History: Wells of Wisdom

History and Geography in Classical Education

If a classical education consists of the seven liberal arts and includes the classical languages, one might wonder: what about history and geography? May we simply tack on subjects as we see fit, or must we limit ourselves to the arts?

Neither. First, adding subjects to a classical education is rather like the trend of families adding extracurricular on top of extracurricular until no one enjoys any of them and the members of the family hardly know each other, like so many dissociated roommates who can’t remember what it’s like to think or breathe. In an effort to create well-rounded children (whatever that means), we end up with hamsters who only know life on the wheel. There’s something to be said for doing a few things, doing them well, and enjoying them. This is the attitude that permeates classical education.

But second, the liberal arts are not in the least bit limiting. They’re the liberal arts – the arts of the free person. Certainly there’s a place for history and geography: this is part of the content of the Trivium (as are the classical languages). Recall that the three arts of the Trivium are Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Yet all three of these are taught and learned by examples. Students must hear what good grammar, logic, and rhetoric sound like, and this means drinking deeply from the cup of classical literature.

Now this may sound odd, but some of the best pieces of classical literature are histories. And the reason this might sound odd is because, generally speaking, history class calls to mind the tedious business of memorizing names, dates, and places (likely connected by some event, I think), voiding them onto an exam, and then turning to a completely different and seemingly unrelated set of names, dates, and places. Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria! Fourteen ninety two! Christopher Columbus! America! Native Americans! What do I remember? Facts. And what do those facts mean? I don’t know. No one ever taught me.

What Is the Purpose of History?

This leads to the question: what is the purpose of History? This is as broad as asking, “What is the purpose of life?” And both questions assume that there is some overarching purpose: that there’s not only the historiographer (the writer of histories), but also an Historiokrator – a Lord of History. Now if this is correct, then truthfully written histories will teach us something about history’s Lord. What sorts of actions does the Historiokrator reward? Which does he punish? What sorts of traits or behaviors should we consider virtues? Which are vices? Or, most basically, what is right and what is wrong?

Now one could assume that there is no Lord of History. In that case it’s up to mankind to define right and wrong, whether corporately or individually, provided the plebs or partisans think it’s right to believe in right and wrong. But this is a tricky position to maintain. How does one explain why every proud ruler in the history of the world has been humbled before dying (or met a very wretched end)? How does one explain why those who live by the sword die by the sword? Why do societies that pervert marriage (the union of one man and one woman, permanent and exclusive) always suffer societal collapse? One can believe there’s no such thing as objective right and wrong. One can believe there’s no Historiokrator. One can also believe that the sky is green and grass is blue, as long as one is willing to blind oneself to the facts.

The classical historians held that there is such a thing as objective right and wrong. They did not worship the one true God; nevertheless, the sole fact that they saw themselves as subjects to a moral law that held true for everyone the world over meant that they could rightly interpret the course of human events – insofar as their understanding of the moral law coincided with God’s Law. And even when the ancient historians diverge from a proper understanding of right and wrong, they still report the facts with eloquence, leaving us to draw our own conclusions, and to improve our rhetoric while we’re at it.

Isocrates and Tacitus

But the ancients can tell you themselves how they regard the purpose of History. Isocrates was a famous Athenian orator who wrote to Nicocles, the young king of Salamis, in the early fourth century BC. Isocrates advised Nicocles what he should do in order to be a good king and live up to that high office. Part of Isocrates’ advice was this: “Consider the things that take place and befall both common folk and kings, for should you be mindful of what has been, the better you will plan for what will be” (Isocrates, To Nicocles, 2.35). Or in other words: Pay attention to the outcomes of past deeds. Take them to heart, and do your deeds according to the outcome you desire.

In the early part of the second century AD Tacitus wrote his Annals of Rome. When commenting on some of the actions of the Senate he slips in a wonderful note about the purpose of his writing: “I have by no means taken upon myself to relate decisions except those remarkable for honorable conduct or for notorious shame, because I regard as the principal duty of histories that virtues should not be unspoken, and that against crooked words and deeds should stand the fear of posterity and infamy” (Tacitus, Annals, 3.65). And so Tacitus extols virtue and condemns vice in the course of relating events. Indeed, this is his purpose: to read the past as a moral catechism.

Story Time with Herodotus

But even better than listening to the ancients talk about history is listening to the ancients relate history. We turn to Herodotus, sometimes called the Father of History. Herodotus’ Histories document the rise of the Persian Empire and the war between the Persians and the Greeks. But he’s not spewing propaganda – “Go Greeks!” Rather, he’s teaching mankind by way of a broad sample of mankind’s collected experiences.

Let’s listen to one of his stories, shall we? Ah, but which one? Shall I recount how Cyrus, king of Persia, became angry at the Gyndes River and divided it into 360 streams? Shall I tell of the little coffin that the servant would take around to the dinner guests after supper in Egypt? Shall I speak of Cambyses, who became enraged with the Ethiopians and forthrightly led the army to journey to that country without making any provision for his troops? Or what about Polycrates, who threw a gold ring into the sea and later received it back in the belly of a fish? Or the Psylli, who made war upon the south-wind? What about the time the Athenians fined the dramatist Phrynicus for staging the Capture of Miletus? Or perhaps something that relates to Scripture. Shall I tell you how Cyrus captured the city of Babylon? Or how Sennacherib invaded Egypt? Or shall I give the Egyptian account of Pharaoh Neco’s war with King Josiah, followed by the Battle of Carchemish?

