porson, the English myth, enjoys much greater favour with my own fellow-countrymen than he does with the French or Germans. Desrousseaux suddenly springs into prominence in Sophoclean studies—in France. And in Germany … but it would be odious to go on. It is enough to have drawn attention to the fact superabundantly documented in the following pages, that the theory and practice of textual criticism each have a set of laws of their own. It is perhaps time that both sets of laws were revised, and brought into harmony with each other.

As someone who has lived all over the world, I have never had much attraction to the idea of nationalism, but the older I get the more I see how stupid and destructive it is, and not just in the realm of classical scholarship. (Also, I wish today’s scholars felt freer to write in that bellicose vein.)

Incidentally, I tried to locate a fully readable copy of Wecklein — which shouldn’t have been hard for a book from the 1880s — but it was surprisingly difficult. I finally found this Hathi Trust copy of all nine volumes of Aeschyli Fabulae cum lectionibus et scholiis Codicis Medicei et in Agamemnonem Codicis Florentini ab Hieronymo Vitelli denuo collatis edidit N. Wecklein, but Vol. 1 is lacking the introduction quoted by Dawe (“In edendis Aeschyli fabulis…”)! Not despairing, I continued my search, and turned up this Google Books copy of Vol. 1, which does have the intro… but the pages are wretchedly out of order! And I still can’t for the life of me find that “Appendix conjecturas minus probabiles continens.” [Update: it’s here. Thanks, Stephen Rowland!] The world is bleak, my friends (as Aeschylus knew full well).


  1. Onlinebooks is my starting point for such searches. Wecklein is not in their curated lists but the extended shelves are a convenient union of hathi, Google, etc.

  2. A useful site! But a search turned up only the HathiTrust version I linked above.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Although you would have hoped that classical scholars would be less prone to this than mere medics or biologists or whatever, I wonder if this phenomenon is at least partly due to scholars being disinclined to wade through works in Foreign Languages, rather than being due to nationalism as such.

    (I strongly suspect that a certain school’s approach to Gur subclassification owes a great deal of its distinctive character to the relevant scholars being unable to read French.)

  4. But they all wrote their classical discussions in Latin back in them days! “In edendis Aeschyli fabulis…”

  5. But your more general point of course holds.

  6. Stephen Rowland says

    This is Wecklein’s edition: the introduction; the “Appendix conjecturas minus probabiles continens”.

  7. Wow, thanks very much indeed!

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    The title of Dawe’s work strikes me as kind of an odd use of the English word “repertory” although one can easily understand it as a semantic extension of the more typical uses. But perhaps the explanation is that late Latin “reportorium” had a wider semantic scope than the Engish word taken from it but a classicist was unusually likely to be oblivious to that narrower scope of the English word?

  9. Michael Hendry says

    For those who do not already know it, here is A. E. Housman on patriotism in textual criticism, from his lecture “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism” (1921). I can’t resist quoting the whole paragraph, though only the last 40% or so is on patriotism:

    “Secondly, it is only a minority of those who engage in this study who are sincerely bent upon the discovery of truth. We all know that the discovery of truth is seldom the sole object of political writers; and the world believes, justly or unjustly, that it is not always the sole object of theologians: but the amount of sub-conscious dishonesty which pervades the textual criticism of the Greek and Latin classics is little suspected except by those who have had occasion to analyse it. People come upon this field bringing with them prepossessions and preferences; they are not willing to look all facts in the face, nor to draw the most probable conclusion unless it is also the most agreeable conclusion. Most men are rather stupid, and most of those who are not stupid are, consequently, rather vain; and it hardly possible to step aside from the pursuit of truth without falling a victim either to your stupidity or else to your vanity. Stupidity will then attach you to received opinions, and you will stick in the mud; or vanity will set you hunting for novelty, and you will find mare’s-nests. Added to these snares and hindrances there are the various forms of partisanship: sectarianism, which handcuffs you to your own school and teachers and associates, and patriotism, which handcuffs you to your own country. Patriotism has a great name as a virtue, and in civic matters, at the present stage of the world’s history, it possibly still does more good than harm; but in the sphere of intellect it is an unmitigated nuisance. I do not know which cuts the worse figure: a German scholar encouraging his countrymen to believe that ‘wir Deutsche’ have nothing to learn from foreigners, or an Englishman demonstrating the unity of Homer by sneers at ‘Teutonic professors,’ who are supposed by his audience to have goggle eyes behind large spectacles, and ragged moustaches saturated in lager beer, and consequently to be incapable of forming literary judgments.”

