IN 1795, Frederick Augustus Wolf published a modest octavo volume entitled "Prolegomena to Homer," from whose appearance is dated the beginning of a new era of historic criticism. The composition of the poems of Homer formed its subject. For wellnigh twenty years the author had collected evidence, weighed arguments, and patiently tested his results by constant revision. His own bias was strongly engaged on the side of the unity of the great Grecian epic. But the results of his researches continued to point in the opposite direction, and at last his earnest devotion to truth compelled him to adopt a theory the soundness of whose construction seemed to be no longer questionable. He w r as thus worthy to become the "founder of the science of philology in its present significance."
The influence of Wolf's discovery was not confined to the study of classic literature only. It quickly radiated through every department of history. "In every singing age," he said, "a single sæculum is almost like a single man. It is all one mind, one soul."
This conception involved a new social law, and radically altered the current opinions concerning the relation of individual effort to the larger forces that affect the development of nations. The creative energy of remarkable minds was not, indeed, lessened in importance, but spontaneity, in this connection, acquired a new meaning; and for the Deus ex machina of the olden time was substituted the cumulative force of centuries of progressive advancement, culminating, it is true, at last in the triumphant synthesis of genius. The commotion which the Wolfian theory has stirred up in the literary world is largely due to the wide range of ideas which it affected. Yet it was itself but a part of that general movement which, toward the close of the last century, became conspicuous in its effects on every field of human inquiry. Everywhere the shackles of authority were thrown off, and, in place of blindly accepting the testimony of the past, men turned to investigate for themselves. A new principle of research was everywhere acknowledged, a new method was created, and science, natural
- "In the estimation of the people for whom these books were written, the capital, essential point surely was, not the historic narrative, but rather legislation and religious edification." (Noldeke, "Histoire Littéraire de l'Ancien Testament," p. 19.)
- Bonitz, "Ueber den Ursprung der Homerischen Gedichte," p. 11.
- In a letter given in Korte's "Leben und Studien F. A. Wolf's," L, p. 307.