The Meaning of History

I came across a very useful book at the library called Classical Literature and its Times. The authors explain the importance of historical writing to our civilization in the chapter on Herodotus. Not only did this chronicler of the 5th century BC want “to commemorate the past,” he also wanted to “explain it rationally.”

One might say that Herodotus responded to history by inventing it. The historical attitude that he inaugurated has since become so fundamental to our outlook on the past that it is difficult to appreciate just how radical Herodotus’ invention was in its day.

We are told that historical writing was born of two trends: the tradition of epic poetry and the emergence of philosophy and rational inquiry (“history” comes from the Greek word for inquiry). While poetry provided the fertile ground of artistic expression and creativity, without a logical study of the past, human events remained clouded in legend. The conceptualization of memory is also a major difference between civilized and savage cultures. In an advanced society, a person begins to transcend his immediate temporal concerns. He puts men and their deeds into an ordered perspective. He perceives causes and consequences. But for the society which is focused only on survival and the gratification of sensual needs, men’s actions are little more than a dull and irrational monotony. Savages are condemned to repeat the past because they can never learn from it.

Historical writing also meant venturing beyond the grim superstition and fatalism which had dominated the pagan world up to that time. The more advanced Greek and Roman thinkers began to see things in a teleological manner. They glimpsed some order and purpose in the cosmos. Along the way they gradually emerged from cultural parochialism which (contrary to modern views on the matter) remains most entrenched in non-Western societies.

Another take on the writing of history is discussed by Daniel Sullivan (Policy Review, August/September 2008). He reviews a recent book by John Burrow on the historian’s craft starting, of course, with Herodotus. Sullivan recalls the famous anecdote about Xerxes. The Persian emperor is proudly reviewing his huge army crossing the Hellespont and suddenly bursts into tears while recalling the brevity of life. He says that not one of his many soldiers will be alive in a hundred years.

For Burrow, in this moment Herodotus melts the distinctions between peoples “and even, for us, the gulf between ancient and modern . . . in the contemplation of a common human lot.” The appreciation of the varied nature of human life across time and space is a foundation of sympathetic history; moments like these are the milestones along the way to that appreciation.

As Sullivan explains, it is the humane approach of “culturally erudite historians,” practitioners of a “literate amateurism,” who have often accomplished more than specialists or ideologues in historical understanding.

This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.