All Scholars

WOLF, Friedrich August

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  • Date of Birth: February 15, 1759
  • Born City: Hainrode
  • Born State/Country: Germany
  • Parents: A schoolmaster and church organist & wife
  • Date of Death: August 8, 1824
  • Death City: Marseille
  • Death State/Country: France
  • Education:

    Study at Göttingen, 1777-9.

  • Professional Experience:

    Teacher, Ilfeld & rector Osterode, 1779-83; ordinarius philosophy and pedagogics, Halle, 1783-4; professor eloquentiae et poeseos, 1784-1806; external member, Berliner Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1799; member, 1808; hon. Member, 1812; inspector of curriculum revision, Königlich Joachimsthalsches Gymnasium, Berlin, 1808-10; helped found Berlin university, 1809-10. 

  • Publications:


    Homeri Opera omnia ex recensione F. A. Wolfii. Tomus prior. Second title: Prolegomena ad Homerum sive de operum Homericorum prisca et genuina forma variisque mutationibus et probabili ratione emendandi... Vol. I (all published). (Halle, 1795)Prolegomena zu Homer, ins Deutsche übertragen von H. Muchau. Mit einem Vorwort über die Homerische Frage und die wissenschaftlichen Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen in Troja und Leukas-lthaka (Leipzig, 1908; English translation Prolegomena to Homer 1795, translated with Introduction and Notes by A. Grafton, G.W. Most, and J.E.G. Zetzel (Princeton, 1985); Vermischte Schriften und Aufsätze in lateinischer und deutscher Sprache (Halle, 1802); Museum der Alterthums-Wissenschaft, ed. with P. Buttmann, two vols. (Berlin, 1807-08); Vol. 1:3-145 = Darstellung der Alterthums-Wissenschaft nach Begriff, Umfang, Zweck und Werth, with a postscript by Johannes Irmscher (Berlin (DDR), 1985; Weinheim, 1986); Literarische Analekten, vorzüglich für alte Literatur und Kunst, deren Geschichte und Methodik, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1816-20); Vorlesungen über die Alterthumswissenschaft, ed. J. D. Gurtler, six vols. (Leipzig, 1831-1839); Darstellung der Alterthumswissenschaft nebst einer Auswahl seiner Kleinen Schriften und literarischen Zugaben zu dessen Vorlesungen über die Alterthumswissenschaft, ed. S.F.W. Hoffmann (Leipzig, 1833); Über Erziehung, Schule, Universität (“Consilia Scholastica”). Aus Wolfs literarischem Nachlasse zusammengestellt von W. Körte (Quedlinburg and Leipzig, 1835); Kleine Schriften in lateinischer und deutscher Sprache, ed. G. Bernhardy, 2 vols. (Halle, 1869).

  • Notes:

    Friedrich August Wolf is the founder of Altertumswissenschaft, the scientific study of classical antiquity. The work of the Humanists had laid the foundations; in many cases only the gathering of the material had yet to be done. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were remarkable for industry, erudition, and the zeal for collecting information; important critics form a minority. Wolf, in his Literarische Analekten (1816-20), expressly chose one of the greatest of them, Richard Bentley (1662-1742), as his model. Like Bentley, Wolf realized the magnitude of the tasks that scholarship must assume, was a master of historical criticism, and knew how to discern the genuine transmission of a text. Like him, Wolf was an autodidact who possessed genius and literary gifts; like him, he was forever engaged in unedifying quarrels with his colleagues. But Wolf transcended Bentley’s narrow rationalism by a combination of factual historical proof and intuitive penetration.

    In his scholarly work and in his pedagogical influence alike, Wolf embodied the transition from the aesthetic estimation of antiquity (the so-called neo-Humanism) to historical science (the so-called Positivism). He was likewise a symbol of the transition from the men of universal minds (Winckelmann, Lessing, Herder, Goethe) to the pure philologists (Boeckh, Bekker, Hermann, K. O. Muller, Lachmann). He himself was both; he expanded the frontiers of Altertumswissenschaft. Wolf’s work was respected and discussed by the leading minds of his time—Wieland, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Humboldt, Niebuhr, Friedrich Schlegel.

