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Mere Inquiry Is Insufficient

It is such a man that the dignity of history appears to
Historians must be practical men.
me to require. Plato says that "human affairs will not go well until either philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers."1 So I should say that history will never be properly written, until either men of action undertake to write it (not as they do now, as a matter of secondary importance; but, with the conviction that it is their most necessary and honourable employment, shall devote themselves through life exclusively to it), or historians become convinced that practical experience is of the first importance for historical composition. Until that time arrives there will always be abundance of blunders in the writings of historians. Timaeus, however, quite disregarded all this. He spent his life in one place, of which he was not even a citizen; and thus deliberately renounced all active career either in war or politics, and all personal exertion in travel and inspection of localities: and yet, somehow or another, he has managed to obtain the reputation of a master in the art of history.
Timaeus on ephorus.
To prove that I have not misrepresented him, it is easy to bring the evidence of Timaeus himself. In the preface to his sixth book he says that "some people suppose that more genius, industry, and preparation are required for rhetorical than for historical composition." And that "this opinion had been formerly advanced against Ephorus." Then because this writer had been unable to refute those who held it, he undertakes himself to draw a comparison between history and rhetorical compositions: a most unnecessary proceeding altogether. In the first place he misrepresents Ephorus. For in truth, admirable as Ephorus is throughout his whole work, in style, treatment, and argumentative acuteness, he is never more brilliant than in his digressions and statements of his personal views: in fact, whenever he is adding anything in the shape of a commentary or a note. And it so happens that his most elegant and convincing digression is on this very subject of a comparison between historians and speech-writers. But Timaeus is anxious not to be thought to follow Ephorus. Therefore, in addition to misrepresenting him and condemning the rest, he enters upon a long, confused, and in every way inferior, discussion of what had been already sufficiently handled by others; and expected that no one living would detect him.


However, he wished to exalt history; and, in order to do so, he says that "history differs from rhetorical composition as much as real buildings differ from those represented in scene-paintings." And again, that "to collect the necessary materials for writing history is by itself more laborious than the whole process of producing rhetorical compositions." He mentions, for instance, the expense and labour which he underwent in collecting records from Assyria, and in studying the customs of the Ligures, Celts, and Iberians. But he exaggerates these so much, that he could not have himself expected to be believed. One would be glad to ask the historian which of the two he thinks is the more expensive and laborious,—to remain quietly at home and collect records and study the customs of Ligures and Celts, or to obtain personal experience of all the tribes possible, and see them with his own eyes? To ask questions about manœuvres on the field of battle and the sieges of cities and fights at sea from those who were present, or to take personal part in the dangers and vicissitudes of these operations as they occur? For my part I do not think that real buildings differ so much from those in stage - scenery, nor history from rhetorical compositions, as a narrative drawn from actual and personal experience differs from one derived from hearsay and the report of others. But Timaeus had no such experience: and he therefore naturally supposed that the part of an historian's labour which is the least important and lightest, that namely of collecting records and making inquiries from those who had knowledge of the several events, was in reality the most important and most difficult. And, indeed, in this particular department of research, men who have had no personal experience must necessarily fall into grave errors. For how is a man, who has no knowledge of such things, to put the right questions as to manœuvering of troops, sieges of cities, and fights at sea? And how can he understand the details of what is told him? Indeed, the questioner is as important as the narrator for getting a clear story. For in the case of men who have had experience of real action, memory is a sufficient guide from point to point of a narrative: but a man who has had no such experience can neither put the right questions, nor understand what is happening before his eyes. Though he is on the spot, in fact, he is as good as absent.

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    • Plato, Republic, 473c
    • Plato, Republic, 499b
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