Anecdotal History

It is easy to look at Archaic Greece or the mythic history of ancient societies and be incredulous at the role ascribed to the nomothete, whether those laws given are the product of divine fiat (Moses), or the reasoning of one wise man (Lycurgus or Solon). Even Polybius, who notes that Rome came to its ideal constitution through trial and error seems to buy the idea that Lycurgus crafted the Spartan state that, until it decomposed, required only minimal modification. It is possible to look at the gradual development of governmental systems and, for instance, how Plutarch’s biography of Lycurgus collapses a century or two of constitutional development into a single lifetime, sometime back before living memory. The one magnetic personality attracts this accreditation for the development of something, and may have been canonized at a time when the situation they are credited with is either in place or on the wane–i.e. when there is a compelling interest to explain a particular state of affairs and then perpetuated or expanded upon at later times for similar reasons.

These developments are themselves fascinating and worth studying on their own merits, but a True Story version of institutional or legal history would seem to require making the history dull by excising the characters. Anecdotes reveal something about the larger theme and are particularly prominent in biography–as Plutarch says in his life of Alexander, a quip or small act can be more revealing as to the character of the person than are the great battles.† Likewise, one of the ways to humanize a big idea is to use a person (sometimes through a series of vignettes) as a case study.

The class I TA for uses a reader does this through a pair of individuals who share a number of characteristics, but differ on one or two key issues. One of these pairs was Ellen Richards and Emma Goldman, trying to explain various approaches to the position of women in the 1910s. The short answer identifications on the last exam (who/what/where/when/how/significance) included Emma Goldman. There were some really good answers, though only a few people noted her immigrant status and fewer still discussed her anarchism and deportation. Instead, anecdotally at least, students gravitated toward her role in support of women’s rights, protections for homosexuality, and her thoughts on birth control. The most common answer given for her significance was “without E.G., we wouldn’t have birth control today.” I suspect that this was, to an extent, a cop-out answer when nothing else became immediately evident– [[we read about her so she’s important, they didn’t have x then, but we do now and she supported it, ergo…]], but I do not believe that the answer is merely the product of stress-induced, lazy test logic or an inability to grasp the nuance of historical process (though the former should not be totally dismissed, either).

A chronological timeline is misleading and barring a tardis‡ coming for you or a wealthy billionaire scientist, etc, there really only is the present, the past exists only in physical remnants and memory. The former decay, the latter are notoriously flawed. I suspect that the process by which the development of the current state of affairs–particularly where one has incomplete information–are collapsed into a single actor are completely natural. This doesn’t mean that the answer was correct in the most basic historical sense, but neither is the “modern mind” with a glut of facts and rationality immune to the perpetuation of these myths. Sure, this itself is just one anecdote, but it is still something worth thinking about instead of, say, dismissing it as a primitivism that needs to be indoctrinated away and forgotten. Each has its place and time.

† How historical anecdotes are is open to debate, however.

‡ note, I do not watch Dr. Who.

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