It is said that history was born with the Greeks; but their grand style in history has little to do with our own.
1. History versus Pre-history
There is a perennial sense of ‘history’ which is nothing more than the persisting and transmitted memory of past events and deeds, and which forms a marker of human existence as opposed to animal existence. There is not a single tribe nor band of thieves, no matter how uncivilized and savage, that does not to some extent practise this kind of ‘history’ in the form of myths and legends, stories and tales of its heroes, its founders, its gods or demigods. These memories or protomemories open the question of the relation between a people’s ‘monumental history’ and its religion.
This kind of ‘history’, from the first, was passed down in spoken poetry and recountings; it originally forms an oral tradition. Oral traditions, as opposed to written traditions, cannot be compared with their past forms to verify the extent to which they have altered or stayed the same over time. The original ‘historical sense’ of human beings falls therefore into the ‘realms of myth’; it cannot be evaluated for its ‘historical truth’ through comparative studies of the past. The possibility of such evaluation seems to arise only with the first written record of human events, generally in the Ozymandian inscriptions of great lords, or in the earliest epic poetry, as for instance the Iliad and Gilgamesh. This is the reason that ‘history’ as it is presently conceived is linked to the advent of writing, and more important still to the preservation of specific written works. So far as our contemporary notion of history is concerned, then, we can say that history itself arose some four to five millennia ago.
It is generally acknowledged, perhaps for no better reason than the etymological, that ‘history’ as it is presently understood was born with the Greeks. Indeed, the word itself comes to us from the use that was made of it by Herodotus and Thucydides in particular, who both included the Greek etymon for ‘history’ in the titles of those works for which they are remembered: The Histories (Ἱστορίαι), and The History of the Peloponnesian War (Ιστορία Πελοποννησιακού Πολέμου) respectively. The Greek ἱστορία in truth means simply an enquiry, an investigation, deriving from the older ἵστωρ, a knowledgable or competent witness, or even a judge, one who is astute or skilful in evaluating. This term was implicated in many legal senses, and could mean one who knew the law, who was competent in legal matters or who was fit to determine the outcome of a contest.1 This connection with the legal or customary (ὁ νόμος or τό ἔθος)2 does not appear to be merely adventitious, for indeed Herodotus’ work is a long investigation into the ways, laws, consuetudes of multiple different peoples, Greek and barbarian; and Thucydides is nothing if not judge. It would be well, then, to refer to these men, not as historians, which word cannot help but assume a misguiding present-day shading, but rather histors.
We begin then with a fundamental point of agreement between the two foremost histors of Greek antiquity; they are both of them aware of the erosive, destructive, obliterating power of time. Herodotus says at the very commencement of his work, ‘[T]hose [cities] that were great in earlier times most have now become small, and those that were great in my time were small in the time before.’3 Everywhere in his histories there is the haunting sense of impermanence, captured perhaps nowhere so powerfully and so beautifully as in his description of that mightiest king, Xerxes of Persia, gazing out upon his hosts of men from a high vantage and weeping, saying ‘[F]or pity stole over me as I made my meditation on the shortness of the life of man; here are all these thousands, and not a one of them will be alive a hundred years from now.’4 Thucydides similarly notes the consuming powers of time at the very beginning of his own History; it is impossible ‘to discover clearly what happened in the previous era or the still more remote past.’5 The very first line of Herodotus’ work – the inaugurating words of the whole of the Greek ‘historical’ tradition – point emphatically to this problem, and launch a challenge against it:
I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color 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 they fought one another.
Thucydides near the opening of his book, and in the context of that passage which can be taken as his statement of purpose, suggests a similar if not identical aim: ‘[This work] is a possession for all time, not a competition piece to be heard for the moment, that has been composed’. This not to mention the much-famed Periklean oration, in which Thucydides has his Perikles state a related, if perhaps more triumphal, view of time in the beautiful statement that the ‘whole earth is the tomb of famous men’.6
To this extent the two histors agree: they are in contest, not primarily with the men of their day and the passing deeds of human beings, but primarily with time itself. This is surely connected to another interesting point of community between them: both their works most poignantly begin with their own names, and write primarily in the first person.7 The Greek view of history is a competition of individual men against Time the Destroyer, Time the Father of all decay.
