Western Civilization Is Destroying Its Historical Heritage,
Part 1 of 7 (Part 2 here)
One of the most startling historical truths is that Europeans invented the writing of history as “a method of sorting out the true from the false,” as a conscious search for a rational explanation of the causes of events, while rendering the results of their investigations in sustained narratives of excellent prose. The other peoples of the world, including the Chinese who maintained for centuries a tradition of chronological writers, barely rose above annalistic forms of recording the deeds of rulers or the construction of genealogies devoid of reflections on historical causation. This would not have been judged a controversial view a few decades ago. But in a Western world dedicated to multiculturalism, with universities making it their mission to promote an “inclusive” and “diverse” educational environment, there is a widespread impetus to acknowledge as equally valuable the historiographical traditions of non-Western peoples wherein the European tradition is seen as one approach among many others. These approaches include Islamic “universal chronography,” Chinese “encyclopedic, synchronic, and official historiography,” Australian Aboriginal “dreamings” of past events “organized spatially and morally rather than temporally,” or African “oral history of gathering, preserving, and interpreting the voices and memories of people.” Indeed, if there is a key difference between these perspectives it is that European historians have tended to be ethnocentric and arrogant in their supposition that they invented history.
Among recent studies promoting a “global approach” against a “Europe-centered approach” is Turning Points in Historiography: A Cross Cultural Perspective , edited by Edward Wang and Georg Iggers. Academics are cited in this book stating that historical thought is not a monopoly of the West: “On the contrary, interest in the past appears to have existed everywhere and in all periods.” Western historiography is “not superior.” The claims of European colonialists on the “racial inferiority” of other cultures must be “refuted.” Just as Greek historiography provided a “basic form of historical writing that later exerted a cross-cultural influence in the West,” so was Chinese historiography “regarded as a model practiced by Asian historians, especially in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam before the nineteenth century.”
The initial aim of this essay was to counter this multicultural historiography by demonstrating its lack of veracity, explaining that Europeans originated the writing of history, wrote the greatest historical books, and brought about the “professionalization of history” during the 1800s, which entailed the systematic and critical analysis of documents, from which point they would go on to write the best histories of the non-Western world. Europeans were indeed the only people to exhibit a high level of historical consciousness about the way that history shapes our thoughts, culture, psychology, and institutions. But in light of my current scholarly preoccupation with the ways in which the ideology of liberalism, with its crucial principle of individual rights, is behind the promotion of diversity, race equity, and immigration replacement, I could not avoid the question why Western historians today are so enraptured with “provincializing” the history and achievements of their own civilization for the sake of an “inclusive” multicultural history. It became apparent to me that the consolidation of a multicultural historiography was not an arbitrary or isolated decision taken by a few academics, but an expression of a broader ideological matrix with deep origins in the history of the West itself. The more I investigated the historiography of the West — that is, the more I inquired about the history of history writing and about the histories that the peoples of the West have written — I came to the following hypotheses, which this essay will seek to explain:
- Europeans were responsible for the full development of history writing, surpassing since ancient Greek times the historiography of the other civilizations during their entire histories, consciously seeking to find the truth by evaluating the accuracy of the sources and analyzing historical causation. The Greeks and Romans did hold a cyclical view of history for whom “the nature of all things was to grow as well as to decay,” as the general consensus has it; however, this was a view based on a deep understanding of the varying psychology of human nature from times of simplicity and hardness (in the early stages of cultures) to times of affluence and decadence (in the later stages of cultures).
- The Hebrew Bible did go beyond an annalistic account of the deeds of kings, developing a historiography that was “national” or about a people as a whole, but without matching the historiography of the Greeks and Romans, who also initiated an ecumenical vision of “the whole inhabited world,” which would come to be combined with the “universal” historical vision of the Christians in their preoccupation with the “education of mankind,” and which reflected the fact that only Western peoples came to transcend in their cosmopolitanism the provincialism that is natural to cultures and that has prevailed in China throughout its history despite proto-universalist principles in Confucianism.
