Wednesday, March 10, 2021

No, Herodotus did not invent fact based history

One meme I have very lately, I think only within last year, met on the internet is, Moses could not have meant Genesis as factual history considering factual history was only invented by Herodotus, later on, and obviously in some cases, at least one, a Jew, Exodus was not factual history either.

Let's step back and consider how historic truth is determined, in general, earlier on, by historians today.

First of all, you may hear of "the historic method" and it sounds like an objective approach, a bit like any correct algorithm for 123 + 456 + 789 will give you 1368. The usual one you have heard of means you put these in a units column for 3, 6, 9, left of that a decades column for 2, 5, 8, left of that a hundreds' column for 1, 4, 7. You also when adding up a column, treating the numerals as "units" and getting "decade(s)" and "units" put the "decade" so to speak "in memory" - that is, you add a small numeral above the highest one on the column just left of it. I would now immediately cross out in the decades column 2 and 8 as they make 10 and put a 1 in memory over hundreds' column. 3 + 6 = 9, + 9 = 18, write down the 8, one in memory above the remaining 5 in decades' column, makes 6, so you have 68, and 1 (in memory) + 1 + 4 + 7 make 13, and when there is no column left of it, you write down the numeral in memory directly, so 13, you have 1368. Similar for Greek numerals, except here you learn that γ + ς + θ = ιη and with λ + ξ + Q instead, you would have ρπ - the numeral "in memory" quasi automatically goes to the right column. "CXXIII + CDLVI + DCCLXXXIX", simplify hundreds by cancelling "on the left" with others, "XXIII + DLVI + DCCLXXXIX", same with units, "XXIII + DLV + DCCLXXXX", add up D+D to M, "M + XXIII + LV + CCLXXXX", add up L+L to C, "MC + XXIII + V + CCXXXX", add on other C's, "MCCC + XXIII + V + XXXX", add X's, "MCCCXXXXXX + III + V", simplify five X to one L, "MCCCLX + III + V" and add on fiver and three units, MCCCLXVIII, which reads one thousand three hundred sixty eight. You get it, whatever algorithm you use, you will get one single uncontrovertible answer. If you get another answer, you made a mistake. And this is the case with any algorithm among several different ones.

Second, earlier on, history was done by checking sources available and going by the ones you thought most reliable.

Third, historians today are largely indebted to one Swedish school of historiography, the Weibull school. It highly values contemporary written evidence above oral tradition over centuries, and non-tendentious sources like tax records over narrations. As no big surprise, it would obviously tend to come to fairly down to earth conclusions about what was routinely going on in a given earlier century over accounts of singular events.

Now, even with any given "algorithm for history" (there isn't one) you don't get one single correct answer. For the earlier method, the reason is obvious. Not only are different persons likely to have different sources available, they are even likely, if having same two sources in contradiction, likely to disagree on which is the more reliable. Also, they are likely to disagree on what events were more decisive. For Waterloo, I think German and English historians generally agree on what Wellington did and what Blücher did, but at least back before 1945 and especially in the 19th C., German historians would credit Blücher over Wellington with beating Napoleon. Not because they disagreed on facts, but because they disagreed on importance of facts in relation to each other.

But part of the Weibull method is, as said, sifting away decorative narratives. This poses a kind of conundrum for history back in millennia for which very little else - no diaries, no newspaper reports, very little diplomacy - survives. Does a narrative from back then constitute a historic source or not? For the earlier method of history, no doubt, yes. Narratives are what historiography deals with, if you can compare two, fine, but if you have only one and you see no insurmountable problem, you go with it. But, to certain people in the last year, not sure if any before, to UsefulCharts, to Drew Gasaway, to some Roman Catholic, as I recall but I forget which one, and all within the last year, fact based historic narrative was invented by Herodotus. Before that, adding to make entertaining fiction was part and parcel of the genre.

