The first thing Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg reveal about Isaac Casaubon in “I have always loved the Holy Tongue” is that he was the owner of two books now housed in Harvard’s Houghton Library. One is a 1578 edition of the comedies of Plautus, which includes a “massive” scholarly commentary. This, we are told, is just the kind of book Casaubon would be expected to own. The second book, from 1554, is Sefer Hinukh behire Yah: John Calvin’s catechism, translated into Hebrew—“a surprising choice of reading for someone who has always been best known as a Hellenist.” These two artifacts establish at once a character and a line of inquiry: a classicist from a vaguely remembered age of erudition, but with some eccentric interests. Who reads Calvin in Hebrew?
While that question lingers, the camera turns, with this anecdote:
More than a century ago, the Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter happened on a curious note in the Otsar haSefarim (Treasury of Books, 1880) of the Hebrew bibliographer Isaac ben Jacob. Ben Jacob mentioned a profusely annotated copy of the medieval scholar David Kimhi’s grammar Mikhlol (Completeness), which belonged to what was then the British Museum. He attributed the notes to one “Rabbi Yitzchak Kasuban,” with whom even the legendarily erudite Schechter was not acquainted. By consulting Joseph Zedner’s catalogue of the Hebrew books in the British Museum, Schechter cleared up the little mystery: “it was no other than the famous Christian scholar, Isaac Casaubon.”
The reader might imagine a vast room full of books and two learned Jews sorting through it together. A door opens somewhere. A silhouette appears. Schechter and ben Jacob look up, squinting to see who it is. A famous Christian scholar has come to visit us? Why?
After a few more formalities—Casaubon has been called the greatest Greek scholar of his time, we are told, and his name haunts the footnotes of a dozen classical authors, even 400 years after his death—we meet him again, at work on one of the critical commentaries that earned him renown. He is reading a Latin translation of the Characters, a set of caricatures composed “for unknown reasons, at an uncertain date,” by Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle. In a sketch titled “The Boastful Man,” Casaubon pauses at a sentence with one transliterated Greek word in it: “He stands right in the diazeugma and tells foreigners how much money he has invested at sea.” “What is he calling a diazeugma?” Casaubon wonders in his commentary. “It seems to be some kind of gap or transverse beam on a bridge,” reads the befuddled translator’s marginal note, “or a port, or the vestibule of a building.” Casaubon decides the text must be corrupt. Drawing a link to a scholium on The Knights by Aristophanes, he argues that the word must be Deigmati, referring to a place outside Athens where foreign merchants gathered to display their wares.
Thus a simple connection, and a correction, reveals a man and a bit of his world: geography, economy, community. That greedy capitalist, counting his profits too soon, is no longer just an illustration of “boastfulness.” He has a place in history, even if he is a fiction. It’s a miraculous result to get from linking some writing of unknown purpose to a footnote to a comedy and correcting a single word. It reveals an integral link between two types of humanism: textual scholarship and the study of humanity.
Who was Isaac Casaubon? His official titles varied. He began his career as an overtaxed professor of Greek at the college founded by Calvin in Geneva; he worked for some years in the library of Henri IV of France, where he was happy enough until his patron was assassinated; he spent his last years in England, serving James I. For both monarchs he acted as an “expert reader,” or a “discourser,” interpreting ancient authors for the moral improvement and practical benefit of the king. He edited and translated classical texts, and published commentaries on them: for example, The Lives of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius; The Learned Banqueters, by Athenaeus; Strabo’s Geography; and the Historiae Augustae Scriptores, a set of dubious biographies of Roman leaders. He also published an influential treatise on ancient satire and attempted a vast critique of a Catholic history of the early church.