- The Old Testament did initiate a view of history as a purposeful and directional process from the beginning of the Creation to the future expectation of a Messiah; however, the New Testament enhanced the connection of God and history with its concept of the Incarnation, when the eternal Word and Son of God “became flesh and dwelt among us.” The subsequent Hellenization and Romanization of Christianity in the first centuries AD led historians to search for stages and directionality in the actual, empirical histories of humans, linking the eschatology of the Bible with the history of the Greeks, the creation of the Roman Empire, and the kingdoms created by the Germanic peoples. The connection of Christian eschatology (Heaven and Hell, the Second Coming of Jesus, the Last Judgment) with the actual history of humanity would lead Christians to initiate a “progressive” conception of history, as part of God’s providential plan, to search for an intelligible pattern in the gradual “education of mankind.”
- Only Europeans developed a true historiography characterized by a history of relatively continuous improvements, rather than by mere repetition of the historical styles of the past, as was the case in other civilizations, because only they experienced an increasing historical consciousness, a deep awareness of the passage of time in a directional way, rooted in their Christianity and cosmopolitanism, and in their actual epoch-making transformations, the rise and decline of Greece and Rome, the spread of Christianity, and the invention of universities in the Middle Ages, among many other novelties, followed by the Renaissance and the continuous revolutions of the Modern era in warfare, art, architecture, science, philosophy, and politics.
- But it was during the Enlightenment era that historians began to think systematically about the unique progression of the West in science and technology as well as in constitutional politics, and in the “rights of man” — against the forces of “darkness, ignorance, and vice” which Enlightenment historians believed still held a tight grip over Europeans, and which needed to be defeated for the full potentialities of humans to be actualized in a future of plenty, harmony, and happiness. Man was a historical being in the process of achieving his full potentialities in the course of time.
- Modernist historians would secularize, not reject, the Christian idea of progress, while gaining a more “scientific” understanding of history, identifying definite stages in the growth of reason and liberty and in “the manners and morals of humans” in terms of purely natural or man-made causes, rather than in terms of the “providential hand” of God. This idea of progress would come along with tremendous improvements in archival research and in historical methodologies, while the rest of the world would remain stuck with annalistic historiographies.
- The period between 1918 and 1970 would see the consolidation of a Grand Liberal Narrative, particularly in the wake of the defeat of Fascism in the Second World War, and Communism in the Cold War. This narrative — the “Allied scheme of history” — would see in history a rational process of the growth of liberty, science, and capitalist prosperity, with the United States as a model for the rest of the world, a result of thousands of years of Western evolution, combining the Greek democratic and rationalist legacy, Roman law, Judeo-Christian values, the Enlightenment, and free markets.
- The German Historical School of the second half of the nineteenth century, known for raising to a higher level the professionalization and specialization of history, constituted a profound questioning of the liberal idea of progress with its nationalist advocacy of “the historicity of all knowledge and values” and its emphasis on the priority of the freedom of Germans as a people over the individual rights of abstract individuals. But German historicism would be thoroughly domesticated into a defense of “value-pluralism” according to which we should tolerate within each Western nation different cultural values — except values that are intolerant of liberalism’s “value-pluralism.”
- Liberalism has an in-built progressive logic continually pressing for the “emancipation” of the individual from all traditional restraints, including sexual and racial collective identities, that infringe on the rights of individuals to choose their own lifestyle, backed by a new conception of “positive liberty” rather than mere “negative liberty”; a liberalism in which the government came to be assigned the role of reducing inequalities, increasing inclusiveness, and assisting in the “self-realization” of individuals.
- After the 1970s, the “Rise of the West” grand narrative would come to be seen as an “unfinished project” requiring revision, starting with an acknowledgment of its “Eurocentrism” and the way the West had “underdeveloped” the rest of the world in its climb to supremacy, with old liberals gradually accommodating themselves to these revisions, confident in their defeat of Communism in the early 1990s, announcing the “end of history,” while including within its fold, as two sides of the same liberal coin, postmodern, environmental, multicultural, and global historical perspectives.
