The History of History: A Great Books Course Online

During my master’s degree coursework, we frequently read about early works of history, but did not actually read them. It has been a pleasant change, then, to spend the first few weeks of my doctorate reviewing the antecedents to modern historiography. One of my classes, taught by Prof. Matthew Lenoe, is essentially a Great Books Course, tracing the history of history. We’re doing a lot of writing this semester, so I am going to make my trip through the classics a public one.

The seven assigned works for Week One provide a sampling of humans’ early written attempts to document the world. Three of these works — the Bible, The Mahabharata, and The Iliad — constitute mythology for many scholars, as it is nearly impossible to identify historical events underlying the fables. These works still have great value, for they reveal how early civilizations made a backdrop of stories to explain their place in the world. The other four works — Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, the Shu Jing, Sima Qian’s Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian), and Bishop Gregory of Tour’s History of the Franks — include passages that modern readers will recognize as history and chronology. At the same time, the authors of these works regard mythologies as objective historical accounts; the authors also invent or alter past events, so that historical individuals act according to the authors’ dictates. All seven works convey the then-present-day customs of their civilizations through their treatment of the past.

As a historian of religion, I was particularly intrigued by the cosmologies and conceptions of divine intervention that appear in these books. At the risk of sounding reductionist, I found the Mandate of Heaven introduced in the Shu Jing to be the “simplest” cosmology to understand. Heaven, which lacks a specific deity, will unleash natural disasters and regime change if a king strays from moral leadership. This narrative contains parallels to the Vedic/Hindu notion of karma, that human actions will trigger reactions in nature and personal experience. A good person triggers good effects and luck; a corrupt person experiences negative effects and bad luck. In the Shu Jing’s cosmology, the Chinese emperor functions as what Mircea Eliade describes as the axis mundi, or the center of the world. Society is built around the emperor and his court. If the emperor errs, the effects are graver than if a commoner errs, for the emperor’s sins can unleash the anger of nature. Of course, this model supplies convenient political cover for whichever dynasty supplants the previous one, suggesting that the Shu Jing’s Zhou authors and Han editors sought to use folk religion to protect their regimes. Cosmology and early history worked in concert as propaganda for the needs of Chinese court officials.

The ancient Greek cosmology rendered in The Iliad is fairly simple, as well: The fickle actions of the gods overrule human agency. My former teacher Douglas Brooks once commented that we should think of gods as reflections of ourselves, and the Greek gods certainly live up to that claim, for the deities are as prone to error and ego as humans. Yet The Iliad contains suggestions of powers other than the gods, specifically the power of fate; Achilles is fully aware that he is preordained to die, and the gods do not seem to have much to do with creating this destiny. The Greek cosmos is an arbitrary one — we are like playthings to heavenly beings and forces — so the only way to live properly is to accept one’s fate and insignificant position in the universe. Achilles models this behavior, while King Agamemnon does not, choosing instead to spurn heaven with his pride. In this way, the characters of The Iliad serve as teaching tools about the way that ancient Greeks thought humans should live.

A unilinear and teleological model of history undergirds the Bible and Gregory of Tours’s History. In this narrative, God creates the world in seven days, sends messages through prophets like Moses, and leads his chosen people (initially the Jews, and then the Christians from the New Testament onward) toward paradise. The New Testament adds the figure of the “Son of Man,” a messianic figure whose eventual coming will change the world; Christians like Gregory assume that Jesus serves as the Son of Man. There are serious contradictions in the Judeo-Christian cosmology, though. At times, the Old Testament God rivals the Greek gods for deviousness. God makes Pharaoh unwilling to free the Jews, thus giving God a reason to unleash plagues and teach Egypt a lesson. The Lord punishes Jewish kings like Hezekiah every time their pride becomes excessive. Gregory of Tours even acknowledges that people can sin if it is part of God’s plan. This deity does not seem infinitely good, although his acts of mercy balance his temper and make him seem more mature than Zeus et. al. The other major contradiction — that God is not all-powerful — becomes apparent not in the Bible, but in Gregory’s History, written five hundred years after Jesus’s ministry. Gregory stresses that God is omnipotent, but gives the Devil a surprising amount of agency; the Devil can tempt people and distract them from God’s plan. This model positions the Devil and God in a vaguely Manichaean binary of good versus evil deities (an ironic narrative development since Gregory disdains Manichaeism).

The Hindu/Vedic cosmology present in Manu’s monologue from The Mahabharata is the most complicated vision of the universe among these readings, but I suspect that some of the difficulty stemmed from my unfamiliarity with Hindu mythology. Manu supplies a religious creation narrative, but his story differs from Greek and Judeo-Christian narratives in that it hinges on cycles of time. When Brahman, the universal soul, is awake, then people live, but when Brahman goes into hibernation, the universe pauses. Within these cyclic universes, karma and eternal, unchanging caste positions govern the lives of individuals. Manu’s cosmology is also distinctive within this literary sample because a concept, Svayambha the “Self-Evident,” and not a god brought the Vedic universe into existence. Even Brahman, the universal soul that outranks and creates the gods, exists only because Svayambha evolved into the mold of Brahman. Svayambha seems almost like a Platonic Form imbued with agency, for basic principles predate the Vedic universe.

Thucydides and Sima Qian serve as outliers in this literary sample, for they focus on human actors in their writings and do not supply a religious or mythic cosmology. Thucydides assumes that the Trojan War of The Iliad really occurred and that heroes like Achilles and Agamemnon were real people, but the author does not speak of the gods as if they were historical actors in the Trojan saga. As Thucydides parses through the motivations of the warring Greek city-states, he seems like an ancient predecessor to the rational-choice theorists who populate the University of Rochester’s political science department today. Likewise, Sima Qian’s Shi Ji eschews cosmology-building in favor of reconstructing dynastic chronologies and supplying anecdotes of Chinese civilization. (Indeed, Sima Qian has the most sophisticated historiographic methods of any author in this sample, since he uses documentary editing and analysis, oral history interviews, site visits, and consideration of artifacts to create his history.) Sima does advocate for a social hierarchy with the emperor at the top, and he believes in semi-mythological ancient dynasties, but he does not give much credence to numinous notions like the Mandate of Heaven. In one of Sima’s narratives, the defeated warlord Xiang Yu exclaims that Heaven has sided against him, but in his commentary Sima disdains such thinking, arguing instead that Xiang Yu’s personal flaws, not divine interference, brought about his military loss.

Overall, these readings show that ancient authors did not have a rigid division between mythology and history, and that these writers were more than willing to alter historical accounts to support or create myths. Additionally, by moving beyond texts from “Western Civilization,” we realize that there are models of time and history that diverge from familiar Christian tropes.


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