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'Criticus Nascitur, Non Fit': Latin Textual Criticism and the Cult of Male Genius

Verity Walsh

Stanford University

The underrepresentation of women in STEM dominates current debates about gender inequity in the academy. But while systemic barriers are more prevalent in the sciences, cross-disciplinary analysis reveals that this is not the whole story: women are represented well in some science fields and poorly in some humanistic disciplines. What accounts for gender differentials not just between STEM and the humanities, but between different subfields in disciplines like classics?

This paper applies insights from social psychology and feminist intellectual history to a particular case of gender imbalance in philology—that between Latin textual criticism and the rest of literary studies in classics—and seeks to explore this differential’s likely sociohistorical causes.

Recent work in behavioral science indicates that male-dominated fields, across disciplines, are overwhelmingly those in which discovery is characterized in terms of ‘lightbulb moments’ of sudden inspiration, whereas fields in which women have made strong inroads are those for which success is usually thought of as being ‘nurtured like a seed’ over time (Elmore 2017). Further, in each of three broad categories (sciences, social sciences, and humanities) the subfields with the fewest women (pure mathematics, economics, and philosophy) are those for which there is the strongest perception, both among practitioners and laypeople, that raw talent, rather than discipline and effort, is a prerequisite for success (Leslie 2015). Thus, while systemic gender imbalances in STEM are more visible, the biases that keep women out of the ‘hard’ sciences are also at work against them in the ‘hard’ humanities: the subdisciplines thought of by humanists themselves as demanding unteachable talent are the most inhospitable to women.

I argue that these models can be applied, with almost perfect analogy, to the place of Latin textual criticism, a field with disproportionately few women relative to the broader field of classical philology even today—and one deeply implicated in the rhetoric of sublime, unteachable genius. The historiography of textual criticism is dominated by male figures who speak not in terms of discipline and method but in terms of natural ability and bursts of insight: take Housman’s most famous textual emendation, the moving of a single comma, or his peevish dictum criticus nascitur, non fit (‘a critic is born, not made’).

After a brief theoretical foundation in intellectual and institutional history (Smith 2000; Daston 2007) and in textual criticism (Luck 1981; Maas 1958; Tarant 2016; West 1973; Zetzel 1991), I present historical case studies, focusing on Bentley’s 1713 edition of Horace (‘[the critic needs] a certain faculty of divination and prophecy [that] can be acquired by no quantity of labor or length of life, but…purely as the gift of nature’) and Housman’s 1921 ‘Application of Thought to Textual Criticism’ (‘[criticism] require[s] more in the learner than a simply receptive mind, and indeed the truth is that [it] cannot be taught at all’). I argue that Bentley and Housman’s rhetoric positions textual criticism as a closed industry, practicable only for those with innate talent. I then survey the reception of Bentley and Housman and the characterization of textual criticism in modern scholarship: far from being left in the past, statements like Housman’s enjoy striking acceptance even now, with a majority of textual scholars seemingly agreeing that ‘natural rather than acquired gifts’ are the ‘critic’s basic equipment’ (Reynolds & Wilson 1991).

The theory and practice of Latin textual criticism, historically and today, is steeped in hero worship and a near-mystical imagining of genius: you either have it or you don’t. Comparative research on gender representation tells us that it is exactly this sort of rhetoric that forms the widest-reaching barrier against women’s academic access. When women are excluded from the idea of ‘innate genius’, they are excluded, too, from the subdisciplines that the academy values most. By interrogating our disciplinary histories, we can begin to wrest our scholarship from long-held assumptions that have made the exclusion of underrepresented groups look historically normal and value-neutral, when in fact it has been anything but.

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