- Western civilization will soon cease to exist, becoming a hybrid of many races and cultures under the ideology of multicultural postmodern liberalism. The same civilization that produced the greatest historiographical tradition, becoming fully conscious of its historical trajectory, is now rewriting its past in the most malicious ways as a history of multiple peoples from its beginnings — against its “white supremacist” past.
The Greek-Roman Historiographical Legacy
Not long ago, before the onset of “progressive” diversity mandates, it was generally accepted that historical writing began with the ancient Greeks. R. G. Collingwood made the argument in The Idea of History (1946), once the best-known book in the philosophy of history in the English-speaking world, that “history is a Greek word, meaning simply an investigation or inquiry.” Michael Grant, the famous classicist author of countless books, noted that the word histor in the classical Greek language referred to a learned man who settled legal disputes by looking into the accuracy of the events and the disputed allegations. From this legal term was derived the word historie as “a search for the rational explanation and understanding of phenomena.” In the “theocratic history” of Mesopotamia, accounts of past events consisted, as Collingwood wrote, of “mere assertions of what the writer already knows,” not based on answers arrived at after research. The Hebrew scriptures were also theocratic history in that there was no research to “find” the “truth” about the past, with authors consciously judging the veracity of sources. It is only with Herodotus’ book, The Histories, written around 430 BC, that we witness for the first time a real inquiry about the past “to get answers to definite questions about matters of which one recognizes oneself as ignorant.” The writings of Homer and Hesiod were likewise theocratic legends.
Herodotus was rightfully called “the father of history” for this reason, the first to write a historical inquiry which asked questions about the past based on the critical evaluation of the reports of facts given by eyewitnesses, as was the practice in Greek courts, where one would cross-question the testimony of witnesses. Herodotus self-consciously explained that the purpose of his book was to present “the results of the enquiry [history] carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks.” While in theocratic history, Collingwood adds, “humanity is not an agent, but partly an instrument and partly a patient, of the actions recorded,” in Herodotus we have descriptions of “the deeds of men . . . to discover what men have done and partly to discover why they have done it.” He sought to understand the reasons men acted the way they did.
John Burrow, an old-stock British scholar, maintains that historical writing “based on inquiry” began with Herodotus. In his book, A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century, published in 2009, Burrow estimates we can only talk about “proto-history” in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and among the Assyrians and Hittites who came later, in the sense that they engaged in “record keeping” and chronological recording of the deeds of rulers and the construction of genealogies. A proper historical account, however, requires a conscious awareness about the veracity of the sources one relies upon. Herodotus “regarded himself as an auditor, a collector, recorder, sifter and judge of oral traditions about the recent or remoter past.” According to Mark Gilderfus, Herodotus “checked his information against the reports of eye-witnesses and participants and also consulted the documents available to him — inscriptional records, archives and official chronicles.”
Collingwood correctly qualifies that The Histories of Herodotus could not but derive very little from written sources or “historical records,” since there were few of these. This heavy reliance on oral sources restricted the writing of history among Greeks to events that happened “within living memory to people” with whom the author could have “personal contact.” The Greeks could not write “all embracing” accounts of the remote past and of the peoples of the world, “ecumenical history, world history.” For Collingwood, this lack of a worldly historical view meant that the ancient Greeks lacked a proper “historical consciousness.” Now, it is true, as Burrow notes, that Herodotus’ book “embodied extensive geographical and ethnographic surveys” of a variety of ethnic groups in the Mediterranean, North African, and Persian worlds, as well as their clothing, diet, marriage, funerary customs, health, and treatment of disease. It is for this reason that he is regarded, along with Hecataeus (b. 549 BC), as the originator of ethnography, the study of the cultures of other peoples, for his “indefatigable questioning” of different ethnic peoples about their customs and morals. Still, I am inclined to agree with Collingwood that the unity of the historical mind of Herodotus was “only geographical, not an historical unity.” It was only after the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the creation of the Hellenistic and Roman empires, that the world became more than a geographical unity for the onset of a historical consciousness, which presupposes as a major condition an awareness of the histories of other peoples, and reflections on the broader patterns of history as whole.
