Thursday, December 9, 2010

How a Jew Championed the Classics for Western Civilization

2011 marks the centennial anniversary of the Loeb Classical Library

by Linda Hedrick

James Loeb (1867-1933)

James Loeb wanted to share his love of the classics by making the works of ancient authors available to anyone interested in them, regardless of whether or not they had knowledge of Greek or Latin. 

One hundred years ago he arranged to publish these great works in collaboration with some of the most outstanding classicists of the time.  The books were published  in Greek or Latin with the facing pages in English translations.  They were small in size so that they could fit in a gentleman’s coat pocket.

According to Harvard University Press, he stated his reasons were:  “To make the beauty and learning, the philosophy and wit of the great writers of ancient Greece and Rome once more accessible by means of translations that are in themselves real pieces of literature, a thing to be read for the pure joy of it, and not dull transcripts of ideas that suggest in every line the existence of a finer original form from which the average reader is shut out, and to place side by side with these translations the best critical texts of the original works, is the task I have set myself."

Official Logo with Athena, goddess of Wisdom
enthroned with shield (with Loeb logo on it).
Nike, goddess of victory, stands in her hand holding out a wreath.
Derived from a Greek coin from Lampsakos, circa 297-282 BCE

As time has gone on, with greater understanding of the texts and changes in translation styles, older editions have been revised or replaced entirely.  New titles have been added and existing ones reprinted so the entire Loeb Classical Library is always available.  The series represents the canon of classical heritage spanning fourteen centuries of everything from epics and poetry to mathematics and geography. In 2001, HUP (Harvard University Press) began a similar project for Renaissance works in Latin.  The I Tatti Renaissance Library editions have blue covers.

In many of the older editions words that might have been deemed objectionable were replaced with euphemisms or were omitted.  According to the Harvard University Press website, the early edition of Catullus contained a sentence translated:  “Tis you I fear, you and your passions, so fatal to the young, both good and bad alike.”  The new, more accurately translated edition reads:  “Tis you I fear, you and your penis, so ready to molest good boys and bad alike.”  Sometimes offending words were printed, but in a language other than English, rendering it incomprehensible to anyone ignorant of that language.  It should surprise no one that the ancients were prurient and salacious.

An example of an updated edition.  In the earlier edition the final line was:
"I fear there is much you don't remember,  sir."
The real meaning was in a footnote.

Another change in the newer editions is the language style.  The older editions were written into the English of the King James Bible, which made the passages stilted and awkward.  Since their inception the texts have often been denounced by serious classicists and professors for their prosaic prose, and considered akin to “Cliff Notes” for the classics.  Yet the series has prevailed, and is currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity, in no small way due to the updates  Proceeds from the Loeb Classical Library continue to subsidize graduate student fellowships at Harvard.

Green is for Greek, red is for Latin.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

There are a couple of ironies at work here.  The first is that some of the texts, including the ones by the Church fathers whose works were often informed by the “pagan” writers, only exist thanks to Muslim scholars who valued them enough to collect and copy them.  These Muslim custodians of our Western heritage warrant our gratitude and respect.

Another irony concerns Loeb, himself.  Loeb began his college education at Harvard in 1884, studying Greek and Latin.  A German-American Jew, he was advised that his ancestry would derail any efforts toward a career in academia.  It must have been difficult for him to accept that his heritage stood in the way of the studies he loved and wished to pursue.  It is a testament to his devotion to learning and the classics that he remained staunch in his resolve to pursue his interests, albeit in a different yet remarkable way.

After graduation from Harvard, Loeb worked in New York at his father’s banking firm.  Because of his depression, a lifelong predicament, he moved to the country.  He subsequently moved to Germany, and through an association with Sigmund Freud, became acquainted with Emil Kraepelin of Munich.  This affiliation led to the founding of the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatrie, aka The Gerrman Research Institute for Psychiatry.  Loeb also supported other medical institutions in Germany and the United States.

James Loeb at work

While at Harvard Loeb was also involved in music.  His interest in music later led to his financial backing of the foundation of the American Institute of Musical Art in New York.  Later this became the renowned Julliard School, the first endowed music school in the country.  In the early 1900s he also helped the struggling Philharmonic Society of New York.

He continued his support of Harvard.  He donated funds for the music department building and Paine Hall, Harvard’s concert auditorium.  He left a large endowment to the classics department.  In addition, he was trustee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and donated his art collection from the classical period to the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich.

Loeb was a remarkable man.  His generosity and endorsement of the academic studies he was barred from participating in  attests to his character, and underscores the type of man the ancients would applaud. 

Except as noted, images courtesy of Harvard University Press

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