Yet the common use of the single word ἱστορία in the titles of their books, and the subsequent adoption that was made of etymologically derivative terms by later persons, peoples and periods, has enabled an unjustified conflation of the work of these two great men; one elides their differences or, worse yet, one superimposes a foreign understanding of history on the men who founded its study, and judges both of them wanting to differing degrees on the basis of a canon which is alien to their intentions. Thus one transforms these great men from first-rate teachers into rough prototypes and crude precursors, and simultaneously deprives oneself of the benefit of their lessons. If our present ‘historical sense’ can grant us any boon, however, it is the power to gaze into the mists of the past with the intent to grasp the true figures stirring therein in all their reality and concreteness, rather than to assume, from a mere error of our limited perspective, that these men themselves were really as they appear to us, indistinct, grey and inchoate.
Unlike his near contemporary Thucydides, Herodotus interests himself in matters of the deeper past as well as the present. Thucydides confines himself mostly to the present and the near past, because the distant past, in large part thanks to the poets, has ‘won through to the realms of myth’.8 Herodotus, as our present historiographers never tire of pointing out in an unwittingly unhistorical manner, was laxer in the face of myth and did not apply such rigorous or seemingly rigorous criteria to his division of ‘fact’ from ‘tale’. The ‘Father of History’, as he has been known since Cicero crowned him with the title, thus seems curiously indifferent to history.
Here, as everywhere, our faith in the naivette of the ancients in fact betrays our own. Herodotus, it should be needless to say, was not numb to the distinction between what is claimed by men and what is the truth of things.9 He did not hesitate to correct those parts of received tales that could be corrected. A clear instance of this has to do with several geographical questions, which he is eager to rectify, often on the basis of his own witness of these places. He even stakes his reputation on his personal observations of the Nile.10 While stories may change over time, geography is more or less permanent; in this way it forms a changeless standard of investigation. It is not the only such standard. Some of the stories that come down to us can be ‘checked’ against reality and against existing records; some cannot. Herodotus states that ‘Throughout this entire history it is my underlying principles that it is what people severally have said to me, and what I have heard, that I must write down’;11 yet he writes as well what he has seen, and never hesitates to take it in preference to what others have told him: what has been confirmed with one’s own eyes is to be favoured with respect to what has merely been heard.
Only that the past itself cannot be ‘seen’; it comes to us always and ever on the flighty wings of rumour and indirect evidences, and there is no solid basis for determining the verity or the falsity of these tales, save as against other tales from other uncertain sources. If we are to voyage in the terrain of the past, then we must be judge of these tales, we must be histors12 – there is no way around it; but to rightly discharge our duty in the face of time, we must first hear all witnesses, and presume each of them to speak truth before we have passed our judgement on them. This means accepting the tales of a seeming ‘myth’, at first with the same impartial spirit of equanimity that we accept the tales of a seeming ‘fact’.
We, who like to consider ourselves ‘enlightened’, would find this openness childlike and naive; but never once has any man established ‘objective’ standards for drawing the limpid line between myth and fact; still less has any man ever proved that ‘myth’ does not lay out a pathway, if perhaps an indirect and overgrown one, to certain ‘historical truths’. All recourse here to ‘common sense’ or ‘rationality’ or our ‘science’ is but a begging of the question, for our ‘common sense’ or ‘rationality’ is evidently not that of the Greeks of Herodotus’ day, to say nothing of our ‘science’, which practically excludes these matters a priori. By what authority then do we judge of Herodotus?
His is for the most part a study, not so much of ‘facts’ and ‘events’ as of deeds or rumours or glory (τὰ ἔργα, τό κλέος). These things are not susceptible, or not alway susceptible, to the kind of ‘historical scrutiny’ we have been led to expect of ‘history’, by which all relayed events are to be ‘objective’ or ‘factual’, or measured against some ‘objective’ or ‘factual’ criterion; in many if not all cases no legitimate means can be discerned for cutting such neat distinctions in the flesh of time. We moderns are thus enticed to say that the past remains necessarily enigmatic, that its riddles can never be finally resolved, for the ‘facts’ which compose it are themselves fickle or uncertain.
