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.


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