Herodotus and Marmite


The Greek historian Herodotus is very similar to the British condiment Marmite. You either love him or you hate him. As part of the former group, I believe that at least some of the animosity toward Herodotus comes from several misunderstandings about his history.

Herodotus is the anti-Wikipedia historian. He does not give us a collection of facts as much as series of stories. History for Herodotus can be found in what people say about themselves, others, and what we can deduce by comparing the stories, tales, legends, and reports from people around the Western world.

Perhaps more importantly, there is oftentimes a general misunderstanding of what he is trying to do in The Histories.

Among Herodotus’s earliest detractors, the 1st century BC Greco-Roman writer Plutarch rebuked him, saying:

The style … of Herodotus, as being simple, free, and easily suiting itself to its subject, has deceived many; but more, a persuasion of his dispositions being equally sincere. For it is not only (as Plato says) an extreme injustice to make a show of being just when one is not so; but it is also the highest malignity to pretend  to simplicity and mildness and be in the mean time really most malicious.

Continue reading

“I’ve Come Down in the World”: Downton Abbey and the Politics of Hope

Well, here we are again.


One time, when my son Christopher was a toddler, learning to walk better, he was practicing going up and down the stairs.  He was midway down the staircase when he stopped, and in a moment of panic, said, “Mommy, I don’t know if I am going up or down.”

I thought of this moment in an early scene in which Mr. Mosely, who has seen his fair share of troubles, confides to another servant that “I’ve come down in the world,” and we all know what he is talking about.

Hey, we have all been there.

This is the great theme of Downton Abbey: upward and downward mobility.  It is a tough gig, requiring a striving that may not have even been possible in previous centuries.  English culture is still stratified, but it has loosened.  But America has always been a little revolutionary:  I am teaching early American literature right now, and whenever I am watching this show, important notions ring in my ears.  I think of John Smith telling early Virginians:  Hey, if you don’t work, you don’t eat.  I think of Benjamin Franklin, in his essay addressing those who “wish to remove” to the colonies, breaking the news that your la-dee-dah title does not count for much.  Instead, he tells his readers that in the colonies, it is not so much who you are, but what you do, that really counts. Continue reading


Misty Forest

While in graduate school I became intrigued with the popular novels written by American women in the early nineteenth century, not only for the historical insights they provided but also for their literary charm.  These novelists, once dismissed by literary scholars as “sentimental,” have in more recent years won academic appreciation for their intelligence and talent.  While you will not uncover any forgotten Jane Austens or Charlotte Brontes in perusing their works, you may find that their gentle romances infiltrate your imagination.  The writers had the wisdom that comes from quiet reflection and humane ideals, and as you turn the pages slowly you will sometimes come across a soft-glowing gem.

One of my favorites is The Hidden Path (1854), the second novel of Virginia writer Mary Virginia Terhune, who published under the pen-name of Marion Harland.  As its title suggests, the novel explores the virtue of humility and the moral drama of ordinary life.  In chapter 4, four young friends discuss the secret heroism of unpretentious folk.  One of the four, Frank, suggests that if the histories of individual human hearts could be written, such “soul-pictures” would make the momentous events of the history books seem dull by comparison.  His companion Maurice agrees.  “They [historical events] are, in reality, of trifling moment when compared with the revolutions of the microcosm each one of us carries in his bosom.”

Continue reading

I am The Doctor. Who?

I’ve always felt like a time traveler in my own life.  It’s a weird condition.  Maybe there is name for it – temporal dysfunction, PTDO (present time deficit disorder), or chronos syndrome.   Whatever the official name, I’ve never felt like I was living at the right time.  It’s not that this time I am in is wrong, but rather I feel like I’m just visiting.  That this isn’t my time.    Does anybody else feel this way?

My condition manifests itself in different ways.  I sometimes become an observer of things that most people would pass by as mere background noise.  For instance, I’ll walk into a shopping mall and say to myself “If I was visiting from 1985, what would I notice.  What would stand out first?”  Then I notice the Star Trek communicators that everyone seem to carry and constantly engage with.  The flat, small tablet computers people read from in the coffee shops.  The animated graphics on the menu from which I order my lunch.  I notice the color of cars.   Fashion.  Hairstyles. Continue reading