Yet this does not stop our partial or ‘fictional’ knowledge of the past from being truthful, significant and signifying. Through the record of a variety of perspectives and their careful consideration, the quality or character of peoples and their ways comes to light; Herodotus’ history is the study of these other peoples and the human beliefs or stories or events that surround them. This because, among peoples, ‘custom is king’;13 to accept unverifiable stories at ‘face value’ (‘For my part, I am not going to say about these matters that they happened thus or thus’)14 is not to prove one’s gullibility, but is rather to demonstrate one’s authentic interest in the spirit of the people in question – spirit which is necessarily obscured, forgotten or suppressed when the interest in ‘objective facts’ supplants the open-minded, and above all open-eared, investigation into myth or stories. Let us never neglect the fact that, in a most intriguing echo of the origins, our word ‘story’ and ‘history’ derive from the same source; it is only an accident of our perspective which insists so much on the supposed heritage of the second word and forgets almost altogether the identical source of the first. The ‘realms of myth’ are more revelatory in this special inquiry than are the most complete and scrupulously controlled ‘catalogs of history’.
The record, the writing down or exposition of past events is the Herodotean manner for conquering time; Herodotean history is therefore fundamentally transhistorical. History in this sense is a precursor to philosophy; the histor, as judge or witness, is precursor to the philosopher, the transhistorical judge. History in this sense means awareness, gleaned through travels and observation and discussions with strangers, of the great diversity of human ways;15 this produces the prerequisites for opening the Platonic question of human regimes,16 as well as the normative question of the best regime. The philosophical investigation of the best regime transfers awareness of the distinction between ‘hearsay’ and ‘witnessing’ to the myths and legends surrounding one’s own traditions, and thus transforms the philosopher into the judge, with all the dangers that attend to this. Herodotean historical study is concerned with ‘objective facts’ only insofar as they a) are accessible to rational scrutiny and b) legitimately demonstrate some true element of the soul of a people or nation, as opposed to merely fortuitous or accidental ‘facts’ surrounding it. But the royal road to that soul is not what a people actually has done or is doing, not its actual origins, important though all of this be, but rather what a people says it has done and claims to be doing, its stories about its origins – its fables and faiths. It is for this reason that the history of Herodotus is so freely interwoven with ‘myth’ or stories. We are better equipped to understand the soul of a people from a single one of their major legends than through a complete compilation, say, of all the names of their leaders and the dates and outcomes of their military campaigns: our contemporary ‘objective history’, which looks at myth with a skeptical and aseptic eye and which prides itself on nothing better than its ‘factuality’, is in error. Our evaluation of Herodotus as being unhistorical is itself surest sign of our own lack of sound ‘historical sense’ – despite the constancy with which we praise or presuppose this quality in ourselves.
With this observation, we turn to Thucydides, who is often acknowledged in our day as a ‘true historian’. He has been famously praised by J. B. Bury (Thucydides ‘marks the longest and most decisive step that has ever been taken by a single man towards making history what it is today’)17 and even earned high scholarly approbation from that closet meliorist and chronic myschronist Karl Popper, who nonetheless with his inerrant allergy to everything aristocratic in the soul sniffed out those deep ways in which Thucydides affronts the modern sensibilities. At the same time, it has been noted on numerous occasions that Thucydides seems to have something in common especially with the early moderns; it is no wonder he has been compared to Machiavelli; it is no wonder that Hobbes himself translated his History.
The intuition of this similarity should neither be ignored, nor its import uncritically presupposed; the first approach obscures our clear vision of modernity, but the second is liable to shutter our view of Thucydides himself. We cannot discuss the first question here; we dedicate ourselves to the second.
Thucydides lays out his aims as follows:
[The Peloponnesian War] will … stand out clearly as greater than the others for anyone who examines it from the [actions]18 themselves.
… About the actions of the war [τὰ δ᾽ ἔργα … πολέμῳ] , … I considered it my responsibility to write neither as I learned from the chance informant nor according to my own opinion, but after examining what I witnessed myself and what I learned from others, with the utmost possible accuracy [ἀκριβείᾳ] in each case. Finding out the [actions] involved great effort, because eye-witnesses did not report the same specific events [τοῖς ἔργοις] in the same way, but according to individual partisanship or ability to remember. And the results, by avoiding patriotic storytelling, will perhaps seem the less enjoyable for listening. Yet if they are judged useful by any who wish to look at the plain truth19 about both past events and those that at some future time, in accordance with human nature,20 will recur in similar or comparable ways, that will suffice. It is a possession for all time, not a competition piece to be heard for the moment, that has been composed.21
The barbs against Herodotus are manifest (Herodotus the reporter of ‘chance informants’, Herodotus the ‘patriotic storyteller’, Herodotus the writer of ‘composed competition pieces to be heard for the moment’);22 and it is furthermore easy to see how a superficial and complacent modern, upon reading these words, could thoughtlessly suppose them to bespeak a comfortably modern historical sense in Thucydides. Then let us clarify, first the difference which Thucydides draws between himself and Herodotus, and then that standing between him and modernity.
