Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 3)

Examining ideas is at the heart of the Great Books reading and discussion program.  One idea that comes up over and over again is the concept of Fate.  Herodotus deals with this question in Book 3 of his History with the story of Polycrates.  In some ways Polycrates was a huge success.  “Wherever he turned his arms, success waited on him… he plundered all, without distinction of friend or foe.”  The Egyptian ruler Amasis grew alarmed and had this advice for Polycrates: “Amasis to Polycrates thus sayeth: It is a pleasure to hear of a friend and ally prospering, but thy exceeding prosperity does not cause me joy, forasmuch as I know that the gods are envious… For never yet did I hear tell of any one succeeding in all his undertakings, who did not meet with calamity at last, and come to utter ruin.”  It might not be true that all successful people eventually meet with calamity and come to utter ruin.  But many do.  In the Great Books we read about Oedipus (Sophocles) and Othello (Shakespeare) rising to the pinnacles of power and success only to “come to utter ruin” in the end.  Aristotle seems to agree when he says “many reverses and vicissitudes of all sorts occur in the course of life, and it is possible that the most prosperous man may encounter great disasters in his declining years, as the story is told of Priam in the epics; but no one calls a man happy who meets with misfortunes like Priam's, and comes to a miserable end.” (Ethics, Book 1, Ch. 9)  One lesson we might draw from Herodotus is not to get too satisfied in success, nor too despondent in defeat.  The wheel of fortune (Fate) will spin its own direction, regardless of human wishes.  Today most people don’t believe that.  Amasis did.  “He perceived that it does not belong to man to save his fellow-man from the fate which is in store for him.”  (As a side note: in this case Amasis was right.  Polycrates met a bad end.)  Another idea that keeps popping up in Great Books is the idea of Truth.  Just as the question of Fate has never been fully resolved, neither has the question of Truth.  A popular magazine recently had this headline on the cover: Is Truth Dead?  This is the question Socrates addressed in many of Plato’s dialogs.  Socrates emphatically believed that Truth was not dead in his day and wouldn’t be dead in ours either, because Socrates believed Truth was an eternal guiding principle.  But the magazine wasn’t really addressing the question of philosophical Truth.  It was talking about political truth.  Does it make any difference?  Is the Truth spoken about in philosophy different from the one we’re talking about in politics?  The Persian ruler Darius had this to say about telling the truth: “An untruth must be spoken, where need requires.  For whether men lie, or say true, it is with one and the same object.  Men lie, because they think to gain by deceiving others; and speak the truth, because they expect to get something by their true speaking, and to be trusted afterwards in more important matters.  Thus, though their conduct is so opposite, the end of both is alike.  If there were no gain to be got, your true-speaking man would tell untruths as much as your liar, and your liar would tell the truth as much as your true-speaking man.”  Maybe this is a cynical view but there’s a lesson Herodotus can teach us here.  When we listen to political speeches the right question may be not be: is this politician telling the truth?  The right question may be: what advantage are they trying to gain by giving this speech?

In the Great Books tradition there’s no right answer and wrong answer regarding Fate and Truth.  But some answers are better than others.  The same goes for the idea of Government.  In Book 3 Herodotus examines three types of government: democracy, aristocracy and monarchy.  Three Persians each give a speech showing the virtues and vices of each form of government.  Which one is best?  Who knows?  They can all work or they can all fail, depending on the people involved.  In the end, the Persians chose monarchy; not necessarily because it’s best but because they thought it would work best for them.  The Greeks chose democracy.  These choices eventually led to war.  It wasn’t just a war of blood and steel.  It was a war of ideas.

Friday, June 09, 2017

HERODOTUS The History (Book 2)

In Book 2 Herodotus takes us on a travel tour of Egypt.  This may seem like a diversion from his topic of the great wars between the Greeks and the Persians, but it’s a pleasant diversion.  And it’s actually on topic because it’s an exploration of: (1) how the Greeks became Greek, and (2) the tools of history which Herodotus was just beginning to develop.  History is, of course, the study of the past.  And Herodotus begins Book 2 by noting that “The Egyptians… believed themselves to be the most ancient of mankind.”  Who better to tell about the past than “the most ancient of mankind.”  Whether this is actually true is debatable.  But there’s no denying the antiquity of the Egyptians.  They were an ancient people even to the ancient Greeks.  And the Egyptians were exceptionally skilled in many areas, including history.  Herodotus says “The Heliopolitans have the reputation of being the best skilled in history of all the Egyptians.”  Compare this to his fellow Greeks.  Herodotus thinks “The Greeks tell many tales without due investigation… it seems that such a story proves the Greeks to be utterly ignorant of the character and customs of the people.”  Herodotus personally went on a tour of Egypt to conduct his own historical research.  What he found was amazing.  After talking to people who actually lived there he concluded: “What they said of their country seemed to me very reasonable.”  Let’s start with geography.  Herodotus believes location made the Egyptian people who they were; specifically, Egypt itself was a gift of the Nile River.  Herodotus records that “At present, it must be confessed, they obtain the fruits of the field with less trouble than any other people in the world, since they have no need to break up the ground with the plough, nor to use the hoe, nor to do any of the work which the rest of mankind find necessary if they are to get a crop.”  This may not be literally true but it does show how the flooding of the Nile gave the Egyptians enough leisure time to pursue other activities.  And they had many, many other activities.  Herodotus goes into great detail about their customs.  He talks about their markets and business practices, where they eat their food, what the duties of the priests are, how Egyptians support their parents, how they wear their hair, and a long section on their pets and how they generally treated animals.  Herodotus tells how Egyptians felt about the cat, the crocodile, the hippopotamus, the mythical phoenix, and various snakes.  That all sounds interesting but what does it have to do with the Greek and Persian wars?  It turns out that Greece was heavily influenced by the Egyptians.  Take religion for example.  Herodotus believes “Almost all the names of the gods came from Greece into Egypt.  My inquiries prove that they were all derived from a foreign source, and my opinion is that Egypt furnished the greater number.”  He goes on to say that “Whence the gods severally sprang, whether or no they had all existed from eternity, what forms they bore; these are questions of which the Greeks knew nothing until the other day, so to speak.”  In fact, the Egyptians seemed to know more about the Trojan War than the Greeks themselves did.  Herodotus comes to the conclusion (based on his Egyptians sources) that the Trojans didn’t give Helen back to the Greeks because the Trojans didn’t have her.  Paris had taken her to Egypt, not toTroy.  Take another example, the great Greek lawgiver Solon.  Herodotus says it was the Egyptian ruler, Amasis, who “established the law that every Egyptian should appear once a year before the governor of his canton, and show his means of living; or failing to do so, and to prove that he got an honest livelihood, should be put to death.  Solon the Athenian borrowed this law from the Egyptians, and imposed it on his countrymen, who have observed it ever since.  It is indeed an excellent custom.”  Greek culture was not just an extension of Egyptian culture but Herodotus shows that the Greeks did borrow many things from Egypt; just as the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, the British from the Romans, and Americans from the British.