What about contemporary claims that other peoples were just as historically accomplished as the ancient Greeks? I will address these claims later on. For now, I will bring up John Van Seters’ thesis, articulated in a superb book of historical scholarship, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (1983), that an Israelite inaugurated the West’s historical tradition in the sixth century BC, roughly a century before Herodotus, in the so-called Deuteronomistic (Dtr) history of the Old Testament from Joshua to 2 Kings. The term “Deuteronomistic history” was coined in 1943 by the German scholar Martin Noth to explain the origin and purpose of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Noth argued that these books were the work of a single sixth-century BC author. Elaborating this argument, and backed by extensive sources, Van Seters uses the following criteria to identify history writing in ancient Israel:
- It has “a specific form of tradition in its own right” (as opposed to being merely incidental) to “explain or give meaning” in a literary way to the way things are, showing thereby “some awareness of the historical process” “to account for social change” and “provide new legitimation.”
- History writing is not primarily about the accurate reporting of past events, but involves recalling the significance of past events, as we find in Dtr history.
- While history writing examines the causes of present circumstances, in the world of antiquity at large “these causes were primarily moral”; modern theories of causation or laws of evidence should not be used as criteria.
- History writing has to be national or corporate in character, as was the case in Dtr history; chronological reporting about the deeds of kings do not constitute history.
Van Seters brings out the best of the annalistic form of writing in the Near East; for example, he shows that chronicles did date events rather precisely to the day and month of the year, with some chronicles showing evidence of “research” or “a gleaning of materials about the past from various sources.” While these chronicles do not yet constitute history writing proper, they “created the potential for the historical ‘research’ and reconstruction of the past that is indispensable to the development of history writing.” What made Dtr history more than a chronicle was, “above all,” the fact that it was a history of a “people’s past,” of the founding of a “nation under Moses, through the conquest under Joshua and the rule of judges, to the rise of the monarchy under Saul and David.” In Dtr history, “the royal ideology is incorporated into the identity of the people as a whole” (rather than the ruler alone):
The doctrine of Israel’s election as the chosen people of Yahweh set the nation apart from other peoples. . . . All other callings and elections, whether to kinship, priesthood, or prophecy, were viewed in association with the choice of the people as a whole. . . . Nowhere outside of Israel was the notion of special election extended to the people as a whole.
Van Seters shows similarities between the Dtr historian and Herodotus. If the former “gathered his own material . . . in the form of disparate oral stories,” so did Herodotus derive “very little” from written sources, or ‘historical’ records; his work was mostly based on eyewitness accounts.” All Hebrew historiography is written from a theological perspective, but so is the book of Herodotus, The Histories, which is strongly interested in divine providence. “Like Herodotus, the Old Testament exhibits a dominant concern with the issue of divine retribution for unlawful acts as a fundamental principle of historical causality.” Both works are characterized by a thematic unity and a sustained prose narrative about a people conscious of their national identities (though Van Seters barely says anything about the emergence of a Greek national identity centered on their freedom, in contrast to Asiatic despotism).
In reply to Van Seters: It is true that in Herodotus’ account the deities did play a role in human affairs, dreams, oracles, and omens. But all in all, I am inclined to accept John Gould’s judgement that Herodotus “took the possibility of supernatural causation in human experience as seriously as he took the involvement of human causation.” In fact, Herodotus was “cautious in admitting” the presence of gods at work in human actions, not because of religious disbelief, but because of his “uncertainty” or “implicit acknowledgement of the limitations of human knowledge in such matters,” sometimes offering alternative possibilities for the occurrence of the events, or declining to identify the particular god involved. Herodotus’ list of reasons for the Persian war emphasized human motives, arrogance, excessive pride, blind enjoyment of riches, or lust for power, which brought the wrath of gods and their intervention, but which nevertheless pointed to historical explanations relatively free of divine influence, which was not the case in Deuteronomistic history. By the time we get to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, written a few decades after Herodotus’ Histories (430 BC), the gods ceased to directly influence the course of events; history is entirely caused by the actions of human beings, even if the historical actors remained guided by a belief in gods, oracles, or divinations.
