Casaubon, Isaac (DNB00)
|←Casanova, Francis||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 09
CASAUBON, ISAAC (1559–1614), classical scholar, was born in 1559 at Geneva, whither his parents, Arnold and Jehanne Casaubon (born Rousseau), both of Gascon origin, were driven by religious persecution. In 1561 Arnold Casaubon accepted a call to be pastor of the Huguenot church at Crest, a small town in Dauphiné, and there Isaac's childhood was spent. He was to a great extent self-taught, for his father, who undertook his education, was frequently absent from home, and when at home almost entirely engrossed with his pastoral work. At the age of nineteen Isaac was sent to Geneva as a student; here he learned Greek under Francis Portus, a Cretan, who formed so high an opinion of his pupil, that he suggested him as his successor just before his death in 1581. After a year's delay, Casaubon was appointed ‘professor of Greek,’ a high-sounding title, but worth only 10l. a year, and rooms in college. In 1583 he married Mary Prolyot, a native of Geneva, who died in the second year of their married life, leaving one daughter, who died young. In 1586 he lost his father, and married a second wife, Florence Estienne, daughter of the famous printer, Henri Estienne (Henricus Stephanus II), by whom he had a large family. He was very poor, and unable to purchase the books which were absolutely necessary for his literary work, while the moroseness of his father-in-law prevented him from having access to the books of the great printer. In 1593 he made the acquaintance of Sir Henry Wotton, then a young man making the grand tour. Wotton lodged in Casaubon's house at Geneva, where he charmed his host, but unfortunately also involved him in fresh pecuniary difficulties. Another thing of which Casaubon complains was want of leisure. His lectures, and the preparation for them, necessarily occupied a considerable amount of time; visitors and family duties (though the latter were as much as possible taken off his hands by his faithful wife) took up more. All this left an ample margin for an ordinary student, but not for a student like Casaubon. But avaricious as he was of his time, there was one claim upon it which he never grudged. Casaubon was an intensely religious man, and the hours spent in private and public devotion were always sacred. He is now known simply, or chiefly, as a great classical scholar, but in reality he took at least as deep an interest in theological studies. At this early period he seems to have been quite content with the popular Calvinism of the Geneva school. Beza, the reformer, was his spiritual director. ‘From him,’ he says, ‘I learnt to think humbly of myself, and, if I have been able to do aught in letters, to ascribe all the glory to God.’ His brother professor, Jacques Lect, who was nearer his own age, was his dearest friend at Geneva. ‘Without you,’ he writes to Lect, ‘life to me is no life.’ Three eminent Frenchmen, De Thou, Bongars, a learned Calvinist, and De Fresne, also became his friends, and ‘made it their common object to secure him for France.’ It was mainly owing to the last-named that he moved from Geneva to Montpellier. But before this event took place he commenced a close friendship with a far greater man, Joseph Scaliger, then a professor at the university of Leyden. A young Englishman, Richard Thomson, had the honour of bringing these two great minds together. Travelling from Geneva to England, Thomson took Leyden on his way, charged with a message from the Genevan to the Leyden scholar. This message was followed by a letter from Casaubon to Scaliger, couched in the most humble and even abject terms. Scaliger, eighteen years the elder, showed some reserve in accepting the overtures of the humble suitor for his friendship; but, being much impressed with the merits of Casaubon's ‘Theophrastus,’ he at last replied favourably, though in a condescending tone: ‘Casaubon was not to suppose that his merits were now for the first time revealed to Scaliger. Scaliger's eye had been on him long, and his voice had never been wanting to proclaim them.’ Casaubon soon won Scaliger over to a closer relationship, and henceforth a constant correspondence was kept up between the two greatest scholars in Europe, which was only interrupted by death. Scaliger learned to appreciate Casaubon better, and called him ‘the most learned man in Europe,’ and owned that he was a better Greek scholar than himself.
