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«Edited by Mladen Popović LEIDEN • BOSTON © 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV CONTENTS List of Figures and Tables Preface List of Contributors The Jewish ...»

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This process is clearest in national traditions of war or other trauma—London’s response to the Blitz or the European resistance movements during the Second World War.57 Traditions normally have a solid core of collective memory, but they inevitably shed complicating factors, which would detract from the socializing function and moral use of the past. Tradition does not invite inquiry, questioning, or the recovery of original context; it uses the past to preserve group values. It need not, however, be narrowly ideological. A group that prides itself on pluralism and open debate may develop (and backdate) a corresponding tradition, as when contemporary North American religious communities find their present (post-Enlightenment, posts) values clearly indicated in their ancient sacred texts.

From this perspective, the history taught in schools comes normally in the form of tradition, or what the elders wish the young to absorb, and not as the sort of history (i.e., open inquiry) practised by historians. In recent years the efforts of the Texas School Board to create a patriotic history curriculum have highlighted this issue. A supporter of the revisions frames the principle thus: “But our schools’ job is not to be neutral reporters.... It is a culturist truth that all schools serve to socialize youth with the values of the society they happen to have On the resistance see M. Burleigh, Moral Combat: A History of World War II (London: Harper Collins, 2010), 268–86; on the Blitz, “Remembering the Blitz: was it an avoidable tragedy?,” Guardian G2 special supplement, September 7, 2010; J. Gardiner, The Blitz: Our Cities under Attack 1940–1941 (London: Harper Collins, 2010);

G. Mortimer, The Blitz: An Illustrated History (Oxford: Osprey, 2010), e.g., 119–25.

These historical inquiries, while providing abundant evidence to ground the traditions of selfless courage, balance and texture that portrait with less admirable realities from the same period.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV180 steve mason

been born into.”58 School systems under totalitarian regimes are only extreme examples;59 the principle that group tradition uses the past to socialize initiates holds generally for political, religious, or even familial tradition, wherever the maiores expect the minores to internalize cherished values. Although historians are all too easily drawn into debates about which version of the past (i.e., which conclusion) is correct or more accurate, even sometimes buying into the misguided contrast between accepted results and revisionism, the issue is really, I suggest, the categorical difference between tradition and history.

What I am calling tradition is what Michael Oakeshott described as the didactic, living, or “present” past—the only one that most people seriously encounter, even in school. He observes that this “ ‘past’ is not

significantly past at all”:

It is the present contents of a vast storehouse into which time continuously empties the lives, the utterances, the achievements and the sufferings of mankind. As they pour in, these items undergo a process of detachment, shrinkage, and desiccation which the less interesting of them withstand and in which the rest are transformed from being resonant, ambiguous circumstantial survivals from bygone human life into emblematic actions and utterances either entirely divorced from their circumstances or trailing similarly formalized circumstances.60 So J. Press, “Texas School Board controversy could impact our solvency,” American Thinker blog, May 26, 2010 (http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2010/05/ texas_school_board_controversy.html, accessed October 2, 2010). See also M. Birnbaum, “Historians speak out against proposed Texas textbook changes,” Washington Post, March 18, 2010, reporting in part: “Discussions ranged from whether President Reagan should get more attention (yes), whether hip-hop should be included as part of lessons on American culture (no), and whether President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address should be studied alongside Abraham Lincoln’s (yes).

Of particular contention was the requirement that lessons on McCarthyism note that ‘the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.’... Also contentious were changes that asserted the Christian faith of the founding fathers. Historians say the founding fathers had a variety of approaches to religion and faith; some, like Jefferson, were quite secular.” Cf. R. J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power (London: Penguin, 2005), 263: “History, ruled a directive issued on 9 May 1933 by the Reich Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick, had to take a commanding position in the schools.... The purpose of history was to teach people that life was always dominated by struggle, that race and blood were central to everything that happened in the past, present and future, and that leadership determined the fate of peoples. Central themes in the new teaching included courage in battle, sacrifice for a greater cause, boundless admiration for the Leader and hatred of Germany’s enemies, the Jews.” M. Oakeshott, “On History” and other Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), 43–44. Emphasis added.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV what is history? 181





Oakeshott’s reference to the “practical” past sets up a contrast with history. For him, it is only in the university that scholars may pursue history, as well as philosophy, pure science, and mathematics without intrusion from the incessant demand of practical results. At this time of severe budget cuts we might remember his view that only the university can host the kind of systematic, disinterested, reflective, rigorously critical inquiry whose goal is nothing other than better understanding.

For Oakeshott, “An historically understood past is, then, the conclusion of a critical enquiry of a certain sort; it is to be found nowhere but in a history book.”61 We leave Oakesthott here to recall that this understanding of history as inquiry goes back to the very roots of the enterprise in ancient times. This is familiar, but I recall it here in order to stress what is essential to the conception of history.

Herodotus was known in antiquity as the “father of history.”62 Since he did not beget either the past or discussion about it, the history that he sired cannot mean those things. He was well aware of the stories and traditions (mythoi) about the past, in their many conflicting forms.

When he decided to write about the Persian-Greek wars he pressed the question of the basis of our knowledge: How can we know that events happened this or that way? He wanted to get past mere stories retailed by the logographers to real knowledge. That is, he would undertake an inquiry, perusing his own questions, for which narrow-minded Greek views of the Persian defeat did not answer, using open standards of proof. His most valuable tool would be the interviewing and crossexamination of living witnesses (elenchos; cf. 1.24.7; 2.22–23).

