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BLACKWOOD'S

EDINBURGH MAGAZINE.

No. CCCXV.

JANUARY, 1842.

PHILOSOPHY OF HERODOTUS.

FEw, even amongst literary people, are aware of the true place occupied by Herodotus in universal literature; secondly, scarce here and there a scholar up and down a century is led to reflect upon the multiplicity of his relations to the whole range of civilization. We endeavour in these words to catch, as in a net, the gross prominent faults of his appreciation; on which account, first, we say pointedly, universal literature, not Grecian since the primary error is, to regard Herodotus merely in relation to the literature of Greece; secondly, on which account we notice the circuit, the numerical amount, of his collisions with science-because the second and greater error is, to regard him exclusively as an historian. But now, under a juster allocation of his rank, as the general father of prose composition, Herodotus is nearly related to all literature whatsoever, modern not less than ancient; and as the father of what may be called ethnographical geography, as a man who speculated most ably on all the humanities of science—that is, on all the scientific questions which naturally interest our human sensibilities in this great temple which we look up to, the pavilion of the sky, the sun, the moon, the atmosphere, with its climates and its winds; or in this home which we inberit, the earth, with its hills and rivers-Herodotus ought least of all to be classed amongst historians: that is but a secondary title for him; he deserves to be rated as the lead

VOL. LI. NO. CCCXV.

VOL. LI.

er amongst philosophical polyhistors, which is the nearest designation to that of encyclopædist current in the Greek literature. And yet is not this word encyclopædist much lower than his ancient name-father of history? Doubtless it is no great distinction at present to be an encyclopædist, which is often but another name for bookmaker, craftsman, mechanic, journeyman, in his meanest degeneration; yet in those early days, when the timid muse of science had scarcely ventured sandal-deep into waters so unfathomable, it seems to us a great thing indeed, that one young man should have founded an entire encyclopædia for his countrymen, upon those difficult problems which challenged their primary attention, because starting forward from the very roofthe walls-the floor of that beautiful theatre which they tenanted. The habitable world, oxousvn, was now daily becoming better known to the human race; but how? Chiefly through Herodotus. There are amusing evidences extant, of the profound ignorance in which nations the most enlightened had hitherto lived, as to all lands beyond their own and its frontier adjacencies. But within the single generation (or the single half century) previous to the birth of Herodotus, vast changes had taken place.. The mere revolutions consequent upon the foundation of the Persian empire had approximated the whole world of civilization. First came the conquest of Egypt by the second of the new emperors. This

event, had it stood alone, was immeasurable in its effects for meeting curiosity, and in its immediate excitement for prompting it. It brought the whole vast chain of Persian dependencies, from the river Indus eastwards to the Nile westwards, or even through Cyrene to the gates of Carthage, under the unity of a single sceptre. The world was open. Jealous interdicts, inhospitable laws, national hostilities, always in procinctu, no longer fettered the feet of the merchant, or neutralized the exploring instincts of the philosophic traveller. Next came the restoration of the Jewish people. Judea, no longer weeping by the Euphrates, was again sitting for another half millennium of divine probation under her ancient palm-tree. Next after that came the convulsions of Greece, earthquake upon earthquake; the trampling myriads of Darius, but six years before the birth of Herodotus; the riverdraining millions of Xerxes in the fifth year of his wondering infancy. Whilst the swell from this great storm was yet angry, and hardly subsiding, (a metaphor used by Herodotus himself, ετι οιδεοντων πρηγματων,) whilst the scars of Greece were yet raw from the Persian scymitar, her towns and temples to the east of the Corinthian isthmus smouldering ruins yet reeking from the Persian torch, the young Herodotus had wandered forth in a rapture of impassioned curiosity, to see, to touch, to measure, all those great objects, whose names had been recently so rife in men's mouths. The luxurious Sardis, the nation of Babylon, the Nile, the oldest of rivers, Memphis, and Thebes the hundred-gated, that were but amongst his youngest daughters, with the pyramids inscrutable as the heavens all these he had visited. As far up the Nile as Elephantine he had personally pushed his enquiries; and far beyond that, by his obstinate questions from all men presumably equal to the answers. Tyre, even, he made a separate voyage to explore. Palestine he had trodden with Grecian feet; the mysterious Jerusalem he had visited, and had computed her proportions. Finally, as to Greece continental, though not otherwise connected with it himself than by the bond of language, and as the home of his Ionian ancestors, (in which view he often calls it by the great moral

name of Hellas, regions that geographically belong to Asia and even to Africa,) he seems by mere casual notices, now prompted by an historical incident, now for the purpose of an illustrative comparison, to have known so familiarly, that Pausanias in after ages does not describe more minutely the local features to which he had dedicated a life, than this extraordinary traveller, for whom they did but point a period or circumstantiate a parenthesis. As a geographer, often as a hydrographer-witness his soundings thirty miles off the mouths of the Nile-Herodotus was the first great parent of discovery, as between nation and nation he was the author of mutual revelation; whatsoever any one nation knew of its own little ring fence, through daily use and experience, or had received by ancestral tradition, that he published to all other nations. He was the first central interpreter, the common dragoman to the general college of civilization that now belted the Mediterranean, holding up, in a language already laying the foundations of universality, one comprehensive mirror, reflecting to them all the separate chorography, habits, institutions, and religious systems of each. Nor was it in the facts merely, that he retraced the portraits of all leading states; whatsoever in these facts was mysterious, for that he had a self-originated solution; whatsoever was perplexing by equiponderant counter-assumptions, for that he brought a determining impulse to the one side or the other; whatsoever seemed contradictory, for that he brought a reconciling hypothesis. Were it the annual rise of a river, were it the formation of a famous kingdom by alluvial depositions, were it the unexpected event of a battle, or the apparently capricious migration of a people-for all alike Herodotus had such resources of knowledge as took the sting out of the marvellous, or such resources of ability as at least suggested the plausible. Antiquities or mythology, martial institutions or pastoral, the secret motives to a falsehood which he exposes, or the hidden nature of some truth which he deciphers-all alike lay within the searching dissection of this astonishing intellect, the most powerful lens by far that has ever been brought to bear upon the mixed objects of a speculative traveller.

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