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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

It's how things end up that counts, not how they might seem in the meantime...

Much of what we know about the ancient world we owe to Herodotus, the only travel writer in print for 2,500 years. A.P. David invites us to renew our acquaintance with the inventor of history ...


I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the colour from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another. (tr. Grene)

This is the first installment of an "Herodotus Diary". I shall be reading in Greek, along with the English of my late teacher, David Grene. My aim is not to be scholarly, but to be engaging, both of Herodotus and of the big wide world in which his book goes on surviving—a bedside book for this and any other century. Herodotus is the original post-post-modern in a pluralist world. Read along with me, in any translation you have to hand.

Herodotus made history by inventing history. There are two senses of "history" in that English sentence, neither of which corresponds to the Greek historia. The first sense seems to me to be a powerful one in public usage. This is the sense involved in such phrases as "making history", "history will show", or "the end of history". Really, this is the way that moderns get at a concept of "fate"—where fate itself is an ossified word that lives, for most people, as something the ancients "believed in".

Think of the Congressional Record: it is not the minutes of a meeting. Things get put in there that were never uttered by a live human being. Similarly, we all have a space in our consciousness for statements we consider "for the record", or "off the record", as though there were a cosmic ledger somewhere being filled with the detail of our lives and our countries' lives, a ledger of record, the last word before we "close the book".

Herodotus fears the wearing agency of time, which can turn colourful statues with piercing eyes into the falsely pristine marble of neo-classicism. (Greek temples were more like Hindu temples than like the touristy ruins now left behind.) Perhaps this justifies David Grene's use of "history" to translate historia. At the very least, Herodotus does want to get the record straight. But there is more, a majestic even-handedness in his recognition that both warring agents produced great and wonderful deeds that deserve to be remembered vividly. ("Great" and "wonderful" should not be taken to imply "good".)

The second sense is "history" as a discipline, a thing in which you can earn an advanced degree. The professional historian, along with humanists of many other disciplines, is especially concerned with a thing she has invented called "methodology". Whole books of historical writing climax with vindications of their own methodology. It is the way.

By these lights Herodotus does not usually qualify as an historian. He is merely a "story-teller". I rather think that he is anti-methodological, and hence a kind of champion. The irony in the modern historian's verdict comes when Herodotus is treated as source material. Whenever it has been possible to corroborate elements of his narrative or description independently, almost always Herodotus has been vindicated. (There are whole swaths of ancient history for which he is, apparently, our only source.)

But we shall not be looking at Herodotus as an informant: we shall be looking at him as an inquirer into the ever-present human condition.

Because historia means "inquiry" or "investigation". And this is the spirit of Herodotus' publication. He is a seeker, and one might as well adopt his attitude as naively as one can, in order to see the world and its workings afresh.

There is an error, however well-meaning, at the end of Grene's translation. The idiom which he translates literally as "together with all this", really ought to say "in particular" or "especially". Herodotus is declaring that he is most interested, with his history, in establishing the cause of the war between the Greeks and the Persians.

Most translators stumble at this idiom, ubiquitous in Herodotus' prose, only here in his proemium. I think they are trying to protect the author from a charge of fraud. Does Herodotus anywhere tell us exactly what was the cause of the war? Certainly not in so many words. We get nine books of mythology, cultural anthropology, natural history, war narrative, Egyptians, Slavs, Lydians, Babylonians, Dorians and Ionians, Spartans and Athenians, and of course Persians. And yet we have been promised—in particular!—the reason for the war.

Well, perhaps if we are ever to understand a war between Westerners and Middle Easterners, we have to go very, very deep, and very, very wide.

Posted by Ajay :: 5:39 PM :: 0 comments

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