Polybius on writing history

May 1, 2019 by

By Joe Costello


“Aside from this, Phylarchus has narrated for the misfortune of the Mantineans with exaggeration and elaboration, evidently supposing that it is fitting for historians to point out only lawless actions, while he has not even made mention of the nobility the Megalopolitans displayed in these events, as if it were more appropriate for history to enumerate the errors of men than to point out deeds that are noble and just, or as if those who read histories will be less instructed by honest deeds worth emulating than by criminal actions that should be shunned.” – Polybius

Written over two-thousand years ago, Polybius’ critique is just as relevant and cutting today concerning much of the history of the United States written in the last fifty years  — a competition to tear down American history and its figures with their faults and crimes and ignore their accomplishments. Doing so, we lose the vital thread weaving the development and founding of modern democracy into the fabric of history. The incessant, always righteous, condemnation of those who created the processes and structures of modern self-government leave us ignorant of the complexity of their intent, reasoning, and actions. This comes at a time when the system and processes they created are failing on an ever grander scale and the need to revive, reform, and evolve the processes and institutions of self-government are no longer simply necessary, they are a necessity.

Polybius wrote at a time when Rome had defeated Carthage to become the “lone superpower” of the Mediterranean. Over the next 100 years, the politics of the victorious Roman republic would spiral ever faster into decline, dysfunction, corruption, and eventual destruction. Each time one Roman would lower the political bar, his opponents reacted by taking it lower(latest present example the Russian fiasco as the Democrat’s reaction to Trump election). The people who created the present American system of self-government were all knowledgeable of Roman history, using many of its lessons in structuring the modern republic. Today as history repeats itself, we are left without the wisdom of those whose system we continue to pantomime.

And damn, Caddell’s gone. Pat could be beautiful about politics, a rarity today. I will miss him, especially as our unending elections’ circus focuses on the center ring, utilizing the contemporary anti-democratic triumvirate of marketing/advertising, money, and increasingly indecipherable information tsunamis, making ridiculous our old republican institutions. If you remain under the delusion simply switching one person with another is going to effect necessary change, I have a few names for you – Gracchus, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, and finally Octavian. The Romans never figured the first republic needed a radical reforming. From this lesson of history, it is obvious such reform will be the only way we will keep ours. Such an undertaking can only succeed with an historical political effort, taking advantage of any and all the wisdom of history we can muster, with an understanding by all participants that this is exactly what they’re doing – reviving, reforming, and evolving democracy for the 21st century.

Nunc dimittis

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