Wednesday, May 25, 2005

On Hecataeus

I realised when writing my Obligatory Google Search post that I have been guilty of obscurity. Some people say that there is a place for it, but I disagree- unexplained references may give a thrill of recognition to the cognoscenti, and inspire a few others to explore a new name or concept, but everyone else is left perplexed and excluded. Again, some people would say that to write for an intelligent audience both allows and requires a complexity of discourse, and that you cannot be forever stopping to explain what a cat is, what sitting is, and what mats are. There is something to this point, perhaps, but even so, I would rather people were understanding and thinking about my ideas rather than puzzling out what those ideas might be.

As I have said before, there was a time when society placed some moral weight on 'knowledge', and implicitly criticised those who lacked what was called 'general knowledge'. But increasingly it was realised that the 'general knowledge' syllabus was arbitrary and out-dated, based on preconceptions about culture (perhaps one of the first indicators was the time (1967?) when it ceased to be possible to expect that all middle class children would know something about Classical music and Shakespeare. And so general knowledge became 'trivia', where knowing who won the FA cup in 1976 was of equal value (nil) to knowing where Samuel Pepys was buried. Which is right, of course. Facts are just facts.

I have a good memory for quotations. I have a terrible memory for many other things: friends and relatives' ages, birthdays, names, anniversaries; shopping lists; phone numbers. And I do not even try to remember anything about sport or current music or celebrities or films, so there's a bit of space spare. So what can seem like erudition may not be.

Which is a long way round to disclaiming whatever credit (or deflecting whatever debit) for bringing in Hecataeus as the author of my by-line. Feeling that I was missing out by not having read Herodotus's Histories (a near-contemporary account of the Greek-Persian war of 480BC (featuring the Battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea), I came across a copy and picked it up. Herodotus, known both as 'Father of history' and 'Father of lies', borrowed from earlier sources, including Hecataeus of Miletus, who lived in the 490sBC. Hecataeus's work (which has only survived in quotations by Herodotus and a few later writers) is 'said to have opened with the majestic statement: "I write what to me seems probable; for the tales told by the Greeks are both various and absurd"' (Penguin Classics ed., 1954, 27). This was a disclaimer for him to minimise offence caused to the various gods, cities and rulers he wrote about, since he was forced on occasion to say outright that Athens' version of how they won the war was wrong. (Incidentally, both Hecataeus and Herodotus were from Asia Minor (now Turkey), which perhaps accounts for their willingness to take an objective view of Greek claims). You could almost say that Hecataeus was the first post-modernist, since he is effectively disclaiming any monopoly on the truth.

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