Casaubon yearned to leave Geneva; his salary was miserable, the cost of living was high, he had little access to books, and his precious time was intruded upon by injudicious friends. He was French by descent, and always regarded himself as a Frenchman until he became a naturalised Englishman. When, therefore, a proposal—not a very tempting one—came to him from Montpellier, he, after some delay, accepted it, although the Geneva Council offered to double his pay if he would stay among them. In 1596 he was settled at Montpellier with the titles of ‘conseiller du roi,’ and ‘professeur stipendié aux langues et bonnes lettres.’ His stipend was 100l. a year, and he calls God to witness that he is not influenced by avaricious motives in leaving Geneva. His entry into Montpellier was a sort of triumphal procession. In 1597 he began his ‘Ephemerides,’ a curious diary, in which he scrupulously records, not the events, but the studies of every day up to a few days before his death. The ‘Ephemerides’ are full of expressions of devotion, pious ejaculations, and earnest prayers, which remind one of the methodist diaries of the eighteenth century. They are the artless outpourings of an intensely religious soul. A specimen may be given:—‘To-day I got six hours for study. When shall I get my whole day? Whenever, O my Father, it shall be thy will!’ ‘This morning not to my books till 7 o'clock or after; alas me! and after that the whole morning lost—nay, the whole day. O God of my salvation, aid my studies, without which life is to me not life!’ ‘Deliver me, my heavenly Father, from these miseries which the absence of my wife and the management of my household create for me.’ At Montpellier he had only one sitting-room, where his work had to be done in the midst of his family. His stay in his new home scarcely lasted three years, his friends De Thou and Meric de Vic being mainly instrumental in transferring him to Paris. They introduced him to Henry IV, who had heard what Casaubon calls ‘exaggerated praise’ of him from Scaliger. De Vic was the adviser by whom all Casaubon's plans were now directed; and De Vic and Madame de Vic were Roman catholics. It was in the hope that Casaubon would be admitted into the true church that they and his other friends had schemed to bring him to Paris. To Paris he removed in 1600 after some delay at Lyons, where his ‘Athenæus’ was being printed; but he did not find more comfort in the metropolis than he had found at Montpellier. He was appointed ‘lectureur du roi,’ and had a pension assigned to him, while his friends hinted at an appointment in the university ‘under certain circumstances.’ Those circumstances were, of course, his conversion to Romanism, for no heretic was allowed to teach in the university. He was trapped into becoming one of the umpires in a dispute between Du Plessis-Mornay (one of Henry IV's most faithful friends in his Huguenot days) on the protestant side and the Cardinal du Perron on the Romanist. There was only one other protestant among the six commissioners or umpires, Casaubon's friend De Fresne, who was known to be seeking a decent pretext for coming over to the side in power. A conference was held at Fontainebleau, the subject being whether De Mornay had or had not quoted falsely in a book ‘De l'Eucharistie.’ Casaubon's critical acumen forced him to admit, with the other judges, that a false citation had been made, and it was thought that he would become a Romanist. His son Meric [q. v.] thinks that he wavered, but there does not seem to be any positive proof that he went even so far as that. At any rate, he was certainly not to be brought over. In vain did Father Coton, the king's favourite confessor, and the Bishop of Evreux (Du Perron), assail him. But Casaubon had alienated his protestant friends, who thought that he ought to have stood by the protestant champion whether right or wrong, while he did not in the least conciliate his Romanist enemies. In 1601 a patent was issued appointing him to the office of librarian to the king, but with the proviso that the then holder of the office (one Gosselin) should not be disturbed. The jesuits did their utmost to prevent his appointment; but through the influence of his constant friend, De Thou, he succeeded Gosselin, who died in 1604, as ‘garde de la librairie du roi.’ But he was still perpetually worried about his religion. It is highly probable that Du Perron did produce a considerable effect upon him. In their disputes Casaubon gave up much ground which the Calvinists held. Pierre du Moulin, minister of the church at Charenton where he worshipped, looked coldly upon him. In 1607 he lost his mother, whom, in spite of his straitened circumstances, he had helped with true filial piety; in 1608 his favourite daughter Philippa, and in 1609 Joseph Scaliger, died. This last loss affected him most of all. Madame Casaubon was perpetually ailing, and Isaac, who grudged every moment of his time diverted from his studies and devotions, did not grudge hours spent in attendance upon her. His children were constantly laid by with sickness. His cup of misery overflowed when the ‘convertisseurs,’ who had been unsuccessful with him, succeeded in making a worthless convert of his eldest son John, who, to his father's great grief, was admitted into the Roman catholic church in August 1610.
