Surveying 2,500 Years of Historians

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 3, 2008 | Go to article overview

Surveying 2,500 Years of Historians


Byline: Stephen Goode, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

John Burrow's A History of Histories surveys a big chunk of history - 2,500 years - beginning with the Ancient Greek, Herodotus, the father of history, onward to such innovative 20th-century figures as Fernand Braudel, Frances Yates and Thomas Kuhn.

It's a daunting task, but it's one that Mr. Burrow, who is professor of European Thought at Oxford University, handles with clarity and admirable dexterity.

Mr. Burrow focuses on the major historians of Europe and the United States. There's nothing in A History of Histories about Asian, Arab, African or South American historians.

But Mr. Burrow knows the many works and the biographies of the men and women he writes about thoroughly, and readers will admire his graceful prose and appreciate his erudition.

Mr. Burrow sees one overriding goal that unites historians throughout the centuries: To all of them the past mattered: it was worth investigating and recording and keeping alive for future generations, he writes.

Where they differ is in approach to history and above all in the lessons derived from it: A Thomas Carlyle (a Scot) or Jules Michelet (Frenchman), for example, can view the French Revolution as a great era bringing magnificent benefits to mankind, while a Hippolyte Taine (another Frenchman) sees it as a sickness from when France and Europe never truly recovered.

No clear heroes emerge from among the many historians Mr. Burrow writes about, though there are figures he admires: Herodotus, the Renaissance Florentine Francisco Guicciardini and William Hickling Prescott, a 19th-century American, among others.

Mr. Burrow sees no overall pattern in the development of history during the 2,500 years his book takes up.

But he does discuss themes shared by clusters of historians, and he writes eloquently about the two or three times when the writing of history experienced significant change.

Among the Ancient Romans, for example, one shared theme was the degeneracy of the age they lived in compared to past times.

Sallust, writing in the first century B.C. during the chaotic last years of the Republic, concluded that Rome's greatness derived from the days when (in Mr. Burrow's words) when men burned to distinguish themselves and acquire glory in the service of the state.

But in his own time, Sallust feared that the emergence of absolute rulers had put an end to genuine patriotic service by reducing all men to the rank of servants of a single powerful man.

A few decades later, the first century A.D. historian, Livy, came to similar conclusions. Livy condemned what he saw as Rome's current preference for all that is new and foreign in place of what is native and traditional.

Against Rome's decline, he saw history as an antidote: The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind, he wrote.

Mr. Burrow quotes one of Livy's most memorable examples of Rome's degeneracy: The rise in the esteem in which society held cooks.

The cook, noted Livy, who had been to the ancient Romans the least valuable of slaves and had been priced and treated accordingly, began to be highly valued, and what had been a mere service came to be regarded as an art.

What Sallust and Livy longed for was a sterner, stoical Rome not ruined by softness and the pursuit of pleasure.

Both historians - and particularly Livy - were to have enormous influence, as Mr. …

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