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An Historian Needs Practical Experience

Moreover, when he comes to deal with facts in his history, we find a combination of all the faults which I have mentioned. The reason I will now proceed to state. It will not, perhaps, to most people seem to his credit, and it is in truth the real source of his errors. For whereas he is thought to have possessed great and wide knowledge, a faculty for historical inquiry, and extraordinary industry in the execution of his work, in certain cases he appears to have been the most ignorant and indolent person that ever called himself an historian. And the following considerations will prove it.
Cp. Herod. 1, 8. Hor. A, P. 180.
Nature has bestowed on us two instruments of inquiry and research, hearing and sight. Of these sight is, according to Heracleitus, by far the truer; for eyes are surer witnesses than ears. And of these channels of learning Timaeus has chosen the pleasanter and the worse; for he entirely retrained from looking at things with his own eyes, and devoted himself to learning by hearsay. But even the ear may be instructed in two ways, reading and answers to personal inquiries: and in the latter of these he was very indolent, as I have already shown. The reason of his preference for the other it is easy to divine. Study of documents involves no danger or fatigue, if one only takes care to lodge in a city rich in such records, or to have a library in one's neighbourhood. You may then investigate any question while reclining on your couch, and compare the mistakes of former historians without any fatigue to yourself. But personal investigation demands great exertion and expense; though it is exceedingly advantageous, and in fact is the very corner-stone of history. This is evident from the writers of history themselves. Ephorus says, "if writers could only be present at the actual transactions, it would be far the best of all modes of learning." Theopompus says, "the best military historian is he who has been present at the greatest number of battles; the best speech maker is he who has been engaged in most political contests." The same might be said of the art of healing and of steering. Homer has spoken even more emphatically than these writers on this point. For when he wishes to describe what the man of light and leading should be, he introduces Odysseus in these words— “"Tell me, oh Muse, the man of many shifts
Who wandered far and wide."
” and then goes on— “"And towns of many saw, and learnt their mind,
And suffered much in heart by land and sea."
” and again1— “"Passing through wars of men and grievous waves."

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (4):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.8
    • Homer, Odyssey, 1.1
    • Homer, Odyssey, 8.183
    • Horace, Ars Poetica, 180
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