Thucydides favours, as Herodotus, what he has witnessed over what he has heard, the ‘eyes’ over the ‘ears’, witness over hearsay. Both men recognize the obvious and basically trivial fact that different witnesses recount one and the same event in different ways. Herodotus’ response to this is to provide all accounts that come into his possession, and to pass judgement only thereafter, if at all; Thucydides rather insists upon his role as histor, concentrating on the importance of examination, of judgement, of producing from out of the chaos of rival accounts and recountings some ordered narrative, and thus excludes those accounts he considers untrustworthy:
Such, then, I found to be the nature of early events, although with difficulty in trusting every peice of evidence. For men accept one another’s accounts of the past, even about their countries, with a uniform lack of examination … not believing that the past was more like what the poets have sung, embellishing with exaggerations, or the prose chroniclers have composed more for attractive listening than for truthfulness, in versions that cannot be checked and for the most part have forfeited credibility over time by winning victories in patriotic fiction, but regarding my discoveries from the clearest possible evidence for what concerns antiquity.23
The stories that are told of the past can point toward the truth or clarity, but cannot arrive at it; and in many cases they simply conceal or obscure it, if not destroy it. Chronos is ravenous, and consumes his children; the agents of his decay are the poets. The stories of the poets and ‘prose chroniclers’ (e.g. Herodotus) are not to be trusted; for while the poets ‘embellish’, the prose chroniclers are concerned with ‘attractive listening’ more than truthfulness. Thucydides, who eschews the competition with men, sets himself, in his very act of transcending the vulgar desire to please, in contest with time itself, but therefore also into direct agon with the poets and with the prose chroniclers.
It is tempting to take this ‘truthfulness’ to which Thucydides submits himself as some prototypical echo of the modern ‘historical sense’, the concern with ‘objective facts’; this however appears untenable for at least two reasons. First, Thucydides generally excludes his special criterion of judgement and expunges ‘chance informants’ as well as all the stories that he has deemed to be ‘embellishments’ or entertainment pieces or myths from his record; we know neither the accounts that he has rejected, nor his precise motives for rejecting them. In point of fact we know not even the name of his sources, about whom he wraps an impenetrable cloak of discretion. All of this should render him less historical, by our standards, than Herodotus, who submits almost all that he has heard to the page along with his judgements thereon and in many cases the source of the stories as well, that future readers can arrive at their own determinations on these questions. Second, and more fundamentally, the very ‘truth’ toward which Thucydides directs us is that which is evident or sure (τὸ σαφὲς) about ‘both those things that have come to be and those that are destined to be’;24 it is surety or clarity about both past and future. This surety is therefore not a ‘historical truth’ as we presently understand it, but in fact the very opposite – it is a transhistorical surety, a surety ‘for always’ (ἐς αἰεὶ), regarding both what has become and what is to come. This bears much more in common with what the philosophers sought, than with what our contemporary historians purport to seek.
