History is not the property of any elite

I happened to see these words by Jona Lendering, and although there is something in this, I feel that I need to disagree profoundly.  It seems that some people in the US consider that Obama is the anti-Christ, rather than merely yet another dodgy politician mouthing lies while emptying our pockets.  Biblioblogger Jim West posts a chunk of Greek on who the anti-Christ is, and deliberately doesn’t translate.  “No need for speculation”, he says.

I long ago learned that people who post untranslated Greek intend to intimidate rather than educate, and like most people I despise such point-scoring.  But Jona remarks:

… his joke to keep the relevant lines untranslated, goes straight to the heart of an important matter, which is not just a problem to theology.  Ancient history suffers from it as well: too many people think they can understand ancient texts without having the proper qualifications. Such as learning a dead language.

This is an odd idea. I would not like to go to an amateur dentist. No politician would pay for the experiments by amateur particle physicists. But if ancient texts are involved, expertise is suddenly unnecessary. Books by “self-educated historians” or theological code-breakers are printed by publishing houses that are, essentially, selling out scholarship to make a few quick bucks.

One of the reasons is, of course, that ancient texts are accessible and delightful to read. You easily get the impression that you can make sense of them. There is little to do against this – fortunately, because there is nothing against enjoying a good book. Yet, I would appreciate it if publishers stopped presenting Plato as if he were a normal writer whose books deserve in the bookstores a place between Sylvia Plath and Chaim Potok. He deserves a book with explanations and a lot of footnotes, nothing else.

No, no, and a thousand times NO!

History is not and should never be the special preserve of some specially trained cadre of priests, who alone understand how to interpret the sacred texts, and to whom we all must humbly apply to be permitted an opinion.  In a society where education is general, history belongs to everyone.  History is not some place far-away.  It is our own past. 

The doings of Cicero and Caesar do not belong to Dr Herbert Nose-in-the-air, recently graduated from the university of Osoimportant, on the basis that — according to the other priests — he alone knows the sources well enough to be permitted to speak.  No, no and a thousand times NO!  Petrarch would have burned his books, if he knew that his efforts to rediscover the ancient world would be stranged by such elitism. 

Education is for everyone.  It is true that not everyone will do it equally well.  In the sciences, we perforce allow only trained specialists to enjoy special esteem.  Yet even here, the gifted amateur may make a contribution; and no scientist would make the kind of claims to exclude the public that we see above.  It is merely impractical for most to do so.

But in the humanities, we do not respect the scholar nearly as much, and nor should we.  As we all know, the consensus of scholars on matters of controversy is often shaped by profoundly non-scholarly considerations, such as those who make appointments and their prejudices.  The humanities are the property of the educated world, and will always be so. 

”][Fall of the Bastile]

Let us remember who pays for all this book-sniffing.  The poverty-stricken pensioner widow, eking out her miserable existence on a few score dollars a week and wondering whether this week to heat or eat — for a greedy government makes doing both at the same time difficult — pays of her limited funds to keep a group of people in education as teachers and researchers.  It is, in truth, barely moral that this should happen.  But governments exact from all, careless of the cost.  This exclusive priesthood that some would like to create, is funded by the many.  And why?  So that their work should be valuable to all, because all can benefit.  It does not exist by divine right.  The humanities is a government utility for the supply of education and culture, nothing more.   Nor has it ever been different, except that private patrons replaced the government.  Before we praise our new priesthood to the skies, let us reflect on what we really mean; a bunch of hirelings.

If history can only be known by pronouncements by some self-appointed Pope, then history is bunk, and there is no reason for our wretched widow to pay for it.  Better that the scholars be hanged, than that the poor lady starve.

But the truth is otherwise.  A man who knows no Latin can master the thought of Cicero.  So it is, so it should always be.  The expert should have an advantage, the original language must always be superior; yet in truth I find that knowledge of these languages is often more prated of than possessed, and too often is merely a cloak for a man who uses a translation as a crib.  Where precisely are these scholars, who read Migne for fun?  Few, few indeed.  Let us praise those who can.  Let us listen to what they say.  And let us stick their heads down the toilet when they profess, on such slender grounds, to instruct us in how to read the bible, and how to vote.  Down with such elitism.  As a Tory of the highest and driest kind by temperament, let me raise the red flag.

I don’t want to pillory Jona, for I know that he has something specific in mind, and that something annoys me also.  He wants to raise the standard of popular understanding.  He’s tired of the quantity of crude myths in circulation, and the confidence with which some of them are uttered.  He’s right in this.  There is too much dross out there. 

But the answer is not the creation of a Royal Priesthood, or perhaps, a State Priesthood, to mediate the holy mysteries of what Disraeli had for breakfast to us!  It is better education all round, better access to data, better access to scholarly books — all currently paid for by the public, and all sedulously protected by copyrights to keep them from the public. 

