I. Prolegomena to the Biblical Letters and Epistles

γίνεσθε δόκιμοι τραπεζῖται.


1. Men have written letters ever since they could write at all. Who the first letter-writer was we know not. It appears sufficiently naive that Tatian (Or. ad Graec., p. 1 15 f., Schwartz) and Clement of Alexandria (Strom. i. 16, p. 364, Potter) should say, following the historian Hellanikos, that the Persian queen Atossa (6th-5th cent. B.C.) was the discoverer of letter-writing. For it is in this sense that we should understand the expression that occurs in both, viz., ἐπιστολὰς συντάσσειν, and not as collecting letters together and publishing them, which R. Bentley (Dr. Rich. Bentley's Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris, London, 1699, p. 535 f., German edition by W. Ribbeck, Leipzig, 1857, p. 532) considers to be also possible; cf. M. Kremmer, De catalogis heurematum, Leipzig, 1890, p. 15. But this is quite as it should be: the writer of a letter accommodates himself to the need of the moment; his aim is a personal one and concerns none but himself,—least of all the curiosity of posterity. We fortunately know quite as little who was the first to experience repentance or to offer prayer. The writer of a letter does not sit in the marketplace. A letter is a secret and the writer wishes his secret to be preserved; under cover and seal he entrusts it to the reticence of the messenger. The letter, in its essential idea, does not differ in any way from a private conversation; like the latter, it is a personal and intimate communication, and the more faithfully it catches the tone of the private conversation, the more of a letter, that is, the better a letter, it is. The only difference is the means of communication. We avail ourselves of far-travelling handwriting, because our voice cannot carry to our friend: the pen is employed because the separation by distance does not permit a tête-à-tête. A letter is destined for the receiver only, not for the public eye, and even when it is intended for more than one, yet with the public it will have nothing to do: letters to parents and brothers and sisters, to comrades in joy or sorrow or sentiment—these, too, are private letters, true letters. As little as the words of the dying father to his children are a speech—should they be a speech it would be better for the dying to keep silent—just as little is the letter of a sage to his confidential pupils an essay, a literary production; and, if the pupils have learned wisdom, they will not place it among their books, but lay it devoutly beside the picture and the other treasured relics of their master. The form and external appearance of the letter are matters of indifference in the determination of its essential character. Whether it be written on stone or clay, on papyrus or parchment, on wax or palm-leaf, on rose paper or a foreign postcard, is quite as immaterial as whether it clothes itself in the set phrases of the age; whether it be written skilfully or unskilfully, by a prophet or by a beggar, does not alter its special characteristics in the least. Nor do the particular contents belong to the essence of it. What is alone essential is the purpose which it serves: confidential personal conversation between persons separated by distance. The one wishes to ask something of the other, wishes to praise or warn or wound the other, to thank him or assure him of sympathy in joy—it is ever something personal that forces the pen into the hand of the letter-writer. He who writes a letter under the impression that his lines may be read by strangers, will either coquet with this possibility, or be frightened by it; in the former case he will be vain, in the latter, reserved; Cic., Fam. 15,214, aliter enim scribimus quod cos solos quibus mittimus, aliter quod multos lecturos putamus. Cic., Phil. 2,7, quam multa ioca solent esse in epistulis quae prolata si sint inepta videantur! quam multa seria neque tamen ullo modo divolganda!—Johann Kepler wrote a letter to Reimarus Ursus, of which the latter then made a great parade in a manner painful to Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Having got a warning by this, Kepler determined that for the future: "scribam caute, retinebo exemplaria". (Joannis Kepleri astronomi opera omnia, ed. Ch. Frisch, i. [Frankfurt and Erlangen, 1858], p. 234; cf. C. Anschütz, Ungedruckte wissenschaftliche Correspondenz zwischen Johann Kepler und Herwart von Hohenburg, 1599, Prague, 1886, p. 91 f.—The Palatinate physician-in-ordinary Helisäus Röslinus († 1616) says about one of his letters which had been printed without his knowledge: "I wrote it the day immediately following that on which I first beheld with astonishment the new star—on the evening of Tuesday, the 2/12 October; I communicated the same at once in haste to a good friend in Strassburg.....This letter (6 paginarum) was subsequently printed without my knowledge or desire, which in itself did not concern me—only had I known beforehand, I should have arranged it somewhat better and expressed myself more distinctly than I did while engaged in the writing of it" (Joannis Kepleri opp. omn., i., p. 666). Moltke to his wife, 3rd July, 1864: "I have in the above given you a portrayal of the seizure of Alsen, which embodies no official report, but simply the observations of an eyewitness, which always add freshness to description. If you think it would be of interest to others as well, I have no objection to copies being taken of it in which certain personal matters will be left out, and myself not mentioned: Auer will put the matter right for you" (Gesammelte Schriften und Denkwürdigkeiten des General-Feldmarschalls Grafen Helmuth von Moltke, vi. [Berlin, 1892], p. 408 f.). One notices, however, in this "letter," that it was written under the impression that copies of it might be made. Compare also the similar sentiment (in the matter of diary-notes, which are essentially akin to letters) of K. von Hase, of the year 1877: "It may be that my knowledge that these soliloquies will soon fall into other hands detracts from their naturalness. Still they will be the hands of kind and cherished persons, and so may the thought of it be but a quickly passing shadow!" (Annalen meines Lebens, Leipzig, 1891, p. 271). in both cases unnatural—no true letter-writer. With the personal aim of the letter there must necessarily be joined the naturalness of the writer's mood; one owes it not only to himself and to the other, but still more to the letter as such, that he yield himself freely to it. So must the letter, even the shortest and the poorest, present a fragment of human naïvete—beautiful or trivial, but, in any case, true.

