Page 124 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 20

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HARRY A. WOLFSON, MASTER OF PROSE
On the Occasion of His Seventy-Fifth Birthday
By
L
eo
W.
S
chwarz
W
a lk ing
through Sever Hall in Harvard Yard one day in the
winter of 1952-53, I noticed a poster announcing the Bow-
doin Prizes. Candidates for one of the Prizes were asked to make
a Greek translation of an English passage from contemporary
literature, and to my surprise I found that the passage was a
quotation from Harry Wolfson’s
Philo.
The piece selected was
his description of the mediaeval synthetic philosopher in the last
chapter of the work. Reading the selection, I admired the dis-
cernment of the Committee on Bowdoin Prizes of the Depart-
ment of Classics.
Philo
contains many pages that could be in-
eluded in an anthology of the best contemporary prose. A few
brief quotations will have to serve as illustrations.
In the course of discussing Philo’s form of literary expression
and its relation to Philo’s treatment of philosophic problems,
Wolfson demonstrates a mastery of expository prose. “ . . . Philo’s
language represented the literary philosophic language of his
time with all the richness and all the variety of elements that
entered into its making. Philosophic language by the very history
of its formation is bound to be heterogeneous, and it is for this
reason that one cannot determine the affiliation of a philosopher
by the parentage of the terms he uses. Every word, indeed, has
an etymology, and every term has a history. But the use of the
term by a philosopher goes beyond etymology and history, though
a knowledge of both of these is essential for the understanding
of its use. . . . The style of Philo, like that of any writer, is the
product of all that has been written before him. I t has absorbed
within itself terms and expressions and allusions derived from
the philosophers of various schools, as also from popular Greek
religion and mythology and mysteries. But in the case of Philo,
as in the case of any other author, while the outer speech may
be the man, it is the inner speech of thought, and the latent
processes of reasoning behind it, that is the philosopher."
As he pursues this theme and revises the conventional estimate
of Philo, the precision of language is matched by an engaging
persuasiveness of style. “Now if every philosopher in the past
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