The Greeks Had A Word For It

In the classical Greek period, people wrote and spoke of the nine muses as the daughters of Zeus, the ruler of the gods, and his coupling with Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. These divine females included Calliope, who inspired epic poetry; Erato, inspiration of lyric poetry; Polyhymnia, religious poetry; Euterpe, music; Terpsichore, dance; Melpomene, tragic drama; Thalia, comic drama; Urania, astronomy; and Clio, who inspired history. For these Greeks, history was an art form. The modern English word “history” derives from a Greek word meaning “a narrative.”

In the European intellectual tradition developed since the Renaissance, history has come to mean the prose recitation of past events, based on contemporary witness to related, cold, hard “facts.” Written records are considered absolutely indispensable, oral tradition relegated to second or even lesser place, and strong, sometimes sole emphasis on events and which mark change and pre-supposed growth, societal movement from one phase to another. As an unfortunate result, Africans, Asians and indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia were seen as people without history. Likewise, women, poor people, laboring classes, dissenting minorities and others were ignored or relegated to footnotes. Emphasis was placed on kings, generals, diplomats, politicians, religious leaders, wealthy entrepreneurs–most always males and usually white–who “got things done.” Like the detective in the old Dragnet television series of the 1950’s, too many historians, writers and teachers wanted “the facts, just the facts.” Much too often this approach, even at the collegiate level, led to generations of bored students who could recite names and dates by rote memory and then forget it all after the examination. To my way of thinking, that is not history, not an inspired art form.

Consider some of the problems with that approach. Just what are “facts?” Ask any lawyer or any juror involved in the trial of an automobile accident case. The two drivers, any passenger, bystanders, investigating police officers all have “facts” to offer. If they differ, does that automatically mean that someone is not telling the truth? Does not where one stood, or sat, at that time, have an effect on one’s perception of what happened? In any famous battle, do not the common soldier or sailor, the mid-ranking officer and the commanding general or admiral, all have different perspectives on what happened? And surely the opposing army or navy has a different outlook? Likewise, the immigrant wife had a different perspective than that of the Ellis Island official interrogating her. The multi-languaged workers in mills and factories saw things differently than the owners. Ask the survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City or the Bread-and-Roses strikers in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Are “facts” and “truth” the same thing? Remember, “What is truth?” asked jesting Pilate , who would not stay for an answer. Here, history and law enter the area of extremely serious philosophic inquiry.

Why did historians of the European tradition value written documents over oral traditions and histories? Most cultures had or continue to have griots, elders and shamans who carry from generation to generation the heritage of their peoples. Most families, like my own, relate and cherish the tales of foremothers and forefathers. Beowulf and much of the Torah passed on as oral stories from heart to heart long before they were first written down.

I think also that we need to remember that “story” and “fiction” are not synonymous. Fiction is imaginary, inventive, derived from the Latin verb fingo, meaning to shape or to invent. Story means a description of events or experiences or an item of news. History is the human story. Good history is that story well-told. To be well-told requires the teller to be inspired. She needs a muse!

The African American historian James Horton said in a 2001 interview that in his baccalaureate study, history was about memorizing names and dates of presidents, “about memory, not about understanding.” Later a teacher named Idus Newby brought him to a different outlook. “In long conversations with him over the course of the next year or so, it became clear that history could be much more than obscure names and dates. It could be exciting and important. It could even be ‘relevant,’” Dr Horton said. He declared that “Not until graduate school did I become aware of the scholars . . . like W. E. B. DuBois, John Hope Franklin, Kenneth Stampp and others.”

When asked about his own teaching principles, Dr Horton replied, “I think that it is important for students to get the sense that people make history; it is not simply a matter of inevitable events or irresistible forces. The decisions that human beings make that move society in one or another direction are made within the context of a system of beliefs and as a consequence of experience. . . . students must become aware of another time, very different from their own in may ways. Attempting to do that is a valuable exercise because it facilitates the understanding that people may be reasonable, even though they do things with which we disagree.”

What makes historians such as the late John Hope Franklin, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eric Foner, Gerda Lerner, David McCullough, Linda Kerber, Howard Zinn, Peter Irons, Ellen Carol DuBois, David Garrow, Alice Kessler-Harris and the late Studs Terkel so readable and enjoyable for me is their ability to present a good story, well-informed, and well-written. Clio seems to inspire them.

Because I grew up loving a good story, both hearing and telling one, I did my undergraduate study in history. (Yes, I grew up in a clan with some strong Irish roots!) I enjoyed and continue to enjoy probing, studying, reading, thinking about history. So here, gentle reader, you will find me blogging about history. And history gives me a forum to talk about all kinds of people and things which interest me.

In the 1920’s, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “in the law a page of history is worth a volume of logic.” I believe that is true for most things–science, religion, politics, mathematics, literature, music, theater, trade and commerce, cinema, family dynamics. My blogs will include all kinds of things. My interests are varied, my age senior, my politics and theology unapologetically liberal. If you enjoy my rambling, I am pleased. If you don’t, well the web is a wide, wide world. To each her own.





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  • Lucille Adkins  On June 10, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    “Primitives of our own species, even today are historically shallow in their knowledge of the past. Only the poet who writes speaks his message across the millennia to other hearts.”
    — Loren Eiseley (The Star Thrower)

    I’ve been rereading Eiseley (for the hundreth time), whom ever since I heard him speak in the early 70s has held the top position of my most revered writer, scientist and poet. This line popped into my head when reading your first blog. Eiseley, Lerner, Zinn, DuBois, Ulrich-Thatcher, Kessler-Harris, McCullough and a few others are poets first, historians second. That’s what makes them such great storytellers.


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