Casaubon desired to leave Paris, and he had many invitations to do so. His old friend Lect was anxious to have him back at Geneva, but with his present religious views Calvinistic Geneva was no place for Casaubon. Overtures were made to him from Heidelberg and Nîmes; he thought of retiring to Sedan; of visiting Venice, where he had an illustrious correspondent, Fra Paolo; and he seemed to be the natural successor to Scaliger at Leyden. England was at last selected. He had already held communications with the king while yet only James VI of Scotland, who could appreciate him as Henry IV certainly could not. But the sovereign was not his chief attraction. He could not submit to the papacy, but he had learned to respect the authority of the fathers. The Huguenot ministers scouted antiquity, but with the Anglo-catholics he was thoroughly in accord. The church of England realised in a great measure the ideal he had formed from the study of catholic antiquity; but he could not leave his post without the consent of the king. After Henry's death, however (14 May 1610), he was no longer bound either by gratitude or interest to remain in France—in fact, he would not have been safe there. Before he left Du Perron made one more effort; he pressed him upon the subject of the eucharist, on which his Huguenot friends considered him unsound. Casaubon agreed neither with Du Perron nor with Du Moulin, but, if he could once cross the Channel, he would find numbers with whom he would agree thoroughly. On 20 July 1610 an official invitation came to him from the Archbishop of Canterbury (Bancroft). A prebend of Canterbury was reserved for him, and as the income of the stall might not be sufficient for his maintenance, a promise was added that it might be increased from other sources; or, if he preferred it, he might throw himself upon the generosity of King James. After two months' delay, Casaubon set off in the suite of Lord Wotton of Marley. Archbishop Bancroft lived just long enough to see the eminent stranger, who was hospitably received by the Dean of St. Paul's (Overall), and spent the first year of his residence in England at the deanery. All the bishops received him with enthusiasm, but his special friend was Lancelot Andrewes, then bishop of Ely. Andrewes, more than any other man, had been instrumental in bringing him to England. ‘The only two men,’ he writes, ‘with whom I lived on intimate terms in London were the Bishop of Ely and the Dean of St. Paul's.’ Perhaps the happiest days he ever spent were in the bishop's company. ‘We spend,’ he writes, ‘whole days in talk of letters, sacred especially, and no words can express what true piety, what uprightness of judgment, I find in him.’ James I took to him at once, was perpetually sending for him, and kept him talking for hours, always on theology. He granted him a pension of 300l. a year from his own purse, in addition to the prebend at Canterbury, and invariably treated him with the utmost kindness. But Casaubon had a penalty to pay; he had to follow the court to Theobalds, Royston, Greenwich, Hampton Court, Holdenby, and Newmarket. King James was worth talking to, and a good talker himself. Casaubon ought also to have been relieved from the pressure of poverty, for besides his English income he still retained his French pension; but he was one of those men who would always be in money difficulties. He determined to make England his permanent home, took out letters of naturalisation, called England ‘the isle of the blessed,’ and so far identified himself with us as to speak to an Englishman of ‘our ancestors.’ He made the personal acquaintance of Grotius, who was then in England, and the acquaintance ripened into an enthusiastic friendship; and he found great delight in the society of Thomas Morton, afterwards the famous bishop of Durham. The chief drawback to his happiness was the strong distaste which Madame Casaubon felt for England. She made long absences, and when his wife was away Casaubon was helpless. And he had other troubles. He was regarded with an evil eye by the puritans as a traitor to their cause. More than once his windows were broken by the mob. He declares that ‘the streets were not safe to him; he was pursued with abuse, or with stones; his children were beaten.’ On one occasion he actually appeared at Theobalds with a black eye, given him by a ruffian as he was travelling through the city; and during the whole of his four years in England he was a failing man. Intense study had worn him out prematurely, and his constant moving about was perhaps too much for him. Besides his frequent removals in the train of the court, we hear of him now at Oxford, now at Cambridge, now at Ely. He died at last of an injudicious trip to Greenwich on 12 July 1614. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, one friend, Bishop Overall, preaching the funeral sermon, another, Bishop Morton, writing his epitaph. His wife survived him for twenty-one years, and was most kindly treated by King James. To the very last he was annoyed by his old persecutors. The French ambassador sent a nobleman to ask him in what religion he professed to die. ‘Then you think, my lord,’ he replied with horror, ‘that I have been all along a dissembler in a matter of the greatest moment!’
