He was born at Hainrode, a village not far from Nordhausen, in the province of Hanover. His father was the village schoolmaster and organist. In time the family moved to Nordhausen, and there young Wolf went to the grammar school, where he soon acquired all the Latin and Greek that the masters could teach him, besides learning French, Italian, Spanish and music. His attainments were only equalled by the confidence in his own powers which characterized his subsequent life.
After two years of independent study, at the age of eighteen, Wolf went (1777) to the University of Göttingen. His first act there was a prophecy. He chose a "faculty" which did not yet exist, that of "philology". This omen was accepted, and he was enrolled as he desired. Christian Gottlob Heine was then the leading light at Göttingen, and Wolf and he were not on good terms. Heine excluded him from his lectures, and brusquely condemned Wolf's views on Homer. Wolf, however, pursued his studies in the university library, from which he borrowed with his usual avidity. During 1779-1783 Wolf taught, first at Ilfeld, then at Osterode. His success as a teacher was striking, and he found time to publish an edition of the Symposium of Plato, which excited notice, and led to his promotion (1783) to a chair in the Prussian University of Halle.
This was a critical time. The literary impulse of the Renaissance was almost spent; scholarship had become dry and trivial. A new school, that of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, tried to make teaching more modern and more human, but at the sacrifice of mental discipline and scientific aim. Wolf threw himself into the contest on the side of antiquity. In Halle (1783-1807), by the force of his will and the enlightened aid of the ministers of Frederick the Great, he was able to carry out his long-cherished ideas and found the science of philology. Wolf defined philology broadly as "knowledge of human nature as exhibited in antiquity." The matter of such a science, he held, must be sought in the history and education of some highly cultivated nation, to be studied in written remains, works of art, and whatever else bears the stamp of national thought or skill. It has therefore to do with both history and language, but primarily as a science of interpretation, in which historical and linguistic facts take their place in an organic whole. Such was the ideal which Wolf had in his mind when he established the philological seminarium at Halle.
Wolf's writings are few, and were always subordinate to his teaching. During his time at Halle he published his commentary on the Leptines of Demosthenes (1789)--which suggested to his pupil, Aug. Boeckh, the Public Economy of Athens--and a little later the celebrated Prolegomena to Homer (1795). This is the work with which his name is chiefly associated, and was written in haste to meet an immediate need. It has all the merits of a great piece of oral teaching--command of method, suggestiveness, breadth of view. The publication led to an unpleasant argument with Heine, who absurdly accused him of reproducing what he had heard from him at Göttingen.
The Halle professorship ended tragically. Wolf and his university were forced out by the deluge of the French invasion. A painful gloom oppressed his remaining years (1807-1824), which he spent at Berlin. He became so intolerant as to alienate some of his warmest friends. He gained a place in the department of education, through the exertions of Wilhelm von Humboldt. When this became unendurable, he once more took a professorship, but he no longer taught with his old success, and he wrote very little. His most complete work, the Darstellung der Alterthumswissenschaft, though published at Berlin (1807), belongs essentially to the Halle time. At length his health gave way. He was advised to try the south of France. He got as far as Marseilles, where he died and was buried.
Mark Pattison wrote an admirable sketch of Wolf's life and work in the North British Review of June 1865, reproduced in his Essays (1889); see also J.E. Sandys, Hist. of Class. Schol. iii. (1908), pp. 51-60. Wolf's Kleine Schriften were edited by G Bernhardy (Halle, 1869). Works not included are the Prolegomena, the Letters to Heyne (Berlin, 1797), the commentary on the Leptines (Halle, 1789) and a translation of the Clouds of Aristophanes (Berlin, 1811). To these must be added the Vorlesungen on Iliad i.-iv., taken from the notes of a pupil and edited by Usteri (Bern, 1830).