»  National Review Online

March 6th, 2002

  Three Historians


(1) Herodotus.   Last week my colleague Vic Hanson posted a story from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus on this site, to illustrate a truth about our current president. This has prompted me to chip in with some Herodotus of my own. You know how it is when several fans of the same TV comedy are gathered together: the mention by one person of his favorite scene induces an irresistible urge in everyone else present to chime in with theirs. Well, I am in the grip of that compulsion. All Herodotus lovers have their favorite passage in the History, and here is mine.

It's from book 7 of the History, sections 134-5. I had better say that this is not a very original selection. I have seen it extracted by other authors — it is in Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism somewhere, for example. It is, however, very well worth repeating, and I make no apology for being the umpteenth person to direct his readers' attention to it. I'm going to quote from one of the quirkier translations, done by the eccentric English classicist and politician Enoch Powell. Powell translated the whole thing into Biblical English, to give the right (as he saw it) flavor of archaism. You either like that kind of thing or you don't, and I just do.

The story needs a bit of background. During the first quarter of the fifth century b.c., the new empire of Persia was expanding aggressively under two great kings: Darius, up to 486, and then Xerxes. They wanted to conquer the young Greek city-states, and sent expeditionary forces for that purpose. During one of these forays, the city-state of Sparta had killed some Persian envoys by throwing them into a well. In the years that followed, things did not go well for Sparta, and all kinds of bad omens were observed. The Spartans eventually decided they should make some collective restitution for their crime. They therefore called for patriotic citizens willing to go to Persia and offer their own lives in payment for those of the slain ambassadors. Two well-born young Spartan men, Sperthias and Bulis, volunteered. They set out for Susa, the Persian capital.

Persia was a sprawling despotic empire of the pre-modern type. An infallible god-king effected his will through a huge bureaucratic apparatus, the whole thing financed by crushing taxation. (Rather like the Democratic Party, in fact.) On their way to Susa the two Spartans — whose selfless mission was well-known, and widely admired — were given hospitality by a high Persian official named Hydarnes. Impressed by these two brave young men, Hydarnes attempted to recruit them into the king's service. "For," he said:

"When ye regard me and mine affairs, ye see that the king knoweth how to honour valiant men. Ye also likewise, if ye would give yourselves unto the king, because ye are esteemed of him to be valiant men, might each of you rule over land in Greece, which the king should give you."  Then they answered him thus:  "Hydarnes, thy counsel as touching us is not evenly weighed. For, of the one thing thou hast made trial, but of the other thou art without experience: what it is to be a bondservant thou knowest full well, but of freedom thou hast never yet made trial, to know whether it be a sweet thing or not. For if ever thou hadst experience thereof, thou wouldest counsel us to fight for it not with spears only but with axes."  Thus they answered Hydarnes.

I must have read that passage thirty or forty times in half a dozen translations; yet still, every time I read, it I want to jump up out of my seat, pump my fist in the air, and yell: "YEEE-HAAA!"


(2) Sima Qian.   Ancient China's own Herodotus, a dedicated chronicler of all that was known about his world in his time, was named Sima Qian, and his dates are from 145 to 86 b.c. (The name, by the way, is pronounced "Sszz-mah Chee-en."  "Sima" is the surname, slightly stressed on the first syllable. Two-syllable surnames, though now rare among the Chinese, were common in ancient times.) Sima Qian's great book Shi Ji ("Historical Records"), has at least as many good stories in it as Herodotus's History, including the one from which that fine movie Farewell My Concubine drew its inspiration. Much of it has been translated, in three volumes, by Burton Watson.

As an illustration of the great gulf between the values of a free society and those of a despotism, Sima Qian's life is as vivid as anything he recorded in his book. His father, Sima Tan, had been Grand Astrologer at the emperor's court. This position gave him access to all the imperial archives, and he had begun to assemble the material for a great history of the empire (or, as he would have said, "the world"). Sima Tan died before he could take the project very far, and he begged his son to pick up the challenge. Sima Qian did so, getting himself appointed Grand Astrologer and diving into the archives.

In 99 b.c., when he was 56 years old, Sima Qian suffered a terrible misfortune. A friend of his, a general in the army, lost a critical battle against the barbarians beyond the Wall. Rather than face the wrath of the emperor, this general defected to the Huns, and lived out the rest of his life among them. The emperor was furious. Sima Qian had originally been one of those who recommended this general; and now, to compound the offense, he publicly defended him before the emperor, as a matter of principle — he believed the general had done his honest and valiant best, and was not at fault. Enraged, the emperor ordered Sima Qian to suffer the penalty of castration, and this dreadful sentence was carried out. Sima Qian survived it, and was permitted to continue his researches.

