« Tertullian | ‘Lost Articles’ | Matthew Paris »

The Scaligers

THE Man of Letters must confess—reluctantly, perhaps—that the literature which stores the head with so many ingenious reflections, and so much admirable intelligence, may at the same time have little of no influence over the virtues of the heart. The same vices, and the same follies, disgrace the literate and the illiterate. Who possessed a profounder knowledge of the Grecian learning, or was a more erudite critic, than Burman? Yet this man lived unobservant of every ordinary decency and moral duty. Who displayed more acuteness of mind, and a wider circle of literature, than the celebrated Scaligers? Yet, from the anecdotes and characters I collect of them, let the reader contemplate the men.

The two Scaligers, father and son, were two prodigies of learning and of vanity. Schioppius has tore the mask of that principality with which the father had adorned himself; for the elder Scaliger maintained, that he was descended from the La Scalas, princes of Verona.

Abbé Iraild, the anonymous author of a curious work, entitled “Literary Quarrels,” (in which may be frequently traced the bold and lively touch of his patron, Voltaire) affords me some materials for an account of this singular controversy.

Joseph Scaliger inherited from his father, with an ardent love for study, the most ridiculous vanity, with a most caustic and most unsufferable humour. His writings are a mass of useful materials, and gross invectives against all those who would not acknowledge him to be the phœnix of authors. Intoxicated with the absurd panegyrics of his friends, he imagined that Nature had exhausted herself to produce him. He was a literary despot. He gloried in being conversant with thirteen languages, that is to say, he knew none. To the fury of his criticism living and dead authors were alike sacrificed.

He gave, in 1594, a work under the title of “A Letter from Joseph Scaliger, on the Antiquity and Splendour of the Scaligerian Race.” Whatever Pride in all its delirium could imagine of extravagant and chimerical in genealogy, is collected in this writing. The author attempts to prove that his family descended from the ancient princes of Verona. The life of his father is the most curious morsel. Julius is represented as the greatest warrior of the age, because, in his youth, it happened he was reduced to serve as a common soldier in Italy; as the most skilful physician in Europe, because he had served in an apothecary’s shop; as a better Latinist than Erasmus, and superior in every thing to Cardan, because he had been the avowed enemy of both. This monument, thus hastily reared to the glory of all the past and future Scaligers, appeared to Schioppius, who himself had some ridiculous pretensions of a similar nature, as an outrage to his own ideal family.

He immediately refuted the Letter from one end to the other: he even counted the lies it contains, and he very accurately tells us they amount to 499. He says, and he is now credited, that he was originally named Jules Burden; that he was born in the shop of a gilder; had passed some part of his life with a surgeon; and then became a cordelier. The elevation of his mind made him aspire to honours greater than these: he threw off his frock, and took the degree of Doctor in Physic at Paris. In this character he appeared at Venice, and in Piedmont. He there attached himself to a prelate of the noble House of Rovezza, and followed him to Agen, of which his patron was made bishop. He married the daughter of an apothecary. Such were the parents of Joseph Scaliger; who, finding this chimerical principality in his family, passed himself for a prince; and, to render the impositions of his father more credible, he added many of his own.

What an humiliation for Scaliger, to be attacked in so sensible a part. He directly sent forth a furious libel against his adversary; it is entitled “The Life, and the Parents, of Gaspard Schioppius.” Never were blots in an escutcheon blacker. His father was pictured as a man that had assumed a variety of shapes, but always of the meanest and roguish class; the good lady his mother was infamous; and he pursues, without mercy, his daughters, his sons, and his grand-children.

Schioppius (says the Abbé) crushed him in a volume, which will hardly find its equal for foul abuse. It was written with such asperity, that (Baillet says) Schioppius was more to be dreaded than the hangman. This blow the dethroned Scaliger could never recover; and, as Menage observes of this work, he died of the chagrin he felt on the occasion of Schioppius’s book being published, entitled Scaliger Hypobolymæus.”

“Yet we may,” observes Huet, “say, with Lipsius, that if the two Scaligers were not actually princes, they richly merited a principality, for the beauty of their genius and the extent of their erudition; but we can offer no apology for their ridiculous and singular haughtiness.”

When a friend was delineating his character, the father wrote to him in these terms—“Endeavour to collect whatever is most beautiful in the pages of Masinissa, of Xenophon, and of Plato, and you may then form a portrait which, however, will resemble me but imperfectly.”

Yet this man possessed little delicacy of taste, as he evinces by the false judgments he passes on Homer and Musæus; and, above all, by those unformed and rude poems with which he has dishonoured Parnassus. Menage says, that the collection of Scaliger’s poems, which forms a thick octavo volume, will hardly find its equal for bad composition, considering them as the productions of a man of letters. Of a great number of epigrams, there are but four or five which are in the least tolerable.

Huet thinks that his son composed those letters which pass under his name; and, as he is an exquisite judge of style, we should credit his opinion. But, though his poetry is so destitute of spirit or grace, his prose, it must be allowed, is excellent: nothing can be more noble, higher polished, or more happily turned.

The son possessed a finer taste: his style is more flowing and easy, and yet is not the less noble. His writings, like those of the father, breathe singular haughtiness and malignity. The Scaligerana will convince us that he was incapable of thinking or speaking favourably of any person. Although he has reflected honour on his age by the extensiveness of his learning, we must confess that he has not seldom fallen into gross errors, even on those subjects to which he had most applied. As for instance, Chronology, which was his favourite study; and although he imagined that he stretched the sceptre over the realms of Criticism, no one has treated this topic with less felicity. It was the reform of the Calendar then pending at Rome which engaged him in this study. He wished to shew the world that he was more capable than all those who had been employed. If the success of this labour had depended on the extent and variety of erudition, he had eminently surpassed all those who had applied to this task; but he was their inferior in the solidity of his judgment, in the exactness of his arguments, and the profundity of his speculations. When he fondly believed that he had found the Quadrature of the Circle, he was corrected, and turned into ridicule, by an obscure schoolmaster; who, having clearly pointed out the paralogism which deceived him, made his cyclometrics vanish at his touch.

“Scaliger, the father, was,” says Patin, “an illustrious impostor. He had never been at any war, nor at any court of the Emperor Maximilian, as he pretended. He passed the first thirty years of his life in one continued study. Afterwards, he threw off his Monk’s frock, and palmed on all Europe the singular imposition of his being a descendant of the princes of Verona, who bore the name of Scaliger.”

Julius Scaliger had this peculiarity in his manner of composition; he wrote with such accuracy, that his manuscript and the printed copy always corresponded page for page, and line for line. This may appear trifling information; but I am persuaded that a habit of correctness in the lesser parts of composition assists the higher.

George Psalmanazar, well known in the literary world, exceeded in powers of deception any of the great impostors of learning. His Island of Formosa was an illusion eminently bold, and maintained with as much felicity as erudition; and vast must have been that erudition which could, on scientifick principles, form a language and its grammar.