• Diving Bell

Opening êthos: how historians claim your trust

Updated: Feb 26, 2020



In the last History post, I suggested that students can find traces of historians' very early schooling in the way they construct their work. From this we can adduce how they understand narrative, truth, purpose, audience, and argument.


The example I used was about the progymnasmata, the series of elementary rhetorical exercises taught as part of boys' very early schooling in preparation for public life. But what about historians of more recent times? A close reading of their work - perhaps especially in media other than print - shows that the fundamental construction of historical narrative in the western tradition doesn't change much.


Practically every writer, no matter how egalitarian, begins a work by asserting their authority. This is important enough in textbooks and travel guides, but such a statement of ethos lies at the heart of history-writing. By accepting this claim to authority, a claim on our trust, we buy into a view of how the world works, what counts as a good society, what's worth remembering, what's odd and what's not, what's right, wrong, good and bad.


Often, we don't even notice that this claim is being made.


It's very visible in a writer like Thucydides, for the simple reason that nobody writes like this any more. Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than anything that had preceded it. The sheer ponderousness of his style (in Greek and in English) puts us in close-reading mode. It's not chatty. It's not personal. We notice it.


By telling us that he's an Athenian, he is not simply declaring his partisanship, he's also claiming affiliation with the most politically and culturally advanced state in the western world. He's one of the clever crowd, he says. He flaunts his foresight: he knew this would be a 'great war', not a simple neighbourly squabble. And his choice of the term 'great' conveys a whole world of values which he expects the reader to share (because who would be brave enough to disagree with the brains trust?). Because it was a great war, it's worth telling - worthier than anything prior (take that, Herodotus!). Read the first five sentences ( here) and you'll see how Thucydides' entire historiographical perspective is vested in his opening claim on our trust.


But what about more recent, more 'accessible' history? The opening segment of Bettany Hughes' documentary on The Minoans provides an interesting anatomy of how historians deploy their authority and claim our trust in popular history.


Unlike Thucydides, you barely notice Hughes' claim to ethos. She's so chatty, so sincere, and the visual medium plays to our fascination with female appearance. We focus your attention on Hughes' looks rather than how she's framing her story, and she definitely works with that prejudice rather than against it. She certainly doesn't use the 'Thucydides, an Athenian' claim to authority. Rather, she frames her documentary in a personal story of adolescent fascination - she fell in love with Crete as a teenager, and this idea of teenage sincerity, candour, and vigour backs up her claim that viewers should be interested in Crete too. Like Thucydides, who 'wrote' the history (at a time when very few people worked in a written medium), Hughes gently reminds you that she's in control of a very privileged medium of production: 'We went to make the film in Crete', she says, before linking herself to Sir Arthur Evans, before whose image she stands in the Ashmolean. The implication in this tightly-composed exordium is that Hughes commands all the branches of History - archaeology, history, biography, autobiography - and can interpret them for us, in our language.


Readers of the fifth century BC trusted the authority of Athenian rhetorical and intellectual training. Viewers of the twenty-first century AD trust the sincerity of teenage passion and the pretty lady who knows that History goes down much better with swimsuit shots. Both claims use the prevailing social values to position the story and the person telling it as something we should consider, trust, and not challenge.


Historians like to believe that their language is 'transparent' - a thin membrane through which readers can look straight on to the things themselves. But the choice of words which ever writer must make is really a translation of that foreign country, the past, into something apparently familiar to us. Thucydides' use of Hellenes and barbarians passes off as unremarkable a geopolitical problem which was being thrashed out in the events of which he writes. But to Thucydides' readers, who read after that thrashing out had happened (to an extent), it appears that he 'speaks their language'. He uses these loaded terms and by using them, further cements their place in his readers' value-framework.


Hughes does something similar, although with rather better special effects and buzz-terms like 'Eurocentric', 'geophysical disaster', and 'traumatized society'. Despite the historian's version of the literary modesty topos - the admission that we shouldn't imagine that the past is just a version of our present - she invokes our values and our reactions in her description of human sacrifice, of flesh gnawed from the bones of children. This mix of voyeurism, faux-relativism, titillation and responsibility is the very essence of popular academia, which has learned from Hollywood how to use its conventions to pitch their own material and to extract the required reactions from their well-trained viewers. Popular historians like Bettany Hughes, Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, and Michael Wood are adept at pitching their own affable authority right in the nexus between the academy and the high street. To put it visually: a leather-jacketed Hughes opens in the Ashmolean Museum, but talking about a 'high-octane, peace-loving, first-file on European Western civilization'. And cut to a swim-suit shot.


The actual material is very foreign indeed, but the way that the story's told makes it seem familiar. It's not the sacrifice of children that we recognize, but the conventions around telling it. The slo-mo special effects, the OOV male storyteller of indeterminate age and origin, the oscillation between frightening remains and the trustworthy interpreting historian - these are all raised within the first five minutes of Hughes' documentary, and they are all part of her prodigious claim to authority. Not simply an academic authority, but a cultural, intellectual, and emotional authority too. Even Thucydides didn't go that far.


But, really. who cares? Isn't it fair to kick off with a show of your credentials?


Yes and no. Ethos is more than simply saying who you are and why you're speaking. Ethos leads to logos, the telling of a story with the aim of persuading you to buy into that story and not to argue against it. Ethos, therefore, aims to make you disinclined to reject what you hear. Whether this is by intimidating you, as Thucydides does, or by jollying you along and making you feel like the speaker's best friend, as Bettany Hughes does, the opening of every historian's work should be scrutinized for this claim to ethos. Our reaction to their claim to put forward an authoritative view of the past and how it really was - even when they say that this cannot be done - determines the future of the conversation that is history-writing.


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