Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

HERODOTUS: History Book 1 (1-94)

Herodotus tells the reader what his book is about with this prologue: “These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their deserved share of glory; and withal to put on record what were the grounds of the feud.”  The “researches of Herodotus” include documents he’s read and stories that he’s heard from others.  He gathers them all together, sorts through them, and then shapes them into a long story about how the Greeks fought off the Persian attempt to dominate them militarily and politically.  Why would he go to all this trouble?  He’s already told us.  Herodotus thinks it’s important to remember the past and honor those who deserve it.  We could just build a monument.  But a monument doesn’t tell a story.  History does.  It’s interesting that Herodotus begins with what was most important in Greek culture: the story of the Trojan War as told in Homer’s Iliad.  He says “Alexander (Paris) the son of Priam… fully persuaded that as the Greeks had not given satisfaction for their outrages, so neither would he be forced to make any for his.  Accordingly he made prize of Helen…”  This is some background that pre-dates the Iliad.  The Greeks had “carried off Medea” from the area of Asia Minor, where Troy is located.  So Paris didn’t think the Greeks would mind if he did the same thing.  He was wrong.  As Herodotus writes, “the Asiatics, when the Greeks ran off with their women, never troubled themselves about the matter; but the Greeks, for the sake of a single Lacedaemonian girl (Helen), collected a vast armament, invaded Asia, and destroyed the kingdom of Priam.”  Here’s one of the puzzles of ancient history.  When Jason abducted Medea the “Asiatics” didn’t retaliate by invading Greece.  So why did the Greeks invade them when Paris abducted Helen?  One of the main themes of Herodotus is the clash of values between cultures.  He gives a good example of this in two attitudes regarding nudity.  The Greeks celebrated the human body with their artistic depictions of nude models.  The Asiatics were much more modest and circumspect in their attitude toward the human body.  Why?  Those were their customs.  That was the way they had been taught.  Herodotus writes that Gyges (an “Asiatic”) says “Our fathers, in time past, distinguished right and wrong plainly enough, and it is our wisdom to be taught by them.”  This is one reason we study history; to see how notions of “right and wrong” develop over time and how different cultures perceive them.  Herodotus portrays this vast diversity in his History.  Besides the problem of distinguishing between right and wrong Herodotus also examines the meaning of happiness.  Is it the same for the Persians as it is for the Greeks?  Or do their interpretations of happiness differ, as they do regarding nudity?  Herodotus tells the story of Croesus, a splendidly rich king, and Solon, a wise philosopher.  Croesus thinks Solon will appreciate all his wealth and asks Solon who he thinks is the happiest of men.  To Croesus’ surprise, it’s not him.  Solon admits a rich man has many advantages if “he is whole of limb, a stranger to disease, free from misfortune, happy in his children, and comely to look upon.”  But he goes on to say, “Call him, however, until he die, not happy but fortunate.  Scarcely indeed can any man unite all these advantages: as there is no country which contains within it all that it needs, but each, while it possesses some things, lacks others, and the best country is that which contains the most; so no single human being is complete in every respect; something is always lacking.  He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of ‘happy’.”  This is true not only of men, but of entire nations too.  Those nations which can gain “the greatest number of advantages” will be happiest.  Thus Herodotus has set the stage for the monumental struggle between the Greeks and the Persians to obtain these advantages.       

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