Since you’re going to die soon…

After yesterday’s embarrassing pulse-check on the state of American undergraduate culture, today we have a brief and wistful glance back at the days when a bachelor’s degree signified an education, and a hint that it still can, though the times they have a changed…

The best thing I read today was this charming little bit from Thomas Gaisford’s preface to his edition of the scholia of Sophocles. Thomas is relating a story of how he took up the project from his master Peter Elmsley, who had become too sick to complete the work:

paucis ante ejus obitum septimanis, quum paulisper cessante morbi violentia literarum studia recolere coepisset, inter alios sermones injecta est a me mentio scholiastae inchoati: dolebam laboris perituri vicem, nisi aut ipse convalesceret, aut alium quemvis sibi pateretur succenturiari : denique, licet multis gravibusque negotiis distinerer, si modo id vellet, me ipsum correctoris munere haud illibenter dicebam perfuncturum.

“A few weeks before his death, when with the violence of the illness giving way a little he had begun to resume his scholarly activity, among other topics of conversation was interjected by me a mention of the work on the Scholiast* which had been begun: I grieved for the work that would be lost unless either he himself should recover or allow someone else to be supplied as a replacement for himself: finally, though I was divided among many burdensome obligations, if only he were to wish it, I said that I myself would not unwillingly discharge the office of the corrector.”

*A Scholiast is a person who writes scholia, which are comments written in the margins of an ancient manuscript, just like glosses or footnotes in a modern text. These ancient commentaries are often very useful for the elucidation of the text.


Imagine, your teacher is widely considered to be the finest scholar in his field in his own country, and well known throughout Europe.

(Of course, Gaisford was no slouch himself, and he ended up giving his name to the two Prizes at Oxford awarded annually for excellence in the composition of Greek Prose and Greek Verse. Nowadays at Oxford, for reasons a classical philologist should blush to mention, these two prizes have been replaced by the Gaisford Essay Prize and the Gaisford Dissertation Prize, which do not carry a Greek composition requirement.

The composition prizes were awarded annually until the Second World War, but I know that undergraduates at the University of Dallas today are translating Frost and Auden into Greek. At least they were about ten years ago.)

“Well, sir, Professor Elmsley, that is, since you’re going to die soon, I was thinking someone should take over your magnum opus and finish it… Sir?”

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being the gadfly of my discipline.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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