Friday, September 17, 2010

Herodotus: the Histories

I am reading, for at least the second time, the Histories by Herodotus (hērŏd`ətəs or hə rŏd`ətəs), which was written before 420 B.C. I don't claim to be much of a Greek and Roman classics scholar, nor do I think there is much of a need for assigning classics from that era to school children. But contrast the level of debate on the Internet today to what Herodotus did almost four centuries before Augustus Caesar and Jesus Christ walked the earth, and modern discourse is not, in general, an improvement.

Herodotus had a simple method. He talked to a lot of people, seeking out the most knowledgeable about particular subjects, which involved a lot of walking and travel by sea. He compared the different stories people told him. He looked at things. Then he chose the version of events, or explanation, that seemed most probable.

He was a Greek from Halicarnassus in what is now Turkey. He is called the father of history, but clearly history had gone through a considerable development by 420 B.C. Chronicles had been kept in many nations. What Herodotus claims is that he is careful about what he thinks and writes. He has a clear idea that the truth is what actually happened, not a story you make up to make you feel good about yourself. He even admits that he could be wrong and sometimes presents multiple versions of an event.

Herodotus, by observing and reasoning, anticipates a number of ideas that we consider more modern. He anticipates the problem of estimating the age of the earth when he discusses the Nile delta. "Suppose, now, that the Nile should change its course and flow into this gulf — the Red Sea — what is to prevent it from being silted up by the stream within, say, twenty thousand years? Personally I think even ten thousand would be enough. That being so, surely in the vast stretch of time which has passed before I was born, a much bigger gulf than this could have been turned into dry land by the silt brought down by the Nile ... I have seen shells on the hills and noticed how salt exudes from the soil to such an extent that it effects even the pyramids ... " He goes on to compare the native soil of the desert near the Nile to the deposits brought down from the river, concluding that they originated in Ethiopia.

I feel like if Herodotus were magically moved into my living room we could have a rational discussion of whether or not Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, who is to blame for the recent Recession, and what should be done about global warming. Herodotus was not alone in his day, thriving in his adopted Athens at the time of Pericles and fellow historian Thucydides. In his era there was no shortage of people mired in superstition and unable to see a point of view beyond that of their family or clan. But you would think that 2400 years later, after the scientific revolution, with public education available for over a century now, that the culture of Herodotus would have more influence and that of ignorance much less.

What did Herodotus have that people who mindlessly believe lies told by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, the Pope and Sarah Palin (and for that matter lies told by Democrats, who deny their party has a long history of committing war crimes) are lacking? Why do some people care about what is true, and others work so assiduously to create beliefs that do not correspond to reality? Of course we all have a mixture of such traits. Most people who hold onto outrageous religious ideas can cope pretty well with the issues of ordinary life. They can be good employees or even manage and run businesses. They are often good at solving practical problems, when they have no other choice.

We live in an age of specialization. This means you can survive, usually, by learning one relatively simple thing. It could be managing a franchise, prosecuting criminals, smiling while taking orders, or digging into a remote corner of academia. You could learn to design electronic circuits but be a fanatical Moslem or Christian; you can be a good carpenter and not know basic electric circuit practices, or write C++ computer code and know nothing about, or even refuse to believe in, evolutionary biology.

It is so much simpler to just believe what makes you feel good about yourself and angry about imagined enemies than it is to walk a lot, listen to many people, and sort things out in a fair and impartial manner.

So here's to Herodotus and the occasional retreat into the comfort of the Greek classics, and the occasional long walk.

The Histories by Herodotus e-text

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