Western Philosophy Of History: From Mythical And Theocratic Accounts To Greek Age

The present stage of historical scholarship was not arrived at overnight; it was preceded by some development and growth. The first stage in historical thinking was what is called "Theocratic History" or "Mythical Account." The earliest accounts are referred to as theocratic because (of course) the actions recorded therein are not human but divine; the statements made are not fruits of research but mere assertions. Again, the statements are not answers to questions. Although theocratic history is not primarily concerned with the history of human actions, it is nevertheless concerned with their individual actions in the sense that the divine characters in the history are superhuman rulers of human societies whose actions therefore are actions done partly to those societies and partly through them. In theocratic history, humanity is not an agent but partly an instrument and partly a patient of the actions recorded. Finally, these actions are thought of as having definite places in time series and occurring in the past.
Mythical Accounts
Quite unlike theocratic accounts mythical accounts are not concerned with human endeavours at all. The human element has been completely removed and the characters of the story are simply gods or God. Besides, the divine actions recorded are not dated events in the past; they are in the dateless past which is so remote that nobody knows when it was, it is outside our time reckonings but belonged to the "beginning of things. A good example is Genesis 1 vs. 1-3. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth, the Earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of waters, and God said, "Let there be light, and there was light.”
The Creation of Scientific History by Herodotus
The man who elevated history to the level of scientific knowledge was the Greek named HERODOTUS. He was among the first set of Greeks to recognize that history is or can be a science and that it has to do with human actions. Herodotus lived in the 5th Century BC. Because of what he did for history, he has been, given the appellation "the Father of History." Before the 5th century BC, attempts to write about the past was theocratic and mythical. It was not a scientific study of human societies or activities. Although there were popular works such as Homer's, they were more about ethics, describing and embellishing the great deeds of the grandfathers of Greece. With Herodotus, however, there was a break in literary traditions. History for him is not legend, it is research; it is not mythical but about events in a dated past. It is not theocratic but humanistic. It was Herodotus who first used the word history to mean an "investigation" or "enquiry." He thus introduced history as a science.
The greatness of Herodotus as the father of history is further buttressed when he is set against a background consisting of the general tendencies of Greek though – only what is unchanging can be known. History, therefore, is a forlorn hope. An attempt to know what has been transitory is unknowable. In other words, historical knowledge was considered impossible. Against all odds, Herodotus set to the probe the past activities of man. Questions were now asked to get definite answers. Through skillful questioning, he was able to convincingly prove that historical knowledge was possible, something which the Greeks had labeled a forlorn hope. Indeed, Herodotus derived his fame as father of history from his book, the Histories.  The theme of the book was, The Causes and Course of the Peloponnesian War (Persian invasion of Greece, 492 – 479 BC). He was a child when the event took place. In his work, Herodotus used three main sources that were available to him. First, his own observations during his travels. He observed the buildings and customs of peoples in areas visited– Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Southern Russia, etc. Second, he took oral testimonies from witnesses or participants. Because of the closeness of the event, Herodotus had the opportunity of meeting people whop participated in the war before the event became blurred in their memories. Thirdly, he read existing documents and chronicles. The search for such materials was a crucial factor which distinguished him from his predecessors and further strengthened his position as the father of history.
Herodotus was not just writing about what he knew or what he had or dreamt of. He realized that he was ignorant on many aspects of the war and therefore went out to ask people questions which could help him fill in the gaps which existed in his own account. Another point which validates his claim is that of handling his materials. Here, Herodotus demonstrated an attitude which was then uncommon. He was critical, vigorously questioning the validity of all pieces of information. Such questions include:
Are you quite sure you remember it just like that?  Have you not contradicted what you were saying yesterday? How do you reconcile your account of that event with that different account given by so – and – so?
This methodology was quite new at the time and it accounts much for Herodotus' fame. In some instances, one may accuse him of exhibiting a trait characteristic of the writers of mythical and theocratic accounts. In fairness to him, one has to understand that the degree that he could use his critical method was limited by the society in which he was working, the limit of the knowledge at that time, and the limit of his own personal knowledge. In most cases, he had no means of crosschecking events and hence had to use his personal initiative.  Consequently, when faced with two or more conflicting accounts, he chose one which he felt was more probable. Nonetheless, he would still record the other version for the readers to make their own independent judgment. Whenever he made any choice, he would give reasons for them.
Moreover, the Histories was the first European prose. Before him, most writings were in poetic form, chronicles and verses. He also used dialogues by which he put words in the mouth of the historical characters. We should, however, note that the reason for his action is that, at that time works were meant to be read in the public. For any work to appeal to the audience it had  to be funny in content and interpretations. Nonetheless, the Histories measured up to the standard of a good historical writing. Although, the book by the present standard is mere logography, it thundered an historical development when it was written. In fact, the pioneering effort of Herodotus must be recognized. It was he who paved the way for the subsequent generation of scientific historians. His work is the fountain-head of modern historical thinking.
Briefly, Herodotus can be regarded as the father of history because some of his methods and ideas still remain within the fold of modern historical scholarship: firstly, the use of the world History itself. It was Herodotus who first used the word to mean investigation or enquiry into the human past. Secondly, the humanistic concern in his work could be regarded as the beginning of social history. For Herodotus, history is nothing short of human actions and he paid detailed attention to peoples language, traditions and customs. Thirdly, Herodotus set himself certain objectives which had since remained important in historical scholarship. He set out to write an impartial account. He also set to document the great deeds of the participants of the Greaco – Persian war so that they might not be forgotten by posterity. In effect, he wrote for the information of his own and future generations. Fourthly, Herodotus' method of collecting materials can still be recommended for modern researchers; a meticulous search for evidence, vigorous cross – examination of informants and direct observation.
Lastly, the critical analysis and interpretation started by Herodotus are, in fact, the basis of modern historical writing. It is therefore not surprising that R. G. Collingwood was full of praises for him and compared him with Socrates.  However, there is an area where Herodotus fell short as an Historian. He believed that behind individual person stands destiny or fate which determines the course of his life. This emphasis on the centrality of divine intervention in the unfolding of the historical process led him to adopt an excessive moralistic approach in his assessment  of the actions of the principal historical actors.
Another Greek historian of the medieval period was Thucydides. Like Herodotus, Thucydides has come to be regarded as a giant in Western Historiography. This was because he carried further the scientific conception of history started by Herodotus. History for him is an enquiry, based on meticulous search for evidence, rigorous cross – examination of evidence of informants, weighing of evidence and direct observation. He was purely concerned with humanistic purpose of history. History for him was the study of human activities. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides secularized the humanistic aspects of his thoughts. In order words, he excluded divine intervention in his historical writings. Instead, he postulated an explanation of chance or coincidence as the determinant factor in the course of human life. Thucydides did not regard history as mere story telling with occasional embellishment and explanations. His approach to the fact of history is that they should be used in revealing the deeper causes of historical events and movements. Thucydides was not a logographer but a scientific student. He chose to write on the Peloponnesian war because, according to him, earlier events cannot be adequately ascertained.
One important area where he surpassed Herodotus was in his appeal to evidence.  While one is left to gather from Herodotus' works what his idea of evidence was, Thucydides explicitly stated that historical enquiries rest on evidence. This was the picture of Western historiography during Thucydides' time.