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The Hedgehog and the Fox: Form and Meaning in the Prologue of Herodotus*

  • Marek Węcowski (a1)

The paper focuses on Herodotus' authorial self-representation, and on the problem of the intellectual tradition and genre(s) behind the Histories. The main assumption is that the opening sections of the work are a natural place to present its subject and principles to the public. Despite and beyond the notoriously loose grammatical structure of the first sentence, this paper offers a formal analysis of the whole ‘extended preface’ (incipit through 1.5.4), a carefully organized large-scale ‘pedimental composition’. A detailed examination of this structure yields the following results: (1) the stories about the abductions of women form an ironic attack against a peculiar model of causality of some contemporary Greek poets and writers, whose pragmatic outlook deprives the world of its ethico-religious dimension. (2) Conversely, Herodotus himself propounds a symbolic view of the world and seeks a monistic principle encompassing the past and the whole range of human experience. He ultimately finds it in the idea of the ‘cycle of human affairs’. This idea is the carefully stated subject of the Histories. (3) Although he belongs to the agonistic and display-oriented intellectual world of the sophistic era, Herodotus poses as a ‘sage’ capable of penetrating the whole variety of ‘all things’. Thus, he refers his reader to the tradition of wisdom literature. (4) Not unlike Thucydides, Herodotus' research into the greatest military conflict thus far forms in his view the best possible paradigmatic diagnosis of the human condition – much better than that of his fellow wise men (poets, philosophers, etc.) because based on the firm ground of verifiable historical data. (5) Although Herodotus is intent upon seeing the world from the standpoint of a single organizing principle, one of the most salient features of the Histories is the notion of the ‘marvellous’ (thômaston), which clearly elicits the pragmatic or factual attitude of the thinkers he dislikes. Many problems we experience when interpreting this author are due to the tension between the two attitudes. (6) This inherent breach in Herodotus' mind should be seen as a result not of a development or evolution of his work and thought, but of the contemporary debate between two diametrically opposed types of knowledge, viz. between the exponents of polymathiê, or Vielwisserei, and those of sophiê, or ‘wisdom’. Herodotus' contemporaries active in the field of arkhaiologia (including mythography, genealogy, etc.) and periêgêsis (geography, ethnography, etc.) were widely considered ‘polymaths’. Herodotus' ambition to apply the monistic (and symbolic) bent of wisdom literature to the subject-matter dominated thus far by the ‘pluralistic’ (and pragmatic) way of thinking was at least partly responsible for this discontinuity in his thought, but also accounts for the originality of the Histories.

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