Herodotus at Reed

A friend expresses his enthusiasm for Herodotus, which he read at Reed College. In the same breath he elucidates the familiar themes of Greek tragedy: the gods punish us out of jealousy; huvris is tempting fate. “Moderation in all things” was inscribed at Delphos.

I’d always wanted to read Herodotus, and now, intrigued, I did. To my surprise, nothing of the ethic of the tragedies played in his history. It’s a secular document. Secular values are everywhere in his stories.  And not just secular, but typically liberal values, almost modern liberal values. Maybe that’s why he’s survived and is still read, or, at least, read in liberal places like Reed.

Herodotus writes about rulers at length and always assesses them according to the simplest liberal standard: a king who treats his subjects well is laudable and will rule successfully. Kings who brutalize their subjects are deplorable, don’t rule well and eventually get their uppance from some revenge or mismanagement. Huvris does not cause their fall; it’s just that Herodotus expresses his satisfaction in their fall. Far from huvris as a cause of a fall, even a good ruler, one of Herodotus’ favorites, has to endure the vicissitudes of fortune. His reward is not the material reward of the gifts of the gods, which are the rewards of a fable. His reward is the historian’s reward: praise and honor in the telling of his record. A historian knows that goodness is not always rewarded. It’s not a morality tale, but a history. Selfish disregard for human justice and human sensitivity is deplored, but it is not a cause of a fall. In some ways it might seem a fine distinction, but in his stories, it’s pretty clear.

It’s true that the Delphic oracle plays a constant role in his stories. It’s his favorite irony: some king or people apply to Delphos, follow the oracle, and through some misinterpretation, get screwed or screw themselves. It’s so frequent in his book, so regular, that as soon as you read that the oracle has been consulted, you know what the punchline will eventually be. You get the impression that Delphos, and believing oracles, must have been a running joke among the Greeks.

And I suspect that that was so. Consider the other inscription at the oracle, “gnothi seauton” — ‘know yourself.’ You go to Delphos for an oracle. There before you stands, “gnothi seauton.” Get the joke?

Years ago in college, we read Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead in Attic Greek — simple but fascinating text (what a surprise to read Marlowe’s most famous lines in Faustus were stolen verbatim from it). In it Diogenes runs around Hades’ house (the underworld) mocking everyone with the refrain, “gnothi seauton, gnothi seauton,” the adult Greek’s equivalent of  “nya-nya, told you so” except it means more like, “you should’a’ known, ya should’a’ known!”

Also liberal is Herodotus’ open-minded curious towards the mores of other cultures. That’s of course the essence of his character. Travelers don’t wander all over the known (and to his contemporaries’ unknown) world just to deplore other cultures. It may not be excessively biased to suppose that curiosity is by nature liberal, zenophobia, a more conservative inclination.

Herodotus could have praised brutal despots for their ability to keep order or provide direction and leadership, much as conservatives quickly supported Mubarak as having provided security and stability (as well as being a “friend” to the U.S.). And experience shows, over and again, that rebellion and revolution are followed by unrest and instability. There are plenty of reasons to support a despot. But Herodotus doesn’t see it that way. Morals come first for him. I have no doubt that he would have sided with the protesters, unhesitatingly. That’s the beauty of reading it: it’s all so transparent to him. He biases all his stories towards kind rulers and against the imperious.

But he would have warned the protesters not to follow any oracles. If that is itself an oracle to avoid, he would have repeated the favorite Greek advice: “gnothi seauton!”

Post post: My favorite story in the Histories is wonderfully ambivalent. A brutal despot, Astyages, tries to avoid the the oracle’s prediction that his son will destroy him. The story proceeds just like the Oedipus myth, and when Astyages discovers that his servant Harpagus failed to kill his infant son, he serves Harpagus’ own son to him at a feast, just like the myth of Atreides, the ugliest of all the houses, so you can’t miss that this Astyages deserves to fall. He gets it by Harpagus who, to obtain his revenge, sells out the enemy in battle. Astyages loses his kingdom but isn’t killed (so you know that the point of this story is not done). Harpagus comes to prison to see the man he’s destroyed, but the conversation is quite surprising: Astyages berates Harpagus, telling him that Harpagus will never be more than a servant to the enemy he appealed to, and for his personal revenge he has sold out all of his own people. The story bears many resemblances to Racine’s Athalie, the most sublime and beautiful thing I know and most ambivalent and tragic.

Post post post: in full disclosure, when I got halfway through the Histories, I decided to finish it in Greek, which is going to take me the next year at least, even if I consult a translation along the way. So those observations will no doubt require amending.


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