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    That Housman rant is great, although it overlooks the phenomenon of scholarly “un-patriotism” or “over-cosmopolitanism” or whatever you want to call it, whereby generations of Anglophone academics became dupes and shills for Continental charlatans ranging from Freud to Derrida for reasons that had at least something to do with their foreignness. Perhaps that had not reached the classics faculties, in particular, by 1921? Theosophy was already a big thing in Anglophone societies back in Housman’s lifetime but I suppose excessively uncritical open-mindedness about “non-Western” (or, even better, “indigenous”) perspectives had perhaps not yet reached the professoriate?

    EDITED TO ADD: In response to David E.’s point, whoever was clever enough to be the first/primary translator of such charlatans into English ended up having a lot of power/control about how they were received and understood in Anglophone academia. And this is a point independent of charlatanry — it is not necessary to think Nietzsche a charlatan to be concerned about the possibility that exposure to Nietzsche only via Walter Kaufmann’s translations among 90%+ of Americans who have any familiarity at all with Nietzsche may have been a high-risk approach.

  11. That Housman rant is great

    Seconded, and I’m surprised Dawe didn’t cite it.

  12. Stu Clayton says

    The WiPe article on him contains yet more unnerving tales. I doubt you can experience such bitchiness nowadays outside of gay bars, and possibly even inside them.

    # Many colleagues were unnerved by Housman’s scathing attacks on those he thought guilty of shoddy scholarship.[6] In his paper “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism” (1921) he wrote: “A textual critic engaged upon his business is not at all like Newton investigating the motion of the planets: he is much more like a dog hunting for fleas”. He declared many of his contemporary scholars to be stupid, lazy, vain, or all three, saying: “Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders, and brains, not pudding, in your head”.[2][17]

    His younger colleague A. S. F. Gow quoted examples of these attacks, noting that they “were often savage in the extreme”.[18] Gow also related how Housman intimidated students, sometimes reducing the women to tears. According to Gow, Housman could never remember the names of female students, maintaining that “had he burdened his memory by the distinction between Miss Jones and Miss Robinson, he might have forgotten that between the second and fourth declension”. Among the more notable students at his Cambridge lectures was Enoch Powell,[19] one of whose own Classical emendations was later complimented by Housman.[20]

    In his private life Housman enjoyed country walks, gastronomy, air travel and making frequent visits to France, where he read “books which were banned in Britain as pornographic”[21] but he struck A. C. Benson, a fellow don, as being “descended from a long line of maiden aunts”.[22] #

  13. The Introduction to a work of reference is not a usual place for a man to disclose to the public the indignant ruminations of his spirit.

    Reminded me the preface to Русская транскрипция для языков зарубежного Востока (“Russian transcription of languages of the foreign East” – note how the Orient also includes the Soviet Orient). Russian Wikipedia relies on this book for its Cyrillic transliterations, so I took a look, and it starts:

    Необходимость установления единой русской транскрипции, обязательной для всех советских востоковедческих изданий, ни у кого сейчас , по-видимому, не вызывает сомнений. Вряд ли можно мириться дальше с таким положением, когда авторы различных работ по востоковедению, составители словарей и учебных руководств по языкам зарубежного Востока каждый раз заново устанавливают кажущуюся им лучшей русскую транскрипцию для того или другого восточного языка .

    В результате подобной практики у нас появляются такие издания, как, например « Экспортно-импортный словарь»¹ и «Краткий русско-китайский и китайско-русский внешнеторговый словарь»², в которых одни и те же китайские наименования товаров в русской транскрипции переданы различно. Например, в словаре П.В.Шелекасова: «котел» – ци⁴го¹ , «кран подъемный» – ци³-чжун⁴-цзи¹, «компрессор» – я¹-ци⁴-цзи¹, «кукуруза» – юй⁴-ми³, а в «Экспортно-импортном словаре» Шелекасова соответственно: ттьи го ттидджундьи, я-ттьидьи, июймии и др. Оба словаря содержат термины торговли, изданы Внешторгиздатом, выпущены в одном и том же году, однако допускают большой транскрипционный разнобой. Такой же разнобой обнаруживается в изданных у нас урду-русском³ и хинди-русском⁴ словарях.


