Herodotus and Greek Philosophy
Herodotus wrote a history like no other. Through the pages of On the War for Greek Freedom we read a philosophy that is very similar to our own. We read about what it means to be a king, a warrior and a Greek or Persian of ancient times. Yet, more specifically, we read about what it meant to be simply a human being. There are philosophical ideas throughout the book that can be linked to our own ideas within modern day. The life of a human was hard to live then. They were shot down by the gods if they rose too high, their lives were troublesome and if they found some luck and managed to keep it, they were considered to die happy.
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These ideas, known facts to all characters within the book, can show us part of what it meant to be a human being during these ancient times. Before King Xerxes sets the Persian army out to invade Greece, he stands before them to speak his intentions as their commander. Artabanus, his uncle and trusted advisor, speaks out to give his king advise: “Do you see how the god hurls lightening at the outsized beasts and stops their proud displays, while the smaller creatures bother him not at all? Do you see how his bolts fall without fail on the biggest houses and trees? .. For the god does not allow anyone but himself to think grand thoughts” (7. 10). Artabanus is trying to talk Xerxes out of war, using a very simple and well-understood reason: stand up at the gods’ level and you will get what you deserve. If a mortal does grand things too often, the gods will strike down upon him because a mortal is just a mortal and should remain as such. If he ever stepped out of his place too much, the gods sent punishment. It was a rule ancient Greece had come to know all too well.
We see this idea take place in the fate of King Croesus, whom ended up being a slave to another king. And even today, we experience this idea, calling it deja vu or irony, when we receive luck, we find just a little later that that luck disappears all too quick. This idea doesn’t stop there, however. Later on, Artabanus and Xerxes speak again after both having experienced dreams to encourage them onward in the expedition against Greece. They are ready for war, but Xerxes is no longer as thrilled, saying that it will not be worth a thing in a hundred years’ time.
Artabanus tells his king that this fact is true, but also claims that they all are just waiting for death, that life is a burden from the start: “Calamities befall us, sicknesses trouble us, so as to make life, however short, seem long. Thus, our life being so burdensome, death becomes a refuge most desirable for man, and the god, who gives us but a sip of the sweetness of life, is found to be grudging even in this gift” (7. 46). Previously we witnessed an idea that if a mortal steps beyond his bounds, he is shot down by the gods.
In this passage, Artabanus introduces what it means to be a normal being and also implies that it is not desirable. If ever one receives “a sip of the sweetness of life,” something the gods gift mortals every now and then, Artabanus says that it does not last long. Most of the time, they remain in a state of just barely passing by if not unlucky. Though they are never completely content. The gods won’t let a human remain completely happy throughout his life. Solon of Athens preaches to Croesus, king of Lydia, mentions this idea as well but within a more positive view.
If you die holding some happiness, then you lived a decent, happy life: No human being can possess all blessings, just as no single country can produce all that it needs; it will possess one thing and lack another. Similarly, no man is entirely self-sufficient; he will surely lack something. But whoever possesses the greatest number of blessings and retains them until he reaches the end, and then dies happily, he is the one, in my opinion, who should be awarded the title. In every matter you should look to the ending.
To many men the god grants but a glimpse of blessedness, only to bring them to utter ruin (1. 32). Here, Solon stands by the idea that Artabanus mentions later in the book, that life is a burden to live. There is always something to be lacked, either money, a home, or good-looks. Solon accepts that life is a burden but remains on the positive side of things. He says that if a man is lucky to be blessed by the gods just a little and manages to keep that blessedness to the last day of his life, then it can be said that he lived a happy life.
It would be impossible to accomplish a happy life otherwise. He tells this to King Croesus, whom doesn’t believe him. In the end, Croesus suffers ironically through the idea of a mortal stepping beyond his bounds. In conclusion, the life human beings lived during the time of Herodotus was troublesome. They couldn’t stand out without being struck down, they moved day by day with what little they had, and were lucky to die happy. Herodotus gives the reader an inside view of these troubles and how living through it was the only thing they could do.