    Wolf superseded the encyclopedism of the Baroque polymaths by means of his historical research; he superseded the hitherto standard practice of merely passing on empirical data by employing his principle of personal critical investigation and the communication of this principle to his fellow researchers. He founded the philological seminar, with which he gave Altertumswissenschaft its place as an independent discipline. In contrast to the Göttingen seminar of J. M. Gesner (1691-1761) and C.G. Heyne (1729-1812), his seminar completed the separation of the teacher’s training from that of the preacher. With Wolf, philology ceased to be an ancillary discipline to the Bible and the Corpus Juris. The science of classical antiquity had to find an independent path; Wolf was convinced—and in his Darstellung (see below) gave reasons for his belief—that it was capable of doing so. Niebuhr (1776-1831), with justice, called him “the eponymous hero for the whole race of philologists.”

    His early years, up to his call to Halle, are described by Wolf himself in an Entwurf einer Selbstbiographie. He was born on 15 February 1759 at Hainrode (in the province of Hohenstein), not far from Nordhausen. By the end of his sixth year he already knew “much Latin and French, also some Greek.” Although he profited from his teachers’ attention, at the age of eleven he conceived the plan of giving himself further training by private study of books. On 8 April 1777, he matriculated at Göttingen as studiosus philologiae, to the astonishment of Heyne and the Prorector E.G. Baldinger(1738-1804); they tried to dissuade him on the grounds that this was no way to make a living. In the latter half of 1778 he read through Homer (whom he had already read) in about four months and first began to notice unevennesses in Homer’s tone and language. Next came eager study of Plato, which produced an edition of the Symposium (Leipzig, 1782) with explanatory notes “in German and not in the old-fashioned dress” (i.e., in Latin). A few years later he was a teacher in Ilfeld and then a rector in Osterode. On 3 April 1783 Wolf received a call to Halle “as Prof. Ord. Philos, and spec(ialiter) Paedagogices.” He entered on his duties in August of the same year, and in 1784, at his own request, he was released from the professorship of pedagogy and given the professorship “for Eloquence and Poesy.” As Weitz put it (1805), Wolf “founded a fifth faculty: the Philological Faculty.” The next twenty-three years in Halle were the happiest and most productive of his life, both for himself and for others.

    In the years 1783-1784 Wolf published an edition of Hesiod’s Theogony “with a sort of commentary.” This was the first and only time that he “combined a course of lectures with literary work.” In the “Praefatio” to this edition he first sketched out the methods that he later followed in the Prolegomena ad Homerum. Further publications followed, among them editions of the Odyssey (1784) and the Iliad (1785), Lucian (1786 and 1791), selected Greek dramas (1787), and Demosthenes (1789). As a “guide for academic lectures” Wolf edited Antiquitäten von Griechenland (1787) and wrote a Geschichte der römischen Literatur (1787). He regarded himself entirely as a teacher; he decidedly preferred to exert his influence by the spoken word (“ .. . since I prefer teaching to writing and, with Callimachus, look upon a big book as a big evil”— letter of 9 December 1807). Goethe complained that Wolf’s finest publications “echo off the walls of the lecture room and die away” (letter to Wolf, 28 November 1806).

    In this period of productive teaching Wolf produced Homeri opera omnia ex recensione F. A. Wolfii, Tomus Prior; (second titleProlegomena ad Homerum sive de operum Homericorum prisca et genuina forma variisque mutationibus et probabili ratione emendandi, Vol. I [no more appeared], Halle, 1795)—the book that made him famous overnight.

