Reading Herodotus with students in the ninth and tenth grade presents some challenges. I always tell them not to worry if they don’t feel like they are understanding it on the “first read.” That is the way Great Books are. If a book is entirely intelligible the very first time it is read, that is probably a sign that it is a mediocre book- probably a text book- and not therefore, self evidently, worth reading a second time. (I might anticipate a possible objection about children’s stories which we read again and again. But isn’t it true that the most read children’s stories do in fact contain something of the mystery of human life- and often deep ethical questions that are worth pondering again and again?)
After many years of reading and hearing the Bible read, how many of us feel like we have anything but a superficial understanding? We continually go back to it for more and more. It is capable of feeding our souls and minds endlessly. Likewise with the Great books although to an admittedly (perhaps infinitely) less extent. No less a thinker than Blessed John Henry Newman made this very point when he said somewhere that the canon of Western Literature has something of the character of Holy Scripture in this regard. Don’t get me wrong here- I do not want to elevate the status of the Great Books to the level of God’s own word, but I simply mean to say that the Great Books are great because they have something in them that transcends ordinary human insight. One could almost say that many of the authors of the Great Books wrote what they did with the inspiration of God, or at least under the influence of some minor deity or another. That is precisely why they should be read again and again.
At any rate, Herodotus is difficult to understand the first time. There are so many names and places. If one is not familiar with Greek Mythology and Homer it is even tougher to get a foothold.
Obviously Herodotus is important to read for those who strive after a classical education. I don’t think anyone would maintain that it is possible to be educated without knowing who the Delphic Oracle was or who Croesus was or Miltiades or Themistocles or Darius or Cambyses or Xerxes or….
Clearly anyone who is interested in politics and the origin of our own democratic institutions would forever be frustrated if he did not read about the origins of democracy in Athens and by contrast the more kingly rule in Sparta- although a rule according to law.
Anyone who is interested in ethics, law, morality and the effect of custom on human behavior would be handicapped without a familiarity with Herodotus’ colorful descriptions of the various peoples and nations that he covers with encyclopedic breadth. Of course I mention this with a caveat that those who misread Herodotus might use these stories as material to advance a moral relativism, given the diversity of accepted customs among various northern tribes (like the Scythians) some quite appalling! But one cannot read Herodotus without seeing clearly the improving influence that civilization has on behavior.
Herodotus, in contrast to many so called ‘historians’, makes it clear that individuals have a profound effect on history. In consequence, it becomes apparent to his readers that human character, virtue and vice, are of the utmost significance in determining historical causes. This is especially refreshing in our day when students are fed historical accounts that seem to attribute causation to far more impersonal causes such as the purely economic or geographical- or social movements or “systemic or environmental causes.”
Of course Herodotus also gives us a refreshing account of not just human causality, but also a great deal of attention to divine causality as especially manifest through the attention that he gives to the oracles.
The reader might be slightly skeptical about the verity of the often ambiguous Delphic utterances, but say what you will Herodotus makes a clear case for the significance of divine causation in History.
In our day it is customary to belittle men greater than ourselves. My version of Herodotus comes with a full plate of footnotes which are careful to kabitz and point out minor inaccuracies and discrepancies within the text. The effect that these notes have in my view is to finally render Herodotus rather innocuous to the student and relegate him to the status of a harmless but unscientific yet charming author- certainly not a historian!
Nonetheless, as I point out to my students, such clever foot-note writers would have absolutely no standing whatever were it not for the big man- Herodotus.