2. The letter is older than literature. As conversation between two persons is older than the dialogue, the song older than the poem, so also does the history of the letter reach back to that Golden Age when there was neither author nor publisher, nor any reviewer. Literature is that species of writing which is designed for publicity: the maker of literature desires that others will take heed to his work. He desires to be read. He does not appeal to his friend, nor does he write to his mother; he entrusts his sheets to the winds, and knows not whither they will be borne; he only knows that they will be picked up and examined by some one or other unknown to him and unabashed before him. Literature, in the truest essence of it, differs in no way from a public speech; equally with the latter it falls short in the matter of intimacy, and the more it attains to the character of universality, the more literary, that is to say, the more interesting it is. All the difference between them is in the mode of delivery. Should one desire to address, not the assembled clan or congregation, but the great foolish public, then he takes care that what he has to say may be carried home in writing by any one who wishes to have it so: the book is substituted for oral communication. And even if the book be dedicated to a friend or friends, still its dedication does not divest it of its literary character,—it does not thereby become a private piece of writing. The form and external appearance of the book are immaterial for the true understanding of its special character as a book: even its contents, whatever they be, do not matter. Whether the author sends forth poems, tragedies or histories, sermons or wearisome scientific lucubrations, political matter or anything else in the world; whether his book is multiplied by the slaves of an Alexandrian bookseller, by patient monk or impatient compositor; whether it is preserved in libraries as sheet, or roll, or folio: all these are as much matter of indifference as whether it is good or bad, or whether it finds purchasers or not. Book, literature, in the widest sense, is every written work designed by its author for the public.

3. The book is younger than the letter. Even were the oldest letters that have come down to us younger than the earliest extant works of literature, that statement would still be true. For it is one which does not need the confirmation of historical facts—nay, it would be foolish to attempt to give such. The letter is perishable—in its very nature necessarily so; it is perishable, like the hand that wrote it, like the eyes that were to read it. The letter-writer works as little for posterity as for the public of his own time; just as the true letter cannot be written over again, it exists in but a single copy. It is only the book that is multiplied and thus rendered accessible to the public, accessible, possibly, to posterity. Fortunately we possess letters that are old, extremely old, but we shall never gain a sight of the oldest of them all; it was a letter, and was able to guard itself and its secret. Among all nations, before the age of literature, there were the days when people wrote, indeed, but did not yet write books. In the same way people prayed, of course, and probably prayed better, long before there were any service-books; and they had come near to God before they wrote down the proofs of His existence. The letter, should we ask about the essential character of it, carries us into the sacred solitude of simple, unaffected humanity; when we ask about its history, it directs us to the childhood's years of the pre-literary man, when there was no book to trouble him.

