How (not) to write history

This weekend Messiah College is hosting the annual National History Day competition for the south-central Pennsylvania region.  Hundreds of junior high and high school kids will descend on our campus and engage in  historical research through papers, films, posters, and performances.  It is enjoyable to see kids recognizing the value of learning the methods of history and investing energy and effort into their projects.

On this occasion of our region’s celebration of history day, I give you some excerpts from the 2nd century AD essay How to Write History (translation F.G. and H.W. Fowler’s 1905) by the orator Lucian of Samosata in Syria.  Unfortunately, Lucian can only think of bad Corinthian historians, so our two examples will be instances of how not to write history.

First, though, Lucian’s reason for writing, which calls to mind Diogenes the philosopher who lived in a large ceramic vessel in the Kraneion suburb of Corinth:

(2-3) “You cannot find a man but is writing history; every one you meet is a Thucydides, a Herodotus, a Xenophon. The old saying must be true, and war be the father of all things, seeing what a litter of historians it has now teemed forth at a birth.

Such sights and sounds, my Philo, brought into my head that old anecdote about Diogenes. A report that Philip was marching on the town had thrown all Corinth into a bustle; one was furbishing his arms, another wheeling stones, a third patching the wall, a fourth strengthening a battlement, every one making himself useful somehow or other. Diogenes having nothing to do–of course no one thought of giving him a job–was moved by the sight to gird up his philosopher’s cloak and begin rolling his tub-dwelling energetically up and down the Kraneion; an acquaintance asked, and got, the explanation: ‘I do not want to be thought the only idler in such a busy multitude; I am rolling my tub to be like the rest.’…”

And then, on to our bad historians in Corinth:

“(17) Perhaps I should balance him with a philosophic historian; this gentleman’s name I will conceal, and merely indicate his attitude, as revealed in a recent publication at Corinth. Much had been expected of him, but not enough; starting straight off with the first sentence of the preface, he subjects his readers to a dialectic catechism, his thesis being the highly philosophic one, that no one but a philosopher should write history. Very shortly there follows a second logical process, itself followed by a third; in fact the whole preface is one mass of dialectic figures. There is flattery, indeed, ad nauseam, eulogy vulgar to the point of farce; but never without the logical trimmings; always that dialectical catechism. I confess it strikes me as a vulgarity also, hardly worthy of a philosopher with so long and white a beard, when he gives it in his preface as our ruler’s special good fortune that philosophers should consent to record his actions; he had better have left us to reach that conclusion for ourselves–if at all….

(29) Another entertaining person, who has never set foot outside Corinth, nor traveled as far as its harbor–not to mention seeing Syria or Armenia–, starts with words which impressed themselves on my memory:–‘Seeing is believing: I therefore write what I have seen, not what I have been told.’ His personal observation has been so close that he describes the Parthian ‘Dragons’ (they use this ensign as a numerical formula–a thousand men to the Dragon, I believe): they are huge live dragons, he says, breeding in Persian territory beyond Iberia; these are first fastened to great poles and hoisted up aloft, striking terror at a distance while the advance is going on; then, when the battle begins, they are released and set on the enemy; numbers of our men, it seems, were actually swallowed by them, and others strangled or crushed in their coils; of all this he was an eye-witness, taking his observations, however, from a safe perch up a tree. Thank goodness he did not come to close quarters with the brutes! we should have lost a very remarkable historian, and one who did doughty deeds in this war with his own right hand; for he had many adventures, and was wounded at Sura (in the course of a stroll from the Kraneion to Lerna, apparently). All this he used to read to a Corinthian audience, which was perfectly aware that he had never so much as seen a battle-picture. Why, he did not know one weapon or engine from another; the names of maneuvers and formations had no meaning for him; flank or front, line or column, it was all one.”

The moral of the story: if you want to write good history, avoid dialectic method and get out of Corinth.  The latter reminds me of the quip from the most recent Indiana Jones movie: ‘if you want to be a good archaeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library.’

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