In the life of a student the account of his works is generally more important and interesting than the account of his personal career. Casaubon left behind him no less than twenty-five separate publications, most of them on classical subjects. But editions of classical authors necessarily become superseded. Again, Latin translations of Greek authors were useful when Latin was so much more generally spoken and written, but not in later times; and, finally, it may be doubted whether the authors themselves whom Casaubon edited, commented on, or translated—Strabo, Theophrastus, Athenæus, Suetonius, and Polybius—are much read except by specialists. Those, however, who take the trouble to study the huge folios in which Casaubon's learned labours are preserved will assuredly find the character he bore was not undeserved. Casaubon's principal works, in chronological order, are as follows: 1. ‘Isaaci Hortiboni Notæ ad Diogenis Laertii libros,’ &c., 1583. 2. ‘Strabonis Rerum Geographicarum libri xvii., Is. Casaubonus recensuit,’ &c., 1587. 3. ‘Novi Testamenti libri omnes recens nunc editi cum notis Is. Casauboni,’ &c., 1587. 4. ‘Is. Casauboni Animadversiones in Dionysii Halicarnassei Antiquitatum Romanarum libros,’ 1588. 5. ‘Polyæni Strategematum libri octo. Is. Casaubonus Græcè nunc primùm edidit, emendavit, et notis illustravit,’ &c., 1589. 6. ‘Operum Aristotelis … nova editio,’ &c., 1590. 7. ‘Theophrasti Characteres Ethici, &c. Is. Casaubonus recensuit, in Latinum sermonem vertit, et libro commentario illustravit,’ 1592. 8. ‘Suetonii de xii Cæsaribus libri viii. Is. Casaubonus recensuit,’ &c., 1595. 9. ‘Athenæus: Isaaci Casauboni animadversionum in Athenæi Deipnosophistas libri xv.,’ 1600. 10. ‘Persii Satirarum liber. Is. Casaubonus recensuit et commentario libro illustravit,’ 1605. 11. ‘Gregorii Nysseni ad Eustathiam, Ambrosiam, et Basilissam epistola. Is. Casaubonus nunc primum publicavit, Latinè vertit, et illustravit notis,’ 1606. 12. ‘Polybii Historiarum libri qui supersunt. Is. Casaubonus ex antiquis libris emendavit, Latinè vertit, et commentariis illustravit,’ 1609. 13. ‘Is. Casauboni ad Frontonem Ducæum Epistola,’ 1611. 14. ‘Is. Casauboni ad Epistolam Cardinalis Perronii responsio,’ 1611. 15. ‘De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis Exercitationes xvi ad Baronii Annales,’ 1614. 16. ‘Is. Casauboni ad Polybii Historiarum librum primum commentarii,’ 1617.
Of these works the most important are the ‘Athenæus,’ which took up full four years of his life, and gave him an immense amount of ungrateful labour, which he yearned to spend upon christian antiquity; the ‘Theophrastus,’ the first in date of those of his works of which he was not himself ashamed; the ‘Polybius,’ which also cost him more than four years' labour, though he lived only to finish the translation, the fragment of the commentary being published after his death; the ‘Suetonius,’ which first led Scaliger duly to appreciate his greatness. The ‘Persius’ and ‘Strabo’ also long continued standard works. It is not necessary to say much of his theological works. His criticism on the Annals of Baronius, though it is but a small fragment of what he intended, took up the last four years of his life, and probably hastened his death. It was undertaken at the request of King James; and though we may well regret that the great scholar wasted his time in showing up a book which must have become discredited without his help, it is most unfair to blame the king, as has been done, for bringing about this perversion of industry. Casaubon had intended to criticise Baronius long before he came to England. He always looked upon ecclesiastical history as the proper field for his labours, and though, during the wearisome task of tracking out the Romanist church historian's bad scholarship and mistakes, he may now and then lament over his unfinished ‘Polybius,’ there is no doubt that his theological work was a labour of love; for though to us Casaubon is the great classical scholar, he wished to be, first, the theological, and only in a secondary degree the classical, student. A book was published by Christopher Wolf in 1610 with the attractive title of ‘Casauboniana.’ It contains only some desultory remarks on books. To Meric Casaubon [q. v.] we are indebted for the six volumes of the ‘Ephemerides,’ by far the most interesting volume of all that Isaac has left us. Meric Casaubon also corresponded with John Evelyn about some of the elder Casaubon's notes upon trees and plants (see Evelyn, Diary, ed. Wheatley, iii. 271 et seq.)
Casaubon has, in our own day, found a biographer whose love of learning was like his own, and whose monograph of the great scholar is one of the gems of English literature. Unfortunately, death deprived the English world of letters of Mark Pattison on 30 July 1884
[Pattison's Life of Isaac Casaubon; Almeloveen's Is. Casauboni Vita (1709); Casaubon's Ephemerides (ed. Dr. Russell, 1850); Casaubon's Works, passim.]