    What Wolf said in this work was not completely new. From the point of view of French rationalism, François Hédelin, Abbé d’ Aubignac, (1604-76),  in his Conjectures académiques ou Dissertation sur l’Iliade (1715), had already concluded from contradictions in the Homeric epics that these works were without merit or coherence and therefore that they had been put together out of numerous ancient poems. In 1735 Thomas Blackwell (1701-57) in London published his Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer, in which he viewed Homer as an improvising rhapsode whose main contribution was to fill in the gaps in the works that he recited from memory. Robert Wood (ca. 1717-71), in his Essay on the Original Genius of Homer (London, 1767) tested the trustworthiness of the Homeric epics by comparing them with the realities of geography and ethnography. Thus,  Wolf s idea that the Iliad and Odyssey were not the work of one poet but had later been constructed, more or less skillfully, out of separate songs, was common in his day. Wolf s real accomplishment lay in the positive side of his criticism: his aim was, by careful consideration of all the available evidence, to throw light on the origin of the “Homer” that has been transmitted to us, to replace formal and rationalistic evidence with historical evidence. Wolf was not simply refining scholarly techniques; in philology he began the era of historical thinking. As for Homer, Wolf maintains that the Homeric age was without writing; that the Iliad and Odysseywere derived from individual songs by various authors; that they had not been assembled into the works that we possess until the days of Peisistratus; and that philology could at best only reconstruct the vulgate text of late antiquity, which had been based on the Alexandrian recensions. The Prolegomena contain a wealth of detailed information and observations on particular points, with which Wolf again and again sought to support his conclusions. He was aware that the attempt to reconstruct a part of the distant past was possible only through empathy, intuition, and divination, but at the same time he knew that it could be persuasively communicated only through scientific proof. Wolf s outstanding importance in Homeric criticism lies in the fact that he possessed at once scholarly perspicacity and intuitive genius. He had seen that in historical research neither a single quotation nor wishful thinking carried any weight; rather, all depended on the coherence of the whole and the mutual interconnection of all the evidence and arguments. Obliged to choose between classicism (the unity of Homer) and the principles of historical research (multiplicity of authorship), Wolf, albeit with hesitation, chose the latter and thereby set the philology of succeeding generations on its course.

    When on 17 October 1806 the University of Halle was closed by Napoleon, Wolf, at Goethe’s suggestion, used his leisure to commit to writing a course of lectures that he had frequently given, the “Encyclopaedia philologica.” The result was his Darstellung der Altertumswissenschaft, which begins with a dedication to Goethe and concludes with a quotation from Jean Paul. In both passages the author expresses his devotion to an article in the creed of German neo-Humanism: that the Greeks were the supreme models for our imitation. In accordance with this is Wolf’s assertion (page 5) that in this work he wished “to elevate to the dignity of a well-ordered philosophical and historical science all that pertains to the complete understanding of learned antiquity.” Encyclopedism, idealism, and lofty aims here enter into the alliance that gave (German) classical philology its unique character. Wolf defines Altertumswissenschaft as the knowledge of all aspects of antiquity (language, literature, art, science, religion, customs, etc.) with a view to (a) understanding them and (b) comparing them with modern conditions. The sources are literature, art (monuments), and everyday technology (coins, inscriptions, etc.), which are to be regarded both as evidence of the life of the past and as aesthetically beautiful works. The beautiful confronts the useful as the Greek does the oriental. Wolf ends his work by affirming that “only the ancient Greeks possessed the qualities that go to make the foundations of a character perfected in genuine humanity” (132). For him Altertumswissenschaft takes the place of theology when he proclaims that all that is loftiest and most important for man is to be gained from the study of Greek antiquity. What “the epopteia or the contemplation of the most holy was for the priests at Eleusis” is for us “the knowledge of ancient humanity itself, a knowledge which proceeds from the contemplation, conditioned by the study of the ancient remains, of an organically developed, significant national education,” transmitted by the “knowledge of the beautiful and classical works in the genres in which the ancients worked” (124ff.). Wolf views Altertumswissenschaft as a religion, of which the “most holy” is nonetheless to be attained by the route of scholarly discipline, the component parts of which he not only describes in detail, aiming at completeness, but also connects to pedagogical and methodological problems. Thus antiquity, employed as the raw material for instruction, can be used for the training of patience and dogged industry, and the distracted mind of youth will learn to pull itself together (81). “The more distant and different from us a people is in customs and manner of thought—and the more difficult, consequently, the learning of a language is—the greater is the gain in acquiring new ideas and unwonted views of things” (95). This insight into the effect of contrast and the conviction that language is the medium by which one acquires knowledge of reality, which can be acquired in no other way (and from this it follows that for Wolf the study of the ancient languages was an end in itself), not only show that Wolf was a highly modern linguistic scholar, but also show, in connection with the religious aspect of the discipline which he proclaims, that the Humanists’ irrational feeling of superiority can be traced all the way back to Wolf’s manifesto.

