Near the end of Book 7, Thucydides paints a wonderful scene of Athenian soldiers standing at the edge of the great harbor of Syracuse, watching the unfolding of the sea-battle in front of them that will determine whether they can escape home to Athens (7.71). Their bodies torque in agony as they watch, some of them shouting, ‘‘We are winning!,’’ some shouting, ‘‘We are losing!,’’ depending on what part of the battle each man is looking at.
The idea of history itself - the acknowledgment that a collective human past can be studied and is worth studying - is today in something of the same condition as those Athenian soldiers in Syracuse. On the one hand, ‘‘history,’’ defined as the study of some part of the human past, is being generated and also energetically consumed in a variety of media. History book clubs abound, and national magazines and newspapers often purvey relatively responsible narratives about the origins of both national and international crises, some of them starting in the distant past. Intuitively, people feel that the past matters; one can even find the ancient Greeks and Romans appearing almost daily on a variety of television channels. Seen from this angle, history is thriving.
In the ‘‘we are losing!’’ camp, however, those who care about history see at least two kinds of massive attacks sustained, affecting both the merit and the very possibility of history, at least if it is defined as the systematic and careful study of a ‘‘real’’ past.
One comes from various political groups and even some thoughtful cultural historians, like Peter Novick or Robert Berkhofer. They point out that our overinformed age makes an objective and inclusive history increasingly impossible, replete as our world is with abundant documentation of varying quality, decentralized modes of rapid and far-flung communication, and a vigorous resurgence of small-group identities. Each separate interest group now wants to tell its own story, dismissing as vicious or uninformed a story that opposes or even modifies it. Western culture as a whole no longer appears to trust learned expertise or privilege the judgment of a group of people (traditionally called historians) who are more entitled to tell the story of the past, because they have at their disposal more reliable data, and more techniques and experience interpreting the data, than does the average man or woman on the street. If this trend continues, it is possible that ‘‘history’’ will become little more than popular mythmaking expressed in historical novels and films, generated in order to amuse, comfort, inspire, or confirm a group in its sense of itself, rather than to tell accurate but potentially uncomfortable truths about a complex past that needs to be understood on its own terms, in its very differences from the present.
A second, more sophisticated attack on the possibility of‘‘real’’ history comes from the academy, especially its literature departments. It owes its intellectual origin to poststructuralists and postmodernists and entails the realization that language, as the medium we use to think about and communicate our thoughts about the past, is most intimately connected not to the articulation of non-linguistic reality but rather to a larger and pervasive, interlocking web of language itself. That web is largely shaped by ideology, or the unconscious need to see the past in terms that we already know, that is, our contemporary set of intellectual assumptions. Much of what the scholars say who cast doubt on the traditional western project of history, writing from this angle, is true; Louis Mink, Hayden White, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes, to name a few of them, deserve our reluctant gratitude for forcing us to think about their arguments.
In what is often called the ‘‘linguistic turn,’’ some professional historians also follow this line of reasoning and claim that the project of creating an accurate representation of the past, when carefully examined, is a chimerical one, nice to imagine but not attainable in practice. Historians and historiographers like Alun Munslow or Keith Jenkins point out that ‘‘the past’’ is a construct that does not exist except as a hypothesis. Certainly, it is not an object in front of us that can be examined objectively. As Foucault and his followers have argued, the elements from the past that we do have in front of us - the written and otherwise tangible detritus from vanished times - are things we largely understand in terms of our own ideological presuppositions. We are creatures, even prisoners, of our particular Foucauldian episteml or intellectual and social cohort. We write things that seem reasonable to us, using terms, explanations, and plot devices that matter to us, not necessarily those that would have made sense to the actors of the vanished past we claim to be investigating.
Archimedes’ fulcrum often appears at this point in the argument. We cannot stand outside ourselves, to understand the Other, the human being different from ourselves. Mink’s general observation (1987: 199) about history as, in the final analysis, a narrative made up of words, remains pertinent here as a provocative general summary of the problem:
So we have a... dilemma about the historical narrative: as historical it claims to represent, through its form, part of the real complexity of the past, but as narrative it is a product of
Imaginative construction, which cannot defend its claim to truth by any accepted procedure of argument or authentication.
Faced with such issues, it is instructive to return to the first generation of Greek historians, to look at the kinds of meaning that their histories conveyed. Why did they undertake to write as they did? How was their work really different from that, say, of Homer and his epigoni before them? These are not new questions, of course, but our current epistemological dilemma has given us some new ways to think about them. The observations expressed in this chapter are not the only ways into understanding the work of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, but they seem particularly relevant to the questions raised by the role of history and history writing in our own culture.
I will argue here that if we look carefully at the work of the first western historians and the basic assumptions undergirding their histories, we can see an intellectual project emerging that is indeed literary, ‘‘a product of imaginative construction,’’ as the poststructuralists claim, but imaginative construction of a very particular kind. In the very details of its literariness, history as shaped by its first three Greek practitioners makes good on its claim to belong to the human sciences - and even to reach a kind of truth that marks the study of history as a distinctive intellectual discipline. The analysis is a formal one, examining how the first three historical narratives are constructed. Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon all privilege four ways of making meaning that together largely define the genre that their work began. I call them below: rescuing the remarkable from oblivion; recording judgment; deploying the authorial narrator’s voice; and (only half tongue-in-cheek) recounting ‘‘one damn thing after another.’’