So many stories from which to choose! But I must pick one. Let’s hear about the time King Cyrus of Persia captured the city of Sardis. Sardis was the capital of Lydia, and Croesus was its king (of “rich as Croesus” fame). Croesus had gone to war with the Persians because of an oracle he had been given, which said that if he attacked the Persians he would destroy a mighty empire. And in the end he did destroy a mighty empire by attacking the Persians, just not the one he was hoping to destroy.

The armies of Croesus and Cyrus clashed in a district of Cappadocia called Pteria. Croesus was outnumbered, and though he survived the day’s battle he decided to withdraw to Sardis, take some time to find allies, and resume the war in the spring.

But Cyrus guessed at Croesus’ plan, and decided to pursue his troops back to Sardis and engage them again before they could regroup. There was a second battle on the plains before Sardis, and though the Lydians fought valiantly they were forced to retreat into the city. “Thus the siege began.”

Sieges are a miserable business. The besiegers cut off the flow of food and water into the city, and prevent communication from leaving the city. Then they wait, and wait, and wait until either the city surrenders or they have opportunity to mount a decent attack. Meanwhile the besieged ration food and water and try to sneak a messenger out so that he can go get their allies. The besieged have the advantage of being at home, and the high ground of the walls from which to attack, and the hope that the sojourning enemy will run out of provisions first and have to leave. The scene thus being set, we’ll leave the rest of the story to Herodotus:

“Now Sardis was taken in this way: After Croesus was besieged for fourteen days, Cyrus sent horsemen throughout his army and promised to give a reward to the first man who scaled the wall. After this the army tried without success. Then, once the others had stopped, a Mardian man named Hyroeades attempted to climb up by a certain part of the acropolis where no one had posted a guard. For no one was fearful about that place, thinking it could never be taken; for there the acropolis is sheer and impregnable. And it was the only place where Meles, the former king of Sardis, had not carried around the lion that his concubine had borne, the Telmessians having determined that after carrying the lion around the wall Sardis would be unconquerable. But when Meles carried it around the rest of the wall where the acropolis could be assailed he disregarded this place as it was impregnable and sheer. It is the part of the city that faces Tmolus. Now this Hyroeades, who was a Mardian, having seen the day before a certain man of the Lydians at this place of the acropolis descending after a helmet that had rolled down and picking it up, considered this and took it to heart. Then he himself also climbed up, and after him others of the Persians began climbing. And when many had ascended in this way then Sardis was taken, and the whole town plundered.”

And those are the facts surrounding Cyrus’ capture of Sardis. Ah, but those are more than just facts, aren’t they? Are the Lydians the only ones who are blind to their weakness, who have false security and overconfidence? The story asks: Are you like the Lydians? The moral of the story is very much like the point that St. Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 10:2, “So let he who thinks he stands watch lest he fall.”

Now history like this can be uncomfortable. It makes you take a look at yourself and the society around you, and sometimes you won’t like what you find. But the result of studying history in such a way is a useful introspection that takes the place of our inherent narcissism. History is a trove of wisdom, and its gifts are all good for you. So unless being a better person scares you, there’s nothing to fear.

Geography: The Places Where History Happened

Notice also how naturally the study of geography follows the study of classical history. Where is Lydia? How big was that kingdom? Was Sardis centrally located in it? Which direction is Persia from Lydia? How big was Cyrus’ kingdom? Where is Pteria, or Cappadocia? What is the terrain like around Sardis? What makes something an acropolis? One can’t read more than a page or two of a classical history without feeling a strong desire to look at a map.

And then when this sort of student of history looks at a map he actually retains geography, because the places have stories that accompany them. This is how we learn geography in everyday life. If I’m new to an area I don’t sit down and try to memorize where everything is at in town. Instead I’ll visit different establishments and things will happen at them. I will remember those happenings as stories. Then when my friend says, “Hey, do you want to go to Blue’s Diner for lunch?” and I say, “What diner?” my friend can say, “You know? The place where we sat outside and I dropped the ketchup bottle on the cement and it shattered.” And then I know, “Oh, the one over on 2nd Street by the courthouse!”

Look at these two maps. One gives a broad view showing where Asia Minor is located on the globe; the other pinpoints Lydia (which was in Asia Minor), Sardis, and Cappadocia:

Now you know where Sardis was, and you know a story that happened there. Strange as it may seem, even if you had never heard of Sardis before, you very well may be able to find Sardis on a map for the rest of your life – because as human beings when we think of geography we want a story to go with it. We remember geography as The Places Where History Happened.