    From 1807 until his death in 1824 Wolf lived in Berlin. He was involved in the founding of the University in that city (middle of October 1811), and, as a member of the Berlin Academy, he was affiliated with the University, though in a rather remote way. There was no return to a happy and productive teaching career. Wolf always felt himself to be a teacher rather than a writer; his domain was the investigative type of lecture; he challenged his listeners to think along with him; he shared not only his results but also the process by which he had arrived at them.

    Wolf’s influence was extraordinary; his conception of scholarship passed far beyond the boundaries of Altertumswissenschaft; he left a lasting impression on all humanistic disciplines throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Wolf had the good fortune to work during a period in which the intellectual and scholarly tendencies of the next hundred years were determined. This period was conditioned through and through by its involvement with the ancient world. Wolf freed Altertumswissenschaft from the polyhistoricism of the Baroque age; on the other hand, he placed it in the isolation of Winckelmann’s (1717-68) paganism; for him, Christianity and the Orient do not exist. Finally, Wolf helped to exalt the idea of pure scholarship and contempt for utilitarianism. Perhaps not all of this was new, perhaps predecessors and “midwives” of these thoughts can be named; but Wolf can still serve as a shining example to show that in the humanities one’s influence depends not so much on what one has said and written as on the fact that it is a personality that formulates a thought. His Prolegomena are the proof of this, for his contemporaries and successors felt it to be so when they credited him with the accomplishment even though they were able to enumerate his precursors.

  • Sources:


    List of Wolf’s writings in Ein Leben in Briefen (see below) 3:258-260; Friedrich August Wolf, “Entwurf einer Selbstbiographie,” in Ein Leben in Briefen (see below) 2:337-345.


    J.F.J. Arnolt,  Friedrich August Wolf in seinem Verhältnis zum Schulwesen und zur Pädagogik dargestellt, 2 vols. (Braunschweig, 1861-2); C. Bursian, Geschichte der Klassischen Philologie in Deutschland (Munich and Leipzig, 1883) 517-48; M. Fuhrmann, “Friedrich August Wolf,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 33 (1959) 187-236; A. Horstmann, “Die ‘Klassische Philologie’ zwischen Humanismus und Historismus. Friedrich August Wolf und die Begründung der modernen Altertumswissenschaft,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 1 (1978) 51-70; O. Kern, Friedrich August Wolf. Hallische Universitätsreden 25 (Halle, 1924); W. Körte, Leben und Studien Friedrich August Wolfs des Philologen (Essen, 1833); Mark Pattison, “F. A. Wolf,” Essays,2 vols. (Oxford, 1889) 1:337-414; F. Paulsen, Geschichte des gelehrten Unterrichts auf den deutschen Schulen und Universitäten vom Ausgang des Mittelalters bis zur Gegenwart, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1897) 2:208-27; R. Volkmann, Geschichte und Kritik der Wolfschen Prolegomena zu Homer. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Homerischen Frage (Leipzig, 1874); U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Geschichte der Philologie (Berlin, 1921; English translation by Alan Harris as History of Classical Scholarship, London, 1982). 


    Goethes Briefe an Friedrich August Wolf, ed. M. Bernays (Berlin, 1868); Friedrich August Wolf: Ein Leben in Briefen, ed. S. Reiter, 3 vols. (Stuttgart, 1935); Supplement volume 1, ed. R. Sellheim (Halle, 1956).

  • Author: Hermann Funke