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The Odium Philologicum
by [?]

Our readers and those of The Galaxy are familiar with the controversy between Dr. Fitzedward Hall and Mr. Grant White (November, 1873). When one comes to inquire what it was all about, and why Mr. White was led to consider Dr. Hall a “yahoo of literature,” and “a man born without a sense of decency,” one finds himself engaged in an investigation of great difficulty, but of considerable interest. The controversy between these two gentlemen by no means brings up the problem for the first time. That verbal criticism, such as Mr. White has been producing for some time back, is sure to end, sooner or later, in one or more savage quarrels, is one of the most familiar facts of the literary life of our day. Indeed, so far as our observation has gone, the rule has no exceptions. Whenever we see a gentleman, no matter how great his accomplishments or sweet his temper, announcing that he is about to write articles or deliver lectures on “Words and their Uses,” or on the “English of Every-day Life,” or on “Familiar Faults of Conversation,” or “Newspaper English,” or any cognate theme, we feel all but certain that we shall soon see him engaged in an encounter with another laborer in the same field, in which all dignity will be laid aside, and in which, figuratively speaking, clothes, hair, and features will suffer terribly, and out of which, unless he is very lucky, he will issue with the gravest imputations resting on his character in every relation of life.

Now why is it that attempts to get one’s fellow-men to talk correctly, to frame their sentences in accordance with good usage, and take their words from the best authors, have this tendency to arouse some of the worst passions of our nature, and predispose even eminent philologists–men of dainty language, and soft manners, and lofty aims–to assail each other in the rough vernacular of the fish-market and the forecastle? A careless observer will be apt to say that it is an ordinary result of disputation; that when men differ or argue on any subject they are apt to get angry and indulge in “personalities.” But this is not true. Lawyers, for instance, live by controversy, and their controversies touch interests of the gravest and most delicate character–such as fortune and reputation; and yet the spectacle of two lawyers abusing each other in cold blood, in print, is almost unknown. Currency and banking are, at certain seasons, subjects of absorbing interest, and, for the last seventy years, the discussions over them have been numerous and voluminous almost beyond example, and yet we remember no case in which a bullionist called a paper-money man bad names, or in which a friend of free banking accused a restrictionist of defrauding the poor or defacing tombstones. Politics, too, home and foreign, is a fertile source of difference of opinion; and yet gross abuse, on paper, of each other, by political disputants, discussing abstract questions having no present relation to power or pay, are very rare indeed.

It seems, at first blush, as if an examination of the well-known odium theologicum, or the traditional bitterness which has been apt to characterize controversies about points of doctrine, from the Middle Ages down to a period within our own memory, would throw some light on the matter. But a little consideration will show that there are special causes for the rancor of theologians for which word-criticism has no parallel. The odium theologicum was the natural and inevitable result of the general belief that the holding of certain opinions was necessary to salvation, and that the formation of opinions could be wholly regulated by the will. This belief, pushed to its extreme limits and embodied in legislation, led to the burning of heretics in nearly all Christian countries. When B’s failure to adopt A’s conclusions was by A regarded as a sign of depravity of nature which, would lead to B’s damnation, nothing was more natural than that when they came into collision in pamphlets or sermons they should have attributed to each other the worst motives. A man who was deliberately getting himself ready for perdition was not a person to whom anybody owed courtesy or consideration, or whose arguments, being probably supplied by Satan, deserved respectful examination. We accordingly find that as the list of “essential” opinions has become shortened, and as doubts as to men’s responsibility for their opinions have made their way from the world into the church, theological controversy has lost its acrimony and indeed has almost ceased. No theologian of high standing or character now permits himself to show bad temper in a doctrinal or hermeneutical discussion, and a large and increasing proportion of theologians acknowledge that the road to heaven is so hard for us all that the less quarrelling and jostling there is in it, the better for everybody.