    Вряд ли можно мириться … В результате подобной практики у нас появляются такие издания, …. are the classics of Soviet noble indignation:) It made me think that I never ever enoucnter this tone in English prefaces, and that the latter fact is a good thing.

  14. Lars Mathiesen says

    Most men are rather stupid, and most of those who are not stupid are, consequently, rather vain:

    present company excepted?

  15. Michael Hendry says

    The whole Housman lecture is well worth reading, and can be found here: There are plenty more bits of nasty wit spread through his reviews. Most don’t work outside of their often-recondite contexts, but some do, e.g. “Books such as the one under review are little better than interruptions to our studies.” I believe there was Supreme Court justice who was said to be one of the greatest wits ever to write in English, but you had to be a lawyer to get his jokes. Housman is rather like that: you have to be a classicist to get most of his.

    Returning to Dawe’s repertory, I’ve been trying for 30+ years to find a quotation closely connected with it. Unless I imagined it, either Dawe or another grouchy textual critic interested in Aeschylus (Hugh Lloyd-Jones? M. L. West?) wrote (perhaps in a review) that Dawe’s repertory showed that only 100 scholars had ever successfully emended Aeschylus. I believe ‘success’ was defined as having at least one of your emendations printed in the text (not just the apparatus criticus) of an edition edited by someone else. There may have been some requirement that it be an edition in a standard series: Oxford Classical Text, Teubner, Budé . . . these days, a Loeb would presumably count, since their standards have risen enormously in the last half-century.

    Anyway, what I distinctly remember is that the author, after calculating the total emendators at exactly 100, added “99 Europeans and 1 American – no women, I’m afraid”. If true, all three numbers have undoubtedly increased, with more categories added. I believe the third-to-last editor of the Persians was a New Zealander, though he may have been the kind of conservative editor/commenter who ventures no emendations himself. I imagine there are at least 3-4 Americans now, and surely at least 1-2 women. (If Loebs count, I’m one of the Americans, having published my least interesting emendation ever – purely orthographic – on the Eumenides and convinced the latest Loeb editor.)

    I still hope to track down the quotation some day. It’s not at all the sort of thing I would have imagined: all three numbers were way lower than I would have guessed.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Enoch Powell was stupid in a way that only a very clever person can be.

    He actually edited the Oxford Classical Text edition of Thucydides; I’ve got a copy somewhere.

    WP credits him with a work called Cyfreithiau Hywel Dda Yn Ol Llyfr Blegywryd “The Laws of Hywel Dda according to the Book of Blegywryd.”

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    I know an American, rather older than myself, who studied classics as an undergraduate back in the Sixties and then did a year or so of graduate study in the U.K., I believe at the University of Edinburgh. At some point Powell stopped by the campus to deliver a guest lecture on a classics topic with no obvious relevance (and no parallels drawn by the lecturer) to any current political controversy, much less the various controversies that Powell was at the time in the newspapers for inveighing about. My friend said the lecture was very scholarly and it was bizarre-seeming that the fellow giving it also had the practical skills necessary to secure election and re-election to the national legislature in a modern country where the median voter had no knowledge of the learned languages.

  18. Enoch Powell was stupid in a way that only a very clever person can be.

    Indeed. That’s why the Tory party never trusted him — they prefer their leaders clever only in stupid ways. Although what’s been going on these past few years defies all metrics of stupidity. Boris read Literae Humaniores. Did he contribute any conjectures on Aeschylus?

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Did he contribute any conjectures on Aeschylus?

    Nothing about Alexander B de P suggests that he has any love whatsoever for disinterested scholarship of any kind. Such pathological self-absorption precludes any effective interest in anything not of immediate utility.*

    His occasional spaffings around classical themes confirm rather than refute this view. He is intellectually as well as morally fraudulent.

    * The depraved Tory régime in general actually approves of this attitude, of course; as an ideological matter, they believe that the sole legitimate purpose of intellectual endeavour of any kind is to Make More Money. All else is frippery, probably communist, and certainly Woke.