Eight years later another friend of Sima Qian's fell into imperial disfavor and faced execution. This friend wrote to Sima Qian, appealing to him as a man of honor to speak to the emperor on his behalf — to act on principle again, like a true Confucian, as he had done before.

This time, however, Sima Qian declined to speak out for his friend. He wrote a long letter explaining his reasons. This letter, though little known in the West, deserves to be taken as one of the great documents of Antiquity. It touches on major themes in human life: truth and honor, self-control and manliness, right behavior, family obligations, the love of life and the fear of death, and the creation of things that will have lasting value. Looking back at his conduct eight years before, Sima Qian asks the fundamental questions we all ask ourselves at some point in life: "Did I behave with propriety? Did I act as becomes a man?"

In this letter, Sima Qian advises his friend to commit suicide. There is, he says, no prospect that the emperor would heed anything said by one as degraded as himself; and suicide is better than death by a cruel and ignominious punishment. But this, of course, raises the question: Why did Sima Qian himself not commit suicide eight years before, rather than submit to castration? The answer he gives is: Because I was determined to complete my great work, to purge my disgrace by leaving behind a literary masterpiece and an immortal name.

And yet, for all its great humanity, for all its heartbreaking appeal, Sima Qian's letter strikes a western reader as odd. It would, I think, have struck a contemporary Roman as odd, too; it would have struck Sperthias and Bulis as odd. It touches, as I said, on some of the grand themes of human life. The oddity is in the themes it leaves out. It speaks of truth, but not of justice; it speaks of family obligation, but not of social obligation; it speaks of manliness, but not of citizenship. It is the voice of an intelligent and honorable man, but one who lives in a flat, atomized society, a society without any organized popular voice, a society in which there is nothing — no law, no guild, no church, no constitution, no clan, no fellowship — between the helpless individual and the almighty power of the state.

Sima Qian's friends feared to help him: he went alone to the castration chamber. (Which, by the way, in that vein of sinister euphemism for which the Chinese have such a genius, was called can shi — "the silkworm house.") Compare the punishment of Socrates as recorded in the Phaedo, surrounded by his friends, exchanging pleasantries with his jailer. Here is Sima Qian speaking of his jailer:  "When you see the jailer you abjectly touch the ground with your forehead. At the mere sight of his underlings you are seized with terror … Such ignominy can never be wiped away."  Here we see the despotic priciple laid bare: its need to crush and humiliate its subjects, especially the best and bravest of them.


(3) S.D. Goitein.   And here is the third historian I'd like you to meet. This one I have only just discovered.

Last week I attended a lecture given by Eric Ormsby, the McGill University Islamicist and accomplished poet, and a fellow-contributor to that wonderful magazine The New Criterion, which I have advertised before on this site. The subject of Eric's lecture was the life and work of an earlier scholar, Shelomo Dov Goitein (1900-85). Ormsby had studied under Goitein, and been inspired by him to turn his own attention to medieval Islam.

I confess I had never heard of Goitein up to that point; but Eric made him sound so appealing I decided to give him a try. My local library had only one of his books on the shelves. Titled Jews and Arabs, it is a 1974 revision of an earlier book, itself based on some lectures Goitein gave in the early 1950s. The subject is the relationship between Jews and Arabs from the earliest times up to about 1970. It's a small book, written for a general audience, not scholarly in an overbearing way, and a pleasure to read.

Goitein was a man of immense learning in both Judaism and Islam. It is hard to think of anyone better qualified to write a book like this. He is full of insights about the similarities and differences between these two great religions and the people who carried them forward through history.

He is especially good at illuminating the odd inversions and paradoxes of the Jew-Arab relationship. Both these peoples started out in a condition of primitive freedom — what H.G. Wells called "communities of will,"  as opposed to the "communities of obedience"  that formed the great ancient despotic empires like Persia and China — before taking divergent paths to the state of affairs we see today, where the Jews are a branch of creative, liberty-loving western culture, while the Arabs are sunk in tyranny and stagnation.

The Jews were mainly farmers for the first 2,000 years of their existence; the Arabs first showed up in history as traders and merchants. (The domestication of the camel around 1250 b.c. opened up previously impassable trade routes across the desert.) Yet now the Jews are quintessentially urban, excelling in commerce and trade, while Arabs are either shoeless peasants or sluggish clients of state socialism. Go figure.

Like the rest of you, I have been busily reading up on Islam and the Arabs this past few months — Bernard Lewis, David Pryce-Jones, Albert Hourani and so on. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Goitein's Jews and Arabs can, by itself, substitute for those more recent writers. I would say, though, that if I were asked to give a reading list to a person who wanted to get up to speed in this field, Goitein's little book would be the first I would recommend.