I am now about six months into my Great Books project and this seems like a good time to stop and take stock. I have now read and blogged about works written up to the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) in the Hellenistic tradition and up to the establishment of the Second Temple (516 BCE) in the Hebrew tradition. Up to this point, the two have had almost no first-hand intellectual contact. Soon, though, they will begin influencing each other to an increasing degree, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire and continuing until Paul and other evangelists permanently fuse them together to create the new tradition of Christianity.
I have come to think of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE as the end of Part I of the Great Books. Socrates wrote no books himself, yet he brought together all previous Hellenic philosophy and all future Western philosophy owes something to the work of his disciple Plato, who is the next author whom I plan to cover.
Before I go on, I thought it would be useful to present a timeline of the lives of the Hellenistic authors in this first section. I also included Plato and Xenophon because, though I think of them as belonging to the next period, their lives overlapped with the others.
I think the most striking thing about this timeline is that, other than Homer who really belongs to an earlier age, all of these men lived within such a short span of time. Only 139 years separate Aeschylus‘ birth and Aristophanes‘ death.
I also recently drew this diagram to express how the different strands of Western thought are related in the ancient world. It is over-simplistic and not particularly scientific, but I find it’s helpful to think about how the ideas relate to each other.
Finally, now that we have reached the end of Part I, I need to mention that I will be posting more erratically for the next several weeks. Other literary commitments, including finishing my own book and doing editing work for clients, will take most of my time. I also don’t want to rush the Plato section, since his work is so important. I will try to post at least two or three times per month over the summer, however.
This week I am reading the work of Herodotus. Herodotus was, if not the world’s first true historian, then the first who’s work has come down to us. Because of this, any discussion of Herodotus must begin with the deceptively simple question, “What is history?”.
Earlier in my Great Books project I wrote about Homer’s Iliad which is a history, in a sense, of final year the Trojan War. I also wrote about the Deuteronomistic History, the seven books of the Hebrew Bible which tell the national story of the Hebrews from the time they arrived in Canaan to their conquest by Babylon. However, neither of these works are histories in the purest sense. Both were written to advance cultural and theological agendas, so their was no attempt, or even concept of, objectivity. More importantly, neither makes any attempt to explain why events happened as they did, which is the fundamental question of history. The self evident answer was that things happened because God, or the gods willed it.
We don’t know much about Herodotus’ life. It seems that he was a relatively affluent merchant from the Greek city of Halicarnassus, which was part of the Persian empire. Herodotus became fascinated with the Persian-Greek war, and event about as far removed in time for him as World War II is for us. Because his business dealings often took him to Athens and other Greek cities he had plenty of chances to listen to oral accounts of the war and interview survivors from the period. Using these sources he wrote a book which not only describes the events, as he understood them, but tried to give the context and reasons they occurred.
Many encyclopedia articles and other writings about Herodotus are critical of his methods. They say that he lacked objectivity and took too many accounts at face value without cross checking them, or that he failed to develop a coherent theory of the causes of the war. These criticisms would be more valid if we here talking about someone’s modern PhD History dissertation. When applied to Herodotus they fail to give him enough credit. He was not a trained historian because there were no previous historians who could have trained him. The sources he had were a mixture of hearsay and recollections by old people who would have been quite young during the war. Despite these limitations he managed to write a book which is still read, as a history text, almost sixteen centuries later.
I am particularly impressed because I am currently writing a book which includes quite a bit of history from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Thanks to the Internet I have access to many newspaper clippings, court records, and government documents from the era–none of which would have been available to Herodotus. Even so, there are gaping holes in my understanding of some of the events. Like Herodotus, I have been interviewing people who lived during that time, or even their children and grandchildren if I can find them. I find that even when the witnesses memories seem clear, they often didn’t pay attention to or never knew about things which seem critical to me. From these sources I must develop hypotheses about causes and effects and present my findings in a readable form, yet avoid opening myself to criticism for lack of objectivity or failure to meet a burden of proof. Even with all my modern technology and training as a researcher, I’m not sure I’ll be able to do as fine a job as Herodotus. Hopefully, though, studying him and the other historians on my Great Books list will inspire me to succeed.
