1995-06-25: Anabasis

Anabasis (in Portable Greek Historians) (1959)

edited by M. I. Finley (1912-1986)

I was seeking to read Xenophon’s account of the march of the Hellenic mercenaries through the Persian empire, the Anabasis. Unfortunately only parts were excerpted in this edition. These give hope that the whole is still worth looking for.

Nonetheless, Finley made some interesting comments in his Introduction. He also edited the version of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. (I also commented on his essay in my report on that book.) Some extracts:

History in its root sense means inquiry. For a considerable time … the stress was on the inquiry as such, regardless of subject matter, on the search for explanation and understanding. Man is a rational being: if he asks rational questions, he can, by the unaided efforts of his intellect, discover rational answers. But first he must discover that about himself. The Greeks did, in the seventh century BC (insofar as so abstract a notion can be dated at all), and thereby they established the greatest of their claims to immortality. Significantly the inquiry was first directed to the most universal matters, the nature of being and the cosmos. Only later was it extended to man himself, his social relations and his past.

It was no accident that this profound intellectual revolution took place in the region the Greeks called Ionia (the west coast of Turkey). There they were in closest touch with the older cultures of the ancient Near East. Greek-speaking peoples first migrated into the lower Balkans by 2000 or 1900 BCE and eventually spread eastward across the Aegean … Like all invaders, they adopted and adapted a variety of ideas and institutions from their new neighbors. How much they borrowed we are only beginning to appreciate, as one after another the lost languages of the area are recovered, most recently Mycenaean Greek itself. In the course of centuries religious ideas, gods, myths and rituals, scientific and technological information found their way from Babylonians, Hittites, Hurrites, and other peoples of the Near East and were embodied in Greek ways of life and thought on a scale undreamed of by historians fifty or a hundred years ago.

Paradoxically, the more we learn about this process of diffusion and adaptation, the more astonishing is the originality of the Greeks. One need only look at their archaic statues and vases to catch some of the genius. Then one turns to the Ionian intellectual revolution for another side of it, the spirit of rational inquiry. Without Babylonian mathematics and astronomy and metallurgy there could have been no Thales or Anaximander. But it was the Ionian Greeks, not their Babylonian forerunners, who first asked the critical questions about the earth and the stars and metals and matter. And so, too, with man himself and his past. The older civilizations have their records and their chronicles, but the esential element of inquiry, of history, was lacking. The writers of these accounts, the late R. G. Collingwood pointed out, were “not writing history,” they were “writing religion”; they were not inquiring, they were recording “known facts for the information of persons to whom they were not known, but who, as worshippers of the god in question, ought to know the deeds whereby he has made himself manifest.” It was the Ionians, again, who first thought to ask questions in a systematic way about the supposedly known facts, in particular about their meaning in rational, human terms.

The magnitude and boldness of this innovation must not be underestimated. Today we too easily assume, without giving it much thought, that a concern with history is a natural human activity. All men have memories and “live in the past” to a greater or less extent. Is it not natural that they should be interested in their ancestors and the past of their community, people, nation? Yes, but such an interest is not necessarily the same thing as history. It can be satisfied entirely by myth, and, in fact, that is how most of mankind has customarily dealt with the past (and, in a very real sense, still does). Myth serves admirably to provide the necessary continuity of life, not only with the past but with nature and the gods as well. It is rich and vivid, it is concrete and yet full of symbolic meanings and associations, it explains institutions and rites and feelings, it is instructive – above all, it is real and true and immediately comprehensible. It served the early Greeks perfectly.

The Ionians, before Herodotus, sought to know their overlords, the Lydians and Persians.

Significantly, this had never been done before: the prevailing view, as any reader of the Old Testament must realize, was totally ethnocentric. Nations other than one’s own had no intrinsic interest. Significantly, too, the Greek innovation was for a long time a restricted one: they were not attracted to ethnography as such, or history as such, but to the manners and institutions of the two nations with whom their lives were now closely bound. The Greeks had no myths to account for the past of the Lydians and Persians. That is why their first steps toward historical writing – for these works were not histories in any proper sense – were about foreign nations, not about themselves.

[for Thucydides] Only contemporary history could be really known and grasped; if one worked hard enough and with sufficient intelligence and honesty, one could know and write the history of one’s own age.

[Thucydides] shared the firm conviction, general among Greek thinkers, that mere knowledge of facts for their own sake was pointless (and sometimes harmful). Curiosity, a desire to know, had to lead to understanding, virtue, action. Of course, it is impossible to guess just what the young Thucydides had in mind when he decided, in 431 BC, to become the war’s historian. Perhaps he had no clear idea himself. But the time came … when he set himself the goal of uncovering, through the story of his own generation, the essentials of man’s behavior, his political behavior. That would be the “possession for all time” he would give to the world. … Human nature and human behavior were for him essentially fixed qualities, the same in one century as in another. The good and the bad, the rational and the passionate and irrational, the moral and the immoral, the attractions and excesses of power – these were always present and operative, in various combinations.

I find this to be a near-perfect expression of my views on the value of memetics. It should be useful to explain to people the nature of people, and the behavior that follows from that nature. Perhaps the difficulty I have found in expressing this theme in my own work is similar to the difficulties that Thucydides apparently also found.

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