4. When the friend has for ever parted from his comrades, the master from his disciples, then the bereaved bethink themselves, with sorrowful reverence, of all that the departed one was to them. The old pages, which the beloved one delivered to them in some blessed hour, speak to them with a more than persuasive force; they are read and reread, they are exchanged one for another, copies are taken of letters in the possession of friends, the precious fragments are collected: perhaps it is decided that the collection be multiplied—among the great unknown public there may be some unknown one who is longing for the same stimulus which the bereaved themselves have received. And thus it happens now and then that, from motives of reverent love, the letters of the great are divested of their confidential character: they are formed into literature, the letters subsequently become a book. "When, by the Euphrates or the Nile, preserved in the ruins of some fallen civilisation, we find letters the age of which can only be computed by centuries and millenniums, the science of our fortunate day rejoices; she hands over the venerable relics to a grateful public in a new garb, and so, in our own books and in our own languages, we read the reports which the Palestinian vassals had to make to Pharaoh upon their tablets of clay, long before there was any Old Testament or any People of Israel; we learn the sufferings and the longings of Egyptian monks from shreds of papyrus which are as old as the book of the Seventy Interpreters. Thus it is the science of to-day that has stripped these private communications of a hoary past of their most peculiar characteristic, and which has at length transformed letters, true letters, into literature. As little, however, as some unknown man, living in the times of Imperial Rome, put the toy into the grave of his child in order that it should sometime be discovered and placed in a museum, just as little are the private letters which have at length been transformed into literature by publication, to be, on that account, thought of as literature. Letters remain letters whether oblivion hides them with its protecting veil, or whether now reverence, now science, or, again, reverence and science in friendly conspiracy, think it well to withhold the secret no longer from the reverent or the eager seeker after truth. What the editor, in publishing such letters, takes from them, the readers, if they can do anything more than spell, must restore by recognising, in true historical perspective, their simple and unaffected beauty.

5. When for the first time a book was compiled from letters,—it would be reverential love, rather than science, that made the beginning here—the age of literature had, of course, dawned long ago, and had long ago constructed the various literary forms with which it worked. That book, the first to be compiled from real letters, added another to the already existent forms. One would, of course, hardly venture to say that it forthwith added the literary letter, the epistle, to the forms of published literature; the said book only gave, against its will, so to speak, the impetus to the development of this new literary eidos.The present writer cannot imagine that the composition and publication of literary treatises in the form of letters was anterior to the compilation of a book from actual letters. So soon, however, as such a book existed, the charming novelty of it invited to imitation. Had the invitation been rightly understood, the only inducement that should have been felt was to publish the letters of other venerable men, and, in point of fact, the invitation was not seldom understood in this its true sense. From almost every age we have received such collections of "genuine," "real" letters—priceless jewels for the historian of the human spirit. But the literary man is frequently more of a literary machine than a true man, and thus, when the first collection of letters appeared, it was the literary, rather than the human, interest of it which impressed him; the accidental and external, rather than the inscrutably strange inmost essence of it. Instead of rejoicing that his purblind eye might here catch a glimpse of a great human soul, he resolved to write a volume of letters on his own part. He knew not what he did, and had no feeling that he was attempting anything unusual; Cf. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Aristoteles und Athen, ii., Berlin, 1893, p. 392: "He [Isocrates] did not understand that the letter, as a confidential and spontaneous utterance, is well written only when it is written for reading, not hearing, when it is distinguished from the set oration κατ᾿ εἶδος". This judgment applies also to real, genuine letters by Isocrates. he did not see that, by his literary purpose, he was himself destroying the very possibility of its realisation; for letters are experiences, and experiences cannot be manufactured. The father of the epistle was no great pioneer spirit, but a mere paragraphist, a mere mechanic. But perhaps he had once heard a pastoral song among the hills, and afterwards at home set himself down to make another of the same: the wondering applause of his crowd of admirers confirmed him in the idea that he had succeeded. If then he had achieved his aim in the matter of a song, why should he not do the same with letters? And so he set himself down and made them. But the prototype, thus degraded to a mere pattern, mistrustfully refused to show its true face, not to speak of its heart, to this pale and suspicious-looking companion, and the result was that the epistle could learn no more from the letter than a little of its external form. If the true letter might be compared to a prayer, the epistle which mimicked it was only a babbling; if there beamed forth in the letter the wondrous face of a child, the epistle grinned stiffly and stupidly, like a puppet.