Herodotus consciously addressed the issue of historical accuracy in a way that the Dtr historian did not. He may have relied almost entirely on eyewitness accounts in writing about the contemporaneous subject he was addressing, the Persian Wars, but once we reach Thucydides, we have a historian who amplifies the need for historical veracity and for accuracy in the reporting of events, contrasting his inquiry with that of “prose chronicles, who are less interested in telling the truth than in catching the attention of the public, whose authorities cannot be checked.” He willfully restricted himself to contemporary history and eyewitness accounts, knowing that the “passage of time” made accounts of early Greek history “unreliable.” This is the point. Even if we were to agree with everything Van Seters says, Herodotus was just the beginning of Western historiography. While Near Eastern and Israelite historiographical traditions ceased, stagnated, or barely improved, Europeans would go on to build upon their earlier achievements, and eventually develop a full historical consciousness, which is incredibly hard to achieve.
According to J. B. Bury, known for insisting that history should be a “science” rather than a branch of “literature,” Thucydides’ book was “severe in its detachment, written from a purely intellectual point of view, unencumbered with platitudes and moral judgments, cold and critical.” For Nietzsche, Thucydides was “the grand summation, the last manifestation of that strong, stern, hard matter-of-factness instinctive to the older Hellenes.” What Nietzsche admired, though, was not Thucydides’ neutral impartiality per se, but that his values were not that of a Platonist seeking to escape the harsh reality of human struggle and conflict in a realm of perfections. It was Thucydides’ realism, his ability to deal with the world as it was, that appealed to Nietzsche — his rigorously clinical assessment of human nature.
Edith Hamilton, author of the once very popular and gifted book The Greek Way (1930), insists that Thucydides wrote his book “because he believed that men would profit from a knowledge of what brought about that ruinous struggle precisely as they profit from a statement of what causes a deadly disease.” Hamilton brings out Thucydides’ concern with the causes of the war, and how he differentiated triggering incidents affecting the timing from the ultimate cause of the war. The confrontation between Athens and Sparta was not generated by misguided humans who could have been dissuaded into a different course of action; no, the Athenians were driven to imperialism, seeking threatening alliances against Sparta, by the natural human obsession with dominating others, and Sparta was driven to react by knowing that lack of action would simply invite further hostilities by the Athenians and others. This is why Thucydides wrote a book “written not for the moment, but for all time.” In the words of Hamilton:
It was something far beneath the surface, deep down in human nature, and the cause of all wars ever fought. The motive power was greed, that strange passion for power and possession which no power and possession satisfy. Power, Thucydides wrote, or its equivalent wealth, created the desire for more power, more wealth. The Athenians and the Spartans fought for one reason only — because they were powerful, and therefore compelled to seek more power. They fought not because they were different — democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta — but because they were alike. The war had nothing to do with differences in ideas or with considerations of right and wrong. Is democracy right and the rule of the few over the many wrong? To Thucydides the question would have seemed an evasion of the issue. There was no right power.
This clinical analysis of human nature in history would never find expression in the historiographical traditions outside the West. There are many timeless insights in Thucydides about the natural impulses of humans and their varied expressions in different characters and circumstances. Among my favorites is: “Self-control is the chief element in self-respect, and self-respect is the chief element in courage.” He and Herodotus started a historiographical tradition that would last continuously for over a thousand years. We can only go over the surface. Diodorus Siculus (first century BC), known for writing Bibliotheca Historica in 40 books, of which 15 survive intact, mentions many historians on whose works he relied upon. Some refer to this book as a “Universal History,” both for its comprehensive coverage (from the mythic history of the destruction of Troy up to the death of Alexander the Great, including the early centuries of Rome), and for its worldly geographical description of Egypt, India, and Arabia to Europe. He called it “Bibliotheca” in acknowledgment that he was assembling a composite work from many sources. This was not a history based on eyewitness accounts, but a history based on the authority of prior historical authors and sources. The authors he drew upon include Hecataeus of Abdera, Ctesias, Ephorus, Theopompus, Hieronymus of Cardia, Duris of Samos, Diyllus, Philistus, Timaeus, Polybius, and Posidonius.
