Notes on History

Herodotus’s Inquiries is, at root, an inquiry into the ontological status of the Greeks and the Barbarians, the two great empires of antiquity. What delineates the one from the other? How did the East come to be separate from the West? To what extent are they clear and distinct cultures?

Herodotus proceeds with this esoteric inquiry by exploring the character of the Greeks on the periphery, from the outside, by reiterating the stories men tell themselves of both their enemies and their friends. For example, he begins Book I by recounting what the Barbarians tell themselves of the origins of the Persian Wars -by a series of unjust kidnappings of their women. However, this is qualified by his acknowledgement that these cannot be verified. Almost immediately, the text is a presentation of the subtle skepticism Herodotus has for logoi in the form of rumors, though Herodotus does not deny the importance of these stories. One can apprehend a great deal about a culture by analyzing the stories its people tell, one can comprehend a great deal about a culture by understanding the stories its outsiders tell.

He marvels at the great wonders of the world: such as the prediction of an eclipse, the mores of the Asiatic and Egyptian peoples, the geographic distinctions, the Oracle’s ability to be bribed or convinced, and so on. His text is not a dogmatically skeptical piece, not constricting in this way as when one reads Descartes, Hume, or even Gibbon. Like Homer, he recounts the many wonders from around the world, however Herodotus removes himself from the poets to a degree, but merely restating the fanciful stories, making little commentary on their validity or believability. His project is not an attempt to disprove or dismantle the stories men tell themselves, indeed some have been proven to be deeply fruitful as in the case of the Gyges story, a Greek story told about Barbarian mores.

Aristotle made the famous delineation between poetry and history: history tells of what has come to be, and poetry tells of what might come to be. In this way, according to Aristotle, poetry is superior to history because it is more serious and philosophical (Poetics 1451b). However, on this point Herodotus draws swords with both Homer and Aristotle. In his opening passage, he acknowledges that his inquiry will be a “showing forth” of things that had come to be, including the tall tales of the poets, but he tests their falsifiability by presenting the varying differences of stories across cultures. Like Odysseus, Herodotus is a wanderer. However unlike Odysseus, he does not seek loot and ladies and adventures, but rather he seeks to comprehend the known world through open eyed inquiry (see Eva Brann). His project is an autopsia, which like many Greek words adopted in the modern sense, has degenerated from meaning “seeing-for-oneself” to the inspection of corpses. Herodotus is the first person that we know of who ventures forth just to see for himself, though we may speculate about the subtext for Odysseus’s piracy.

To the ancient mind, history was not dead or bygone, but rather alive and influential in the present. Time was much more fluid, rather than a numerical recording of things past. Herodotus notes that while many ancient cities that were once great are now small, and vice versa, acknowledging that human fortune or happiness do not endure, he will take an equal account of both, the great and the small cities.

As with the varying rumors abounding in Dostoevsky’s great work The Brothers Karamazov, Herodotus’s inquiries unearth the multiplicity of logoi in order to exoterically reaffirm their status as believable by many people, and also to provide an antidote in the form of conflicting stories or accounts given. Herodotus acts as the judge, relying on his authority to discern between the wise or the likely stories. Ironically, he is said to have recited his great work while living in an Athenian colony before moving to Italy where he died, echoing his accumulation of stories, both verifiable and according to Herodotus’s authority.

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