Few, indeed, have done more to aid this process than Jona himself.  This makes it ironic that he calls for a system under which his own website would be shut down as being produced by someone not in the magic circle, by one “not in holy orders”, by an educated enthusiast!

12 Responses to “History is not the property of any elite”


  1. Jona

    Good points; yet, if the university raises its standards again, becomes an open group of people searching for profound wisdom (not: shallow knowledge), and is willing to share its insights, I will gladly close my website.

    The main danger at the moment is not, repeat not, pseudoscholarship. I have a list of 3,200-3,600 questions I received over the past thirteen or fourteen years; they are never about pyramidiocy or Atlantis, but nearly always about outdated insights. Due to the internet, they have made a return. Old ideas, refuted long time ago, now can be found in books again. For example, Tom Holland’s Persian Fire contains errors he can not have found in the books he claims to have read, but must have found on websites, where they ar common.

    This is the main problem. To counter this, two things must be done.

    (1) Prove that history is a profession, just like other disciplines. The article you so kindly and friendly disagree with, was meant to stress this point: you can not be a historian if you haven’t got the proper qualifications. Just like dentistry, history is a real profession, which you must learn; the difference between an amateur historian and a true historian is that the latter is capable of (or ought to be capable of) defining the difference between a cause and a condition, and understanding which of the three main interpretative models one must use in a particular situation. Right now, command of this theoretical aspect -the tricks of the trade, in other words- is insufficiently stressed; as a consequence, lunatics think they can also be historians. Personally, I do not think this is elitism; it simply means that I insist on professionalism.

    (2) The university must live up to those standards. Right now, there are too many scholars who have insufficient knowledge (think of an archaeologist incapable of reading a Latin text or recognizing the literary stereotypes). And they must be willing to share their knowledge again.

    My book on common errors (http://rambambashi.wordpress.com/common-errors/) proposes that our governments refrain from paying scholars if they do not present their results in an open access context, and create websites like this one: http://ancientolympics.arts.kuleuven.be/.

    In short, I hope that historians will have more pride on their profession, and will acknowledge that this profession has to serve society as a whole. If this will happen, people will refrain from reading those Holland books, and we can recreate a sincere interest for the past. For the time being, however, results hidden from sight in JSTOR, are no results at all; historians uncapable of explaining what an explanation is, ought not to publish at all, whether they be amateurs like Tom Holland or professionals.

    I am writing all this in a hurry; I hope to have more time after the weekend. Yet, thanks for the friendly criticism.

  2. Charles

    Thanks Roger. I really appreciate your thoughts here.

  3. Jim

    i’d thank you for your thoughts too roger but i couldn’t get past your ridiculous and senseless assertion that using greek was meant to intimidate. golly, i sure hope matthew and paul got that memo but i have the feeling they didn’t.

    defending ignorance isn’t really the way to proceed, as far as im concerned, but you of course are more than free to do so.

  4. ikokki

    Both viewpoints have several valid points but I am more inclined to agree with Roger.

    Historians and philosophers, of the classical era at least (5th-4th century BC) wrote for the GENERAL public. Herodotus’ history is meant for everyone to read, so is Thucydides’ or Xenophon’s. Plato specifically wrote his dialoges to be read by common people, his philosophy gets very complex at times but it is not meant just for other philosopher but for laymen. Aristotle is more esoteric, but his class notes which is what we do have were taught to his student at his Gymnasium a.k.a. TEENAGERS, hardly the most sophisticated crowd. Do ancient books need comments? Most certainly. Some things taken for granted in antiquity no longer are and need explanations. But this must not mean that ancient texts should be hidden, open only to those QUALIFIED to read them, this is a pervasion.

    Living in Greece you get quite exposed to paranoid theories derived from misreading of ancient texts. Did you know that the Argonauts visited America to find the Golden Fleece and that the Wandering Stones are Fulton Strait? How about that the name Yucatan as in Yucatan peninsula comes from ου κανδανω (I don’t know)? However not all of it originates from semi ignorant lay-people: there is a Chilean University professor who claims that the Inca civilisation has had contact with my ancestors and has published several books claiming so in Spanish that have been translated into Greek.

