Monday, September 12, 2011

Herodotus, Thucydides and The Idea of History

Earlier this year I read R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History. The book is quite insightful, a "must read" for any philosopher of history. On the whole, I quite enjoyed it.

However, one passage hit me hard, like watching one friend knife another friend. You see, Collingwood insists that Thucydides is not really a historian. Herodotus gets the honor, but not Thucydides.

Ever since I first read Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War I have been a fan. Not a historian? No, Collingwood explains, Thucydides is really a philosopher. Historians, Collingwood says, recreate the thoughts of past men. That is their task. It is a fundamentally particular task, dealing with men individually. Philosophers, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with the general, those things which are true of all men. Herodotus is often criticized for repeating legends and hear-say, and he deserves the criticism. However, his approach is fundamentally particular, asking here about the Persians and there about the Egyptians; though he makes connections across cultures, he is also willing to accept them with their differences.

Thucydides has a rather different approach, though the difference is not always obvious. In his introduction, Thucydides notes that when he had no report of a given speech, he has filled in the gap with what must have been said. In other words, if we know the speech was preceded by A, and followed by C, the speaker must have said something along the lines of B - it's the obvious way to get from one to the other. Thucydides' method is broadly sound; after all, we infer things all the time, in history and in life. However, this method reveals a disregard for the messy details of life, and leans on broad statements about men generally. Why do men go to war? Thucydides asks. Only three reasons: fear, greed or honor. This is profound insight into the human person, but it is not history. History is more concrete than that.

Must history simply involve disconnected facts? Can it never approach the general? The philosophic historian - and by that I do not mean one that belongs to the discipline of philosophy, but one that desires the deepest truths - must constantly hold together the tension between the particularities of history and the desire for general knowledge. To stray too far from this tension produces something other than good history. The unthinking particularist becomes a kind of antiquarian, collecting factoids and minutia, content never to connect them to one another. This person has no concept of or desire for knowledge of mankind as a whole or justice as a virtue. The more thoughtful man who becomes a particularist is likely a kind of agnostic, someone who recognizes that history cannot produce complete knowledge of general things, but concludes that there is no reason to try to hold together the tension. He is typically a bitter soul, someone who longs for general knowledge but does not believe it possible. The unthinking generalist becomes a Whig historian in the most pejorative sense of the term, shoehorning the complications of the past into broad categories that are inadequate to describe it. The thinking generalist is ultimately a philosopher, someone who realizes that history is always bound up with the particular and lays it aside in favor of another vocation.

History, then, is a curious thing, with one foot in the mud of earth and another on the clouds of heaven. It's not for everyone, but I'm rather happy with that tension.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to read some Herodotus.

Today's image of R. G. Collingwood comes from Ovi Magazine.
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