Herodotus the ΣΟΦΌΣ - theology and the claim to knowledge
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
As remarked by John Gould, ‘Herodotus and religion’ is a vast subject that has provoked much discussion amongst scholars. Thomas Harrison has made a strong contribution to this area with his Divinity and history (2000), in which he comprehensively engages with Herodotus’ approach to religious matters. The purpose of my thesis is to analyse in particular the extent to which Herodotus’ ideas about divinity correlate or conflict with the ideas of other fifth-century (BCE) writers, specifically the sophists and pre-Socratic philosophers. This is an approach to Herodotus that has not been pursued at length since Wilhelm Nestle’s contribution at the turn of the twentieth century in his 1908 article Herodots Verhältnis zur Philosophie und Sophistik. It is also important because Herodotus has only recently again been reconsidered by scholars to be a contributor to the development of theological ideas in the ancient world, despite the fact that he was writing squarely in the midst of the fifth century, a time when all domains of understanding were being re-evaluated by Greek philosophers and scientists. In this way I hope to shed light on the notion that Herodotus was engaging on some level with the significant theological ideas in circulation in his lifetime, a proposition worthy of deeper and updated research.
The scope of this thesis is then as follows: In chapter 1 I will address the various critiques of Herodotus’ theology analysing the ancient through to the modern literary critics. This is important because I can then determine what shortfalls and assumptions pervade the existing research and what I can contribute that is new. In chapter 2 I will discuss the concepts of σοφός and σοφιστής, explicating the original meanings of these terms, specifically that σοφός referred to a broad range of individuals with special understanding, and that σοφιστής meant a purveyor of knowledge, and not only a ‘Sophist’ in the later sense of the term, meaning a professional teacher. I will look at Herodotus’ account of Solon as σοφός, especially in terms of Solon’s travel and collection of cultural knowledge. In comparison I will consider the extent to which Herodotus himself is σοφός/σοφιστής. Finally, I will look closely at the practice of display, ἀπόδειξις that display of knowledge through oral presentation at Olympia was a goal of the σοφιστής, and that Herodotus actively participated in this display culture. This is important in order to address the misconception that he was simply a storyteller. In chapter 3 I will pinpoint Herodotus’ theological methodology, meaning the manner in which he gains knowledge that ultimately crystallises his attitude to the divine. More precisely, I will elucidate Herodotus’ self-proclaimed reliance on his own eyewitness account, judgement and inquiry, ὄψις τε ἐμὴ καὶ γνώμη καὶ ἱστορίη. In as much as Heraclitus also explicitly relies on these empirical techniques, I will compare this philosopher’s attitude to the divine with Herodotus. I will also compare the Hippocratic writers’ empirical methodology in a more general sense, as these figures do not inquire into the divine, although comparing their methodological similarities to Herodotus further facilitates my argument that Herodotus was undeniably a proponent of the ubiquitous inquiry culture of the fifth century. Then, to further explicate how Herodotus relied on his own inquiry and judgements I will examine three cases where Herodotus looks at both divine and mundane accounts of historical three specific individuals’ transformations. I will analyse Herodotus’ judgement about the accounts of Salmoxis’ return from death, Rhampsinitus’ descent into the underworld, and finally the onset of Cleomenes’ madness. In exploring each of these accounts I can affirm the consistency of Herodotus methodology, centred on his personal judgement. In chapter 4 I will explore Herodotus’ research into specific Egyptian accounts, and how travel and inquiry facilitates his conclusions about the divine. I will focus on the accounts of Helen of Troy as described by Egyptian priests, as well as Heracles, and how Herodotus challenges the Hellenocentric versions of these accounts. In the process I will compare Gorgias’ similar challenge to existing narratives. I will then discuss theories of nature, φύσις, as postulated by the Ionian pre-Socratics, focussing on the Nile’s flooding, and the manner in which Herodotus engages with these theories, ultimately positing his own. In this way I can edify the argument that Herodotus demonstrates an authentic capacity to engage with the intellectual conversations of his day. In chapter 5 I will explore epistemological limitations in theology, and the fact that Herodotus is clearly aware of these limitations. I will compare his tacit awareness of the limits of inquiry with Xenophanes, Prodicus and Protagoras, in as much as these figures explicated the difficulties in human beings attaining reliable knowledge of the gods. I will also make clear how these figures challenged the traditional narratives of the Olympian gods propagated by the poets. Following this discussion I will analyse Herodotus’ reliance upon witnesses, μάρτυρες, and evidence τεκμήρια, upon which he founded his judgements. This is important to further strengthen my argument that Herodotus was conducting consistent empirical inquiry, by showing his awareness of the limitations of inquiry. Within the realistic constraints of this thesis I will mainly focus on the Histories book 2, since Herodotus’ general methodology is explicated in this book, nothwithstanding the passages mentioned above. My overall focus is to re-evaluate and demonstrate beyond mere plausibility that Herodotus was an authentic contributor to both intellectual culture and ancient theology. This is a challenging task considering the diversity of Herodotus’ scope of subject matter, which must be acknowledged for a fair treatment of his work to be undertaken. Ultimately I wish to show that Herodotus is not merely a writer of history of his own fashion, but that he is also actively engaged in the theological conversation of his time on a nuanced level.