    Humanities is NOT natural sciences. As has repeatedly been noted Pascal as a mathematician is outdated, as a philosopher he is not. Old theories are not necessarily by definition disproved, some do have value today. Unfortunately academics in many cases are too narrow focused to see the greater picture and at times have trouble contextualising things in the way that lay people can. For example Sinologists generally accept that at the battle of Yique in 293 BC the Qin arrayed 120,000 troops against 240,000 of the Wei and the Han, or that at the battle of Changping in 260 BC the Zhao arrayed 500,000 troops and the Qin 650,000 which they maintained for over 2 years in the field, yet Herodotus’ numbers get summarily dismissed by a large number of Classicists because, accoring to the arguement, the means available in antiquity could not possibly allow the support of armies significantly larger than 100,000 combatants. I am not arguing that the army Xerxes arrayed in Doriskos was 4 millions as Herodotus believed but that professional academics can also be wrong.

    The Classics, born in a culture that mistrusted professionalism, were always meant to be diffused to the general public. There is no reason why this should not continue today.

  5. Jona

    The Classics, born in a culture that mistrusted professionalism, were always meant to be diffused to the general public. There is no reason why this should not continue today.

    Certainly, but let it be diffused by someone who knows what he is doing. The point I am making is, essentially, that it is weird that people who would not think about accepting treatment from an amateur dentist, spend money to buy books from amateur historians. There is a standard of professionalism: know your languages, know the theory, know which explanations have been refuted. That was the point I was making: there is a professional standard for historians, and I am pissed at amateurs selling old crap again.

    They have a market, because academicians are not up to their tasks. There are too many scholars who hide to vague excuses about scholarly vogues, because they do not recognice their own logical fallacies (see the other articles). There are too many scholars who refuse to take the general audience seriously – I know a book of 300 pages that contains 253 factual errors, and the author refuses to rectify himself. But blaming scholars is my normal practice; this time, I was focusing one another aspect.

  6. Nick Nicholas

    Scholarly vogues have meant that most classicists don’t know ancient languages; and that most classicists not only don’t do philology, but don’t get why anyone would still care about it. That is a colossal problem, and “History is not the property of any elite” is not part of its solution.

    I don’t think there is a solution, and I believe more scholarship must get done outside the framework of the university anyway, given the university’s obsession with fads and rankings. And your inner Stalin (or Ayn Rand) can smile: the scholars are being hanged anyway. I don’t know what else to call the market-driven collapse of the humanities.Your widow’s taxes are funding MBA programmes now.

    But a Classics that spends more time on Foucault than Bopp *has* dropped Language as a requirement. Has that realised your democratic vision of scholarship? Has that allayed your libertarian pensioner widow? No, because language skills are not the crux of either the professionalisation of scholarship, or its concomitant turf wars.

    In the big picture, you’ve picked a target—prioritising knowledge of languages—that’s already been severely battered in the academe. And that didn’t deserve that battering. In the big picture, the priesthood is not being set up, it is being dismantled. And your exulting in it sets my teeth on edge.

    If anything, linguistics suffers even more from people assuming they can talk about language without a scholarly apprenticeship. You are saying secondary scholarship should not be a gatekeeper. That licenses any idiot to say Greek has 10 times more words than English, or Hebrew is underlyingly Greek. But those idiots did not wait for the scholarly priesthood to give them permission; they went out and published and blogged it anyway. Because language belongs to everyone, right?

    The big disappointment in the Athenian newspapers letters-to-the-editor war over the gajillion bazillion words of Greek has been, noone in the Greek linguistics priesthood has said boo. And the speech that started the whole kerfuffle, claiming a gajillion bazillion words of Greek, was by a member of the Academy of Athens. Positive Sciences section.

    The scholarly priesthood as a gatekeeper, which you’ve strawmanned, doesn’t prevent stupidity. It can redress it at least; in fact, it has a duty to.

  7. Bill Thayer

    West s idea was probably to intimidate, yes. Even with my weak knowledge of Greek, I wouldn t have quoted it without its breathings and accents (OK, so they re not that necessary); but the apostrophes marking elisions, which are? It s obvious twas just grabbed from somewhere…. To anyone who reads Greek that snippet of NT looks wrong.

  8. ikokki

    Those that supposedly know what they are talking about, the scholars, the university professor have taken very LITTLE interest in diffusing knowledge or kindling interest in classics. The last general book on history that the Academy of Athens has had a serious hand in writing was “The History of the Greek Nation” whose first volume was published over 40 years ago and the last volumes almost 30 years ago. After that, very little has been published for the general public by the Academics. The best edition of ancient authors in Greecs with the original language and facing translation is most definitely that by Zetros editions. The translation is vibrant, the commentary is great and up to date, the quality of the print is great. None of the translators/commentators is an academic. The one who is responsible for Arrian actually gets Ufological at times, but know what, none of the scholars of the University of Athens cared to contribute to a translation/commentary. For that matter if you ask the people on the street to name a Classical philologist they will tell you Kakrides (who died 20 years ago) and Maronitis (who is in his 80’s) who were professor at the Aristotle University of THESSALONIKI. If academics want to be the ones to contribute to the diffusion of classical culture, let them do so instead of being stuck in the ivory tower.

