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WHAT EVERY EDUCATED CITIZEN OF THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW IN THE 21ST CENTURY: THE GREAT HISTORIANS OF WORLD HISTORY–HERODOTUS, THUCYDIDES, SIMA QIAN, IBN KHALDUN, THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE MONGOLS, JULIUS CAESAR, PLUTARCH, LIVY, POLYBIUS, TACITUS, GIBBON, MARX, SPENGLER & TOYNBEE—-FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” is an apt admonition to us all from George Santayana, who, in his “The Life of Reason,” echoed the similar earlier words of the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke. But the great histories and historians of World History bring us far more than events of nations, chronicles of the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, or lessons and precedents from the past; they also constitute a fundamental part of World Literature, bringing us great reading experiences and exciting sagas as in Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponesian War,” in-depth portraits and readings of the character of great men and shapers of the world as in Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives” and China’s “Records of the Grand Historian” by Si Ma Chen, and deep philosophical and scientific insights into the workings of human society its environment as revealed in the panoramic visions of great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun, Karl Marx, Oswald Spengler and Sir Arnold Toynbee. As such, in our modern globalized world of the 21st century, where not only our own history, but also the interrelated histories of all of nations show so clearly that “the past is always present,” and therefore every educated citizen of the modern world has an obligation to read the great works of history from all major civilizations to even begin comprehending the living world about us and the ultimate meaning of our own lives.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST WORK OF HISTORY IN THE WORLD?
If to begin our survey we put the daunting threshold question of what was the firs work of “history” in human experience, like most radical questions we will find that the answer all depends on how we put the question and define its terms. “History” undoubtedly began with the campfire stories of Neolithic man about families, tribes and conflicts far before the invention of writing. Histories were passed down in oral sagas memorized by poets such as Homer’s “Iliad and Odyssey,” and only centuries later recorded in script. But true history begins with works of systematic analysis and interpretation of human events, and in that light the general consensus is that the first great work of World History was that of the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th Century BC, “The Histories.”
HERODOTUS, AUTHOR OF “THE HISTORIES”
Herodotus (5th Century BC) is thus often referred to as “The Father of History,” a title conferred upon him by Cicero amoung others, but also disparagingly as “The Father of Lies” by some of his critics. He was born in Halicarnassus, a Greek city which had become part of the Persian Empire that enjoyed strong trade relations with Egypt. He travelled widely, spending time in Periclian Athens, Egypt, Persia and Italy and collected histories, tales and historical lore wherever he traveled, noting the customs of the people, the major wars and state events and the religions and lore of the people. He wrote in a “folksy” style and purported to record whatever was told to him, which led to critics deploring some of the “tall tales” or mythical accounts in his work, but which Herodtodus himself said he included without judgment to their ultimate truth to illustrate the historical beliefs of the peoples he encountered. His primary focus was to explain the history and background of the Persian War between the Greeks and the Persian Empire, though he also included cultural observations of other peoples such as the Egyptians. His “Histories” is entertaining and interesting, though somewhat voluminous and scattered for the modern reader unfamiliar with the context.
THUCYDIDES, MASTER OF REPORTORIAL AND EYEWITNESS HISTORY
Thucydides (460-395 BC) is most remembered for his epic “History of the Peloponnesian War” of Greece which recounts the struggle for supremacy and survival between the enlightened commercial empire of Athens and its reactionary opponent Sparta, which ended in the defeat of the Athenians. His approach and goal in writing was completely different from Herodotus, as he was himself a General in the wars he wrote about and set out to provide “the inside story” of eyewitnesses and personal accounts of the major participants in the great events of their history so that their characters, understanding, strategies and actions could be closely judged, especially for the purpose of educating future statesmen and leaders. This approach was later shared by Polybius in his “The Rise of the Roman Empire.” As a more contemporary history it is often more exciting to read, and establishes the tradition followed by Livy and others of including the “key speeches” of the leaders in war council, the “inside story” of their schemes and motivations, and rousing tales of the ups and downs of fast-moving battles. It contains such classics such as Pericles “Funeral Speech” for the ballen war heroes reminiscent of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. It is a must for those seeking to understand Classical Greece and a rich and exciting read.