A Note About Editions:
Herodotus only wrote one work, The History, which is made up of nine books. A fairly good English translation is available from Project Gutenberg. The first four books contain background on the Persian Empire, Egypt, and other areas of the known world. The parts which deal with Egypt, while interesting, are not considered to be very accurate. There is some question whether Herodotus ever actually went there himself. Books five through nine are the actual history of the Persian War. For college courses books five through nine are often bound together in an edition called Herodotus: The Persian War which is very readable and includes explanatory comments, but omits some passages that are not directly related to the war. I have both, and have found myself flipping back and forth as I read.
One of the standard criticisms of the Great Books approach is that nearly all of the texts are written by “dead white guys” and therefore have less resonance with members of other groups. This is especially true of women who, despite making up more than half of the population of Western Civilization, are noticeably absent from most Great Books reading lists. I have already mentioned Y, the (probably) female editor of the first four books of the Torah. The books of Ruth and Proverbs were also quite possibly written by women. Overall, though, very few women prior to the nineteenth century had the sort of educational background to produce a Great Book. Of these, even fewer had the wherewithal to get their work published. Nor were the male scribes of of the middle ages as interested in copying and preserving the work of women. The result is that the writings of the few women we know of who might be included–Sappho of Lesbos, for example, are either completely lost or exist only in a few fragments.
While regrettable, this situation would be less of a problem if the male authors of the Great Books had written more about women, their issues, and their experiences. In general, though, they did not do a good job at this. It has been observed by many people in modern times that, while most female fiction writers are adept at writing male characters, relatively few male writers can write believable female characters. This seems to have also been true in the ancient world. Our first two Greek authors, Homer and Aeschylus, betrayed a rather shallow understanding of women. Their female characters exist as prizes to be fought over or are on stage only to react to the words and actions of the male characters. Even Aeschylus’ Electra, one of the great tragic heroines of all time, is almost painfully under developed. This treatment is interesting since we know that the women of ancient Greece were actually fairly outspoken and aggressive compared to their contemporaries in the ancient world. It is hard to reconcile the scared and fawning female choruses of The Supplicant Maidens or Seven Against Thebes with the angry female lynch mobs who occasionally tore men limb-from-limb or stabbed them to death with their broach pins. Homer’s Penelope, waiting patiently for Odysseus to return and rescue her bears little comparison to Queen Artemisia, the Greek commander of a Persian Trireme squadron, whom Herodotus describes as deliberately ramming an allied ship in the straits of Eripus, then receiving a commendation from Xerxes after convincing him it was actually an enemy vessel.
Sophocles is different from Homer and Aeschylus in that he did write strong female characters. His Antigone, Electra, and Deianira are all different portraits of an ideal woman: brave, principled, and loyal. All are internally conflicted between their perceived duty and emotional needs. His Tecmessa (Ajax’s concubine) is a much more vulnerable and submissive character, yet still completely believable, torn between her loyalty to Ajax and her awareness that if he dies or is disgraced there will be no protection for herself or her son from the other Greek soldiers.
There are still deficiencies in the way Sophocles dealt with women. Not one of his plays actually passes the modern Bechdel Test, a measure of female inclusion in a script–although the some of Antigone-Ismene scenes come close. Then again, relatively few modern screenplays pass the Bechdel Test. Overall, however, his writing does a better job of representing women than most in the Great Books.
I am myself a white male. As a writer in the 21st century, however, I can not get away with writing stories about white males for consumption for other white males. Aside from the fact that I would be frightfully boring, , white males make up an ever smaller share of the market. Besides, our pluralistic society demands a literature that conveys the experiences of many different genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds. This begs the question, then, “Why am I spending all this time studying a canon of works that were written by white males?” One answer would be that I am heir to, and continue to write in a particular literary tradition and it isn’t my fault that the authorship lacks diversity. A better answer is that Western Civilization’s Great Books contain timeless and universal ideas. My challenge as a writer is to adapt them from their original context and make them accessible to everyone.