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Herodotus and the Origins of the Political Community

Herodotus and the Origins of the Political Community: Arion`s Leap

Norma Thompson
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 208
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    Herodotus and the Origins of the Political Community
    Book Description:

    Norma Thompson opens a new angle of political vision in this imaginative and engaging interpretation of Herodotus'History. She claims for the "father of history" a position in the canon of political thought, finding modern validity in his fundamental perceptions about the importance of stories to the coherence of political communities.Thompson arrives at a unique explanation for Herodotus' side-by-side placement of factual and fanciful historical stories. She contends that he recognized the central importance of compelling stories, even imaginary ones like the tale of Arion, the poet and singer who leaped into the sea to escape Corinthian pirates and was carried to safety on the back of a dolphin. Such stories can become the "facts" of a people's past and thereby the core of the political community. Herodotus understood that stories define and bind together one polity as distinct from others. Further, a polity evolves in reference to its own defining story. Thompson relates Herodotus' work to historical and cultural debate among such scholars as Martin Bernal, Francois Hartog, and Edward Said, and she invites philosophers, philologists, anthropologists, historiographers, and political theorists into the discussion.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14598-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The stories that succeed most compellingly in accounting for the “facts” of a people’s past become the core of that people’s political community. This recognition is provided to us by Herodotus in hisHistory. Herodotus shows—without drawing conclusions, providing explanations, or offering theories—that stories demarcate and bind one polity in distinction to another, and he suggests how that entity may evolve over time in reference to the defining story it tells about itself. He brings us to this insight, speaking in a prephilosophical, pre-Socratic language, as he grapples with the stories current in Greece: of Greeks about Greeks,...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Decline and Repudiation of the Whole: Notes on Aristotle’s Enclosure of the Pre-Socratic World
    (pp. 7-27)

    Aristotle defined himself against Herodotus. Plato and Aristotle cannot be understood without recognition that they stand on our side of what has become the great divide in intellectual history: the pre-Socratics, and those who came after them. For his part, Plato famously offers an apology of philosophy against poetry. The maxims associated with the Socratic way (“know thyself,” “nothing in excess,” “an unexamined life is not worth living”) are standing rebukes to what, beginning with Plato, is depicted as the creative madness of the poet. Aristotle then contributes his own apology of the philosophic life in a manner suggesting that...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Development of Social Memory
    (pp. 28-51)

    One of Herodotus’ more disconcerting admissions comes late in his work: “I must tell what is said, but I am not at all bound to believe it, and this comment of mine holds about my wholeHistory” (7.152). In effect, he is insisting here that his readers acknowledge his full control of the narrative, although it is far from clear even at this late stage how this control is exerted; he is silent on his rare ability to marshal “particulars, and even a false particular, into a coherent whole that compels us to reflect on a universal question; how an...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Formation of Persian Political Identity
    (pp. 52-78)

    The episode inThe Historythat has attracted more controversy than any other is the Persian debate of Book III. The debate is one of the first theoretical discussions of the three forms of government—monarchy, oligarchy, democracy—we know from the ancient past. No antiquarian interest lies behind this critical interest; what has been recognized here is that this depiction of the conspirators debating the future form of the Persian regime calls into question the historian’s procedure altogether. Herodotus introduces the topic without conveying the droll humor that comes across, for example, in the episode of the Persian chroniclers;...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Political Identities in Conflict: Herodotus in Contention with His Characters
    (pp. 79-111)

    That Herodotus presumes to deal in real distinctions among the characters of peoples is noted more often by earlier commentators than those of late: We “gather from data which he gives here, and from stories told there, that there was a fundamental difference between Persian and Greek outlooks, between the silent theories on which the two peoples severally based life.” Glover is so bold as to assert elsewhere that most readers will readily agree with this unspoken thought of Herodotus: “Greeks are really in their variety, their restlessness, and their impossibility, the most interesting of all peoples.”¹ His candor is...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The Use of Herodotus in Contemporary Political and Cultural Criticism
    (pp. 112-141)

    From his time to ours, Herodotus has been treated as the father of history the way most fathers are treated: acknowledged but often ignored, or not taken too seriously, except on special occasions. But today, Herodotus is becoming suspiciously fashionable. Evidently something in Herodotus has begun to address issues of contemporary concern in a manner that is found useful to some of the main protagonists in the current debates and controversies on the topics of cultural imperialism, the new historicism, and the Other.

    Herodotus is employed variously, as weapon or target, in debates ranging across disciplines: anthropology to literary theory,...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Before Objectivity, and After
    (pp. 142-166)

    The Herodotean first principle of evidence—inclusivity—derives from Herodotus’ absorption in cultures and in cultural self-descriptions. Most conspicuously, he seems to delight as much in evidence “tainted” by human influence as he does in verifiable information. In David Grene’s phrase, there is no bump in the narrative as Herodotus moves from what seem to be radically different types of evidence. Describing how Croesus was besieged by Cyrus, Herodotus remarks casually that “this was the only place [in the citadel] where the former king of Sardis, Meles, had not carried round the lion cub that his concubine had borne him”...

  12. Afterword: Arion’s Leap
    (pp. 167-168)

    One of the most attractive and intriguing images surviving from antiquity is the boy on a dolphin, reproduced today on book colophons, institutional seals, and fountain statuary. The boy is Arion the poet and singer, born in Lesbos, who prospered at the court of the Corinthian despot Periander. Arion had lived among the Corinthians, sung their story, assessed the character of their community, and trusted them.

    At sea, where the Corinthians are out of their element, they abandon their custom, their character, and that which makes them a community. They throw off that which distinguishes human from nonhuman society. Facing...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 169-188)
  14. Index
    (pp. 189-193)