SIMA QIAN, AND THE “RECORDS OF THE GRAND HISTORIAN” OF HAN DYNASTY CHINA
Sima Qian (Szu Ma Chien/145-86 BC) is regarded as the greatest historian of China’s long and florid history and his personal tragedy is also held up as an example of intellectual martyrdom and integrity in the face of power. He like his father was the chief astrologer/astronomer and historian of the Han Imperial Court under Emperor Wu. His epic history “Records of the Grand Historian” sought to summarize all of Chinese history up to his time when the Han Dynasty Empire was a rival in size and power to that of Imperial Rome. He lived and wrote about the same time as Polybius, author of “The Rise of the Roman Empire,” and like him he wrote from the vantage point of a newly united empire having overcome centuries of waring strife to establish a unified and powerful domain. In style, his history has some of the character of Plutarch in his “Lives” in that it often focuses on intimate character portraits of such great men as Qin Shi Huang Di, the unifier and First Emperor of China, and many others. It also contains rich and varied accounts of topic areas such as music, folk arts, literature, economics, calendars, science and others. He was the chief formulator of the primary Chinese theory of the rise and fall of imperial dynasties known as the “Mandate of Heaven.” Like the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, its premise was that Emperors and their dynasties were installed on earth by the divine will of heaven and continued so long as the rulers were morally upright and uncorrupted. However, over centuries most dynasties would suffer corruption and decline, finally resulting in Heaven choosing another more virtuous dynasty to displace them when they had forfeited the “Mandate of Heaven,” a kind of “Social Contract” with the divine rather than with mankind. Then, this cycle would repeat itself over the millennia.
His personal life was occasioned by tragedy due to his intellectual honesty in the “Li Ling Affair.” Two Chinese generals were sent to the north to battle the fierce Xiongnu hordes against whom the Great Wall was constructed, Li Ling and the brother-in-law of the Emperor. They met disaster and their armies were annihilated, ending in the capture of both. Everyone at Court blamed the disaster on Li Ling in order to exonerate the Emperor’s relative, but Sima Qian, out of respect for Li Ling’s honor disagreed publicly and was predictably sentenced to death by Emperor Wu. A noble like Sima Qian could have his death sentence commuted by payment of a large fine or castration but since he was a poor scholar he could not afford the fine.
Thus, in 96 BC, on his release from prison, Sima chose to endure castration and live on as a palace eunuch to fulfill his promise to his father to complete his histories, rather than commit suicide as was expected of a gentleman-scholar. As Sima Qian himself explained in his famous “Letter to Ren An:”
“If even the lowest slave and scullion maid can bear to commit suicide, why should not one like myself be able to do what has to be done? But the reason I have not refused to bear these ills and have continued to live, dwelling in vileness and disgrace without taking my leave, is that I grieve that I have things in my heart which I have not been able to express fully, and I am shamed to think that after I am gone my writings will not be known to posterity. Too numerous to record are the men of ancient times who were rich and noble and whose names have yet vanished away. It is only those who were masterful and sure, the truly extraordinary men, who are still remembered. … I too have ventured not to be modest but have entrusted myself to my useless writings. I have gathered up and brought together the old traditions of the world which were scattered and lost. I have examined the deeds and events of the past and investigated the principles behind their success and failure, their rise and decay, in one hundred and thirty chapters. I wished to examine into all that concerns heaven and man, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, completing all as the work of one family. But before I had finished my rough manuscript, I met with this calamity. It is because I regretted that it had not been completed that I submitted to the extreme penalty without rancor. When I have truly completed this work, I shall deposit it in the Famous Mountain. If it may be handed down to men who will appreciate it, and penetrate to the villages and great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret should I have?”
