Method and Theory in Classics
Session 15: History 3
Some views on history, its definition and its worth:
(See Monday’s handout for the opening of Herodotus’ work).
And with regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war I have made it a principle
not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own
general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else
I heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much
thoroughness as possible. Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different eye-
witnesses give different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side
of the other or else from imperfect memories. And it may well be that my history will seem
less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic (muthōdes) element. It will be
enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to
understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being
what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.
My work is not just a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public,
but was done to last for ever.
Aristotle, Poetics 1451a37-b11:
The difference between the historian and the poet is not in their presenting accounts that
are versified or not versified, since it would be possible for Herodotus’ work to be put into
verses and it would be no less a kind of history with verse than it is without verses; rather,
the difference is this: the one tells what has happened, the other the kind of things that can
happen. And in fact that is why the writing of poetry is a more philosophical activity, and
one to be taken more seriously, than the writing of history; for poetry tells us rather the
universals, history the particulars. “Universal” means the kind of things a person will say or
do in accordance with probability or necessity, which is what poetic composition aims at,
tacking on names afterward; while “particular” is what Alcibiades did or had done to him.
Some contrasting modern(ish) views on history:
Lord Macaulay A history of England from the accession of James II (c.1848):
Unless I greatly deceive myself, the general effect of this chequered narrative will be to
excite thankfulness in all religious minds, and hope in the breasts of all patriots. For the history of our country during the last hundred years is eminently the history of physical,
moral and of intellectual improvement. Those who compare the age on which their lot has
fallen with a golden age which exists only in their imagination may talk of degeneracy and
decay: but no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a
morose or desponding view of the present.
E P Thompson The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963), preface, 12
I am seeking to rescue the poor stockingers, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom
weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded followers of Joanna Southcott, from
the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying.
Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their
communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have
been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did
not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were
casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.
Our only criterion of judgement should not be whether or not a man’s actions are justified
in the light of subsequent evolution. After all, we are not at the end of social revolution
ourselves. In some of the lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution we may
discover insights into social evils we have yet to cure. Moreover, the greater part of the
world today is still undergoing problems of industrialization, and of the formation of
democratic institutions, analogous in many ways to our own experience during the
Industrial Revolution. Causes which were lost in England, might, in Asia or Africa, yet be
Keith Jenkins Re-thinking History (London 1991), 31-2
History is a shifting, problematic discourse, ostensibly about an aspect of the world, the
past, that is produced by a group of present-minded workers (overwhelmingly in our culture
salaried historians) who go about their work in mutually recognisable ways that are