Now, not only is there no algorithm for history, but in ideas there is also no such a progression of inventions as in mass produced technology. With telephone, you can pick out Alexander Graham Bell, with combustion motor you can pick out Otto and Daimler, and a few more like that. A claim like "Voltaire was heading from Paris to Ferney in a car, but he ran out of petrol" is fantasy, because the cars that run on petrol use them in the combustion engines that Daimler invented 98 years after Voltaire died. A claim like "Galileo asked the Cardinal Bellarmine, if he might phone Newton" is, apart from language difficulties (they could have communicated in Latin) fantasy because Alexander Graham Bell commercialised the phone from 1885 and Galileo stood before Bellarmine in 1616, 269 years earlier. The claim is "fact based history" is similarily an invention that can be so dated, and the date is Herodotus and therefore after Moses' real or purported life.

Now, fact based history is in fact an idea, not a technology using specifics of electromagnetic or combustive explosions in a very intricate contrivance. Unlike intricate contrivances, ideas have a certain knack of being simple and that being the case, you don't need a single inventor, you get multiple starts and probably lots of simply ongoing tradition.

Drew Gasamore was confronted with an Egyptian exact chronological statement (not saying Egyptian chronology is overall very exact, that is another matter) implying they did have a method for exact chronological statements. His reply referred to incredible events in the Osiris story starting Egyptian chronology and he implied that this discredited everything that went after it in Egyptian chronology ... which it does not. Egyptians may have made concessions to very unreliable facts, this does not equate to lacking a method for establishing reliable ones. Or the Osiris story, while false gods, misplaced in time by multiplication of years, goes back to a true crime story. That would be my take. The role of the fake phallus would have been misunderstood, unless it was a case of artificial insemination badly told. Either way, this does not shed any kind of doubt on an Egyptian document claiming that "in the 29th year and 5th month of pharao so and so" something happened.

Others would have pointed to Homer as evidence that Herodotus invented fact based history. Iliad and Odyssey being mythological, they aren't fact based and therefore fact based history must be - in Greece - after Homer. Now, very little in the Iliad and Odyssey can be narrowed down to deliberate acts by non-human actors, if you except the stories Ulysses told to Nausicaä. It's Apollo giving and withdrawing a plague to and from Greeks, and it is Athena helping Ulysses shift the face he shows. I think St. John would have agreed that Apollo sent and withdrew a plague, especially as one title Homer gives him translates as Beelzebub into Hebrew. For the masquerade of Ulysses, I hesitate between Biao Ling, demons or angels. Accepting Iliad and (by and large) Odyssey as historical is no affront to Christian theology.

But even more, Herodotus himself opens the first book of his Histories, Clio, with Paris kidnapping Helen and thereby setting on the Trojan War. The supposed inventor of fact based history credited an earlier writer and earlier traditions beside that writer with - fact based history. After Troy, Herodotus gets into, among other things, Gyges. However, it seems that the invisibility ring of Gyges is not from Herodotus but from Plato. Here is a discussion on Herodotus' reliability from the article:

Herodotus has been criticized for the fact that his book includes many obvious legends and fanciful accounts. Many authors, starting with the late fifth-century BC historian Thucydides, have accused him of making up stories for entertainment. However, Herodotus states that he is merely reporting what he has seen and been told, on several occasions saying that he does not himself believe the story that he reports.

It is in other words clear, on the one hand, Herodotus was not of the Weibull school, and on the other hand, he believed some earlier writers (not all of them) to be as reliable as he.

This means that placing a document from times before Herodotus does not make it non-factual.

Even if Herodotus himself had started a trend among Greeks, this does not prove there were no parallel trends for instance with the Hebrews earlier on, like with Moses doing a fact based retelling of what he had been told or gathered from shorter written accounts that is now Genesis. Obviously, UsefulCharts severely bungles even Weibullian historiography by faking the pretence that parting of the Red Sea was an already existing literary meme, which could have been tacked on to the account of Exodus for effect, since no already existing meme that we know of deals with the miraculous parting of any sea. Likewise, someone else claimed the Tower of Babel was going back to earlier Mesopotamian myth, but this is severely inaccurate, since we do not have any earlier Mesopotamian myth that relates such a thing as a project punished by God or the gods (though we have later Greek legends in Hesiod, Ossa and Pelion), or of a mankind with one language getting divided into many languages and peoples. I think this discussion shows very well that even Weibullian method does not give unequivocal single answers to historic questions.

Hans Georg Lundahl
St. Drotté

Lutetiae Parisiorum depositio sancti Droctovei Abbatis, qui fuit discipulus beati Germani Episcopi.

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