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Herodotus: the father of our liberal arts?

By Sylvain Rey



Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House

Herodotus is often credited with the honorific title of “Father of history.” If this title has often been the object of debate in modern scholarship–with noticeably certain unrealistic details which have made some give him the inglorious name of ‘Father of lies’, and the fact that he lumps his sources without necessarily criticizing them–Herodotus’ place as the first historian seems today assured against his critics. Yet, more than just an historian, Herodotus was also an ethnographer and a geographer. His Histories, indeed, very often digress from the central subject, the war between the Greeks and the Persians and their allies, toward vivid accounts of the peoples he mentions and their customs, religion, political system, etc. He also spends time in locating them on the map of the known world, describing the landscape he encounters, its rivers, mountains, etc.

In all, the Histories are not so much an historical work in the modern sense of the term as they are a witness of his time, where the world is an integrated whole. In Herodotus, human tragedy unfolds in a dynamic world, made not (only) of speculations and theories, but where every elements cannot exist without the other. Thus, the Scythians or Carthaginians have their place in Herodotus’ work not simply as elements of the narrative, explaining such event, but they exist in their own right, with their customs and environment. The Greek historian is curious and inquiring; so is the modern historian. But the Greek, unlike his modern counterpart, pushes his curiosity to areas irrelevant to the modern historian, who would leave those to other professionals, such as ethnologists, geographers, etc.

The separation between the various liberal arts–history, geography, anthropology, sociology, etc–is a recent one, dating to the 19th century, even if those started as independent specialties earlier. I would assume that this separation is due to the modern scientific mind which seeks to break every element down to its smallest component possible, and study these elements separately. In this respect, everything that does not directly contribute to the study of the element becomes discarded, useless. This is why a modern historian does not bother himself so much with ethnographic or geographical details. To Herodotus, however, these were important in that they responded to his curiosity for the world. To us, the element counts; to him, and to all ancient historians in fact, the whole is important.

Have we lost something by discarding whatever element we do not need to answer our inquiry? Perhaps… There seems to be a trend, in the past decades or so, to regroup several previously distinct fields of study. Historians make use of sociological works, archaeologists make abundant use of ethnographic accounts, etc. Perhaps we have come to realize that the element by itself means little to nothing if it does not take into account the context in which it exists. Yet, there is one thing that will always unify these different fields of study, and that shows how arbitrary the distinction is. Whatever we are–sociologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, geographers, etc.–the basic methodology remains the same. In a research–historein in Greek–the question to a problem is answered by analyzing different sources, criticizing them, and reaching a logical conclusion. This method, which constitutes the core of modern scientific reasoning, and which is absent in Herodotus, can be applied by anyone, regardless of his training, to any of the fields that make up the liberal arts today. If we are a historian, we may as well, and very easily, apply the same method to geography or ethnology. Thus, the trend has been to reconstruct, over the past decades, what had been deconstructed in Modern times. This is why Herodotus is central to us today, because he naturally combined things that we would consider separate today, but which were to him one and the same thing. In this sense he was more than the father of history, he was the father of ethnology and geography as well.

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3 Comments

  1. Vasiliki D

    This is such a relevant article. Especially at a time where the Orthodox Christians in America are ‘re-structuring’ Orthodox terminology and categories to suit a “grafting” into the tree of predominately ex-Protestants ……. it is no longer acceptable (and I challenge anyone to find) to post the word “Greek Orthodox” church as a collective term for “Eastern Orthodoxy” on the Internet … is this wrong or right … I am not in a position to qualify that question … but it is definately an interesting observation I have noticed and an increasing trend to “wipe out” any reference to “Greek” in history associated with the Church ….

  2. Hi Vasiliki,

    Thank you for your comment. Orthodoxy in America indeed suffers from many drawbacks, due to the environemnt in which it is located. Sometimes, it reminds me in some ways of teh early Church, which was “infiltrated,” if I may say so, by diverse currents such as Marcionism, Gnosticism, etc. The struggle to keep the faith pure was hard, but the Church eventually pevailed. We live in a world where keeping one’s faith is almost considered fanatical and backwards. But those who keep it intact are those who are truly faithful.

    Sylvain.

  3. Vasiliki

    This is true. The Church will always prevail … there are many good things to come about because of this change, namely more accessible Orthodoxy!

    I like your blog Sylvain.

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Three Millennia of Greek Literature