ahorbinski: My Marxist-feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard.  (marxism + feminism --> posthumanism)
I have to admit that I like Augustine even less than the last time I read him nearly ten years ago, and I am correspondingly less inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Equally unfavorably, I have come round again to the question of divine agency in history, and have to conclude that Augustine represents yet another view on the matter, as compared to Herodotus and Thukydides.

It took me nearly three books to realize that Augustine's central rhetorical strategy - and, to be fair, I do not doubt, his sincere belief - is his applying his notions of the purpose of religion and the nature of the human-divine relationship to an earlier age, and (unsurprisingly) finding the past wanting by his modern metrics. Namely, Augustine trots out innumerable examples of atrocities, misfortunes, wars and disturbances in Roman history in order to prove his contention that the Roman gods either don't care about their worshippers' misfortunes, don't exist, or are evil demons, in which case see above (which proposition he is advancing is also unclear). It is hard not to think that Augustine is willfully misunderstanding the nature of classical religion as a social institution, although (the work of Labeo not being extant) it may well be that, as the charges of the anti-Christian pagans concerning the sack of Rome in 410 CE seem to show, the entire society-wide conception of religion had already completely shifted by this point. Certainly any of the figures of Roman history whose unhappy fates he cites would have boggled at his (to them, doubtless, naive) conviction that gods are there to do something for their worshippers and that history shows divine purpose or plan. (Indeed, the Stoics and the Epicureans would have had a great deal, most of it scornful, to say on this point.)

Nonetheless, such is Augustine's conviction, and by the standards of his time - and, it must be said, of the later Church - his rhetoric is convincing as long as you accept his central premise, that there is a divine plan in history and that, furthermore, the events of history can be made to serve as evidence of a transcendent morality. Thus the dark night of paganism gives way to the fortunate dawn of Christ, and - although inscrutable - God's providence is certainly abroad in the world and being accomplished. If you do not share that conviction, his persistent presentation of the events of Roman history in the worst possible and most moralistic - if not obtuse - light quickly becomes tedious, to say the least.
ahorbinski: The five elements theory in the style of the periodic table of the elements.  (teach the controversy)
It's interesting to read Thucydides while bearing in mind that, as Breisach notes in Historiography, later historians have on the whole vastly tended to prefer him to his near-contemporary Herodotus. Given Thucydides' obsession with extracting general patterns and principles of political behaviour out of the events that he relates, and his reliance, no less than Herodotus, on speeches of highly dubious accuracy (veracity being a somewhat different question), as well as his determination to suppress all details about his specific sources, this marked preference does, in fact, seem somewhat odd. All of these traits, however, make it easy to see why he was so popular in the Renaissance, and why he has retained that popularity particularly in the 19thC and at least until fairly frequently. I think most undergrads in history and political science, for instance, are run through the mines of the Melian Dialogue, the Funeral Oration, and the disaster of the Sicilian expedition; this is at least my fourth time with the former, although I hadn't until now read much of the latter.

Herodotus gets a bad rep for being credulous, non-secular, and never having met a digression he didn't love, as well as for being too focused on individuals and overlooking larger patterns. (Indeed, I myself berated him for some of the latter in my last post, vis-a-vis his treatment of Themistokles.) To the extent that his narrative is overtly skeptical, secular in that he never acknowledges the possibility of divine agency in history, and much more tightly focused on the main plot of his story (though I should note that the doomed Sicilian expedition, in which the author himself played a notable part, constitutes a good 1/4 of the narrative), Thucydides is certainly Herodotus' opposite. But, as others have pointed out, both authors were highly concerned with warfare, and not just the constant low-level warfare that was a given in the Greek oikumene (in ancient Greek one declares peace treaties, not war) but the two central conflicts that made Athens into a hegemon and then destroyed her preeminence almost as quickly. Inasmuch as one can detect in both authors a longing for the vanished ideal Athens of old, they have more in common than is apparent at first glance.