Typical passages in Herodotus are these:63 “I have acquired knowledge about the Persians, as follows” (1.131.1); “None of the Egyptians could give me any information, when I inquired of them, as to what power the Nile possesses” (2.19.3); “I did learn as much as I could by travelling to the city of Elephantine and seeing it for myself, but I investigated the region beyond that point through hearsay alone” (2.29.1–2);

“All that can possibly be learned about its [the Nile’s] course from Oakeshott, “On History,” 36.

So Cicero (Leg. 1.1.5), apparently citing a commonplace in the mid first century b.c.e., which he turns ironically by claiming that Herodotus’ narrative is full of fabulous tales.

Translations are those of A. L. Purvis, The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories (New York: Pantheon, 2007), slightly adapted with emphasis added.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV182 steve mason

inquiry has been stated here” (2.34.1); “The Egyptians tell this story....

When I asked them how they knew that this had really happened, they replied...” (2.54.1); “Up to this point, what I have said about Egypt has been the result of my own observation, judgement, and research, but from here on I am going to report the words of the Egyptians just as I heard them” (2.99.1); “When I inquired into the stories in regard to Helen, the priests told me...” (2.113.1).

Such passages expose the difference between Herodotus’ historia and tradition. The word-group on which he most characteristically falls back, represented by “inquiry, inquire” in the translation above, is Ionic historiē (or the verb historein). Although his accounts owe much to predecessors, from Homer to the ethnographer Hecataeus of Miletus, he was the first surviving writer to apply this term for empirical research to the human past. The concept was important enough that he used it in his opening sentence as a title (1.1.1): “Here is the presentation of the inquiry (ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις) of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, [written] so that what has occurred among people should not fade with time.” Just as his Athenian contemporary Socrates (according to Plato) was insisting that he knew no truth in advance, but could only acquire it by means of rigorous questioning, testing, or proving (also elenchos),64 Herodotus undertook to base his knowledge on inquiry.

Herodotus’ method required him, in principle at least, to abandon preconceptions and also to remain unattached to conclusions where the evidence was insufficient to support them. A product of Asia Minor, which had long been under Persian influence, he undertook to explore all sides of the great conflict with a curious, open mind. Here is something essential to historia as inquiry: to be worthy of the name, it must be open-ended. Even where we think that our evidence allows us to take a firm position—favouring the traditional 66 c.e. rather than Nikos Kokkinos’ 65 for the outbreak of revolt, or preferring Werner Eck’s 74 c.e. to the 73 for its conclusion65—in ancient history we are

limited to expressing what seems to be the best explanation of currently available evidence. So Collingwood:

E.g., Theaet. 165d; Gorg. 458a; Symp. 201e with 216e.

W. Eck, “Die Eroberung von Masada und eine neue Inschrift des L. Flavius Silva Nonius Bassus,” ZNTW 60 (1969): 282–89; N. Kokkinos, The Herodian Dynasty: Origins, Role in Society and Eclipse (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 387–95.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV what is history? 183

When we say ‘it was so,’ we are in reality talking not about the past but about the present, because we cannot ever say what the past in itself truly was, but only what the evidence now at our disposal enables us to say that it was; and, as we have seen, it is quite certain that this evidence is always fragmentary and inadequate.66 Herodotus’ non-committal posture did not win him universal admiration. Some ancients accused him of purveying tales rather than getting at the truth. His critics, however, were concerned less with factual error than with his moral biases—the central concern of all ancient literature.67 Some would denounce him as a philobarbaros for his openness to foreign perspectives (Plutarch, Mor. 857a). His perceived shortcomings inspired others to do better, notably Thucydides, whose terse, authoritative analysis of the Peloponnesian war would become the gold standard for history-writing.68 Thucydides did not name Herodotus, but apparently saw himself as the Halicarnassian’s successor and refiner of his methods.69 With a stinging rebuke of the gullible who accept native traditions uncritically (1.20.1, 3) and dismissal of both poetic exaggeration and the repetition of untestable claims (1.21.1), he insisted on rigorous principles for the collection and testing of evidence. He avoided Herodotus’ ἱστορία Collingwood, The Idea of History, 409.

Plutarch’s essay On the Malice of Herodotus, though written centuries later, illustrates widespread assumptions. As the traditional title suggests, he was concerned not so much with factual inaccuracy as with Herodotus’ character: especially his putative partiality toward Athenians and hostility toward Plutarch’s ancestors—Corinthians and Boeotians. Compare Polybius’ earlier rejection of Phylarchus as a source for the Cleomenic war on account of that writer’s too great sympathy with Sparta, nemesis of Polybius’ home city of Megalopolis. Polybius will exclusively follow the morally correct (hence “true”) Aratus of Sicyon, champion of the Achaean League (2.56–63).

Later Polybius rejects Fabius Pictor for supposedly misrepresenting the motives of the Carthaginians (3.8.1–11)—again, not because he has found his data defective: he realized already that there was no way to liberate the data from a morally shaped narrative.

Josephus himself says as much (C. Ap. 1.18) while obliquely demonstrating his own learning, in a general disparagement of Greek historiography. He claims that some have even accused the great Thucydides, reputedly the most accurate historian.

On the Athenian’s unique standing in later times see Dionysius, Thuc. 2–3; Diodorus 1.37.4; and Lucian, Hist. conscr. 15, 18–19, 39, 42. Thucydides was undoubtedly an important model for Josephus, in both the War and the Antiquities. On the former see G. Mader, Josephus and the Politics of Historiography: Apologetic and Impression Management in the Bellum Judaicum (Leiden: Brill, 2000). The Antiquities is not so obviously in the Thucydidean mould, but in books 17–19 Josephus makes an unfortunate attempt to imitate the master’s style.

See S. Hornblower, Thucydides (London: Duckworth, 1987), 7–33.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV184 steve mason



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