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Tuesday, March 11, 2008It's how things end up that counts, not how they might seem in the meantime..Part--3
A.P. David, in the third of his readings of Herodotus , finds history a tough judge of events. It's how things end up that counts, not how they might seem in the meantime ...
" ... of all [the days of a man's life] not one brings to him anything exactly the same as another. So, Croesus, man is entirely what befalls him ... one must look always at the end of everything—how it will come out finally. For to many the god has shown a glimpse of blessedness only to extirpate them in the end." (Solon to Croesus, "Histories", 1.32, tr. Grene)
This is one of the most-quoted sentiments in all Herodotus's work, but a difficult one for most people to take seriously. Surely it belittles the power of our own character and virtue to make ourselves happy. Surely the way we live in real time, the success of our loves, careers and even our lifestyles, constitutes more of our happiness than sheer chance does.
But even Aristotle, champion and cataloguer of human virtue, concedes the place of fortune.
Could Priam, the Trojan king, be said to have had a "happy" life? For most of it he was the envy of the world, with his wealth, his children, and the beauty of his city. But he died childless and bereft, prey to his table dogs. In his own words—that is, in Homer's coinage—he was panapotmos, "altogether ill-fated". (Opposite him, Achilles coins a word to describe his own condition: panaorion, "altogether without a season of bloom".)
Croesus, King of Lydia, was, well, as "rich as Croesus". He had his esteemed Athenian guest shown around his treasuries. But when he asked this mirror on the wall "who was most blessed of them all", Solon replied: "Tellus the Athenian".
Tellus had died gloriously while turning the tide of battle for Athens at sacred Eleusis, leaving behind a prosperous city and healthy grandchildren. We would never have heard of him but for Herodotus.
And who was second most blessed? "Cleobis and Biton". These were brothers who had pulled their grateful mother to temple in a cart, like oxen, and died from the effort. Their statues were dedicated at Delphi, and—truth is stranger than fiction—they are still there today, in the museum. Yet I doubt we would know who they were, but for Herodotus.
Solon was the great reformer and poet, author of the original New Deal, the compromise that brought peace between the landed and the townsfolk, the rich and the poor. He was the Franklin Roosevelt of Athens.
Many would agree—looking to the end, some 160 years later, when Herodotus performed—that this revolution in law was the basis for the prosperity, the might, and the brilliance of a Periclean Athens to come. But unlike most legislators, he was not allowed to profit from his work. After he had brokered the compromise, Solon was required to absent himself from Athens for ten years. This is why he travelled, first to Egypt, and then to see what he could see about this famous Croesus.
During the cold war we used to hear that Roosevelt's New Deal was the compromise that saved America from communism, the dose of socialism that prevented a revolution. But with the demise of Marxism, and the enveloping contextualisation of Marxist history, it becomes easier to see the New Deal in a positive and uncompromising light: as the greatest reform in the history of capitalist democracy, admirers would say, since the reforms of Solon.
The New Deal has its modern enemies, and history is always judging and reassessing things. When we say, "history will judge"—and we use this phrase to counter claims of achievement or failure in the present or the recent past—we say what is essential in Solon's proverb. Perhaps we also see why an historian might put these cautionary words in Solon's mouth, cast in a sort of fairy tale (he probably never met Croesus). The ancient reform was a key to Athenian greatness, but the present was a turbulent one. Herodotus knew that a Peloponnesian War with Sparta was coming.
Tacitus the Roman referred to an historian who was brought up on treason charges for writing a work that praised Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius, 70 years after their fall. And, with Caesars still in power, Tacitus was unable to write such an history even in his own day, some 160 years afterwards.
Centuries later, Dante placed Brutus and Cassius in Satan's jaws. Shakespeare seemed to find Brutus, at least, a tragic figure. Both assassins were heroes to the American founders. These same founders, looking to an end that Herodotus surely did not foresee, drew such lessons from the catastrophic fall of Athens that they wrote and advertised a constitution for their republic that was designed to protect its citizens not only from the evils of tyranny, but from democracy as well.
A.P. David discusses the portrayal of women in history, all too often as a sideshow to the perceived motives of powerful men ...
