Monday, April 2, 2012

History or Textbook?

Favorite quote from The Great Conversation this morning: "...the great books...afford us the best examples of man's efforts to seek the truth, both about the nature of things and about human conduct." 

One of the first things I learned about The History of Herodotus when I began to research it was that it was the first recorded attempt at a true history. That's one of the things I've been looking for--how does he do this? How is this book an honest attempt at history rather than story or entertainment? 

I've found a few examples that I think explain this:
  1. Introduction says, "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..." He says he has researched and wants the truth or the facts to be put down and remembered correctly.
  2. The first sentence of the first paragraph says, "According to the Persians best informed in the history..." He is saying that he is not only attempting to give a history but he has consulted the "best informed" so that his information would be the most accurate.
  3. "Such is the account the Persians give of these matters." Again, he's referring to the authorities and the best information he can get.
  4. "Thus much I know from information given me by the Delphians; the remainder of the story the Milesians add." This shows that he is getting the information for himself, going directly to the sources themselves. This is the difference between a real history and a textbook: textbooks are 2-5 sources away from an original, a history is an account someone has written from the original sources themselves. 
  5. "This is known because..." Here again he is citing the sources and trying to prove that what he is telling is fact rather than story, though it is told in story form.

A great example of a history told in story form versus a textbook, told in story form or not, is David McCullogh's John Adams versus a typical high school American History textbook. Which would you rather read?! Both authors are going to select those facts they want to include but one is going to be a dramatic story and other dry facts. Besides which, I think it's easier to leave out key facts and events when you just select data to tell rather than telling the story of someone's life. If you leave out too much pertinent information, the story doesn't even hold together. Anyway, I'm obviously biased here in favor of the kind of history that Herodotus and David McCullough write for lots of reasons, the greatest being that I think one builds character and the other doesn't. What do you think?

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