Herodotus: Historian or Epic Poet?

I’m a day late with this week’s Great Books post, but I hope your anger will be assuaged when you learn that we are finishing a Gateway to the Great Books volume this week. Yes, really!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Paradise Lost by John Milton, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 196-216)
  2. Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 695-713)
  3. The Geometry by Rene Descartes, Book I (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 523-532)
  4. An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, Act V (GGB Vol. 4, pp. 230-246)
  5. On the Natural Faculties by Galen, Book II (GBWW Vol. 9, pp. 382-414)
  6. The Perfection of God” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 20-23; Part I Question 4 of Summa Theologica)

Thoreau’s essay will conclude our reading of GGB Volume 6. There are actually 100+ pages excerpted from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in that volume that we will not read because the 1990 edition of Great Books of the Western World included that work in its entirety, and we will begin reading it in the near future. I don’t think we’re cheating on our page count because we did read all of Robinson Crusoe, which the GGB set excerpted, and we may do the same with a Dickens novel later that GGB excerpts.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. adam_eve_and_raphaelParadise Lost by John Milton, Book V: The modern pragmatist is probably frustrated in this section. Why doesn’t God just remove Satan instead of allowing the temptation that is surely coming? And why does he send the angel to warn Adam and Eve, knowing that they will succumb anyway? “Leaving them without excuse” is an explanation that will probably not satisfy many who don’t accept Milton’s notion of felix culpa or St. Thomas’s answer to the problem of evil. But since I do accept them, this section didn’t bother me too much! 
  2. “Agesilaus and Pompey Compared” by Plutarch: Pompey has the edge on Agesilaus in a number of areas, including personal character. His big flaw in Plutarch’s view was his collection of bone-headed decisions in the campaign against Caesar, the chief of which was abandoning Rome. 
  3. “Herodotus” by John Bagnell Bury: I once heard Thomas Fleming give a lecture in which he both praised Bury’s talent as a classical historian and also critiqued Bury’s (19th-century) liberal assumptions that led him to misread elements of Greek society. Having now read this essay (the first of Bury’s for me), I think I understand Fleming’s assessment better. It hardly seems fair for Bury to condemn Herodotus for failing to adhere to modern standards of historical inquiry when Herodotus was to an extent the source of those very standards. I was also skeptical of Bury’s reading of so many passages as ironical concessions to contemporaries’ prejudices; it sounded a bit too Straussian to me.
  4. An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, Act IV: I had a great deal of sympathy with the doctor during the first three acts, but I think he crossed a line here. I’m OK with the criticism of the idea that the majority is always right, but the time he started talking about how truth changes from one generation to the next, I was wondering whether he had gone off the deep end. This has to end badly. 
  5. On the Natural Faculties by Galen, Book I: This work is interesting on several levels. Galen shows familiarity with the work of many other physicians and tends to favor Hippocrates. He is also very disparaging of some authors with whom he disagrees. I wonder if he would have been more temperate in his criticism had he known what treatment he’d receive at te hands of some modern authors. 
  6. “The Simplicity of God” by St. Thomas Aquinas (Part I, Question 3 of Summa Theologica): This section gave me a mental workout because some of the philosophical terminology is not yet second nature to me. I knew enough Aristotle not to get lost when he started talking about the soul, fortunately. Much of the argument in the question hinges on God’s incorporeal nature.

I now face a daunting challenge: can I really handle Galen, Descartes, and St. Thomas in the next four days? It’s time to test my mettle. Will you test yours as well?

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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1 Response to Herodotus: Historian or Epic Poet?

  1. I’m interested to see how Descartes goes. Trying to actually work out his problems was really hairy and time-consuming for me.

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