The origin of conflict between Greek-Europeans and Asian-Persians, says Herodotus, lay in the reciprocal abductions of women: Io, Europa, Medea, and finally Helen herself.
These the Persians let go as water under the bridge:
“It is the work of unjust men, we think, to carry off women at all; but once they have been carried off, to take seriously the avenging of them is the part of fools, as it is the part of sensible men to pay no heed to the matter: clearly, the women would not have been carried off had they no mind to be.”
Yet here were these mad Greeks fighting the Trojan War, invading Asia, after a runaway Helen!
Chapters devoted to "the role of women in history" in specific eras, and even whole books, do nothing so much as further marginalise the question, at least as much as these new kinds of research shed new light on the past. The history of more than half of humanity is a side or specialist issue. How does this happen? To see the marginalisation clearly, imagine trying to frame a project entitled "The Role of Men in History", and be taken seriously.
In Herodotus's story of Gyges the Lydian, a woman—a queen—is again central. The story observes a pattern found often enough in Herodotus to be considered a motif. At a certain point, as a situation plays out, a woman presents a man with the choice that will determine the way in which fate—or, if you prefer, history—emerges.
Gyges was chief bodyguard and confidante to King Candaules. The king could not bear to keep to himself the knowledge that he was married to the most beautiful woman in the world. So he arranged for Gyges to glimpse his (unnamed) queen naked. The queen caught sight of Gyges as he slipped away, and confronted him with this speech:
“Gyges, there are two roads before you, and I give you your choice which you will travel. Either you kill Candaules and take me and the kingship of the Lydians, or you must yourself die straightway, as you are, that you may not, in days to come, obey Candaules in everything and look on what you ought not. For either he that contrived this must die or you, who have viewed me naked and done what is not lawful.” ("Histories" 1.11, tr. Grene)
When Plato told the story, he gave a version explaining Gyges' concealment that was no doubt more popular: Gyges was the original Frodo, inheriting a ring of invisibility that gave him tyrannical opportunities. (Plato attributes the story to Gyges’ ancestor.)
Herodotus eschews the magical, and, for the most part, the gods. It is the actions due to human beings that he wishes to preserve and glorify, he writes in his proemium. The invisibility remains in his version, but it is merely the invisibility of Gyges' hiding behind a door as he views Candaules’ wife undressing.
Herodotus also eschews the sort of reduced account that Thucydides and modern followers have turned into "history". Here one looks only to the pragmatics of power to get at "what’s really going on". This discourse is devoted to the visible. It would say that Candaules was obviously the victim of a palace coup. (Even Herodotus mentions that there were co-conspirators, who appear somewhat suddenly in his narrative as things play out.)
Marrying the surviving queen would have been a slightly cynical but highly practical way of restoring stability. Gyges eventually resolves the civil war by consulting an oracle; seeking public religious backing also seems a realpolitik solution to popular unrest.
In these reductionist readings, women inevitably become a kind of sideshow to the perceived motives of powerful men, unless they themselves are the powerbrokers. But in Herodotus we are party to this interview behind closed doors. (Here is another way in which Herodotus relies on the invisible, in the sense of "non-empirical".) Its austerity is perhaps meant to mask a sexual intrigue—was Candaules’ wife flattered?. Herodotus may also be trading, humorously, on a perceived Eastern prudishness.
And if we want to know "what’s really going on"—and surely this is the job of historians—then we do need to go behind closed doors. Perhaps the only way to do this is to tap into the store of human motifs. Professedly empirical historians claim to do this, but they limit their forays into the hidden, by postulating motives of power.
But there really are these interviews in the bedroom, and it is highly likely that they change things. Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer as to a date, before her husband bombed Libya. It is said that Bill and Hillary Clinton long since made a pact, half completed, to help each other become President. (I purposely do not cite; as Herodotus well knew, the stories of public people have lives of their own.) And the story goes that Laura Bush once presented the future President with an ultimatum about his drinking. Is it not possible that in these interviews between men and women, which force a decision, we come close to the heart of the mystery of fate?
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.