Philosophy and empire: Herodotus and the best regime

Ann Marie Elizabeth Ward, Fordham University


Herodotus, in his Histories, offers a political science that combines freedom for thought, action and deliberation, with the limits imposed by necessity. Athens, I argue stands at the peak of the political possibilities that Herodotus explores, coming to light as the best regime against the background of Herodotus' investigation of the principles of rest and motion. These two principles are manifested in the Histories on four levels: nature, custom, the regime, and speech. On the level of nature Herodotus proposes that the earth in the Nile Valley represents rest and the unchanging, and water represents motion, or that which is in constant flux and brings change. On the level of custom, Herodotus reveals that the Egyptians are a people whose whole way of life is organized around the principle of rest. As such the Egyptians are almost completely immersed within religion and suffer from a near total lack of poetry. The Scythians, in contrast, are a people whose whole way of life is organized around the principle of motion. As such the Scythians revere youth and the future rather than age and the past, a disposition that results in their almost total ignorance of nature and complete absorption within images; they are an almost completely poeticized people. On the level of the regime, Herodotus, like Aristotle, surveys both regimes in theory, those at rest, and regimes in history, those in motion. Herodotus investigates the former in the Persian debate on government, but shows that regimes in theory, abstracting from the question of time and thereby the creative part of human nature, must be supplemented by a study of regimes in history to discover which form of politics is actually best for human beings. Of the actual historical regimes Herodotus surveys, the Athenian democracy, I propose, is Herodotus' best regime. Athens, in moving from divine to secular support for the regime, manages to solve the historical political problem—the difficulty of combining men's desire for equality with government—by instituting the equality of speech and self-government. Moreover, Athens comes closest to integrating the whole of human nature in a way that makes possible a life according to the highest human potential. Part of this life is the mind's access to truth, which, for Herodotus, requires an understanding of ironic speech. Speech is the fourth and highest level on which the principles of rest and motion appear in the Histories. Irony is a type of speech between Persian “truth-telling,” or the idea that words have one unchanging meaning, and Egyptian “lying,” or the assumption that words can spawn an infinite variety of meanings and hence are in constant flux. The Athenian grasp of irony opens them up to the “speech” of Herodotus, and therefore has the potential to move in the direction of philosophy. This study concludes with reflections on how Herodotus' own activity as embodied in the Histories addresses the fundamental political problem of empire. I argue that the Histories itself replaces the Athenian impulse for empire. Herodotus, in his writing, can make the world one while also maintaining the diversity of the peoples that exist within it. Thus it is Herodotus who can moderate the political regime's imperialist impulse by providing it with a superior if intellectual empire in his Histories.

Subject Area

Political science|Ancient civilizations|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Ward, Ann Marie Elizabeth, "Philosophy and empire: Herodotus and the best regime" (2002). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3037233.