Autobiography of Joseph Scaliger

The material was kindly presented by W. T. Polyakowsky and  E. Gabowitsch

From an original painting in the Senate Hall at Leyden.
From "Autobiography of Joseph Scaliger, with autobiographical selections from his letters, his testament and the funeral orations by Daniel Heinsius and Dominicus Baudius" translated by G. W. Robinson, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1927

I am a tenth child, the last survivor of five brothers. I was born at Agen, in Guienne, in the year 1540, on the fourth of August, fourteen hours after noon: so that my birthday is reckoned the fifth of August, civil time. My natal year is notable in all chronicles and annals for fierce summer heats, and a vintage burned up by the sun. Only where the grapes usually are sour, as in Switzerland and other cold countries, the wine ripened marvellous well.

I was baptized in the church of Saint Hilary. Gerard de Landas, gentleman, my godfather, disliking his own name, gave me instead that of Joseph Justus. The former name, being more familiar, has clung to me, while few, save my father, have addressed me by the latter, even since I reached manhood. When I was eleven years old, my father sent me to Bordeaux, in company with my brothers, Leonard and John Constant. There for three years I studied the rudiments of Latin 1. The plague then compelling my departure from the city, I returned to my father.

He, as long as I was with him (and indeed I was with him till his death), required from me daily a short declamation. I chose my own subject, seeking it in some narrative. This exercise, and the daily use of the pen, accustomed me to write in Latin. I was wont to take down my father's verses at his dictation. From the task I imbibed some savor of the art of poetry. So both in verse and in prose composition my progress was, for my age, satisfactory, perhaps to others, certainly to my father. Sometimes he would lead me aside and ask me whence I drew those ideas and embellishments. I answered him truly, that they were mine, and original. But he could not disguise from our friends his admiration for the first fruit of my intellect, the Tragedy of Oedipus. On this I had spent, so far as my youth permitted (for I was less than seventeen years old), all the ornaments of poetry and the resources of language 2. And indeed, unless memory deceives me, that product of my immaturity was such that even my old age need not rue it.

In my nineteenth year, after my father's death, I betook myself to Paris from love of Greek, believing that they who know not Greek, know nothing. After attending the learned lectures of Adrian Turnebus for two months, I found I was throwing all my work away, because I had no foundation. I secluded myself, therefore, in my study, and, shut in that grinding-mill, sought to learn, self-taught, what I had not been able to acquire from others. Beginning with a mere smattering of the Greek conjugations, I procured Homer, with a translation, and learned him all in twenty-one days. I learned grammar exclusively from observation of the relation of Homer's words to each other; indeed, I made my own grammar of the poetic dialect as I went along. I devoured all the other Greek poets within four months. I did not touch any of the orators or historians until I had mastered all the poets.

I had devoted two entire years to Greek literature, when an internal impulse hurried me away to the study of Hebrew. Although I did not even know a single letter of the Hebrew alphabet, I availed myself of no teacher other than myself in the study of the language.

During those three years and after, I amused myself by writing a good deal of Greek and Latin verse. I translated a quantity of Latin verse into Greek, aiming not merely to write Greek, but to write it as a native. For today many write Greek verses that are praised, but few write them with that felicity which one demands in the Greeks. We could have published our translations with a statement of the age at which each was written, as Politian did in Ins short Greek poems, which, for the most part, merited rather praise for youthful promise than publication by the mature Politian. But our unvarying dislike for self-advertisement restrained us from publishing our verses; though even now their issue would do us no dishonor. For I wrote them not to publish, but to indulge a lovely, mocking madness 3. I aver that it is not my fault, if some verses have appeared without my wish or command.

I have made many notes on authors both Greek and Latin, from which there might spring a vast progeny of Various Readings, Old Readings, Miscellanies, and other things of this sort, the sport of the self-advertising philologians of today. Not that I think this sort of writing useless, or reprove any writer for it. That would be foolish. But I prefer that others should publish such things, rather than I. Yet, in order that our  labors might bear us some fruit, we undertook the expounding and textual correction of entire authors. For we rightly Judged that we could do this without any suspicion of self-advertisement.

If, as we are well aware, our work on these authors has not satisfied learned readers, my excuse is the whole desultory tenor of ,my life, and the lack of that leisure which is the chief nutriment of studies 4. From the year 1563, when I became the companion of the noble Louis de Chastaigner de La Roche Pozay, even to this day, I recall no time that I have had free from travel or from anxiety. The malevolent may know that I have always lacked the leisure for study which they have had in superabundance for slander. It is a monstrous tiling that I have made many powerful enemies, not by private injury (for I am guiltless of anything that could offend an honorable mind), but through my ready desire to aid the cause of letters. I should be annoyed by the ingratitude displayed toward me, were it not evident that its motive force is rather spleen than critical judgment. Every day some exemplification of insanity, crime, or ignorance arises to defame me. It is my great comfort that hitherto every detainer has been characterized by one of these qualities, or even by all three at once; for it is reasonable to suppose that the qualities which they have censured in me are the exact opposites.

  1. From June, 1552, to July, 1555, at the College de Guienne. Interesting letters from the boys' tutors to Julius Caesar Scaliger are printed by Jules de Bourrousse de Laflore, Jules-Cesar de Lescale (Agen, 1860), pp. 33–42. The tutor for the last year, Laurens de Lamarque, gave the lads some readings in Aristotle, while the charges which he sends the father for books that he buys for them give some notion of their progress: “The Epistles of Ovid for Joseph, 20 sols;… the Sentences of Cicero, 6 sols; Epistolae ad Familiares, 16 sols; a Greek grammar, 6 sols; a Horace, 6 sols; … two volumes of Textor, 19 sols; Epistolae ad Atticum, 28 sols; a Virgil, 15 sols; Melanchthon's grammar, 9 sols; Caesar's Commentaries, 10 sols; … a Portuguese dictionary, 30 sols; the Psalms of David, 12 sols; … a Justin, 6 sols; a Valerius Maximus, 9 sols.”
  2. Verborum deleclum. Cf. Cicero, Brutus, 72, 253, verborum delectum originem esse eloquentiae.
  3. Horace, Cwmina, iii, 4, vv. 5 f.
  4. Scaliger makes the same excuse in a letter to Isaac Casaubon, May 7, 1594, where he calls leisure optimum studiorum coagulum. Epislolae (1628), p. 132.

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