I do want to return to the speeches, since now more than ever I find it useful to poke at Thucydides a bit in terms of his method here. Like Herodotus, Thucydides does not claim to report exactly what people said; rather, he claims, "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" (I.22). So we can no more excoriate Thucydides for inaccuracy than we can Herodotus, although Herodotus is the one who has frequently been accused of making things up out of whole cloth. It seems fairer to give both writers the benefit of the doubt, and proceed on the assumption that while both did their honest best to reconstruct what was said, the speeches are an excellent place to detect the author's own point of view. Essentially, then, given the differences in the scope of their subject matter and interests, it seems that Herodotus and Thucydides are much closer in terms of method than we might like to think. Furthermore, in terms of what they see as the purpose of writing history, given that Thucydides holds his cards closer to the chest, saying only that the Peloponnesian War "was more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past" (I.1), it seems that their motivations may have actually been the same. Especially in light of the fact that no other ancient historians took up Thucydides' banner, it seems best to conclude that Thucydides and Herodotus are much more alike than different.
ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
It's interesting that Ernst Breisach concludes his joint assessment of Herodotus and Thucydides in Historiography with the claim that "while their sympathy for Athens was obvious, it never turned into petty bias" (21). Having not read Thucydides in the better part of ten years, I will reserve judgment on that opinion until next week, but in the case of Herodotus the claim sits uneasily when weighed against his account of the Persian Wars, in particular his depiction of the character and actions of Themistokles in book 8. Breisach also claims that "both Herodotus and Thucydides knew that truth seen as conformity with the events in the past was a sine qua non of history; it alone separated them from the poets" (21). Again, weighed against the Themistokles episodes, this claim seems to be in need of qualification.

Breisach is correct that Herodotus certainly has an obvious Athenian bias, but the numerous statements in defense of liberty and (limited) democracy scattered throughout the whole work must be weighed in the historical context of Herodotus' own time, in which the Athenian empire was consolidating its hegemony over the Greek oikumene and both liberty and democracy must have looked much more uncertain than they did in the wars about which Herodotus chiefly wrote. The grand irony of Themistokles' speech at VIII.60 is that under his command the Greek armada did save Greece, only to have it fall under an Athenian tyranny. One suspects that Herodotus, as a native of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, a city much closer to the Persian threat, must have felt the Athenian betrayal of their own ideals more keenly than some.

Themistokles undoubtedly shares in the retroactive blame for Athens, but comparing Herodotus' treatment of stories about his actions during and after the Battle of Salamis versus Xerxes' in the same circumstances, clear bias abounds: hearsay stories about Xerxes are evaluated and dismissed as such, while in Themistokles' case they are allowed to stand or even embellished upon. Clearly H. did not approve of Themistokles' decision to spend his exile in the Persian court, and had no compunction about bringing that disapproval into his inquiry. In this Breisach's assessment of him - namely, that H. is much more likely to find causes in human emotions, whereas Thucydides seeks structural factors to furnish explanations (15) - holds up well. To us, that even Athenian exiles would seek sanctuary in Persia seems normal given the geopolitical situation and social norms of the time; to Herodotus, in the case of Themistokles, it was an abject betrayal of his grand narrative about liberty versus tyranny, a symbol of the Athenian moral decline that led to the creation of the empire, and Themistokles' character and actions had to be made congruent with that.

I am, perhaps, overstating the case to make a point, and I should make clear that despite these reservations I find it quite appropriate to term H. the "father of history" - libeling one's subjects to make a point being merely another long-lived historical tradition which he clearly inaugurated. It's interesting, though, that he does combine an evident love of ethnography and linguistics (two other fields which, one suspects, he could plausibly be claimed to have spawned), he never makes a leap from social description to social history. All in all, I share the dissatisfaction with Breisach's claim that H. is focused on the commoners - although he may not be a monarchist, he is very much aristocratically focused, even if his aristocracy is not exclusively one of birth, but of actions and ideals.


ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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