I have mentioned in an earlier post my New Year’s resolution to read 100 books in 2012, a target I hope far to exceed.
However, lest the Reader be deceived into thinking that A Superfluous Man is fixated on quantity to the detriment of quality, this site is also guided by Matthew Arnold’s observation in the preface to Culture and Anarchy:
[O]ne must, I think, be struck more and more, the longer one lives, to find how much, in our present society, a man’s life of each day depends for its solidity and value on whether he reads during that day, and, far more still, on what he reads during it.
Thus impelled to pursue “the best which has been thought and said in the world” and thus add “solidity and value” to my quotidian existence, I hereby resolve to read the entirety of the Yale Directed Studies curriculum, sans Thursday evening essays, a project that may well require more than a year.
Title: The History, by Herodotus of Halicarnassus
Completed: January 9, 2012 (#5)
Recommendation: Western Canon Seal of Approval®
I do not intend to review Herodotus–a website is not an ideal forum for it and, at any rate, my meager talents do not measure up to the task. However, perhaps a few well-chosen anecdotes and quotations will whet the Reader’s appetite for the late Prof. David Grene’s superbly readable translation.
I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another.
For those unfamiliar with the Father of History, Herodotus (484 – 425 B.C.) is considered the first rigorous “historian,” and he took as his subject the Persian Wars, in which the nascent democratic city states of Greece repulsed the threat of Persian autocracy, preserving the seed that would germinate and grow into the Western world we know today. Known for his judicious sifting of evidence and for fairly and openly declaring his biases, Herodotus is the gold standard of historical writing. (A rival school of thought argues for Thucydides, the subject of a later post.)
Readers may be familiar with Herodotus from Kristen Scott Thomas’s magnificent retelling of the Tale of Gyges in The English Patient, helpfully (and quiet illicitly) uploaded to YouTube by an industrious copyright pirate of impeccable taste.
Or perhaps from the popular film, 300 (“This is Sparta!”):
But Xerxes sent no heralds for the demand of earth to Sparta and Athens, and this is why: before this, Darius had sent such for this purpose, and the one of the two cities, casting those who made the demand into the Pit, and the other, casting them into a well, bade them fetch earth and water from there to bear to the King. For these reasons, Xerxes sent none to ask of these two cities. What bad things happened to the Athenians for what they did to the heralds I cannot say, save that their land and city were devastated; but I believe that this murder of the heralds was not truly the reason why the devastation happened.
In Herodotus, one finds mordant wit:
Up to this point it was only rape on both sides, one from the other; but from here on, say the Persians, the Greeks were greatly to blame.
And wisdom, too:
Of course, it is impossible for one who is human to have all the good things together, just as there is no one country that is sufficient of itself to provide all good things for itself; but it has one thing and not another, and the country that has the most is best. So no single person is self-sufficient; he has one thing and lacks another. But whoso possesses most of them, continuously, and then ends his life gracefully, he, my lord, may justly win this name you seek—at least in my judgment. But one must look always at the end of everything—how it will come out finally. For to many the god has shown a glimpse of blessedness only to extirpate them in the end.
If you have never done so–or if you have not done so in quite some time–you owe it to yourself (and to your Civilization) to add this to your reading list. An essential classic.
Addendum: For an introduction to Herodotus that is both more engaging and professionally qualified than my own, please consider viewing this course, offered by the inimitable Prof. Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University, care of the “Open Yale” project.