The surety which can be gleaned from historical enquiry is transhistorical and speaks to the future as much as the past, because it is derived from knowledge of that which happens ‘in accord with human things’ (κατὰ τὸ ἀνθρώπινον); this then can be taken as the primary focus of Thucydides’ study, and the reason for which there is divergence between Thucydides and Herodotus on the status of rumour or hearsay. Such rumour or hearsay will aid one in painting the character of peoples; but it will obstruct one from arriving at the pith and root of human things. As Thucydides says of the war among the Hellenes, in a statement which is redolent of his method throughout: ‘I consider the truest cause [τὴν ἀληθεστάτην πρόφασιν] the one least often expressed’.25
This is not the place to consider what conclusions Thucydides drew from his studies into the Peloponnesian War; enormities have been written on these conclusions, and could be written again, and it would no doubt be most fruitful to include such an investigation within the question of Thucydides’ relation to the early moderns. The point which we focus on here is simply this: Thucydidean history is the study of human things, human ways and human nature, the human soul or the manifestation of this soul in the world and in events and actions (τὰ ἔργα). This kind of history is emphatically not concerned with the modern fervor for producing the best social order from out of all those that have existed, or making a ‘juster society’, or even deriving ‘lessons from history’ which can be applied to present circumstances. The notion that ‘he who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it’ is essentially foreign to the Greek histors. The degree to which their work enables us to alter or improve the lot of man is incidental to it or is of highly delimited and dubious scope. History before anything is an inquiry undertaken by a judicious witness, toward the end of producing understanding. History, by the ancient sense, whether it be Herodotean or Thucydidean, stands at a noble remove from all petty meddling in the political milieu of the day, from all mere politicking and ideologuing. The ancient Greek idea of history, which may well be the loftiest form of history yet to have been attained in this world, holds us to a height far above human societies and ‘human things’, from which elevation alone their comprehension is possible – a vantage so high that not only the vast armies of Xerxes, but the tragic tears of Xerxes himself, become small and of little matter; a vantage so high that the travail of wars, the outcome of battles, the wreck and ruin of plagues and earthquakes, the rise and fall of cities, the whole gamut of human misfortunes and human glory, are cast into the hard, cold, noble light of eternal verities, and ceases any longer to move us.
There are only two great contestants to the histor and his grand style in history, and by now it should go without saying that the political man and his political life is not one of them. The first of these agonists is evident in the work of the histors themselves, given their constant belittling reference to them: and that is the poets. The poets, the ‘embellishing’ poets, the weavers of beautiful stories, who are blithely if not divinely disinterested in τὸ σαφὲς, favouring eternally τὸ καλόν such as they claim to have had it from the Muses themselves – these are the contenders for a higher laurel wreath than any ceded at the mere recital contests. The archetype of the poets is Homer, the blind poet; and precisely if it is true, as our modern desiccating historicizing would have it, that this ‘Homer’ was merely a myth, his blindness merely a poetic accretion of later days, then all the truer would the story be: for it would bear within it the noble truth that the poets prefer hearsay, albeit a divine hearsay, to witness. Homer did not battle in Ilium; Virgil was present neither at that city’s collapse nor at the founding of his own; Dante was no voyager in the lands of the afterlife save in soul or mind only; and it is unlikely where it is not impossible than any of these men had primary or exclusive recourse to the ‘accounts’ of ‘eye-witnesses’ for their recounting of these events. The poet, ὁ ποιητήϛ, literally ‘the maker’, sets forth his ‘visions’; but these are not the visions of waking life and the sight or experiencing of the world surrounding him. His works are more akin to dream than to waking, and yet paradoxically they yield a vision which is more wakeful than the sight granted to us by our open eyes themselves. For all of these reasons and others besides, their work stands in stark contrast to that of the histors.
We cannot judge the contest between the histors and the poets here, save to note that, in establishing this agon in the first place, the histors made a precedent which echoed through the ages; never again could history be conflated with poetry or art. So-called ‘monumental history’, as Nietzsche has called it,26 exists either in fervent if not dogmatic belief in its own verity (is therefore triumphalist and hagiographical) or else carries an eternal bad conscience in its heart. History was infused with science by the histors; that is the greatest heritage which we have had from them, we who in everything else have disregarded or forgotten the import of their work and the nature of their achievements.
In the first part of this essay, we have seen precisely how this very heritage of ‘scientific history’ has been called trenchantly into question in recent times, especially by the advent of ‘postmodernity’. But a special sense of history forms the crux of the modern worldview; the failure of ‘scientific history’ is thus a catastrophe for modernity. This catastrophe in our thought opens the possibility of an epistrophe and the new emergence or rebirth of a higher sense of history. A possible road forward opens to us in our study of alternative senses of history itself, as these have been manifest over the course of our history. Four of these already have been noted in this part of our work alone: two in the competing titanic histors of Grecian antiquity, and two in their contestants – only one of whom we have yet discussed.