  20. Long ago, in one of my studious phases, I read and liked Housman’s poem “Terence, this is stupid stuff.” Without knowing what I was getting into, I chose to write my senior honors paper on Housman. It got me a scholarship for university. With (Shropshire-imagined?) nostalgia, I got out my dusty copies, including his lectures, Gow’s “Sketch,” and John Carter’s edition of Selected Prose. From Housman’s 1930 preface:

    “The first volume of the edition of Manilius now completed was published in 1903….All were produced at my own expense…, but this unscrupulous artifice did not overcome the natural disrelish of mankind for the combination of a tedious author with an odious editor. [Vol. 1, 400 copies, took 23 years to sell out]…and the reason why it took no longer is that it found purchasers among the unlearned, who had heard that it contained a scurrilous preface and hoped to extract from it a low enjoyment.”

  21. …the unlearned, who had heard that it contained a scurrilous preface and hoped to extract from it a low enjoyment.

    Oh, yes, indeed.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    I first read A Shropshire Lad during a very long wait during the preparations before a wedding, when it was the only thing at hand that looked at all readable in the room where I chanced to be stuck for the duration.

    Most of it struck me as competent but not my sort of thing at all; with one startling exception: the truly disturbing “The Immortal Part.”

  23. Also, I wish today’s scholars felt freer to write in that bellicose vein.

    Of course, such scholars have not vanished altogether; one (alas, recently deceased) was the excellent and notoriously feisty Richard Taruskin. Maria Sonevytsky provides a touching memorial essay in which she foregrounds some of his sallies (“our failure to achieve omniscience is not our license to embrace ignorance”; “Say this much for nationalism: its cultural salvage missions, however perversely motivated, can yield up fascinating flotsam”) and provides this Hattic tidbit:

    Taruskin’s journey to becoming a “self-appointed missionary” for Russian music was, in his own words, “as calculated and self-interested” as that of his role model and predecessor, the musicologist Gerald Abraham. And like Abraham, his passionate commitment to the topic was sincere, and personal to boot, motivated by his family’s story of emigration from the territories of the former Russian Empire. Born in Queens, New York, to Jewish parents who spoke two varieties of Yiddish (“Litvak” from Latvia and “Galitsyaner” from Ukraine), the young Taruskin became drawn to the Russian language, the “forbidden tongue” that symbolized “hostile power” to his parents, who considered it the “tsar’s language” (On Russian Music, 3).

    I’ve greatly enjoyed what I’ve read of his, and I really need to read more.

  24. I wish today’s scholars felt freer to write in that bellicose vein.

    I once commentted here how much I enjoy Vovin’s writing on Altaic for that reason.

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    “I am happy to report that the bibliographical references in the footnotes are cited with an amazingly high accuracy. But having said this, I regret to have to add that I have reported everything that I can honestly find on the credit side of the ledger. On the negative side, in the time available, I cannot even list all the errors, misunderstandings, and false conclusions. I can only give some samples of big errors and types of mistakes.”

    “The sea into which Nikdime’s troops were pushed is Lake Van, not the Mediterranean 600 miles to the west. Wrong century, wrong country, wrong king, wrong sea. ”

    “As every cuneiformist has had to learn for himself by sad experience, Hommel was [already] senile by 1890, [Chuckles] and his condition had certainly not improved perceptibly by 1920. ”

  26. Thanks to the linked piece, I learnt that Velikovsky published his groundbreaking ideas phantasies already in the 50s… I first came across them in the 80s, when they were presented as new and exciting in a German popular science magazine.

  27. Wrong century, wrong country, wrong king, wrong sea.

    that’s the best since “i am not me, and the horse is not mine”!

  28. I first came across Velikovsky in the 1970s when reading Asimov’s debunkings as a kid.

  29. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I don’t even think I needed Asimov. “The solar system is full of carbon hydrides.” True. “Carbohydrates are nutritious.” True. “Manna fell from space.” Close book. For some reason I get a mental image of the text and illustrations similar to a Perry Rhodan pulp.

  30. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I first heard of Velikovsky in about 1968 from a PhD student at Berkeley whose wife was an ancient historian. Their combined opinion after talking with various people was that the chemists thought that the chemistry was, of course, rubbish, whereas the ancient history looked interesting; on the other hand the ancient historians thought that the ancient history was, of course, rubbish, whereas the chemistry looked interesting

  31. I just remember that when I was four I wanted to visit the room in which Carl Sagan discussed and debunked Velikovsky on Cosmos—because it had such cool huge models of the planets on display there.

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