Herodotus on rejecting the expertise of physicians

The second wisest [Babylonian] custom is this: they carry those suffering from illness into the agora, for they have no use for physicians. And coming there to consult with the sick about their illness are any who have suffered from the same disease or who have seen others doing so, consulting and exhorting how they or others flushed out the disease. And it is not permissible to walk past the sick person in silence, before having asked after the illness.

δεὺτερος δὲ σοφίῃ ὅδε ἄλλος σφι νόμος κατέστηκε: τοὺς κάμνοντας ἐς τὴν ἀγορὴν ἐκφορέουσι: οὐ γὰρ δὴ χρέωνται ἰητροῖςι. προσιόντες ὦν πρὸς τὸν κάμνοντα συμβουλεύουσι περὶ τῆς νούσου, ἔι τις καὶ αὐτὸς τοιοῦτο ἔπαθε ὁκοῖον ἂν ἔχῃ ὁ κάμνων ἢ ἄλλον εἶδε παθόντα, ταῦτα προσιόντες συμβουλεύουσι καὶ παραινέουσι ἅσσα αὐτὸς ποιήσας ἐξέφυγε ὁμοίην νοῦσον ἢ ἄλλον εἶδε ἐκφυγόντα. σιγῇ δὲ παρεξελθεῖν τὸν κάμνοντα οὔ σφι ἔξεστι, πρὶν ἂν ἐπείρηται ἥντινα νοῦσον ἔχει.

(Histories 1.197)

It is probably for the best that Herodotus didn’t live in the age of the internet.

Rehabilitating Thucydides

Thucydides gets a bad wrap. Okay, so he was not a great general and drastically changes tone when he was ostracized from Athens, but he also is clear and decisive about what he is doing. He does his best to use valid sources and get accurate information. Often he is derided in the text for doing exactly what he said he would do within the first few pages.

An admitted participant and therefore biased observer, Thucydides starts off by saying that he started writing his text because the war that started would be more worth writing about than any that had previously happened, and then elaborates as to why this is so. One may argue the merits of his particular argument, but he is quite clear that for Greeks, this was a world war, one for the supremacy of the most important region of the world. Compared to this long, bloody conflict, the issues with Persia were child’s play. Following the pronouncement, Thucydides introduces his world and how it became the way it was. This is mythic history and the familiar characters abound, but it is also a linear progression taken as fact for the purposes of creating the setup for the land of Hellas, rather than the war between East and West in Herodotus. Each had their own modus operandi.

Unlike Herodotus, who heard different stories and then laid them out for interpretation, Thucydides makes the judgments for you. Thucydides uses evidence and attempts to cross check them. He purposely discards information that is exaggeration and comes to conclusions to the best of his ability. This also opens the door for accusations of bias, but such can always be said about historians, and that is no reason for dismissal.

Perhaps the most common accusation leveled is that he made up speeches, but this claim ignores a line straight from the introduction:

“I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.”

Okay, in an age of mass media, recording devices and the like, Thucydides’ methods would be deplorable, but he didn’t live in such an age. He lived in one where he made do as he could and when it came to such speeches what should have been said was second best to the actual speeches when it came to overarching view of this world war.

Say what you will, Thucydides has his faults, but does do what he set out to do and did so in a manner much more reminiscent of modern history than any other author before him and afterward for hundreds of years.

What really matters?

Is what matters about history the narration of the events that came before or the interpretation of the events? Are the events themselves, or the historians’ perception thereof, more significant than the analysis of how the causes? Are there historical events with a deeper truth that are more valuable than those without? Is the true value of history the series of stories that may be used to provide solid basis for analytical arguments? How much about history is sequencing and descriptions, and how much is nothing more than an exercise in self-discovery?

Whether consciously or not, these are all questions that must be addressed by a historian at some point or another and even more so by a would-be history teacher. Sciences tend to be about facts, statistics, proofs; history has no such luxury. There is no such thing as truly unbiased source information, be it modern or historical. Historical research is a journey into the human condition, biases and perceptions, as much as it is a journey into the story of what came before. Successive generations of historians seek to surpass their predecessors in point of style or in revealing new inner truths, to paraphrase Livy. Most often these author’s merely bring to light a new or, at most a slightly varied, perspective. Whether this validates the acclaim (or lack thereof), accorded to them is another matter entirely.

This point about perspective can be seen clearly in a brief review of two famous scholars and their work: the late N.G.L. Hammond, and Victor Davis Hanson. In his time, the former was the best known scholar of Macedonian and Illyrian history, concentrating on the time before and after Alexander III (the Great). To read his obituary is to discover a man who threw himself completely into the pursuit of ancient Macedonia. As a senior at Brandeis University, I found myself sputtering at what I wryly derided as the prattling of a dead Englishman. I wanted to throttle, argue and prove him wrong all at once. In time that feeling subsided and I was able to laugh at the presumptiveness of this upstart college student, full of himself and still sophomoric, despite two years’ removal. Later, I found renewed respect for this esteemed scholar, but I was no less convinced that his conclusions were wrong. This is an argument that will never be resolved; he is incapable of providing me with any more counterexamples or clarifying his argument; likewise, I am unable to elucidate my argument to him. However, I am able to use his work and perspective as a foundation for my own analysis.

Victor Davis Hanson is best known for his theory about the Western Way of War, which, simply put, is that “the West” prefers to settle conflicts and disputes with a decisive conflict or battle that is often horrifying. In contrast, “the East” prefers a prolonged conflict with light-armed troops, one that is less likely to provide a decisive victory, but will also prevent catastrophic loss. I would not call his views on this and other matters scripture, but I tend to agree with most of what Professor Hanson argues. In the grand conflict between East and West, as is the setting for the history of Herodotus, scholars may point to other fundamental differences or claim that Hanson’s is nonsensical, but their argument is as indicative of their perspectives as is Hanson’s. Neither One is not more valid than another. Once a perspective exists, the only barometer of validity is the ability to persuade; the ability to persuade resides in argumentation.

Alexander is the perfect example of this challenge of validity. At times it seems as though everyone under the sun has written a book on the greatest and worst of humans, and, invariably, entitled it “Alexander the Great.” Many of these are “whodunits” built around the claim that the author has discovered who really killed Alexander. Two of the more recent books claim that either Ptolemy or Roxane killed him and offer “definitive” proof that the cause of death was poison based on the symptoms. Neither of these books is persuasive, in large part because of the unreliability of the sources to the required degree of detail, and Alexander’s death will forever remain one of the world’s great mysteries, because of the dearth of evidence. If, on the other hand, someone were able to provide evidence and afterwards argue their theory, then it would gain validity and come into vogue.

My own thoughts on the subject of Alexander’s death not withstanding, for merit is these core philosophical truths about history that move it from the beyond the simple memorization of names and dates and into the realm of higher learning. To embrace the fundamental concepts of discourse, research, analytical thought, the written word and to connect it to the personal—and the more general human—story, is to embrace history. To embrace history is to embrace not only the stories, the events and the dates, but also the nature of people and the beauty of language. Whether an idle pastime or a vocation, history transcends names and dates of the simple timeline and the arbitrary boundaries of subjects; history is universal and should be taught as such instead of tedious memorization.