Herodotus, First Orientalist ?

HERODOTUS, FIRST ORIENTALIST ?

Introduction

History and lie. Fifth century B.C. Herodotus is equally known as the ‘Father of History’ and the ‘Father of Lies’. His chronological and causal accounts of the Persian Wars may have marked the beginning of history as a discipline, but it was ignored by none, from his contemporaries to his most postmodern commentators, that Herodotus also included in his records some factually questionable episodes. With Herodotus starts the paradox of history: a discipline that aims at collecting the origin and evolution of humanity in an objective manner, while he who writes history is actively involved as a member of this very community. The necessarily subjective historian attempts and pretends to write an ideally objective history.

If one contemporary thinker is aware of this fact, it is Edward Saïd (1935-2003). The Palestinian-American literary theoretician arrived at the forefront of the intellectual world in the late 1970s, with a missile addressed towards the numbly apolitical movements of post-modernism and post-structuralism. In Orientalism (1978), Saïd inspects four centuries of relations between European colonial powers and their corresponding lands in the Middle East and Asia, to discover an incredibly vast and overwhelming pattern: the colonial project was not only military and political, but also one with primary concerns over knowledge. Following Foucault, Saïd establishes that within the colonial program, knowledge of the colonized directly produces power over the colonized. More: knowledge of the Orient creates the Orient. Thus, definitely, history is not, and cannot be objective, and it is, in fact, much worse: the authority deciding of the historical discourse ends up with actual, physical, political power over the world.

The critique is sore and irritating. The target is transparent: Imperialist Europe, its historical roots and its modern days after-effects. The objective is clear: understanding the past to affect the present. Saïd’s voice is clearly political. But how far should this past go? When did the process start? If we follow the main trends of western intellectual traditions, we find Herodotus as the first historian. More than a recording writer, he himself, in person, visited numbers of countries. His profile was strangely similar to that of his French, British and American colleagues of the 18th to 21st centuries. Was Herodotus the first Orientalist?

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More than a recording writer, Herodotus himself, in person, visited numbers of countries. His profile was strangely similar to that of his French, British and American colleagues of the 18th to 21st centuries. Was Herodotus the first Orientalist?

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To answer this question, our essay will set the foundations of the problem through several steps. We will start by having a closer look at Saïd’s Orientalism and its main arguments. We will also discuss his intellectual influences in the making of this project, before reviewing the main forms of criticisms received by Saïd, pointing to potential weaker points in his thesis. Turning to the Greek side, we shall first establish the historical and cultural context of the time with regards to international contacts, through the intriguing notion of the barbarian. While Herodotus is renown for his Histories, focusing largely on the Persian Wars, we will look at a less famous text, An Account of Egypt, where his position as a potentially Orientalist traveler is more complex and interesting. Egypt is also a destination of importance for Saïd; Orientalism focuses at length on the British and French occupations of the land of the Nile. Finally, we will attempt to reply to our question, by bringing together existing philosophical perspectives and original hypotheses.

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References

Image courtesy: FT Photo Diary

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