Sunday, June 15, 2008

A History of Histories

A fascinating piece in The New Republic on history by Anthony Grafton, called Yesterdays, which is a review of A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances, and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century by John Burrow.

It's a great essay; like most good reviews are they provide an expanded context and helpful perspective.

Grafton quotes Thucydides (and notes Orwell himself did not offer a sharper diagnosis of the ways in which political passions corrupt language):
In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. (emphasis added)
Holy cow. If that isn't the 2004 presidential campaign - right there - the ability to see all sides of a question is equated with an inaptness to act on any. And it was written thousands of years ago!

Then Grafton observes this difference between the two ancient history writers:
Thucydides stands as the ancestor of what we used to call, in graduate school, "real history": the history of politics and wars, traditionally written by and for men, though a number of female historians now practice this art at the highest level. Herodotus, by contrast, stands as the forefather of the human sciences: the history of rituals and customs, of beliefs and behaviors, that survived as antiquarianism in the pre-modern world and branched out more recently into anthropology and sociology.
When I was in school, I didn't see any history of the kind Thucydides had done. The view was that had all been done before, that there was nothing innovative in studying "real history," the history of the movers and shakers, political history. All my teachers were doing social history and worse - the social history of identity politics. And there went my aspirations of a professorial career.

The essay talks about how the concept of what constitutes history has changed over the ages. I remember well a piece about history now compared to medevial times - and exactly when a sense of "objectivity" became required.

This piece is one I would have sent my mother.

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