Multiculturalism: History’s Archnemesis

How does modern education’s approach to history differ from the classical approach to history? First of all, modern education has no “history” class. It has been renamed “Social Studies,” and has a far different purpose and approach. Social Studies divides the world into cultural units. Each cultural unit receives a bit of time: the Egyptians, the Middle East, Japan, Native Americans. However, the units remain largely disconnected from each other, and bare facts receive much more emphasis than morals. Social Studies leaves the student wondering, “Why does someone think I need to know this, and how does it all fit together?” And since the student never receives a big picture that brings the whole world together, he’s eager to clear his mind of the dusty old facts. Frankly, who can blame him?

And yet modern education does have an overarching goal to its Social Studies. The goal is Multiculturalism. Now this word gets thrown around quite a bit, so I suppose I should define the word before using it any more. A dictionary is going to prove useless at this point. A dictionary will tell you that multiculturalism merely means “of or relating to different ethnic groups.” If that’s all it means then Herodotus is more “multicultural” than even the most progressive school.

But that’s not what the word means in modern education. In modern education Multiculturalism means highlighting the unique differences in various cultures and then as a blanket statement saying, “Good for them.” These Egyptians built pyramids and worship Ra. Good for them! These Middle Easterners speak Arabic and are Muslim. Good for them! These people over here had a Shaman. These people believed everyone goes to the same place when they die. These people thought eternal life meant living on in the memory of others. Good for them! These people had multiple husbands. These people held their spouses in common. These people were led by matriarchs. These people had the women do the hunting and the men do the gathering. Good for them!

Multiculturalism fixates particularly on religion and traditional morality (especially as regards sexuality), and espouses, “The only truth is that there is no truth. What’s true for these people is true for them, and what’s true for these people is true for them. Neither has the right to say: This must be true for everyone.”

Except Multiculturalism cheats on itself. It holds the premise, “No one can say: This must be true for everyone,” but in so doing it’s saying, “This must be true for everyone.” Multiculturalism cries, “Tolerance!” and demands it of everyone, yet refuses to exercise even a modicum of tolerance itself. Multiculturalism cries, “Diversity!” and will require students to memorize the five pillars of Islam, but will lynch anyone who thinks the class should also memorize the Ten Commandments.

And so Multiculturalism grabs whatever historical anecdotes fit the progressive agendas of the day, marshals them in support of tolerance and diversity, and silences anyone who so much as whispers anything contrary. To the student, Social Studies may seem like a string of boring facts. Yet history is still being used as a moral catechism, only piecemeal, and with no regard for the outcomes of practices, merely that the practices were.

I’ll note briefly that because Social Studies uses history merely for facts or anecdotes, geography need play no great part. The anecdotes might as well be History That Happened Nowhere. And if geography is taught (as a separate and unrelated class, of course), then the student will study the Places Where Nothing Happened.

And what is the final result of this pseudo-history called Social Studies? In the end Social Studies bestows a vague and perhaps fearful sense of “live and let live,” in which case Multiculturalism has done its work.

The Historical Use of History

I could waste great amounts of ink and expound the harmful effects of Multiculturalism even further. But honestly the best way to defeat evil is to call it a liar to its face and then occupy oneself with something good. So… Multiculturalism, you lie! And now let me sum up Herodotus’ approach to history, which will hopefully come as a breath of fresh air after all the nonsense of Multiculturalism.

Herodotus writes a world history, and not only shows how various nations and peoples functioned among themselves, but documents how they interacted with one another. He is himself a Greek, but does not limit his history to the Greeks, or even to peoples with whom the Greeks had direct dealings. Reading his work one gets the sense that he was simply fascinated with human cultures and customs, their uniqueness and variety, and was eager to learn and report as many of them as he could. He was a philanthropist in the truest sense of the word: a lover of man.

Yet Herodotus does not approve of every practice of every nation, but judges by a standard of right and wrong. He will grant that everyone prefers his homeland’s way of doing things; nevertheless this preference doesn’t make everything right. He is tolerant in the truest sense of the word: enduring that which he knows to be wrong, and recording it, and, out of love for justice and for future generations, recording the wretched end with which wrongdoing meets.

Herodotus doesn’t present only one side of a story when he’s heard two, and when accounts of causes differ he offers all he knows, leaving judgment to the reader. Herodotus tries to base his accounts on the testimony of a nation’s best, preferring eyewitnesses, and understanding that people lie to preserve national pride or the reputation of their gods, yet generally trusting people who would know better than him, and not giving himself over to speculation. He shows by example what a fine time history and humility can have with each other.

And the most significant point: Herodotus does not ultimately show how different nations are from each other, but for all the superficial differences in culture and practice human nature remains a common human nature, given to hubris, envy, anger, ambition, passions, impatience, greed, cowardice, revenge, madness, pride, and rashness. And both our common human experience and the annals of history show how harmful these are.

For Herodotus, as for all the classical historians, history does not merely impart information, but allows us to learn from the mistakes of others, and sit at the feet of wise fathers, and answer questions of right and wrong, and have a rollicking good time while we’re at it. So why not have some fun and open a classical history book? Why not study it with some friends, or begin a little school where the study of ancient history hasn’t become ancient history? You’ll be glad you did.

Painting: An Architectural Capriccio of the Roman Forum with Philosophers and Soldiers among Ancient Ruins…, by Giovanni Paolo Panini, c. 1745-1750

Translations are my own

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