David Ruhnken - Encyclopedia

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DAVID RUHNKEN (1723-1798), one of the most illustrious scholars of the Netherlands, was of German origin, having been born in Pomerania in 1723. His parents had him educated for the church, but after two years at the university of Wittenberg he determined to live the life of a scholar. At Wittenberg Ruhnken lived in close intimacy with the two most distinguished professors, Ritter and Berger. To them he owed a thorough grounding in ancient history and Roman antiquities and literature; and from them he learned a pure and vivid Latin style. At Wittenberg, too, Ruhnken derived valuable mental training from study in mathematics and Roman law. Probably nothing would have severed him from his surroundings there but a desire which daily grew upon him to explore the inmost recesses of Greek literature. Neither at Wittenberg nor at any other German university was Greek in that age seriously studied. It was taught in the main to students in divinity for the sake of the Greek Testament and the early fathers of the church. F. A. Wolf is the real creator of Greek scholarship in modern Germany, and Porson's gibe that "the Germans in Greek are sadly to seek" was barbed with truth. It is significant of the state of Hellenic studies in Germany in 1743 that their leading exponents were Gesner and Ernesti. Ruhnken was well advised by his friends at Wittenberg to seek the university of Leiden, where, stimulated by the influence of Bentley, the great scholar Tiberius Hemsterhuis had founded the only real school of Greek learning which had existed on the Continent since the days of Joseph Scaliger and Isaac Casaubon.

Perhaps no two men of letters ever lived in closer friendship than Hemsterhuis and Ruhnken during the twenty-three years which passed from Ruhnken's arrival in the Netherlands in 1743 to the death of Hemsterhuis in 1766. A few years made it clear that Ruhnken and Valckenaer were the two pupils of the great master on whom his inheritance must devolve. As his reputation spread, many efforts were made to attract Ruhnken back to Germany, but after settling in Leiden, he only left the country once, when he spent a year in Paris, ransacking the public libraries (1755). For work achieved, this year of Ruhnken may compare even with the famous year which Ritschl spent in Italy. In 1757 Ruhnken was appointed lecturer in Greek, to assist Hemsterhuis, and in 1761 he succeeded Oudendorp, with the title of "ordinary professor of history and eloquence," but practically as Latin professor. This promotion drew on him the enmity of some native Netherlanders, who deemed themselves (not without some show of reason) to possess stronger claims for a chair of Latin. The only defence made by Ruhnken was to publish works on Latin literature which eclipsed and silenced his rivals. In 1766 Valckenaer succeeded Hemsterhuis in the Greek chair. The intimacy between the two colleagues was only broken by Valckenaer's death in 1785, and stood without strain the test of common candidature for the office (an important one at Leiden) of university librarian, in which Ruhnken was successful. Ruhnken's later years were clouded by severe domestic misfortune, and by the political commotions which, after the outbreak of the war with England in 1780, troubled the Netherlands without ceasing, and threatened to extinguish the university of Leiden. He died in 1798.

Personally, Ruhnken was as far as possible removed from being a recluse or a pedant. He had a well-knit and even handsome frame, attractive manners (though sometimes tinged with irony), and a nature simple and healthy, and open to impressions from all sides. Fond of society, he cared little to what rank his associates belonged, if they were genuine men in whom he might find something to learn. His biographer even says of him in his early days that he knew how to sacrifice to the Sirens without proving traitor to the Muses. Life in the open air had a great attraction for him; he was fond of sport, and would sometimes devote to it two or three days in the week. In his bearing towards other scholars Ruhnken was generous and dignified, distributing literary aid with a free hand, and meeting onslaughts for the most part with a smile. Irt the records of learning he occupies an important position. He forms a principal link in the chain which connects Bentley with the modern scholarship of the Continent. The spirit and the aims of Hemsterhuis, the great reviver of Continental learning, were committed to his trust, and were faithfully maintained. He greatly widened the circle of those who valued taste and precision in classical scholarship. He powerfully aided the emancipation of Greek studies from theology; nor must it be forgotten that he first in modern times dared to think of rescuing Plato from the hands of the professed philosophers - men presumptuous enough to interpret the ancient sage with little or no knowledge of the language in which he wrote.

Ruhnken's principal works are editions of (1) Timaeus's Lexicon of Platonic Words, (2) Thalelaeus and other Greek commentators on Roman law, (3) Rutilius Lupus and other grammarians, (4) Velleius Paterculus, (5) the works of Muretus. He also occupied himself much with the history of Greek literature, particularly the oratorical literature, with the Homeric hymns, the scholia on Plato and the Greek and Roman grammarians and rhetoricians. A discovery famous in its time was that in the text of the work of Apsines on rhetoric a large piece of a work by Longinus was embedded. Modern views of the writings attributed to Longinus have lessened the interest of this discovery without lessening its merit. The biography of Ruhnken was written by his great pupil, Wyttenbach, soon after his death. (J. S. R.)

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