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16 January 2007

Studying Ancient Civilisations to Understand the Modern World

200 years of Classical Studies in Heidelberg: The University's oldest department celebrates its anniversary — Engagement with ancient texts ensures the future of the discipline — Prize-giving ceremony

Exactly 200 years have passed since the Department of Classical Studies was established at the University of Heidelberg in 1807, when the University was given a new lease of life following the Napoleonic Wars. The new start was a venture engineered by Friedrich Creuzer, a friend of Goethe's and Brentano's, who at the same time enhanced the standing of the nascent seat of learning with his scholarly renown. Heidelberg had just witnessed the end of the Electoral Palatinate and the transfer to the state of Baden and welcoming major figures like Creuzer was balm to its wounded soul. This year the oldest department of the University still in existence celebrates its anniversary with a series of interesting events.

The first of these is scheduled for this week, a conference with the title "Middle Rhenish Symposium: Text and Intuition". It will commence with the presentation of the Young Scholars' Prize for Theory Formation in Classical Studies to Susanne Gödde of the Free University of Berlin, who will receive the award on 18 January in the Great Hall of the Old University for her Habilitation thesis "euphêmia. Constructions of the Good in Ancient Greek Cult and Literature".

In the course of her research Susanne Gödde, who specialises in ancient Greek and religious studies, worked her way through Greek literature from Homer to Plato studying the phenomenon of "euphêmia" ("speaking well of someone/something" and traditionally interpreted as an injunction to silence) as a rhetorical figure poised between "good" and "bad" or literal and figurative speech. With analyses based on close readings of the texts in question, she provides a fascinating overview of a body of literature that both observes ritual and social speech norms and contemplates the consequences of transcending them. This unconventional approach to research issues is a central criterion for the award of the prize, says Professor Jürgen Paul Schwindt, director of the Department of Classical Studies. He has been closely involved in the selection of the prize winners for a number of years and together with the prominent external jury members Michael Theunissen and Rainer Warning is delighted by the commitment of young scholars like Susanne Gödde, whose precise and original re-readings of ancient texts open up new theoretical approaches and horizons in the field of Classical Studies.

The prize is endowed with 1,500 euros donated by the Heidelberg university publishing house Winter, which will also publish the thesis in its renowned series Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften. "We concur with Dr. Barth of the Winter publishing house that the theoretical and intellectual legacy of the Romantic period is anything but exhausted," says Jürgen Schwindt. "By virtue of their origins, both institutions — the publishing house and the department — are very much a part of that tradition."

Creuzer and his colleagues August Böckh and Voß the younger maintained close contact with the other major disciplines of the Romantic period, law, history and theology. The result was a new theory of scholarly endeavour that broke with the world view of the classical period and has lost none of its actuality to this day.

"It is a fine thing to study antiquity in order to understand it better," Schwindt emphasises. "But it is even more essential to study ancient civilisations for a better understanding of the modern world. Creutzer interests us not so much as a charismatic scholar and philologist but as the founder of an interdisciplinary approach to Classical Studies as a form of basic research."

The Department has been working for some time on the categorical establishment of a classical and philological approach to literary studies. Says Jürgen Schwindt: "Modern, internationally oriented literary research has consequences both for our understanding of Greek and Latin literary and cultural history and for the identity of philology and the specific image of humanity it conveys."

But the aim of Heidelberg's Classical Studies Department is not only the programmatic renewal of a subject that for a time appeared to have been relegated to a marginal existence. Another essential objective is the training of critical minds. "If we contrive to impose our vision of Classical Studies as a subject squarely rooted in the modern humanities," says Schwindt, "then it will be solely because we have intelligent, razor-sharp young scholars and students who with their creative unrest nip any incipient tendencies towards intellectual sclerosis in the bud." With 140 newly enrolled students in the current semester, the foundations have been laid for keeping Classical Studies alive and flourishing both in the present and the future. 200 years are not enough by any means.

© Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung

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Dr. Michael Schwarz
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Irene Thewalt
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