Siculus, however, was really a “compiler” rather than a universal historian, since his work was descriptive in character, lacking an interpretative scheme. His predecessor, Polybius (200-118 BC), may be said to be the original ecumenical or universal historian, in full awareness that in trying to answer the question in his book, Histories, why “the Romans succeeded . . . in bringing under their rule almost the whole of the inhabited world.” In writing about how “the affairs of Italy and of Africa are connected with those of Asia and of Greece and all events bear a relationship and contribute to a single end,” he was indeed, in his words, the “first” “to examine the general and comprehensive scheme of events” and to look at history as an “organic whole.” In answering this question, Polybius raised the analysis of historical causality to a higher level of precision, by adding the “how and why” to the “who, what, where, and when” of Thucydides. He sought “to record with fidelity what actually happened,” with profuse references to prior historical accounts. Since Polybius, unlike Herodotus and Thucydides, covered a long span of history, from 264 to 146 BC, he could not rely only on eyewitness accounts. Fortunately, in his time there were already many authoritative “works of previous historians who had already written the histories of particular societies at particular times,” including Rome’s own careful preservation of memorials and ancestral portraits.
His universal perspective was also visible in his effort to provide a sweeping explanation of the rise and fall of civilizations in general, expressing for the first time, in a cohesive manner, the principle of cyclical history. States experience a natural cycle similar to biological organisms, characterized by growth, zenith, and decay. Primitive kinship first emerges and develops into monarchy, monarchy devolves into tyranny, and eventually tyranny is replaced by the aristocratic rule of the best (the men of virtue, piety, and courage who created Rome). This rule then degenerates into oligarchic privilege and excess, followed by democracy, and finally, mob rule. He believed that the Roman state was superior to all prior forms of government in combining the best of three forms of rule: monarchical (elected consuls), aristocratic (the Senate), and democratic (the popular assemblies). But in his estimation, while this mixed policy could slow down the cycle, it could not deter Rome’s eventual decomposition.
Another revealing quality of ancient Western historiography was its preoccupation with the moral character and personality of great men. This individualism, rooted in the heroic aristocratic ethos of Indo-Europeans — as expressed in their timeless bards and poems, which recited the heroic deeds of legendary figures with the main characters identified by name and personality, as was the case in the Iliad — would find expression in the preoccupation we already noted above about human nature and the personal qualities of leaders, a phenomenon utterly lacking in non-Western historiography. Who can forget the famous Parallel Lives of Plutarch (46-120 AD), which was mandatory reading for every young European man not long ago? Nineteenth century “positivists,” who believed that historians should remain objectively preoccupied with the facts alone without judgments, downplayed Plutarch as a historian for his moralistic judgements about the virtues to be emulated and the vices to be avoided in his illustrations of great men. Yet, Plutarch “read voraciously, and faithfully reported what he found in a wide variety of sources.” He was “one of the most educated men of antiquity,” who knew and quoted “all the major Greek historians” and supplemented his narratives with information from letters, inscriptions, and public documents. His Lives were not hagiographies glorifying great men, but an effort to demonstrate the importance of rational self-restraint against irrational passions, exhibiting a high sensitivity to the dynamics of human motivation, as well as the interaction of contrasting traits and how they can complement each other within the same character, and combined with keen observations about the characters’ physical appearance, thereby showing a keen insight into the variety and complexity of human behavior. Never in the history of the non-Western would we witness a book like Plutarch’s Lives, which consists of a series of paired biographies of the great men who established the city of Rome and consolidated its supremacy in comparison to their Greek counterparts, written with elegant prose and narrative flair.