— Sima Qian
JULIUS CAESAR: HISTORY AS AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND AUTOMYTHOLOGY
Julius Caesar was famous for writing accounts of his own military campaigns, most notably in his “History of the Gallic Wars.” Curiously, he writes of himself in the third person. Though a personal history, his writing contains little introspection or deep analytical thought and is rather the action-drama of the campaign, with special care to show his own personal courage and leadership. Before the 20th century most European schoolboys would read the work as part of their efforts to learn Latin in Grammar School. Later famous leaders such as Winston Churchill also followed in Caesar’s tradition in writing history alonside making it, for which he received the Nobel Prize. Caesar’s work is worth reading and exciting in parts, though sometimes becoming repetitive in the minutiae of the endless conflicts.
THE GREAT ROMAN HISTORIES: LIVY, POLYBIUS, TACITUS, SEUTONIUS AND AMMIANUS MARCELLINUS
The thousand-year history of the Roman Republic and Empire can be gleaned from these five great historians in the order presented. For the earliest history of the founding of the Roman Republic from the 6th-4th Centuries BC Livy (59BC-17 AD) in his “Ab Urbe Condita Libri” (From the Founding of the City) is the best source, tracing the saga from the tale of Aeneas fleeing from fallen Troy to the Rape of the Sabine Women, Romulus & Remus, the tyranical Tarquin Kings, the Founding of the Republic, the evolution of the Roman Constitution and up to the sack of the city by the Gauls in the 4th Century BC. Though ancient history is presumed to be boring, I surprisingly found Livy’s account surprisingly lively, almost a “can’t put down read.”
Polybius (200-118 BC) then picks up the story in his “The Rise of the Roman Empire” tracing the three Punic Wars with Carthage, Hannibal’s campaign over the Alps and Rome’s entanglement with the collapsing Greek Empire of Seleucis, Macedon and the Ptolmeys until attaining supremacy over the entire Mediterranean. Polybius is a surprisingly modern historian who saw as his challenge to write a “universal history” similar to that of our age of Globalization in which previously separate national histories became united in a universal field of action with integrated causes and effects. He was a Greek who was arrested and taken to Rome and then became intimate with the highest circles of the Roman Senate and a mentor to the Scipio family of generals. He like Thucydides then attempts to tell the “inside story” of how Rome rose to universal dominance in its region, and how all the parts of his world became interconnected in their power relations.
Tacitus (56-117 AD) continues the story after the fall of the Republic and rise of the Roman Empire under the emperors. Along with his contemporary Seutonius who published his “History of the Twelve Caesars” in 121 AD, he tells of the founding of the Empire under Julius Caesar, the Civil Wars of Augustus involving Mark Anthony & Cleopatra, the Augustan “Golden Age” and the descent into unbelievable corruption, degeneration, homicidal and sexual madness and excess under Caligula and Nero, followed by a return to decency under Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. The endstory of the Roman Empire is reflected in Ammianus Marcellinus (395-391 AD) who wrote in the time of Julian the Apostate who unsuccessfully tried to shake off Christianity and restore the old pagan and rationalist traditions of Classical Greece and Rome.
PLUTARCH, THE GREAT HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHER
Plutarch (46-120 AD) is most famous for his historical biographies in “Parallel Lives” or simply “Lives.” He was, like Polybius, a Greek scholar who wished to open understanding between the Greek and Roman intellectual communities. His “Parallel Lives” consists of character portraits and life histories of matching pairs of great Greeks and great Romans such as Alexander and Caesar, hoping to enhance appreciation of the greatness of each. Much of Shakespeare’s knowledge of the classical world reflected in his plays such as “Julius Caesar,” “Anthony and Cleopatra” and “Coriolanus” came from reading Plutarch in translation. His character analyses are always insightful and engaging to read. His biographical method was also used by the great near-contemporary Sima Qian of Han Dynasty China.