The other great contestant to the histors followed them historically, and it is surely for this reason alone that no mention is made of them in the two ἱστορίαι we have considered: we speak of the philosophers. The philosophers took the aims and the heights of the histors and sought the same ends as they, but in a radically unhistorical way; rather than analysing the deeds or actions or fame or rumours of the past, they turned their gaze upon the soul itself, focusing on dialectic (ἡ διάλεκτοϛ) in the place of enquiry (ἡ ἱστορία). Herodotus and Thucydides both speak insistently in the first person, and their works open with their very names: Plato never speaks once in his own name in his published works.27 The great turning point was owed to a man contemporary with both Herodotus and Thucydides, namely Socrates; to percieve the effects that the gadfly of Athens wrought on the study of history in particular, one must look to one of his greatest pupils, Xenophon, many of whose key works appear to be a kind of union of these two mighty human pursuits. The question then opens if Xenophon wrote philosophy or history, or some new combination of them both.
But that enticing task lies beyond our present purview, for if anything novel resulted from that union, it is not history as the histors regarded it, and had little enough consequence on the development of the modern idea of history, which we have set out to understand.
1See for instance Homer, Iliad, Book 23, 486.
2It should be noted that νόμος carries the sense of both law and custom. We owe our own neat distinction between these ideas to the Romans, with their lex (law) and usus, consuetudo and mores.
3Herodotus, Histories, translator David Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 1.5.
4Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, translator Steven Lattimore (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998), 7.45–46.
5The Peloponnesian War, 1.1.
6Ibid., 1.22 and 2.43. Needless to note are the impressive and horrible descriptions of the death and mayhem wrought by the plague which immediately follow: see 2.47–2.54.
7Thucydides occasionally shifts back to the third person and refers to himself by name; this is no doubt done with art, and should be studied carefully by any student of the great histor.
8Ancient Greek: ἐπὶ τὸ μυθῶδες ἐκνενικηκότα. See The Peloponnesian War, 1.21. Steven Lattimore, in the context of the same passage, has Thucydides ‘not believing that the past was more like what the poets have sung, embellishing with their exaggerations, or the prose chroniclers have composed more for attractive listening than for truthfulness, in versions that cannot be checked and for the most part have forfeited credibility over time by winning victories in patriotic fiction’ (emphasis mine, to indicate the part of the translation relevant to the Greek above), which is of course a legitimate alternative reading of the Greek; but, apart from other considerations, I believe the translation of ‘fiction’ for a word deriving from μῦθος is perhaps misleading. Better even than ‘myth’ (which is liable to mislead in another direction) might be ‘tale’ or ‘rumor’. For a key passage regarding the difference between witnessing a thing and hearing a thing, see 3.38.
9See for instance Histories, 2.21, and 2.143, in his ironic consideration of his precursor Hecataeus’ proposed genealogy for his own family; also his statements regarding his voyages, as for instance in the early part of Book 3, when he speaks of Egypt; also, and perhaps most clearly, in distinctions such as that made at the start of 2.99. In §§6 and 12 of Book 3, he is emphatic about what ‘I saw’; the connection of ‘personal knowledge’ to ‘certainty’ is drawn explicitly in 1.140. It would no doubt be of great interest to an understanding of Herodotus’ purpose and work to exhaustively catalogue the references to what is ‘said’ to be the case and what is ‘seen’ to be the case, including as well all those cases where he expresses qualifications or doubts regarding the former, and insists on the latter’s connection to his certainty. The traveller (and thus the witness, the viewer, the ἵστωρ – the reader?) is in some cases able to see of another people what they are unable to see of themselves; cf. for instance 1.139. For the judgement of the knowledge brought by particular senses, see also Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, ‘‘Reason’ in Philosophy’, §3; also the Third Essay of his Genealogy, §1 as well as §14 in both the First and the Third Essay, among a great many other passages throughout his ouevre.
11Ibid., 2.123. However, see however the very end of the same section; also 2.65: ‘But if I were to say why it is that the animals are dedicated as sacred, my argument would drive me into talking of matters divine, and declaration of these I particularly shun.’ This question bears meditation if one is to come to any right understanding of Herodotus’ purposes and intents.
12As for instance in ibid., 2.21–22.
13Ancient Greek: νόμον πάντων βασιλέα, Histories, 3.38. We mention again that νόμος means both custom and law by the Greek tongue; it is the prerogative of noble peoples, and the basic limitation of barbaric ones, to conflate these two concepts. Much has been written about Herodotus’ restatement of this phrase from one of the lost poems of Pindar, as well as the passage surrounding it. The original phrase itself has been preserved to us in fragment in Plato (Gorgias, 484b), and there reads in full:
Custom is king over all, [νόμος ὁ πάντων βασιλεὺς]
mortals and immortals:
makes just violence
with highest hand.
