Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

HERODOTUS: The Persian Wars (Book 7: The Usefulness of History)

Herodotus has often been referred to as “The Father of History.” We might ask: before Herodotus there was no history? Of course there was. So how can he be the father of history? Answer: because of how he approached the subject. He himself tells us that My business is to record what people say, but I am by no means bound to believe it; and that may be taken to apply to this book as a whole. Things happened before Herodotus lived but as far as we know he was the first historian who tried to be objective about recording those events. Before Herodotus history was primarily viewed through the prism of conquering rulers or the gods. In Exodus we read about the Hebrews throwing off their bondage to their Egyptian masters. How? By following Moses and using the power of God to break the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. This is a great story but it’s not history in the sense we know it. We hear only one side of the story.

Good history needs to present alternative points of view. We read in Herodotus that Without a debate in which both sides of a question are expressed, it is not possible to choose the better course. All one can do is to accept whatever it is that has been proposed. But grant a debate, and there is a fair choice to be made. History should give both sides of the story (hopefully in a fair way) and let the reader decide for himself what it all means. Without hearing both sides we’re left in the dark about what really went on in the past. For that matter without hearing both sides we’re left in the dark about what’s really going on today. That’s one of the primary lessons we can learn from history: there are two sides to every story, usually more. Hear them out before making any final decisions. That’s one of the other lessons we learn from history: don’t act too quickly. Good plans take time. We also read in Herodotus that Nothing is more valuable to a man than to lay his plans carefully and well; even if things go against him, and forces he cannot control bring his enterprise to nothing, he still has the satisfaction of knowing that it was not his fault, the plans were all laid; if, on the other hand, he leaps headlong into danger and succeeds by luck, well, that’s a bit of luck indeed, but he still has the shame of knowing that he was ill prepared. This was good advice 2500 years ago; it’s good advice today. Be prepared.

The thing that makes ancient history interesting is the same thing that makes ancient art or ancient philosophy interesting: it’s human. These were real people dealing with real problems trying to come up with real solutions. Were they successful? Sometimes they were; sometimes not. But they were real people, just like us. In this selection Xerxes is admiring his army and all of a sudden breaks into tears. This is certainly unexpected. Why is Xerxes, king of the mightiest army in the world, crying? Because, he says, It came into my mind how pitifully short human life is; for all these thousands of men not one will be alive in a hundred years’ time. Like many of the stories Herodotus plugs into his book, this one is rich in meaning. Xerxes has hit upon the most poignant aspect of the human condition: mortality. In a hundred years none of his soldiers will be alive. Neither will he. Neither will we. This fact puts all our power struggles into clearer perspective. What are we fighting for? What do we hope to accomplish? Maybe not much. But maybe more than we think. In this story the Greeks face overwhelming odds against the Persians. They are advised by Persian tributaries to submit and not fight back. The Greek answer: The advice you give us does not spring from a full knowledge of the situation. You know one half of what is involved, but not the other half. You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too. The Greeks knew what freedom means. Because they fought back, so do we.


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