What is history?

Herodotus, the “father of history,” begins his Histories, arguably the first book of history, with an explanation of his method and purpose in writing his book. In the first sentence, he informs his readers,

These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.

Within this single sentence, the world’s first historian offers a succinct definition of the field of human knowledge which he pioneered.

Herodotus begins by referring to his work as ἱστορίης, or “researches,” knowledge attained by observation and inquiry. Here Herodotus indicates his most significant departure from those who came before him. The telling of stories about the past, of course, existed well before Herodotus wrote his book in the 5th century BC. Herodotus distinguishes himself from these earlier storytellers, however, by basing his stories upon his personal research rather than upon a received ancestral narrative. Rather than passing on old stories in a version of the “telephone game,” Herodotus used observation and reason to discover the past and create a plausible narrative based on available evidence. After mentioning his method, Herodotus goes on to delineate his purposes for writing.

The first of his stated purposes is “preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done.”  Herodotus, in other words, wishes to protect and perpetuate the memory of the activities of certain persons beyond the personal life span of those particular persons. History is, then, in a sense, an extension of the personal memory. The historian is therefore a guardian of the collective memory of mankind, expanding the memory of each particular person backwards to encompass the totality of significant events in the life of mankind as a whole.

Herodotus’s second stated purpose for his writing is “preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.” In addition, then, to merely preserving the record of past human activity, Herodotus wishes to render honor to those who were responsible for this activity. He desires not a mere chronology of dates and events but a narrative which inspires to reverence. In turn, of course, reverence will inevitably provoke imitation.

Herodotus’s final stated purpose for his writing is “to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.” He wishes to preserve not only the events and the activities of those involved in the events, but the causes of their actions as well. In preserving the causes of human activity, Herodotus imparts a doctrine of human beings as rational agents. Human activity is, for the historian, understandable and reasonable because it is traceable to particular motivations.

In his stated purposes, Herodotus makes implicit claims concerning human nature, claims which provide reason and basis for history as a discipline. In his desire to “preserve … remembrance” Herodotus claims for mankind the desire to remember the activities of other members of their species who lived before them, a claim that can be made for no other species than the human species. Herodotus also highlights further aspects of the discipline of history which can only aptly describe human activity. Activity that is predetermined or unfree is undeserving of any “meed of glory” and activity without “grounds” is random and irrational. Herodotus, then, in his second and third statements of his purpose, makes the implicit claim that human activity is free and rational.

Herodotus, no doubt, was merely prefacing his work with a statement of his own methods and purposes in writing. In so doing, however, Herodotus became the progenitor of a field of human knowledge which had not hitherto existed in its pure and independent state. By defining history as a field of research and inquiry intended for the preservation of the memory of human activities and their respective motivations, Herodotus discerned one aspect of the human drive to knowledge of self while setting its boundaries with other fields of human knowledge.

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