I take Herodotus’ omission of the latter segment to be of note. (It is of interest as well that Plato makes Callicles pause at the same point in Pindar’s poetry before continuing.) Herodotus has expanded the power of custom beyond the question of mere force or violence; custom reigns over peace as well; it is a complete king. It would be interesting to compare this to Thucydides and the speeches he recounts, which would seem to better echo the sentimetns of Pindar’s original poetry. Cf. also various other statements dispersed throughout the Histories, as for instance 1.140, where Herodotus states, in reference to the strange ways of the Magi (in a phrase and a sentiment that echoes throughout the Histories), ‘As far as this custom goes, let it be as it has always been.’
14Histories 1.5; similar statements can be found throughout his work. Cf. however passages such as in 3.3; relaying what he has heard does not prohibit Herodotus from passing his independent judgement on it. Cf. as well Peloponnesian War, 1.23.
15Socrates, it will be recalled, but rarely left Athens, and then perhaps exclusively for military purposes. Cf. however Plato’s Phaedrus. The least that can be said is that Socrates was the very contrary of a ‘world traveller’. Nonetheless, his political philosophizing is predicated on the awareness of a the difference between, for example, Athens and Sparta and the Greeks and the Barbarians. He shows keen awareness in a great many classical dialogues of the different Greek cities and their peculiar nomoi. It is also not at all arbitrary or accidental that two of the great Platonic works regarding statecraft or the polis, The Statesman and The Laws, both feature an unnamed foreigner; the dialogue of the first pivots around the Elean stranger, while that of the second involves an Athenian in a foreign land talking to a Spartan and a Cretan. Both of these dialogues ascribe the word ξένος, stranger, foreigner, to the leader of the conversation. Consider as well Xenophon’s historical works.
16I call this the Platonic question in deference to the first man who wrote down investigations into the question. There is some reason to suspect (the Xenophontean dialogues surely indicate as much) that the question of human regimes was originally Socratic; but Socrates, who wrote nothing of his ideas, conquered time only ‘personally’. See Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965), Chapter III ‘The Origin of the Idea of Natural Right’, esp. pp. 86–88.
17Bury, J. B. The Ancient Greek Historians. (New York: Dover Publications, 1958), p. 147.
18Ancient Greek: τῶν ἔργων, which is unhappily untranslatable. Lattimore prefers (though not always, as shall be seen) the translation of ‘fact’ for τό έργον, which smells to me of that modernizing tendency by which the past is viewed through the lens of the present; one takes Thucydides for a ‘historian’ in the contemporary sense, and therefore assumes that he must be interested in ‘historical facts’. The Greek τό έργον in truth indicates ‘deeds’ or ‘actions’ or ‘ventures’, even ‘works’; it is sometimes used to signify battles or war. It has everywhere a certain sense of dynamism, of movement in time (our English word ‘energy’ itself is derived from it: ἐν + έργον), which is utterly lacking to our presumably immobile, static and neutral or neutered ‘fact’. Etymologically, to be sure, the translation of ‘fact’ has some justification here, insofar as the word ‘fact’ itself comes from the Latin factus, ‘that which has been done’ or an ‘accomplished thing’, and thus originally carries a similar though not identical sense to the Greek τό έργον; nonetheless, the word ‘fact’ in our contemporary language bears definite implications of scientificity not to say sterility, a certain ‘objective’ distance from ‘evaluation’, which implications we should at the least be wary of importing into the thought of any pre-modern thinker, prior to exceedingly careful investigation aimed at the utmost possible accuracy.
19Greek: τὸ σαφὲς, much more ‘what is clear’ or ‘what is evident’, perhaps ‘what is sure’, which is to be distinguished from ‘the truth’, ἡ ἀλήθεια – that which is unconcealed or revealed, from ἀ (not) + λανθάνω (to be or remain concealed). This last is connected in turn with ἡ λήθη, oblivion, forgetfulness. To this extent, it can be said that Thucydides is concerned with ἡ ἀλήθεια, truth in the proper sense, as key passages in his text surely confirm. Consider for instance Thucydides, 1.20 and 1.21; also 1.23. Cf. the τὸν ἐόντα λέγειν λόγον in 1.95 in Histories, as compared to the ἀληθίζεσθαι which Herodotus ascribes to the Persians in 1.136. It would be of great interest to pursue this difference between the histors further; it is my suspicion that it would reveal a great deal about their different approaches to history. Leo Strauss’ brief (but eternally penetrating) comments on this question should be considered in any such investigation. See Natural Right and History, p. 85.
