Thucydides and the Science of History

Thucydides and the Science of History

Thucydides and the Science of History

Thucydides and the Science of History

Excerpt

Ideas such as those enunciated by the Hippocratic school were unquestionably floating about in the Hellenic world as early as the middle of the fifth century B.C. Herodotus, for example, was well aware of the requirements of a genuinely scientific hypothesis, as he showed by his refusal to accept the theory of a 'stream of ocean', or any other figment of the poetic imagination, as an adequate explanation of the periodic rise and fall of the waters of the Nile. He also displayed familiarity with the theory that physical conditions determine human character, when he remarked, in his concluding chapter, as though to point the moral of his history, that 'soft countries are wont to produce soft inhabitants. It is impossible that the same land should yield an excellent harvest and men who are good in war'. Now if Herodotus had consistently made use of these principles as canons of historical interpretation, instead of introducing the religious or metaphysical principles which he actually employed, he might still have produced a great work, but it would have been an anticipation of Thucydides rather than the work which we actually possess. As it was, he frequently employed scientific standards both in the examination of fact (τὸ ἔργον) and in its interpretation (ὁ λόγος). The interpretation, for instance, of the Persian defeat at Plataea (ix. 62) as being the result of inferiority not in brains or strength, but in equipment and in the science of warfare, is quite 'scientific'. But it is when Herodotus comes to the ultimate questions of human history that he reaches an impasse; the reason being that he is unable to determine whether it is ultimately God or man who pulls the strings. This difficulty is illustrated by the passage (vii. 1-19) in which he discusses the causes of the Persian invasion. The physical causes having been expounded with great vigour and perspicacity, he finally turns from them as inadequate, and imports God in the shape of a nocturnal vision, to account for the act which Thucydides would have unques-

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