It has been said that Greek and Roman historiography was limited by its view of an unchanging human nature. Michael Grant, in The Ancient Historians (1970), says that “Plutarch has no idea of dynamic biography. . . . The ancients were still mostly convinced that a man’s character is fixed; at any point in his life, he is what he always was and always will be.” This idea, we shall see below, would be rejected by modern historians around the 1700s, starting with historians of the “Scottish Enlightenment,” with their stage theory of history and their observation that with the rise of commerce and constitutional monarchies, there was a noticeable “improvement of manners” among men. This view also nurtured the equally influential and related current of “historicism,” which came in many conflicting varieties, but essentially argued that all human activities, such as science, art, customs, and philosophy, are shaped by their history, not by an unchanging human nature.
It is more complicated. Herodotus did imply in his ethnographic observations that human nature manifests itself differently (in customary practices) in different geographical settings. The claim that the cyclical view of history “was entailed by a belief in an unchanging human nature” forgets that this view postulates a dramatic alteration in the characters of humans, from virtuous qualities during the rise of states to decadent traits such as wealth, peace, and ease becoming the new reality. The decline of the Roman character is a pervading theme of Roman historiography that is already apparent in Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), author of Origins, of which only fragments survive, but which is about the beginnings of Rome up until the victory over Macedonia in 168 BC. Cato eulogized the “Spartan” austerity and the simplicity of those early men who built Rome, and lamented the effeminate influence of Greek learning. Sallust (86-35 BC) saw the old Roman virtues of frugality and piety decline under the influence of luxury and Asiatic indulgences and taste in the first century BC:
Growing love of money and the lust for power which followed it engendered every kind of evil. Avarice destroyed honour, integrity and every other virtue, and instead taught men to be proud and cruel, to neglect religion and to hold nothing too sacred to sell. . . . Rome changed: her government, once so just and admirable, became harsh and unendurable.
But, according to Sallust, it was not all about character decomposition; he also saw an intensifying civil strife in late republican Rome between two factions: the old patrician class that controlled the Senate, and the plebeians who controlled the popular assemblies. Sallust, who was “a popularis” supporter of Caesar, praises Tiberius Gracchus in his The Jugurthine War (41-40 BC), recognizing the Gracchi brothers as “vindicators of the liberty of the people” against the “shamelessness, bribery and rapacity” of the old aristocracy, as he put in The War with Catiline, grabbing the spoils of war and leaving citizen farmers landless, as they were burdened with prolonged military service.
Along with its psychological portraits, Western historiography was uniquely characterized by an “elaborated, secular, prose narrative” combined with a literary ability to draw the reader into the events and personalities, which was in startling contrast to the bureaucratic, impersonal, and annalistic reporting that one finds for centuries in non-Western historiography. Roman historians were educated with strict rules for prose composition and in the art of literary rhetoric. They took delight in their character portraits. Criticizing them for their moralizing judgements betrays a lack of appreciation for their psychological insights, the inevitability of judgments in historical writing, and the importance of bringing out the dramatic character that is actual history. Here is Sallust writing about Lucius Sergius Catilina (108-62 BC), a Roman politician and soldier who was corrupted to his innermost being by his lust:
His unclean mind, hating god and fellow man alike, could find rest neither waking nor sleeping; so cruelly did remorse torture his frenzied soul. His complexion was pallid, his eyes hideous, his gait now hurried and now slow. Face and expression plainly marked him as a man distraught.
Not until Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in the late 1700s, would anyone see the need to supersede the historiography of the ancient Romans. Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus were thought to be unsurpassable in their narrative abilities, character portraits, analysis of Roman’s political history, and detailed description of its wars.