But the puppet pleased; its makers knew how to bring it to perfection, and to give it more of a human appearance. Indeed, it happened now and then that a real artist occupied an idle hour in the fashioning of such an object. This, of course, turned out better than most others of a similar kind, and was more pleasant to look at than an ugly child for instance; in any case it could not disturb one by its noise. A good epistle, in fact, gives one more pleasure than a worthless letter, and in no literature is there any lack of good epistles. They often resemble letters so much that a reader permits himself for the moment to be willingly deceived as to their actual character. But letters they are not, and the more strenuously they try to be letters, the more vividly do they reveal that they are not. Even the grapes of Zeuxis could deceive only the sparrows; one even suspects that they were no true sparrows, but cage-birds rather, which had lost their real nature along with their freedom and pertness; our Rhine-land sparrows would not have left their vineyards for anything of the kind. Those of the epistle-writers who were artists were themselves most fully aware that in their epistles they worked at best artificially, and, in fact, had to do so. "The editor requests that the readers of this book will not forget the title of it: it is only a book of letters, letters merely relating to the study of theology. In letters one does not look for treatises, still less for treatises in rigid uniformity and proportion of parts. As material offers itself and varies, as conversation comes and goes, often as personal inclinations or incidental occurrences determine and direct, so do the letters wind about and flow on; and I am greatly in error if it be not this thread of living continuity, this capriciousness of origin and circumstances, that realises the result which we desiderate on the written page, but which, of course, subsequently disappears in the printing. Nor can I conceal the fact that these letters, as now printed, are wanting just in what is perhaps most instructive, viz., the more exact criticism of particular works. There was, however, no other way of doing it, and I am still uncertain whether the following letters, in which the materials grow always the more special, the more important, the more personal, are fit for printing at all. The public voice of the marketplace and the confidential one of private correspondence are, and always continue to be, very different." Herder, in these words, which are a classical description of the true idea of a letter, claims that his book has, in fact, the character of actual letters, but is nevertheless quite well aware that a printed (that is, according to the context, a literary) letter is essentially different from a letter that is actually such.

It is easy to understand how the epistle became a favourite form of published literature in almost all literary nations. There could hardly be a more convenient form. The extraordinary convenience of it lay in the fact that it was, properly speaking, so altogether "unliterary," that, in fact, it did not deserve to be called a "form" at all. One needed but to label an address on any piece of tittle-tattle, and lo! one had achieved what else could have been accomplished only by a conscientious adherence to the strict rules of artistic form. Neither as to expression nor contents does the epistle make any higher pretensions. The writer could, in the matter of style, write as he pleased, and the address on the letter became a protective mark for thoughts that would have been too silly for a poem, and too paltry for an essay. The epistle, if we disregard the affixed address, need be no more than, say a feuilleton or a causerie. The zenith of epistolography may always be looked upon as assuredly indicating the decline of literature; literature becomes decadent—Alexandrian, so to speak—and although epistles may have been composed and published by great creative spirits, still the derivative character of the movement cannot be questioned: even the great will want to gossip, to lounge, to take it easy for once. Their epistles may be good, but the epistle in general, as a literary phenomenon, is light ware indeed.

