12 November 2020

The blessing of accountability

A great number of reports in a wide variety of formats produced by professors at the Academia Julia (1576–1810) in Helmstedt, the regional university of the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg, covering a period of 100 years or so (c.1650–c.1750), have been preserved in the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel and the Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv Wolfenbüttel (Lower Saxony State Archives Wolfenbüttel). These handwritten sheets, composed in Latin, also referred to as ‘monthly reports’, are valuable sources of information, as they can sometimes be examined as a comprehensive series – that is to say, from week to week, month to month, year to year and even decade to decade – and evaluated more or less as a whole.

However, one obvious merit of these sources has received very little attention to date: the possibility an analysis of them offers of reconstructing the teaching content of entire semesters. Here, our primary interest falls upon those professors who were particularly meticulous in reporting on their lectures. This can provide answers to a number of questions, including the continuity and evolution of particular teaching content as well as the emphasis placed on it at an early modern university.


A short semester of philosophical history in Helmstedt: February‒April 1688

Just how much material was taught at the university of Helmstedt in a single semester? How much time was allotted to a particular topic? And what does this tell us about the focus of university studies and the underlying teaching doctrine? The reports made by the Helmstedt philosophy and, later, theology professor Johann Barthold Niemeier (1644–1708), who taught continuously in Helmstedt for over 30 years, offer a great deal of insight into these and other questions. Beginning in the winter semester of 1680/81, Niemeier began providing detailed reports, not in the usual format, which relied on short pieces of text, but rather in tables in which he listed all the individual lecture days separately and provided information pertaining to the subject of instruction on each of these days. Even though these reports do not represent the equivalent of a complete semester plan for an early modern professor, tabular reports of this kind do offer us the most dependable information regarding the manner in which individual professors sought to structure their teaching.

Particularly enlightening in this regard is the lecture series on the history of philosophy that Niemeier held in the first half of 1688. As the structure of the course of lectures shows, he geared it to a contemporary model that based the history of humanity and philosophy on the chronology of biblical and sacred history. For a Lutheran scholar such as Niemeier, philosophy was derived from God, and Adam – as the first human – and his descendants up until Noah were likewise the first philosophers. Other biblical and ancient peoples, such as the Babylonians, Canaanites, Egyptians, Celts and Scythians came later, and they all produced their own philosophies, as the professor taught for nearly the entire month of February.

This was followed by the main body of his lectures: the philosophies of the Greeks and their impact. The Presocratics, including Socrates himself, were covered in two weeks (1–15 March). Six lectures (16–26 March) were dedicated to Plato and the history of the academy founded upon his teachings. As Niemeier’s entry for 23 March shows, the professor was thoroughly aware of how, over time, Platonic philosophy, particularly the philosophy of the New Academy, fell victim to changes and even falsifications: nova Academia a Platonis dogmatibus deflexerit. We would like to have more detail included for entries of this kind, but often we can gain a deeper understanding by examining the disputations on the subject held during the semester in question: professors had students defend their theses each semester and these arguments were later published in printed form.


Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv, Wolfenbüttel section: 37 Alt Nr. 2518 fol. 94

After examining Plato, Niemeier finally turned to the true focus of his lectures: Aristotelian philosophy and the Peripatetic school that was founded on it (Philosophia Peripatetica / schola Peripatetica). No less than 13 lectures (more than double the number that were dedicated to the Platonic tradition and at least as many as those focusing on philosophy from Adam to the Greeks!) focused solely on Aristotle and his tradition. Three of these lectures were entirely given over to the merits of Aristotelian philosophy. These were followed in April by two general lectures examining criticisms of Aristotle. Here Niemeier delved more extensively into the history of the reception of Aristotelian/Peripatetic philosophy, which he divided into three phases: classical commentary such as that of Andronicus of Rhodes, medieval scholasticism and the philosophy’s renaissance during the Reformation period (19–23 April). The rest of the section focusing on its reception history was dedicated to the enemies and critics of the Peripatetic school. In just three lectures (23–26 April) Niemeier raced rather quickly through the important alternative philosophical theories of Ramé and Gassendi (the two shared a single lecture) as well as that of Descartes, which did scant justice to the impact their philosophical writings had in the latter part of the 17th century, including for scholarly university discourse. The individual lectures for the rest of April were dedicated to the remaining schools of Greek philosophy, such as the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans. All told, the lessons focused more on older, mainly classical, philosophy. More recent philosophies dating from the 16th and 17th centuries were examined in much less detail and were typically contrasted with the Aristotelian philosophical tradition.


Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv, Wolfenbüttel section: 37 Alt Nr. 2518 fol. 95


The curse of tradition

Reports like Niemeier’s offer insight into just how influential the teaching of Aristotelian/Peripatetic philosophy still was at early modern universities such as Helmstedt even in the late 17th century. It was no coincidence that for nearly all of the essential aspects of their university lectures, such as logic, ethics, rhetoric, physics and metaphysics, philosophy professors drew heavily on the relevant works of the rich Aristotelian/Peripatetic oeuvre. Teaching had to conform to the university statutes as well as the academic calendar, and professors had to present their reports to the office of the dean and the princes each quarter. In many cases, newer, contemporary philosophies that were not explicitly stipulated in the curriculum were only taught rather selectively in fact, even though many professors consistently required them and they were often made the focus of dissertations. However, as the majority of these reports show, newer philosophies remained on the margins of the Helmstedt curriculum for many years. This was the result of a thoroughly conservative structural logic, which maintained that these philosophies could only be properly evaluated and examined in greater depth – if at all – if one had complete mastery of Aristotle. It was only after 1700 that this dictum was increasingly eased, and more recent philosophies could play a larger role in the curriculum – alongside the Aristotelian/Peripatetic philosophy, of course.


About the author

Benjamin Wallura is a philologist of (New) Latin and a research associate at the Freie Universität Berlin and the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. The main focuses of his research are early modern debate and scholarly culture and 17th- and 18th-century university history in central and northern Europe.

Additional information about Benjamin Wallura
Information! All the illustrations in this article come from the Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv, Wolfenbüttel section, and can be found in the following archival index: https://www.arcinsys.niedersachsen.de/arcinsys/detailAction.action?detailid=v5597662