Livy (59 BC-AD 17), immortalized for his monumental history of Rome in 142 books, of which 35 survive, from the earliest legends of Rome before the traditional date of its founding in 753 BC through the reign of Augustus in Livy’s own lifetime, is widely acknowledged as a “superb narrator.” He understood that his accounts of early Rome have “more of the charm of poetry than of sound historical record,” although future antiquarians have learned a lot about the foundational myths of Rome from these accounts. As in Sallust before him, in Livy, as John Burrow writes, “the question of moral fibre, nurtured by war, weakened by peace and ease, became the core of Roman history.” Livy raised to a higher level of explanatory sophistication the social historical perspective already incipient in Sallust by accentuating the significance of the conflict between the old patricians and the plebeians, which he traced back over the centuries. He recounted how these two classes had managed to get along with the abolition of debt enslavement, the redistribution of land, and the eventual opening of the highest offices (the consulships and censorships) to wealthy plebeians, and how in the first century BC this consensus broke down as different sections of the plebeians, a rich elite allied with the patricians, and a poor class of smallholders, who were the backbone of the citizen army, could not resolve their differences. Upon returning from military service to their neglected farms, these smallholders, as they struggled to pay debts and taxes, would lose their farms, which made the practice of citizen soldiers obsolete and led to the rise of private professional armies. It was Livy’s view that Rome had managed to rise and survive major threats, such as the disaster of Cannae, insofar as the upper classes had acted in moderation, bringing the plebeians to rule alongside them, and redistributing the spoils of war. Roman “firmness” and “sternness” was rooted in this social reality, whereas Roman decadence was rooted in the lustful rapacity of a wealthy oligarchy expropriating the citizen farmers.
At the same time, Livy also pointed to demagogues who stirred up the plebs towards mob rule out of their tyrannical ambition. It has been said that the historiography of ancient times contained truths valid “for all time.” In his Discourses on Livy (1517), Machiavelli explained, after a close reading of Livy, that all forms of government — monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic — are flawed, and that it was the good fortune of the early Roman Republic to combine traits from all three. The inherent conflict of interests between the nobles and the people can turn out to be constructive as long as there is an institutional balance of power in which tribunes of the people can wield power. There is never an ideal political order in which conflict is avoidable.
Perhaps the most admired Roman historian is Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-120AD). Tacitus enjoyed a very high reputation from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth century, admired by Gibbon for “the force of his rhetoric . . . to instruct the reader by sensible and powerful reflections.” He wrote primarily about the relations between the Emperor and the Senate rather than the wider world of the Empire, and based his works on the testimony of eyewitnesses, the Senate’s published transactions, news of the court, collections of Emperors’ speeches, and memoirs. In his didactic concern “to ensure that merit is recorded, and to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciation,” it has been said that he was a moralizing historian. His focus was on the motives of the characters, exposing hypocrisy and dissimulation. Some praise the brevity of description of his Latin style — their “epigrammatic” character, or lack of ornamentation. The period he covered, mostly the first century AD, offered only meager examples of virtue — which may be why he praised the Germanic peoples in what may be his best-known work, the fascinating ethnographic essay titled Germania. Linked to the Third Reich, this essay would also play a key role in the construction of a historiography identifying freedom as the most important ideal of Western history. He observed the Germans on their own terms rather than in light of Roman values, showing admiration for German sexual temperance, dignity, courage, and loyalty — without falling prey to the modern myth of the noble savage, describing as well their drunkenness, idleness, and quarrelsomeness. It was this lack of discipline, he believed, that gave Romans an advantage over the formidable German warriors.
In the early modern period, as Germania became increasingly known, it encouraged historians to delve deeper into Europe’s pre-Roman past. Historians would discover a conception of freedom that predated the Greek, Roman, and Christian ones — what I would call, in my book The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (2011), a primordial ethos of aristocratic and heroic freedom. Francois Hotman, in his Franco-Gallia (1573), concluded, after a thorough study of numerous chronicles of Europe’s early history, that the ancient kings of France were elected and could be deposed, and that French representative institutions such as the Estates General were descended from the old Germanic assemblies of aristocrats. Future authors would argue that the feudalism of the Middle Ages and the contractual relation between lords and vassals was derived from the Teutonic comitatus, the brotherhood of warriors. Montesquieu located this Germanic freedom in the Anglo-Saxon nations, which he developed into a modern doctrine of republican liberty, and identified Britain as the best example of the preservation of Germanic freedoms, whereas in France he saw a nobility that had surrendered its liberty by becoming a bureaucratic servant of the absolutist state. The constitution of Britain, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, consisted of a mixture of monarchical, aristocratic (the House of Lords), and democratic elements (the Commons) with freedom of thought.
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