"Consider what you have in the smallest chosen library. A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be picked out of all civil countries, in a thousand years, have set in best order the results of their learning and wisdom. The men themselves were hid and inaccessible, solitary, impatient of interruption, fenced by etiquette; but the thought which they did not uncover to their bosom friend is here written out in transparent words to us, the strangers of another age" - Ralph Waldo Emerson.
|Summer 2015 Reading List|
by Kudakwashe Kanhutu
Aristotle, in his Poetics, famously summarised Homer’s thick volume epic poem – The Odyssey – in 3 sentences. He summarised it thus:
“A certain man is absent from home for many years; he is jealously watched by Poseidon, and left desolate. Meanwhile his home is in a wretched plight – suitors are wasting his substance and plotting against his son. At length, tempest-tost, he himself arrives; he makes certain persons acquainted with him; he attacks the suitors with his own hand, and is himself preserved while he destroys them. This is the essence of the plot; the rest is episode.”
Homer’s The Odyssey is around 560 pages long. I am going to do even better than Aristotle here and summarise Herodotus’s The Histories, which is 734 pages long, in one sentence: “Read it yourself!”
I come from a country where some dinosaurs still exist who think that not sharing the knowledge they have is a form of distinguishing themselves from the rest. Selfish, selfish, selfish. It is also something that only works to the detriment of the polity. The one thing I learnt, however, from the countries I have been to, where hogging knowledge is frowned upon, is that you don’t really have to converse with these dinosaurs as “everything that is worth knowing has already been put in books, just read them.” Of course, “the man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” Luckily, I have had close contact with policy makers and various successful people who freely publish lists of what they are currently reading and what they have already read. Bill Gates’s Gates Notes is one such public source of good books but as I myself am not a man of business, I have never read any of his recommendations. My interest is in classical texts that teach about international relations, public policy and courtly intrigues. In that regard, I would sooner re-read Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince than read the Bill Gates recommended John Brooks’s Business Adventures. So, I have my own sources of reading lists.
The Histories of Herodotus:
Two years ago I spent the whole summer reading Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War – excellent book. Before then, in the previous summers, I had read the works of Plato, Thomas More, and Aristotle; the Epic Poems of Homer, Virgil, John Milton and John Dryden as part of my study for my first degree: Classics. It so happens then that the canon I currently enjoy reading was decided for me by my first degree. So, I tend to read works from Greek antiquity and I find them riveting. I had so far not found any time to read Herodotus, owing to lack of time, due to the reading demands of my second and third degrees: my recently finished studies in Modern Warfare. But The Histories has always been the great outstanding work from Greek antiquity that I still had to read.
When I finally found time to read it, I was also initially very sceptical of Herodotus’s integrity as a Historian, but therein lay my mistake. Volumes have been written about people who miss the forest while looking for the tree. You prevent yourself from absorbing the lessons or enjoying the writing style of an author because you want to question that, “oh, if he wasn’t present when such and such happened, how can he report back to us, word for word, what was said during that occurrence?” Should you ever read all these works from antiquity, a better course of action is to concern yourself only with what you can learn from the recorded actions of the ancients and the outcomes they yielded in each instance.
An even better way is to take Aristotle’s counsel when he defended epic poetry. He said;
“Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.”
With the passage of time (for Aristotle is a near contemporary of Herodotus), Herodotus’s The Histories can be argued to have come to hold the same value of “expressing the universal” that epic poetry was then argued to hold.
This, then, is the way I read The Histories; as a recording of the actions that happened in the intercourse between Greeks and their neighbours in Asia, Europe and Africa (Ethiopia, Egypt and Libya feature prominently). What worked and what didn't work in that intercourse is what interested me in his Histories. This book is also excellent in that it applies as a textbook of both international relations and domestic politics. The intercourse between Greeks (Spartans, Athenians, and Thebans) as well as that between the Greeks and Barbarians (Persians, Ethiopians, Egyptians and Libyans) qualify as early forms of international relations. While the relationships between the military, religious figures, political figures and private citizens in, for example, Athens, qualifies as domestic politics 101. If you also look to modern times, after reading Herodotus, you will find that most of the events he recorded have been replicating themselves throughout the years. Herodotus’s Histories, in the words of Shakespeare, thus, held a mirror to human nature.
Much Better Than Shakespeare:
The other value of Herodotus’s The Histories is that it supplies you with maxims that have withstood the test of time. Shakespeare (who I read extensively) also has important maxims, but the problem with Shakespeare’s maxims is that they just jump at you, from nowhere, unsupported by the surrounding text. This anomaly has led many scholars to doubt the authenticity of Shakespeare’s authorship. It is as if a much cleverer scholar, after time had passed, added his own maxims but did not have the due care to add his maxims where they were supported by the preceding and succeeding text. An example of this is the Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It.
Herodotus’s maxims in The Histories, on the other hand, are logical as they are supported by the surrounding text. Here are two quick examples: his quotation, “This is the bitterest pain among men, to have much knowledge but no power" comes during a conversation between a Persian soldier and Thersander, a Greek traitor who had taken sides with the Persians when they invaded Greece. The Persian implores Thersander to desert and seek his safety as this Persian expedition was doomed to perish. Thersander then asks the Persian soldier why he doesn’t take this knowledge to his generals so that they may forthwith stop the invasion, to which he then gets the above reply. The second quote is; “If a man insisted always on being serious, and never allowed himself a bit of fun and relaxation, he would go mad or become unstable without knowing it.” This comes from the passage where the Egyptians confonted their King, Amasis, and said to him his style of drinking and joking with common people was unbecoming for royal dignity, and the above is the suitable response he gave them.
Herodotus: Not Just Another Academic:
As I have a disdain for academics and scholars, I also warmed up to Herodotus because, not only did he record history, he also participated in its creation. Here is how he casually mentioned his involvement in the history he was recording in Book Eight, Chapter 132:
When the whole fleet was collected together at Aegina, ambassadors from Ionia arrived at the Greek station; they had but just come from paying a visit to Sparta, where they had been entreating the Lacedaemonians to undertake the deliverance of their native land. One of these ambassadors was Herodotus, the son of Basileides. Originally they were seven in number; and the whole seven had conspired to slay Strattis the tyrant of Chios; one, however, of those engaged in the plot betrayed the enterprise; and the conspiracy being in this way discovered, Herodotus, and the remaining five, quitted Chios, and went straight to Sparta, whence they had now proceeded to Aegina, their object being to beseech the Greeks that they would pass over to Ionia. It was not, however, without difficulty that they were induced to advance even so far as Delos.
Criticism of The Histories:
Herodotus has been criticised for not writing his history in a chronological sequence as did Thucydides. I argue that as a pioneer of the writing of history, Herodotus had no frame of reference, unlike his successors like Thucydides, who just refined his invention. Another famous criticism is by Plutarch titled, The Malice of Herodotus. I advise you to read it yourself but his general complaint was that Herodotus painted the Barbarians (Persians, Europeans, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Libyans, Indians) in a positive light while denigrating his own kind – The Greeks. As a non – Greek myself, this does not bother me in the least.
|The Histories is 734 pages long.|