General Remarks on Timaeus as an HistorianThe story of the brazen bull is this. It was made by
The brazen bull of phalaris.
The proverb tells us that one drop from the largest vessel is sufficient to show the whole contents. This is applicable to the present case. When one or two false statements have been discovered in a history, and they have been shown to be wilful, it is clear that nothing which such an historian may say can be regarded as certain or trustworthy. But in order to convince the more careful student, I must speak on his method and practice in regard to public speeches, military harangues, ambassador's orations, and all compositions of that class; which are, as it were, a compendium of events and an epitome of all history. Now that he has given these in his writings with entire disregard of truth, and that of set purpose, can any reader of Timaeus fail to be aware? He has not written down the words actually used, nor the real drift of these speeches; but imagining how they ought to have been expressed, he enumerates all the arguments used, and makes the words tally with the circumstances, like a school-boy declaiming on a set theme: as though his object were to display his own ability, not to give a report of what was in reality said. . . .
The special province of history is, first, to ascertain what the actual words used were; and secondly, to learn why it was that a particular policy or argument failed or succeeded. For a bare statement of an occurrence is interesting indeed, but not instructive: but when this is supplemented by a statement of cause, the study of history becomes fruitful. For it is by applying analogies to our own circumstances that we get the means and basis for calculating the future; and for learning from the past when to act with caution, and when with greater boldness, in the present. The historian therefore who omits the words actually used, as well as all statement of the determining circumstances, and gives us instead conjectures and mere fancy compositions, destroys the special use of history. In this respect Timaeus is an eminent offender, for we all know that his books are full of such writing.
But perhaps some one may raise the question as to how it comes about that, being the sort of writer that I am showing him to be, he has obtained acceptance and credit among certain people. The reason is that his work abounds with hostile criticism and invective against others: and he has been judged, not by the positive merits of his own composition and his independent narrative, but by his skill in refuting his fellow historians; to which department he appears to me to have brought great diligence and an extraordinary natural aptitude. The case of the physicist Strato is almost precisely similar. As long as this man is endeavouring to discredit and refute the opinions of others, he is admirable: directly he brings forward anything of his own, or expounds any of his own doctrines, he at once seems to men of science to lose his faculties and become stupid and unintelligent. And for my part, I look upon this difference in writers as strictly analogous to the facts of everyday life. In this too it is easy to criticise our neighbours, but to be faultless ourselves is hard. One might almost say that those who are most ready at finding fault with others are most prone to errors in their own life.
Besides these I may mention another error of Timaeus. Having stayed quietly at Athens for about fifty years, during which he devoted himself to the study of written history, he imagined that he was in possession of the most important means of writing it. To my mind this was a great mistake. History and the science of medicine are alike in this respect, that both may be divided broadly into three departments; and therefore those who study either must approach them in three ways. For instance the three departments of medicine are the rhetorical, the dietetic, and the surgical and pharmaceutical. [The second of these though important is discredited by some.]2 The first, which takes its rise from the school of Herophilus and Callimachus of Alexandria, does indeed rightly claim a certain position in medical science; but by its speciousness and liberal promises acquires so much reputation that those who are occupied with other branches of the art are supposed to be completely ignorant. But just bring one of these professors to an actual invalid: you will find that they are as completely wanting in the necessary skill as men who have never read a medical treatise. Nay, it has happened before now that certain persons, who had really nothing serious the matter with them, have been persuaded by their powerful arguments to commit themselves to their treatment, and have thereby endangered their lives: for they are like men trying to steer a ship out of a book. Still such men go from city to city with great éclât, and get the common people together to listen to them. But if, when this is done, they induce certain people to submit as a specimen to their practical treatment; they only succeed in reducing them to a state of extreme discomfort, and making them a laughing stock to the audience.3 So completely does a persuasive address frequently get the advantage over practical experience. The third branch of the medical science, though it involves genuine skill in the treatment of the several cases, is not only rare in itself, but is also frequently cast into the shade, thanks to the folly of popular judgment, by volubility and impudence.