6. Of collections of letters, bearing the name of well-known poets and philosophers, we have, indeed, a great profusion. Many of them are not "genuine"; they were composed and given to the world by others under the protection of a great name. The origin of spurious collections of letters among the Greeks is traced back to "the exercises in style of the Athenian schools of rhetoric in the earlier and earliest Hellenistic period," Susemihl, ii., pp. 448, 579. If some callow rhetorician succeeded in performing an exercise of this kind specially well, he might feel tempted to publish it. But it is not impossible that actual forgeries were committed for purposes of gain by trading with the great libraries, cf. Susemihl, ii., pp. 449 f.; Bentley, p. 9 f., in Ribbeck's German edition, p. 81 ft; A. M. Zumetikos, De Alexandri Olympiadisque epistularum fontibus et reliquiis, Berlin, 1894, p. 1.—As late as 1551, Joachim Camerarius ventured on the harmless jest of fabricating, "ad institutionem puerilem," a correspondence in Greek between Paul and the Presbytery of Ephesus (Th. Zahn, Geschichte des Neutestamentlichen Kanons, ii., 2, Erlangen and Leipzig, 1892, p. 365). A timid ignorance, having no true notion of literary usages, inconsiderately stigmatises one and all of these with the ethical term forgery; it fondly imagines that everything in the world can be brought between the two poles moral and immoral, and overlooks the fact that the endless being and becoming of things is generally realised according to non-ethical laws, and needs to be judged as an ethical adiaphoron. He who tremulously supposes that questions of genuineness in the history of literature are, as such, problems of the struggle between truth and falsehood, ought also to have the brutal courage to describe all literature as forgery. The literary man, as compared with the non-literary, is always a person under constraint; he does not draw from the sphere of prosaic circumstance about him, but places himself under the dominion of the ideal, about which no one knows better than himself that it never was, and never will be, real. The literary man, with every stroke of his pen, removes himself farther from trivial actuality, just because he wishes to alter it, to ennoble or annihilate it, just because he can never acknowledge it as it is. As a man he feels indeed that he is sold under the domain of the wretched "object". He knows that when he writes upon the laws of the cosmos, he is naught but a foolish boy gathering shells by the shore of the ocean; he enriches the literature of his nation by a Faust, meanwhile sighing for a revelation; or he is driven about by the thought that something must be done for his unbelief—yet he writes Discourses upon Religion. And thus he realises that he is entangled in the contradiction between the Infinite and the Finite, while the small prosperous folks, whose sleepy souls reck not of his pain, are lulled by him into the delightful dream that we only need to build altars to truth, beauty, and eternity in order to possess these things; when they have awaked, they can but reproach him for having deceived them. They discover that he is one of themselves; they whisper to each other that the sage, the poet, the prophet, is but a man after all—wiser, it may be, but not more clever, or better, than others. He who might have been their guide—not indeed to his own poor hovel but to the city upon the hill, not built by human hands—is compensated with some polite-sounding phrase. The foolish ingrates! Literature presents us with the unreal, just because it subserves the truth; the literary man abandons himself, just because he strives for the ends of humanity; he is unnatural, just because he would give to others something better than himself. What holds good of literature in general must also be taken into account in regard to each of its characteristic phenomena. Just as little as Plato's Socrates and Schiller's Wallenstein are "forgeries," so little dare we so name the whole "pseudonymous" literature. We may grant at once, indeed, that some, at least, of the writings which go under false names were intentionally forged by the writers of them; pseudonymity in political or ecclesiastical works is in every case suspicious, for no one knows better how to use sacred and sanctifying ends than does the undisciplined instinct of monarchs and hierarchs, and the followers of them. But there is also a pseudonymity which is innocent, sincere, and honest, and if a literary product permits of any inferences being drawn from it respecting the character of the writer, then, in such a case of pseudonymity, one may not think of malice or cowardice, but rather of modesty and natural timidity. Between the genuine The discussion which occupies the remainder of this paragraph is one which may, indeed, be translated, but can hardly be transferred, into English. It turns partly on the ambiguity of the German word echt, and partly on a distinction corresponding to that which English critics have tried to establish between the words "genuine" and "authentic"—a long-vexed question which now practice rather than theory is beginning to settle. Echt means authentic, as applied, for instance, to a book written by the author whose name it bears; it also means genuine both as applied to a true record of experience, whether facts or feelings, and as implying the truth (that is the naturalness, spontaneity or reality) of the experience itself. The translator felt that, in justice to the author, he must render echt throughout the passage in question by a single word, and has therefore chosen genuine, as representing, more adequately than any other, the somewhat wide connotation of the German adjective.—Tr. and the pseudonymous epistle there does not exist the same profound and essential difference as between the epistle and the letter. The epistle is never genuine in the sense in which the letter is; it never can be so, because it can adopt the form of the letter only by surrendering the essence. An epistle of Herder, however like a letter it may look, is yet not a letter of Herder: it was not Herder the man, but Herder the theological thinker and author, that wrote it: it is genuine in an ungenuine sense—like an apple-tree which, flourishing in September, certainly has genuine apple blossoms, but which must surely be altogether ashamed of such in the presence of its own ripening fruits. Literary "genuineness" is not to be confounded with genuine naturalness. Questions of genuineness in literature may cause us to rack our brains: but what is humanly genuine is never a problem to the genuine man. From the epistle that was genuine in a mere literary sense there was but a step to the fictitious epistle; while the genuine letter could at best be mimicked, the genuine epistle was bound to be imitated, and, indeed, invited to imitation. The collections of genuine letters indirectly occasioned the writing of epistles: the collections of genuine epistles were immediately followed by the literature of the fictitious epistle.