Tuesday, November 06, 2012

What DID Polybius mean by: πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας?

In your textbook a lot is made of the concept πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας (pragmatikes historias)  It is introduced with a fanfare as though it holds the key to Polybius’s method of history-writing.

Your textbook is not alone.  The English scholar FW Walbank devoted an entire chapter to it in his book on Polybius (1990), in which he associated it with the various aspects of Polybius’s historical technique – his world-view, his interviewing of eyewitnesses, his evocation of τύχη, his interrogation of sources, his integration of geography, art, science and moral issues, his focus on how and why, and his end – a history ‘intended to furnish both political and military lessons’.

The impression is that Polybius intentionally developed a ‘brand’ of History which he called πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας – and the temptation, given the fact that both words have derived-down into the English language, is to transliterate this as ‘Pragmatic History’.

But DOES πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας encompass all those ideas?  I do not pretend to be an expert on any of this, but I am fairly sure that such is NOT the actual case.

πραγμα and its relatives
The stem πραγμα- occurs 65 times in Book One.

The word πραγμα (pragma) means simply a concrete ‘deed’, ‘act’ or ‘event’, and mostly that is how it is used.
The derived word πραγματείας (pragmateias) occurs just four times in Book 1 – all in the first four chapters.  It is various translated as ‘events’, ‘my History’ and even as ‘systematic history’, but the Greek word is probably best translated as ‘the work’ (i.e. the book I have written).
Another derived word is πραγματευομέναι, which translates as ‘to be busy’.

The adjective πραγματικός (pragmatikos) is also derived from πραγμα, and means ‘fit for action’ or ‘effective’, although it can be used for ‘statesmanlike’ and ‘political’.
Once it is used in conjunction with the word οἰκονομίας (oikonomias) to mean ‘fit to be a statesman’.

It is perhaps worth noting that at NO point does it mean the same as our word ‘pragmatic’, which means: ‘Dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations’.

While we are at it, it is worth also noting that the Greek word ἱστορίας (historias) does not mean the same as our word ‘history’.

The Greek word means properly ‘an inquiry’, although it can also be used for the results of that inquiry (and therefore ‘knowledge’).  Applied to historical events, it usually means simply ‘story’ – the narrative of events.

πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας
The fact that the phrase πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας occurs only TWICE in the whole of Book One might make us wonder whether the phrase had as much significance for Polybius as it does for historians.

It is worth, however, noticing the contexts in which the phrase occurs.

The first time the phrase πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας occurs is in Book 1, Chapter 2, in which Polybius is trying to convince the reader that ‘it must by now be obvious that my present subject matter is both remarkable to contemplate and extensive in its range’.  He concludes:

πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας will help readers to understand more clearly how [the Romans conquered their empire], while at the same time explaining the many great benefits which students can derive from a close study of the subject.
[On this occasion, WR Paton (1922) translated πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας as ‘the systematic treatment of history’; Evelyn S. Shuckburgh (1889) translated it as ‘my narrative’.]

The second time, in Book 1, Chapter 35, is when Polybius is discussing the lessons to be learned from Regulus’s defeat in Africa:

In these events there will be found by one who notes them aright much to contribute to the better conduct of human life. For the precept to distrust Fortune, and especially when we are enjoying success, was most clearly enforced on all by Regulus's misfortunes… Reflecting on this we should regard as the best discipline for actual life the experience that accrues from πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας.
[On this occasion, WR Paton (1922) translated πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας as ‘serious history’; Evelyn S. Shuckburgh (1889) translated it as ‘true history’.]

Moving towards a definition
So what does πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας actually mean, and is it the key to unlocking Polybius’s historical method?

It could, of course, mean something as simple as ‘the story of events’ or 'general history' but, taking the dictionary definitions at face value, I would be more inclined to go with something along the lines of:

‘a fit-for-action inquiry’.

This would make sense in the contexts in which the phrase appears. 

Polybius (as we saw when he studied his use of the word τύχη) believed that πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας (i.e. a 'fit-for-action inquiry’) – if it did not help you avoid the misfortunes of τύχη – at least helped you to be ready for it, and to cope with it when it happened.

‘Fit-for-WHAT-action?’ you ask, and the answer is that it is fit for the purpose of preparing you to cope with τύχη … or so it seems from the context of the two passages in which the phrase occurs in Book 1.

Thus, whilst I would doubt that it is valid to label Polybius's historical method with the title: πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας (Polybius's references to it are too casual and too remote), nevertheless I would suggest that it IS true that Polybius believed that History allowed his readers to ready themselves for the ups-and-down of life, and that he used the specific phrase πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας (i.e. a 'fit-for-action inquiry’) to describe his work in this respect.

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