In the same way the science of genuine history is threefold: first, the dealing with written documents and the arrangement of the material thus obtained; second, topography, the appearance of cities and localities, the description of rivers and harbours, and, speaking generally, the peculiar features of seas and countries and their relative distances; thirdly, political affairs. Now, as in the case of medicine, it is the last branch that many attach themselves to, owing to their preconceived opinions on the subject. And the majority of writers bring to the undertaking no spirit of fairness at all: nothing but dishonesty, impudence and unscrupulousness. Like vendors of drugs, their aim is to catch popular credit and favour, and to seize every opportunity of enriching themselves. About such writers it is not worth while to say more.
But some of those who have the reputation of approaching history in a reasonable spirit are like the theoretical physicians. They spend all their time in libraries, and acquire generally all the learning which can be got from books, and then persuade themselves that they are adequately equipped for their task. . . . Yet in my opinion they are only partially qualified for the production of genuine history. To inspect ancient records indeed, with the view of ascertaining the notions entertained by the ancients of certain places, nations, polities and events, and of understanding the several circumstances and contingencies experienced in former times, is useful; for the history of the past directs our attention in a proper spirit to the future, if a writer can be found to give a statement of facts as they really occurred. But to persuade one's self, as Timaeus does, that such ability in research is sufficient to enable a man to describe subsequent transactions with success is quite foolish. It is as though a man were to imagine that an inspection of the works of the old masters would enable him to become a painter and a master of the art himself. This will be rendered still more evident from what I have
Ephorus was fairly acquainted with naval, but not with military tactics.
B.C. 371. B.C. 362.
It is in fact as impossible to write well on the operations in a war, if a man has had no experience of actual service, as it is to write well on politics without having been engaged in political transactions and vicissitudes. And when history is written by the book-learned, without technical knowledge, and without clearness of detail, the work loses all its value. For if you take from history its element of practical instruction, what is left of it has nothing to attract and nothing to teach. Again, in the topography of cities and localities, when such men attempt to go into details, being entirely without personal knowledge, they must in a similar manner necessarily pass over many points of importance; while they waste words on many that are not worth the trouble. And this is what his failure to make personal inspection brings upon Timaeus. . . .
In his thirty-fourth book Timaeus says that "he
Timaeus's want of practical knowledge.
And that this is no impossibility, Homer is a convincing instance; for in him you may see this quality of personal knowledge frequently and conspicuously displayed. The upshot of all this is that the study of documents is only one of three elements in the preparation of an historian, and is only third in importance. And no clearer proof of this could be given than that furnished by the deliberative speeches, harangues of commanders, and orations of ambassadors as recorded by Timaeus. For the truth is, that the occasions are rare which admit of all possible arguments being set forth; as a rule, the circumstances of the case confine them to narrow limits. And of such speeches one sort are regarded with favour by men of our time, another by those of an earlier age; different styles again are popular with Aetolians, Peloponnesians, and Athenians. But to make digressions, in season and out of season, for the purpose of setting forth every possible speech that could be made, as Timaeus does by his trick of inventing words to suit every sort of occasion, is utterly misleading, pedantic, and worthy of a schoolboy essayist. And this practice has brought failure and discredit on many writers. Of course to select from time to time the proper and appropriate language is a necessary part of our art: but as there is no fixed rule to decide the quantity and quality of the words to be used on a particular occasion, great care and training is required if we are to instruct and not mislead our readers. The exact nature of the situation is difficult to communicate always; still it may be brought home to the mind by means of systematic demonstration, founded on personal and habitual experience. The best way of securing that this should be realised is for historians, first, to state clearly the position, the aims, and the circumstances of those deliberating; and then, recording the real speeches made, to explain to us the causes which contributed to the success or failure of the several speakers. Thus we should obtain a true conception of the situation. and by exercising our judgment upon it, and drawing analogies from it, should be able to form a thoroughly sound opinion upon the circumstances of the hour. But I suppose that tracing causes is difficult, while stringing words together in books is easy. Few again have the faculty of speaking briefly to the point, and getting the necessary training for doing so; while to produce a long and futile composition is within most people's capacity and is common enough.
To confirm the judgment I have expressed of Timaeus,
Timaeus on Sicilian history.
B.C. 413. Thucyd. 7, 42 sqq.