20Greek: κατὰ τὸ ἀνθρώπινον. An alternative, and in my opinion more loyal, translation here might be ‘in accord with the human’ or ‘in accord with human things’. It were well to be cautious in the use of the word ‘nature’, given the emphasis placed on the concept of nature proper (ἡ φύσις, literally ‘an emergence’ or ‘a generation, a source, a birth’) by the philosophers, not to speak of the careful and peculiar use that Thucydides himself makes of it; so far as I can tell, he uses it exclusively in the speeches of others, save in a single instance (4.3) in reference to a place. In what I believe is the one reference to what could literally be translated as ‘human nature’, the expression is put into the mouths of the Athenians, at 1.76: ‘And all are entitled to praise whenever they follow human nature by ruling others and end up behaving more justly than their actual power dictated’. I believe that all references to ‘human nature’ in the broad sense (including therefore related constructions, as that in 4.61, discussed in the present note below) are never disconnected in its use from questions of power (ἡ δύναμιϛ) and ruling (ἄρχειν). Note the ambiguity in 1.76: is it human nature to rule others, or to behave more justly than ‘their actual power dictated’? Might it be that the former is ‘human nature’, as a generalized human tendency and human habit, while the latter is the consummation of that nature? In 1.121 the Corinthians hold that they are in possession of ‘good qualities by nature’; and in 6.79 φύσις is used twice in reference to those who are ‘naturally hostile’ and those who are ‘naturally akin’, thus suggesting specific natures of specific peoples. In 7.14 the word is again used twice in reference to the character of a people (the Athenians); similarly in 7.48. This list is not exhaustive, particularly as regards the use of the related verb φύω. The ‘nature of a people’, which we have seen to be central to Herodotus, in Thucydides seems rather to be but a particular instance of ‘human things’, and perhaps of the human nature (τῇ ἀνθρωπείᾳ φύσει of 1.76) mentioned above, and for that reason may be of subsidiary importance to him; this might be one of the fundamental points of contest between him and Herodotus. Cf. 4.61, in its πέφυκε γὰρ τὸ ἀνθρώπειον διὰ παντὸς ἄρχειν μὲν τοῦ εἴκοντος, in which the verbal form of ‘nature’, which has no right English translation, is used; it would mean literally something like ‘for human things [or ‘the human’] emerge naturally in ruling over those who yield’. Here again there is connection of these ‘human things’ and the question of rule. But all of this must be qualified by the simple observation that almost all of these formulations occur in the words of people other than Thucydides himself, so the question of their relation to Thucydides’ thought cannot be addressed until one has a clear grasp of the very complicated question of Thucydides’ relation to the recorded speeches of The Peloponnesian War. See for instance 1.22–23.
21Peloponnesian War, 1.21–22.
22The last accusation is in reference to the fact that Herodotus’ Histories were recited in the contests and received prizes therefrom. That Herodotus was not numb to the charms of finely told tales is apparent to anyone who has had the delight of reading him. See also Histories, 2.21–22, with its λόγῳ δὲ εἰπεῖν θωμασιωτέρη. At times, it might be that this love of his presses him hard upon that fine old Italian adage: Se non è vero, è ben trovato.
24My translation for the Greek in 1.22, which Lattimore renders ‘both past events and those that at some future time’: τῶν τε γενομένων … καὶ τῶν μελλόντων. The ‘things destined to be’ for μελλόντων is perhaps too strong; nonetheless, the word derives from a verb (μέλλω) which often carries a sense of necessity or of inevitability, particularly in Homer, who was greatly admired by Thucydides. The simple translation of ‘past’ and ‘future’ for these two substantives appears to me yet once more an imposition of a kind of false ‘historian Thucydides’ on the true man and his particular views and teachings; it appears to be, that is, the same unhistorical sense of our penurious modernity, which looks almost neurotically into the cornucopic inexhaustible array of the past, and sees therein only – itself.
25 Ibid., 1.23
26See Nietzsche, On the Uses and Abuses of History, §2.
27His Epistles would seem to form an exception to this; all that can be said here regarding these works is that there is good reason to suppose that they were addressed to individual men, and thus were meant for private, rather than public, consumption.