Herodotus, "the father of history", and the benefit of doubt

Herodotus was happy to report what he was told but felt “under no obligation to believe it entirely – something that is true for the whole of my narrative”. The man who loved “wonders” was committed to wondering whether they were real.

Herodotus: the Histories
Translated by Tom Holland
Penguin Classics, 834pp, £25

In Tom Holland’s new translation of The Histories, Herodotus, the “father of history” (in Cicero’s phrase), born circa 480BC, describes a Babylonian marriage practice: “The [custom] that I myself rate the cleverest is one that they share with the Eneti, a people from Illyria – so I have learned. Once a year, in every village, this was the scene that wouldbe staged: an assembling of all the girls who had ripened into the full bloom of marriageability. These would then be led in a great throng to a given spot, where a crowd of men would stand around them in a ring.”

He continues: “One by one, an auctioneer would raise the girls to their feet, and put them up for sale, starting with the most attractive, and then, once she had been sold for a good price, moving on to whoever was next on the scale. (It should be pointed out that the girls were being bought as wives.) All the rich Babylonians who were in the marriage market would bid furiously against one another for the beauties, while those who were less well off, men who did not demand good looks in a wife, would end up being paid to take the plainer girls.”

Herodotus explains: “This was because, once the auctioneer had run through the sale of the prettiest lots, he would haul the ugliest girl up to her feet (or even a cripple, if there was one) and auction her off by asking who would accept the smallest amount of money in exchange for taking her as his wife – and whoever accepted the lowest figure would duly get her. The funds for this came from the sale of the attractive girls, thereby ensuring that it was those with good looks who served to provide dowries for their ugly or crippled sisters.”

He goes on to write about the system of returns if the marriage broke down, ending with a lament that this “wonderful” custom had lapsed and families were now forced “to pimp out their daughters as whores”. This passage is a fine example of Herodotus’s curiosity about the alien habits and customs he so eagerly garnered during his travels to all corners of the known world. “What a piece of work is man!” is the subtext humming away beneath his kaleidoscopic undertaking. There are no abstract forces at work here and barely any divine ones; just interactions between human beings – princes and peasants, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, of all races, cultures and backgrounds.

This human dimension is at the heart of his achievement. The story he tells is of the clash between east and west – Persians against Greeks – which reaches its climax in the battle of Marathon in 490BC and in Persia’s huge revenge assault in 481-479BC (Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea), ending in its defeat. Lacking libraries and search engines, Herodotus travelled the world to generate his narrative, beginning it an astonishing 200 years earlier and weaving a multithreaded tapestry mostly out of a mass of undigested oral traditions. First, he traced the history of the Near East, Egypt and Babylon, then picked up Persia under its kings Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes, through its expansion into Egypt, southern Russia and Asia Minor, until it came into contact with Greeks living in Ionia (now the western coast of Turkey).

The working hypothesis that he developed identified the driving force behind human affairs as a standard Greek duty: reciprocating with those who had done you a favour by means of favours and with those who had done you harm by harm. It was this reciprocal obligation, spreading its tentacles from person to person, nation to nation, from Spain to the Caspian, from Scythia to Africa, that explained the great conflict.

No less human and humbling is the feature of his work that distinguishes his from all other contemporary accounts of the past and makes him the west’s first real historian: his openness to doubt. He intervenes in his narrative no fewer than 1,086 times to qualify it by adding: “I am only repeating what X says”, “Whether their explanation is valid, I am not qualified to say”, “I would be amazed if this story were actually true” and so on.

In other words, Herodotus was happy to report what he was told but felt “under no obligation to believe it entirely – something that is true for the whole of my narrative”. The man who loved “wonders” was committed to wondering whether they were real. It is no coincidence that ίστορία (“istoria”), the Greek word that gives us “history”, meant “inquiry”. You will not find ceaseless inquiry and questioning of that sort in the Old Testament or other contemporary accounts of the past. If some have accused Herodotus of being a liar or purveyor of fairy stories, it is his authorial interventions that draw attention to the problems he faced.

As for the gods, Herodotus exemplified one of the Greeks’ most important intellectual achievements: to demand that accounts of the world be humanly intelligible. That meant not allowing the supernatural any significant place in one’s explanation of how and why the world came to be as it was. To this premise he remained true, assigning no general theory of historical causation to divine intervention, although in certain specific cases, it seems he could think of nothing better. That is fair enough, for it corresponds with human experience. Some occurrences do seem inexplicable and Herodotus occasionally signalled this by adding a reassuring, popular generalisation (“Divinity is envious and disruptive”). Yet he did not expand such inexplicability into a grand law of history. For Herodotus, it was human failings that brought disaster.

No wonder that the historian Tom Holland has been captivated by Herodotus since he was a child. His pleasure shines through his relaxed, idiomatic, expansive and often dramatic translation – sometimes, perhaps, too dramatic. When Herodotus writes (literally), “Great nemesis from god took hold of Croesus,” Holland translates: “The noose of a divine and terrible anger began to tighten around Croesus.” The image of the noose cannot be justified and the Greek (the aorist tense) specifically rejects the notion of inception. Nemesis struck: the rest was history. Yet the story of Croesus is intensely dramatic – A Lexicon to Herodotus (1938) by Enoch Powell shows that the powerful nemesis (something like “righteous indignation”) is used only here – and if Holland rather ramps up Herodotus’s blunt assertion, so be it. He, like Herodotus, is a storyteller par excellence.

My one misgiving is technical. While the maps and glossary index are excellent and the introduction and accompanying historical notes to the translation admirably to the point, I feel readers could do with a little more help to find their way through the story, which, especially in the first half, is full of digressions on customs, events elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and so on. It is easy to get lost. A more detailed route map through the story than the brief one on offer, or explanatory page headings, would solve the problem.

Peter Jones is a co-founder of Friends of Classics

History boys: a bust of Herodotus and Thucydides. Image: Alamy

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

MARK GERSON
Show Hide image

It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain