Biography and History

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
Biography — 1 : a usually written history of a person’s life
History —
1: tale, story 2 a: a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes

What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone says they are reading a biography? It seems the usual answer is that they are reading a book about someone’s life. In particular this book will recount where and when the subject was born, what happened during their life (e.g. career, marriage(s), relationships, acquaintances, accomplishments, major events), and then, of course, their death.

The definition above is quite apt. What we think of when we think biography is an encapsulated history of one specific person, the key word being “history”. As for history, the above definition also covers what the modern idea of “history” is: a record of what goes on.

In antiquity both of these words had different meanings. A biography was not the history of someone’s life, but rather a selection of events from that life. The selected items did not convey a narrative of the life, but were chosen for their moral value as lessons. Today we are forced to use them as fact simply because we lack other sources, but that was not their intent.

History, too, was different. Etymologically “history” is related to the latin word “story” or “narrative”, but goes back further to Greek where it is “to inquire” and related to the word for “arbiter”. Therefore, the root meaning of history is to inquire into events and make judgments about them–both in terms of their accuracy, and the intent of the participants, not simply to be an annalist.

This rant inspired by a friend discussing R.G. Collingwood.

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