Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Herodotus: father of history?

Now in the final missing piece of the philosophy book puzzle: chapter 14, the philosophy of history.  Hope to have the whole first draft off to the publisher by Monday.
... For example, the ancient Roman philosopher Cicero (106-43BC) once called the Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 484-ca. 425BC) the “father of history.” [1] The philosopher of history asks questions like, “Why did Cicero think Herodotus was different from the others before him who recorded events from the past?”  “Have others agreed with Cicero—why or why not?”  “What assumptions did Cicero bring to the issue that we might question?”  “What was Herodotus’ distinct contribution to history writing, if any?”

We begin to investigate.  Cicero does not fully explain why he calls Herodotus the father of history, and it is not at all clear that he came up with the idea.  The context is a distinction between the genres of poetry and history.  History is supposed to be about truth while poetry is more about pleasure.  Herodotus is the father of history because he wrote about things that actually happened, although Cicero acknowledges that some things in Herodotus' Histories are legendary. By contrast, poets like Homer wrote more about gods and legends that were more for pleasure.

So the standard Cicero seems to be using for "history" is that someone is writing about what actually happened rather than about legends and myths.  Indeed, other ancient writers devalued Herodotus by the same standard, and he has almost as often been called the "father of lies" as the father of history.  The Greek writer Plutarch (ca. AD46-120) wrote an entire treatise called, "The Malice of Herodotus," which frequently refers to what he considered to be lies in Herodotus' Histories.

As we dig around other writers from the ancient world, we find more confirmation of this basic standard.  The satirist Lucian of Samosata (ca. AD120-90) writes in his book, How to Write History, that the job of a historian is "to tell the story as it happened." [2]  Thucydides (ca. 460-ca. 395BC), who wrote later in the same century as Herodotus, may allude to him when he says that he is not going to include any "fables" in his history and that his aim is to present truly what happened and what might happen again. [3]  Because Thucydides does not include the gods as actors in his history, because he seems to have been more scrupulous in his use of sources, sometimes he is called the father of history--or at least the father of critical history.

The philosopher of history examines the assumptions both of these ancient writers and of those "historiographers" who have followed.  For example, it would be wrong to assume that the ancients considered it wrong for there to be some legendary or non-historical material in a history book.  This is more an assumption of modern history writing.  Cicero himself acknowledges that there is a good deal that is legendary in Herodotus.

Perhaps even more striking is the fact that Thucydides himself tells his audience up front that he has composed some of the speeches in his history.  He says that when his sources were not sufficient to recall exactly what was said on some occasion, he had created material that he thought would have been appropriate to the occasion. [4]  So clearly the rules for what you could do in ancient history writing were different from the rules we use today. [5]

The philosopher of history also notices that this entire conversation has taken place in a particular region of the world.  The Romans had absorbed a good deal from their neighboring Greeks and Plutarch himself was Greek, as was Thucydides centuries before. [6] The individuals who continued this discussion after the Renaissance were riding a cultural wave that started in Italy and looked back to the ancient Greeks and Romans as their supposed cultural ancestors.

In short, this discussion is a regional discussion.  What are we to say about the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians, let alone the books of the Old Testament?  What about the stories the Aztecs told each other or that circulated in China or Africa?  In the light of this bigger picture, can we really still consider Herodotus the "father of history" because his work was written down and survived because a thread of individuals preserved it?

Nevertheless, despite these meta-questions, there do seem to be some features of Herodotus that make him a good starting reference point for a discussion of what history is, not least because his work has survived.  First, he does not merely give the point of view of his people.  Indeed, one of the reasons Plutarch may be so critical of him is the fact that Herodotus is less biased than he is toward the Greeks, giving the perspective of the Persians as well, the enemies of the Greeks. [7]  Secondly, he did research with sources in preparation for his writing.  It may not have been as extensive as that of Thucydides, but Herodotus did not simply repeat local oral traditions.

Thirdly, although the gods feature in his narrative, he pays significant attention to the normal processes of cause and effect.  Things that happen are not simply discussed as the will or intervention of the gods, but in terms of real conflict and chains of events as a result of human decisions in conjunction with their circumstances.  Finally, we might mention that he was not writing merely as the arm of some kingdom or establishment.  He is not the chronicler of a king but an independent author...

[1] Laws 1.5.

[2] How to Write History, 39.

[3] History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.

[4] History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.

[5] This is an important warning to those that assume biblical narratives must be absolutely historical for them to be "true."  To think so imposes a modern standard rather than the standard of their day.

[6] As the Roman poet Horace (65-27BC) once wrote, "Captured Greece took captive her ferocious conqueror" (Epistles 2.1).

[7] R. H. Barrow, Plutarch and His Times (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1967), 157.


John C. Gardner said...

This section on Greco-Roman historians was not only interesting but has relevance for today. For example, the debate between Christian historians versus Christian popularizers such as Dave Barton(and others). The idea that America is(or was) a Christian nation is true if one means that many Americans historically have been Christian. However, what if we look for causation in history or the popular idea that America is a divinely favored nation? Ben Witherington once commented in the preface of one of his books that he believes more than he can verify as a Christian historian. Does God favor America over other nations? Is a country that practiced slavery and segregation a particular favorite of God?
These were questions that this posting raised for me.

Ken Schenck said...

I agree that the way you word the statement is important--were the founders of America significantly influenced by Christianity? Absolutely. Were they Christians? Well, I'm not sure that Franklin and Jefferson were much more than deists but surely most were. Is the Constitution Christian? No. It's first amendments value people as a Christian should but also explicitly reject a specific religious identity. The evidence here seems pretty straightforward to me.