A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century

Ambiguity infects the word “history.” It means past time, and it means writings about past time. We suppose that there is an objective truth about what once happened, yet historians disagree and tell different stories about what happened, or give different interpretations of what it meant. In ancient Greek, istoria meant “enquiry,” but the fatal ambiguity in the English version of the word has another source: it stems from the difference between two ancient Greek terms, istoreon and istorikos, the first meaning “inquirer” and the second “reciter of stories.”

John Burrow’s copious and absorbing study of the practice of historical research and writing is thus aptly named. He is the istorikos of what the istorioi sought to do, from Herodotus to the rich and complex landscape of historical study and writing in the 20th century. The task of embracing so much endeavor in a single conspectus might seem an unforgiving one, but Burrow achieves it wonderfully. Because historical inquiry is in such large measure humanity’s attempt to attain self-understanding, his book is in effect an account of that process — and note that it is the first such process undertaken by humanity apart from the mythopoeic efforts of legend and religion, and thus its first real science and philosophy.

History as “the elaborated, secular, prose narrative of public events” began in 5th-century Greece, and its two fathers, Herodotus and Thucydides, demonstrate by their difference the wide diversity of aims and methods that the project of history can contain within itself, and the immense scope of its subject matter. As Burrow points out, everything from wars, plagues, constitutional arrangements, political systems, biography, religion, culture, technology and science, social developments — and much more — falls under its purview, and many different genres of inquiry are therefore relevant to it. And right from the beginning there have been deep differences over methodology; the more austere and factually minded Thucydides disdainfully characterized Herodotus’ efforts as aimed more at entertainment than truth. Echoes of that dispute ring loudly in the dispute between figures such as J. B. Bury and G. M. Trevelyan over whether history is a science or an art, a divergence of opinion that survives even into the highly technical and professional present age of academic history. But in dogging historiographical debate from its very beginnings, the question “Is history a science or an art?” makes it relevant not just to today, where the consensus veers towards “science,” but to how we categorize the successors of the fathers of history, chief among them Polybius, Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus.

Even more important for Burrow, though, is the fact that (as Polybius saw) historians are a community, a trans-temporal one in which, if one historian had to leave off because of death or the limits of his materials, another could carry on, and the enterprise could be cumulative, both as regards knowledge of the past and reflective judgments upon it. This is so, as Burrow shows with great skill, even though the different conditions and experiences of different periods can dramatically alter the appearance of the past to new generations of historians. For example, the Whig historians of Britain in the self-confident 19th century saw a British story very unlike the one that post-imperial historians now see: there are many more warts on the face that the imperial adventure turns toward its inheritors. The thought brings one up with a start: what will American history look like to residents of North America in 100 or 200 years’ time, when the pressures of the present, which push American self-perception into today’s shape, have been replaced by others amid the long consequences of what those pressures are currently causing?

Although Burrow could not hope, and did not seek, to be exhaustive in his history of historical inquiry and writing, he very well recounts the central themes of its unfolding. He records how Thucydides attacked Herodotus for his entertaining anecdotal history of the titanic East-West struggle between Persia and Greece, and began his own account of the Peloponnesian War by asserting that history should be verifiable “contemporary history.”

Until the Renaissance, history was certainly more art than science, but from the 17th century onward, scholarly work on sources encouraged the possibility of a more scientific historical discipline. Techniques for authenticating manuscripts inaugurated the systematic treatment of materials, which meant that when Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) exhorted historians to record the past “as it actually happened,” the aspiration made sense.

Von Ranke was a “Positivist” and believed that history exemplifies empirically discoverable laws. John Stuart Mill agreed, arguing that psychological laws counted also. In the Positivist view, history is genuinely a science that, correctly pursued, yields objective truth.

But the Positivists were opposed by Idealists like Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). Influenced by Kant and Hegel, the Idealists argued that history is a social science, not a natural science; the latter studies phenomena from an external perspective, but social science does so from the inner perspective of lived experience. History therefore has to be seen as based on “intellectual empathy” with the past, premising the unchanging features of human nature and its interests as the bridge between present and past.

So Dilthey argued, for he too wished to maintain that history is objective. Other Idealists disagreed; in particular Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) said that history is subjective because the historian himself is always present in its construction.

In tracing the development of history through these and other schools of thought and practice, Burrow does not claim to find any pattern or overarching explanations. So protean a subject as humankind’s efforts to trace its route from the past, and thereby to find clues to the present and lessons for the future, could not possibly come under any but a forced template of explanation — so Burrow is right not to try. But in describing the remarkable diversity of approaches, aims, techniques and styles of history, and the equally diverse array of fascinating historians responsible for them, he lays out a wonderfully rich and educative canvas. No one who enjoys reading history — and reading history should be the diversion of every civilized individual — should fail to read this book.