From Gibbon to Goebbels? The Historians’ Trajectory

Gibbon and Goebbels are not the obvious choices for comparison to Herodotus and Thucydides, but bear with me. H & T are frequently regarded as the “first historians.” They wrote the book, you might say, on how to do history. At least, Herodotus was the first writer whose name and work survive.
And yet: have you read what he wrote? And how he did it?
He does, at least, show some of the traits that we come to expect of modern exponents of the craft. He interviewed witnesses, evaluated oral histories, studied multiple sources and then pronounced his particular version. He visited the sites that he wrote about (such as Thermopylae).
Mind you, doesn’t Bernard Cornwell do that much?
He started from where he was (the Mediterreanean world of the Ancient Greeks) and made a selection of the things he thought “worthy of study.”
And yet he also included what we might dub the “strange and unusual” which sometimes makes you wonder where on a trajectory that runs from Gibbon to Goebbels does he actually come?
A short generation later comes Thucydides, whose History of the Peleponnesian War has a journalistic kind of feel. Thucydides wrote about a single long event – the war between Athens and Sparta. Causes and consequences.
The fascinating major point, though, it that it was within living memory, like writing now about the Iraq war. Added to this, Thucydides himself had not only lived through the conflict but particpated in its events. Not that objective then.
You’d think that this would give less opportunity for the “strange and unusual” stories (though that didn’t stop Josephus in his War of the Jews!).
The speeches in the HPP have often given modern historians pause. Long speeches, supposedly given by the contemporarily famous seem rather to have been made up by Mr T himself, according to what he felt those people should have said at the moment they delivered them. Creative expansion.
And that’s the point I’m making here. Where on the trajectory from Gibbon (History as it happened?) to Goebbels (History with an agenda?) do Herodotus and Thucydides fall?
Because their agenda were pretty well marked. Scholars traditionally view Thucydides as recognizing and teaching the lesson that democracies need leadership, but that leadership can be dangerous to democracy. Leo Strauss (in The City and Man) locates the problem in the nature of Athenian democracy itself, about which, he argued, Thucydides had a deeply ambivalent view: on one hand, Thucydides’ own “wisdom was made possible” by the Periclean democracy, which had the effect of liberating individual daring, enterprise, and questioning spirit, but this same liberation, by permitting the growth of limitless political ambition, led to imperialism and, eventually, civic strife.
For Canadian historian Charles Norris Cochrane (1889–1945), Thucydides’ fastidious devotion to observable phenomena, focus on cause and effect, and strict exclusion of other factors anticipates the scientific positivism of our generation. Cochrane, the son of a physician, speculated that Thucydides’ generally (and especially in describing the plague in Athens) was influenced by the methods and thinking of early medical writers such as Hippocrates of Kos.
After World War II Classical scholar Jacqueline de Romilly pointed out that the problem of Athenian imperialism was one of Thucydides’ central preoccupations and situated his history in the context of Greek thinking about international politics. Since the appearance of her study, other scholars subsequently further examined Thucydides treatment of realpolitik.
More recently, scholars have questioned the perception of Thucydides as simply “the father of realpolitik”. Instead foreground the literary qualities of the History, which they see as belonging to narrative tradition of Homer and Hesiod and as concerned with the concepts of justice and suffering found in Plato and Aristotle and problematized in Aeschylus and Sophocles Richard Ned Lebow believes that the modern habit of erecting a firewall of separation between the social sciences and the ethical preoccupations of the humanities is a mistake, since no such separation was ever obtained in the ancient world. He and other recent scholars affirm that Thucydides was indeed concerned with ethical issues such as prudence and the need for peace: and that even though he did not explicitly engage in moralizing within his text, his work conveys a profound horror of war and violence. Lebow terms Thucydides: “the last of the tragedians:
Viewed as a tragedy, his portrayal of the Peloponnesian War leads us to a very different set of questions, understandings of politics and of knowledge itself. . . Greek tragedy was rooted in the empirical observation that there is no relationship between justice and suffering. Tragedy confronts us with our frailties and limits and the disastrous consequences of trying to exceed them. It advances a counter-intuitive thesis: that efforts to limit suffering through the accumulation of knowledge or power might invite more suffering. . . Thucydides drew heavily on epic poetry and tragedy to construct his history, which not surprisingly is also constructed as a narrative.
In this view, the blind and immoderate behavior of the Athenians (and indeed of all the other actors), though perhaps intrinsic to human nature, ultimately leads to their downfall. Thus his History could serve as a warning to future leaders to be more prudent, by putting them on notice that someone would be scrutinizing their actions with a historian’s objectivity rather than a chronicler’s flattery.

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