    In the mean time academics should not outright reject what learned people have to contribute just because they are not academics. Since the 1990’s a large number of writers who have studied history but are not necessarily academics (though a few of them are like General Gedeon who was professor of military history at the Evelpides military school) have revolutionised the study of military history by publishing well researched articles filled with references to primary sources but also to great Western scholars of the past in serious (but not scholarly) historical magazines like Stratiotiki Istoria (=Military History) or Polemiki Istoria (=War History). I do not see why their very valid research should not be quoted or referenced just because they are not University professor.

    In an case some academics can make your head boil at times with their writings like Maria Repousi. My great-grandfather was exterminated in the labour batalions by the Young Turks, my grandfather did not just immigrate in 1922, he was an orphan refugee lucky to survive from Kemal’s wrath. But this is what happends when academics get their funding from private foundations with sinister aims like the Soros foundation which pay willing scholars to rewrite history so that it becomes more palatable for globalisation. Thank God for goverment sponsored scholars, at least when public money is used then public benefit can come.

    And madness in not restricted to one country’s academics. Fomenko with his New Chronology is a Russian Academic

  9. James Snapp, Jr.

    Just a quick note in J. West’s defense: looking at his blog-entry today, I see that along with the Greek, there is a reference (in English) to First John 2. First John 2:18 is the Greek text that he provides. When he wrote, “No need for speculation,” he didn’t mean, “There is no need for you, non-Greek-reader, to speculate about what this Greek text means;” he meant, “In the light of this statement from the most authoritative of sources — the inspired Greek text of the New Testament — there is no reason to speculate about the identity of the anti-Christ.” At least that’s how I took it. Maybe he has made some elitist-sounding comments elsewhere but I don’t think this is one of them.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  10. Dragoş

    I am Romanian and I will start with an example from recent Romanian historiography.

    In Romania, as in most Eastern European countries, the study of history was severely affected by political ideologies. Pseudo-scholarship flourished during the Communist regime, as a large number of party activists were summoned to (re)write history, not only in academic treaties but especially in popular books and articles.
    One such article was printed in the 80s and it claimed ancient (Dacian) origins for Romanian flag. The evidence came from this text: http://books.google.com/books?id=d3rUAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA19
    The next passage was extracted and “ammended”:
    Ex parte dextra, in prima divisione, scutum rubrum in cuius medio videtur turris, significans ultramque Daciam, in secunda divisione scutum coelesti cum (signum) tribus Burris, quarum duae e lateribus albae sunt, media vero aurae.
    The “translation” followed (slightly adapted by me from Romanian to English):
    From the right side, in the first section a red shield with towers to be seen on it, meaning the Dacia beyond, in the second section a sky-blue shield having the signs of the Buri tribe and having white strips on the two sides, while the middle (between the shields) is golden (yellow).
    This “study” has echoes even today, as there are several Romanian web pages presenting this “evidence” persuasively (those not knowing Latin would rather believe “tribus” means “tribe” not “three”).

    So is really Latin not needed to study a large part of European history??

    As for the previous discussion:

    There’s no perfect translation. We can’t hope to master texts originally composed in Latin, Greek, or Arabic only by reading them in English. Also the manuscript tradition may be vital for reading correctly some passages. But in the end it matters what the reader needs: a novel or historical evidence.

    Our education is a red herring as, unless we get special training (and become scholars or exceptionally learned amateurs), it doesn’t provide instruments to help us interpret ancient texts, archaeological evidence, etc.

    The average educated individual can’t understand many technical books (medicine, quantum physics, etc), even when written in his own language. Of course there’s a variety of popular historical narrative which is edible, but there’s a technical side to archaeology or to philology.
    There are many academic papers easily or even freely accessible, who reads them? BCH is online, there are some free PDF articles from ZPE, how many people actually read these? Why ask then for better access to scholarly materials?

    And if these educated individuals prefer some real fun instead of reading Migne, isn’t the elitism of scholars rather a perception from outside? One cannot have the cake and eat it, to spend a life of leisure but get the ultimate knowledge. Wiki-knowledge is an illusion. There are some paths with no shortcuts, sometimes it’s impossible to get a solid understanding without some serious learning and study.

  11. Roger Pearse

    I agree that real knowledge requires real study. But to exclude all but a small group… no.

  12. Dragoş

    I guess my point was that most people get excluded by their own choices. I am no scholar but I know I can become one if I choose to. The term ‘scholar’ is perhaps misleading and we might understand better if we think of experts.

    Scholars themselves admit they are not part of other smaller groups. Many classical philologists have no or little competence in archaeology, or even paleography.



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