Sunday, 14 November 2010

Herodotus and hubris

After all I’ve read and heard about Greek historians using the ideas of hubris and nemesis as a recurrent explanation for each and every disaster, it comes as a pleasant surprise to read Herodotus’ chapter on Egypt in his Histories.

Take Amasis, the pharaoh who finally – after a long and succesful reign – has the bad luck to be invaded by the Persian king Cambyses. Not only is he wholly lacking in hubris; he’s also the epitome of a relaxed and likeable fellow without desire for glory or power and without self-conceit. When his advisors berate him for his frivolous afternoon amusements, he gives a sensible reply which calls to mind modern theories of the advantages of ”slack”:
"Archers", Amasis replied, "string their bows when they wish to shoot, and unstring them after use. A bow kept always strung would break, and so be useless when it was needed. It is the same with a man; anyone who was always serious, and never allowed himself a fair share of relaxation and amusement, would suddenly go off his head, or get a stroke. It is because I know this that I divide my time between duty and pleasure."
In addition, and in contrast to many of the other kings depicted in the histories (take Deioces who cunningly engineers his own rise to the status of God-King or Cyrus who already from childhood likes to commandeer others around), there is something almost comically unplanned in Amasis’ rise to power. By the same token, he appears to have done nothing to deserve the catastrophe that befell him as Egypt was swallowed up by the Persian empire.

Herodotus may not always be very reliable, but I still like stories that don’t fit with the dominant ideas in a work. Whatever fails to fit dominant interpretations and theories always have the feel of reality.

An interesting paradox: Contrary to ideas of truth as coherence, it’s not those facts that fit with a theory or an overall pattern that give the strongest impression of reality, but facts that don’t fit and must be left unexplained.

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