IBN KHALDUN, ISLAMIC PIONEER OF MODERN HISTORY, SOCIOLOGY AND ECONOMICS
One of the blind spots in our appreciation of World History is the underappreciation of the contributions of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and many other Islamic and non-Western thinkers, including Rashīd al-Dīn Fadhl-allāh Hamadānī (1247–1318), a Persian physician of Jewish origin, polymathic writer and historian, who wrote an enormous Islamic history, the Jami al-Tawarikh, in the Persian language, and Ala’iddin Ata-Malik Juvayni (1226–1283) a Persian historian who wrote an account of the Mongol Empire entitled Ta’ rīkh-i jahān-gushā (History of the World Conqueror). Of these Ibn Khaldun was the greatest and a theoretical forerunner of our modern approaches to history, far ahead of his time and little appreciated in either the Western or the Islamic world until recently. His greatest work is the The “Muqaddimah” (known as the Prolegomena) in which he anticipated some of the themes of Marx in tracing the importance of the influence of economics on history, including the conflict between the economic classes of the nomadic pastoral and herding peoples, the settled agriculturalists and the rising urban commercial class. Like Marx he stressed the importance of the “economic surplus” of the agricultural revolution and the “value-added” of manufacture, which allowed the rise of the urban, military and administrative classes and division of labor. He stressed the unity of the social system across culture, religion, economics and tradition. He even anticipated some of the themes of Darwin and evolution, tracing human progress in its First Stage of Man “from the world of the monkeys” towards civilization. Toynbee called the Muqaddimah the greatest work of genius of a single mind relative to its time and place ever produced in world history.
THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE MONGOL EMPIRE
“The Secret History of the Mongol Empire” was precisely that, a private history written for the family of Ghengis Khan recording its rise and expansion from Ghengis Khan’s humble personal origin to an empire stretching from China to Poland and Egypt. Its author is unknown but it contains an engaging account of the Khanate, the royal family and its traditions and the incredible expansion of its domain. While not a theoretical work it provides a useful missing link in our understanding of the Mongol Empire as a beginning stage of modern Globalization and a conduit for sharing between civilizations, East and West, and, unfortunatelyh for the transmission of the Black Plague across the world.
THE GREAT MODERNS: GIBBON, MARX, SPENGLER & TOYNBEE
The “must read” classics of modern World History include the work of Edward Gibbon “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” which traces its fall to a decline in civic virtue, decayed morals and effeminacy amoung the public and the debilitating effects of Christianity vis-a-vis the rationalism of the Greek-Roman heritage. Marx, of course is central to modern history, not only formulating the laws of social development based on economics, class conflict and the transition from agricultural to capitalist economies, but also formulating the revolutionary program of Communism. Oswald Spengler was a remarkable German amateur historian whose “Decline of the West” traced a theory of “organic civilizations” that have a birth, blossoming, limited lifespan and death like all living creatures. He held this to be a cyclical universal historical process of civilizations now exemplified by the West entering the stage of spiritual exhaustion and collaps in warfare. Arnold Toynbee charted a similar process analyzing 26 civilizaitons across all human history, but differed with Spengler in that he believed moral reform and a return to Christian ethics could revive the West and forestall its decline.
SPIRITUS MUNDI AND WORLD HISTORY
In my own work, the epic contemporary and futurist novel Spiritus Mundi World History plays a central role as various characters such as Professor Riviera in the Mexico City Chapter and Prof. Verhoven of the Africa chapters discourse on human history, evolution, evolutionary biology and the rise of civilization, culminating with the quest of the protagonists led by Sartorius to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly for global democracy, a globalized version of the EU Parliament as a new organ of the United Nations.
World Literature Forum invites you to check out the great historians of World History and World Literature, and also the contemporary epic novel Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard. For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:
For Discussions on World Literature and n Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…
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Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
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Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG
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