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The Modern Concept of History

  • Hannah Arendt

Herodotus, who has been rightly called the Father of Western history, tells us in the first sentence of the Persian Wars that the purpose of his enterprise is to preserve that which owes its existence to men (ta genomena ex anthrôpôn), lest it be obliterated by time, and to bestow upon the glorious, wondrous deeds of Greeks and Barbarians sufficient praise to assure their remembrance by posterity and thus make their glory shine through the centuries.

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1 For recent discussion of Herodotus and our concept of history, see especially Cochrane, C. N., Christianity and Classical Culture (New York, 1944), ch. 12, one of the most stimulating and interesting pieces in the literature on the subject. His chief thesis that Herodotus must be regarded as belonging to the Ionian school of philosophy and a follower of Heraclitus is not convincing. Contrary to ancient sources, Cochrane construes the science of history as being part of the Greek development of philosophy. See note 6 of this article, and, also, Reinhardt, Karl, “Herodots Persengeschichten” in Von Werken und Formen (Godesberg, 1948).

2 “The gods of most nations claim to have created the world. The Olympian gods make no such claim. The most they ever did was to conquer it.” (Murray, Gilbert, Five Stages of Greek Religion, paper-edition, p. 45). Against this statement one sometimes argues that Plato in the Timeus introduced a Creator of the world. But Plato's god is no real creator; he is a demiourgos, a world-builder who does not create out of nothing. Moreover, Plato tells his story in the form of a myth, invented by himself, and this, like similar myths in his work, are not proposed as truth. That no god and no man ever created the kosmos is beautifully stated in Heraclitus, fragment 30 (Diels), for this cosmical order of all things “has always been and is and will be (like) an ever-living fire that blazes up in proportions and dies away in proportions.”

3 See Oikonomika, 1343b24: Nature fulfills the being-forever with respect to the species through recurrence (periodos) but cannot do this with respect to the individual. In our context, it is irrelevant that the treatise is not by Aristotle, but by one of his pupils, for we find the same thought in the treatise On the Soul where he says: to dzen tois dzosin to einai estin, Being for living things is life, 415bl3, or in On Generation and Corruption in the concept of Becoming which moves in a cycle.

4 Nietzsche, , Wille zur Macht, Nr. 617.

5 Rilke, , Aus dem Nachlass des Grafen C. W., First series, poem X.

6 See Poetics 1448b25 and 1450al6–22. For a distinction between poetry and historiography see ibidem, ch. 9. The definition of tragedy as in ch. 6, 1.

7 Griechische Kulturgeschichte, ed. Kroener, II, p. 289.

8 Nik. Ethics, 1177b33.

9 Ibidem, 1143a36.

10 Seventh Letter.

11 Heisenberg, W., Philosophic Problems of Nuclear Science (New York, 1952), p. 24.

12 Quoted in Meinecke, Friedrich, Vom geschichtlichen Sinn und vom Sinn der Geschichte (Stuttgart, 1951).

13 Schroedinger, Erwin, Science and Humanism, 1951, pp. 2526.

14 De nostri temporis studiorum ratione, iv.

15 The point made earlier about the influence of science upon history was also made by Edgar Wind more than twenty years ago in his contribution to Philosophy and History, Essays presented to Ernst Cassirer (Oxford, 1936), “Some Points of Contact between History and Natural Science.” Wind shows that the latest developments of science which make it so much less “exact” lead to the raising of questions by scientists “that historians like to look upon as their own.” When I wrote this article I was not aware of Wind's essay. It seems strange that so fundamental and obvious an argument should have played no role in the subsequent methodological and other discussions of historical science.

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The Review of Politics
  • ISSN: 0034-6705
  • EISSN: 1748-6858
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-politics
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