memory and imagination

Odyssey (Book XIX)

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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.

History and Its Importance (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.1)

Imagine waking up in the desert and not being able to remember who you are, where you are, or how you got there. To find your way home you have to know at least one of those things. Unfortunately, you do not know where home is – or even whether you have one!

This is the situation we find ourselves in if we do not know history. History is like memory, but for a large group of people instead of just one person. The same way that your memory allows you to remember who you are, where you are, and how you got there, history allows us to remember who we are as a family, a school, a state, a nation, or even a civilization. It tells us where we are and how we got here. It also helps us to decide where we want to go.

The historian Edward Gibbon, whom you will read about when we study the Enlightenment, once said “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.” We learn through our experiences of the decisions we make and the consequences of those decisions. If I make a bad decision and get hurt because of it, I will know not to make that decision again. Similarly, I know that I want to continue to do things for which I get rewarded. Our memory is what helps us learn from our experiences. We remember what happened to us in the past and we make decisions about our future based on those memories. There is a saying you might have heard: the person who does not know history is doomed to repeat it. In other words, if you do not know what mistakes to avoid and what models to follow, you are not going to make very good decisions.

The first historian was a man named Herodotus. He was a Greek man who lived in 484-425 B.C. You will learn more about him in the section on the Ancient Greeks, but a short passage from his book, The History, might help us now as we try to understand what history is and why it is so important. The first sentence of the first history book written by the first historian is this:

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.

In that one sentence, Herodotus gives us a lot of help in understanding history.

First of all, notice that he uses the word “researches” to refer to his work. People have been telling stories about the past almost as long as there have been people. Those stories have been passed down from grandparents and parents to children and then by those children to their children. Although these stories are interesting and important, and you will learn more about these stories when you read about mythology later, they are not history. What makes history different from just telling stories about the past is that history involves research. Herodotus did not just write down the stories he had heard from his grandma and grandpa. He travelled to different nations looking for old buildings and old books to help him get his information. Historians today do the same thing. There are a lot of great stories in history, but history is more than just stories. It also involves using some detective work to find clues and talk to witnesses to put those stories together.

In this sentence, Herodotus also tells us that he did all of this research for three reasons:

1. “Preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done.”

To preserve something from decay means that you want to make sure it never goes away. He wanted people to remember the great things that others had done before them.

2. “Preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.”

What this means is that Herodotus wanted to make sure that the “great and wonderful” things people had done were remembered so that we can honor them. If you do something great, like play very well in a baseball game or get very good grades, you want to be noticed for that. Herodotus thought the people he wrote about had done some great things and should be recognized for what they had done.

3. “To put on record what were their grounds of feuds.”

He wanted the people who read his book to remember the reason the Greeks and the Barbarians had fought a war with each other. Here Herodotus is talking about the Greco-Persian Wars, which you will read more about in the section on Ancient Greece.

Herodotus is saying something very much like what we have already said. He wants to give us examples of great men, people who had a great deal of courage and wisdom, so that we can follow their example. He also wants to tell us about the decisions these men made, so we can learn from their experiences. If they made good decisions, we want to try to make the same decisions they made. If they made bad decisions, we want to try to avoid those.

So maybe you are not entirely sure if you are going to like this history thing. It sounds okay, but maybe you like another subject more, like math, science, or – maybe – lunch. History can help you here as well. All of those other subjects have a history. All of the things we know about nature that you will learn about in science class are things that were discovered by the people you will learn about by studying history. Aristotle, for example, was an ancient Greek philosopher who was one of the first people to write about zoology, the study of animals. One of Aristotle’s most important students, Theophrastus, is sometimes called “the father of botany,” which is the study of plants. He is called by this title because he wrote some of the first books on the subject. Much later, two men named Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei, both of whom read the books written by Aristotle, would make important discoveries in astronomy, the study of the stars and planets. One of their most important discoveries was that the earth revolves around the Sun. You will read about all four of these people and many more scientists, mathematicians, writers, soldiers, and others as we continue. (Those of you whose favorite subject is lunch will also be happy to know that food has a history, too!)

In this course, we will focus on the history of our civilization, which is usually called Western Civilization. Western Civilization begins with the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians more than 5000 years ago and continues with us today. Many of the things we do every day are part of our heritage as members of Western Civilization. When your parents vote, for example, they are continuing a practice that started with the Ancient Greeks more than 2500 years ago. If you have to take medicine when you get sick, you are doing something that goes back to the Ancient Greeks and that became very important during the period we call the Enlightenment. The architecture and art you see on many buildings in your city might come from the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, or the people of the Renaissance. All of these are things other members of Western Civilization who lived before us have given us. It is our job to learn about these things so that we can contribute our own part when it is time for us to make the decisions.

 

Review Questions

  1. What is history? Answer in a sentence.
  2. In your own words, write a paragraph about why it is important to learn about history.
  3. What is your favorite subject other than history? How do you think history can help you better understand that subject? Answer in a paragraph.

 

Vocabulary Words

 Civilization – a nation or group of nations which share a common culture, government, economic system, language, and/or religion

Heritage – something inherited from one’s ancestors

History – knowledge of the past learned through research

Induction into imagination

Whatever form of education is inflicted on children, they will always find mythical or heroic figures to satisfy their imagination. If they do not have King Arthur and Peredur or Sigurd and Regin, they will content themselves with Donald Duck and Dick Barton. It may even be argued that the latter are healthier because they are more spontaneous and near to contemporary reality than Branwen the daughter of Llyr or Burnt Njal. But are they more real because they are more at home in our impoverished world? I believe the old myths are better not only intrinsically,  but because they lead further and open a door into the mind as well as into the past. This was the old road which carries us back not merely for centuries but for thousands of years; the road by which every people has travelled and from which the beginnings of every literature have come. I mean the road of oral tradition. It may be that the changes of our generation, the increased speed of life and the mechanization of popular culture by the cinema and the radio have closed this road forever. But if so, those of us who remember the world before the wars have witnessed a change in human consciousness far greater than we have realized and what we are remembering is not the Victorian age but a whole series of ages — a river of immemorial time which has suddenly dried up and become lost in the seismic cleft that has opened between the present and the past.

Christopher Dawson, “Memories of a Victorian Childhood”

Knowing and understanding

Note that disciplinary understanding is not the same as the mere accrual of facts (sometimes termed subject-matter knowledge). Facts are fine but they do not in themselves involve any disciplinary understanding. Moreover, in this day of handheld devices, there is little point in memorizing facts that are instantly available at one’s fingertips. Rather, educators should help students to understand the ways in which disciplinary specialists establish and confirm knowledge. This acquisition necessarily involves immersion in the kinds of activities in which specialists are regularly engaged — carrying out proofs in mathematics, making systematic observations and conducting experiments in science, or poring over documents and graphic materials in history.

Howard Gardner, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, p. 125