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Experiencing the Past: Polybius, ἐμπειρία, and Learning from History

Daniel Moore

University of Virginia

In the preface to his work, Polybius highlights the knowledge (ἐμπειρία) to be gained from reading his history (1.1.6). The emphatic placement of this word at the conclusion of the opening section suggests that Polybius’ choice of terminology here is intentional. But, while Polybius elsewhere in his work (e.g. 1.35.9, 5.31.3) will again use the term ἐμπειρία to refer to knowledge acquired vicariously through the reading of history, this definition represents a marked contrast with the more common meaning to describe personal experience. While the concept of ἐμπειρία as a basis for success is critical in Thucydides (see e.g. de Romilly and Hunter), for example – who uses ἐμπειρία, ἀπειρία, and their cognates fifty-eight times – it refers exclusively in Thucydides to knowledge acquired through first-hand experience. To give one notable example, Thucydides has the Syracusean commander, Gylippus, encourage his fellow citizens by noting that the ἐμπειρία of the Athenians in naval warfare – an important concept from the beginning of Thucydides’ history (see e.g. 1.80.3) – is not something that is inherited or eternal, but only recently acquired (7.21.3). This is indicative of the consistent understanding in Thucydides’ work that ἐμπειρία is not gained from others but only from personal experience. A survey of examples from Herodotus yields the same results.

In philosophical contexts as well, the meaning of ἐμπειρία contrasts with its usage in Polybius. In his Gorgias (464b-466a), for example, Plato describes ἐμπειρία as an irrational (ἄλογος) process of trial and error, as opposed to τέχνη, the philosophical pursuit of the “good”. So too in his Laws (720b), Plato contrasts doctors who rely exclusively on their own experience (ἐμπειρία) with those who inform their prescriptions by a more general study of nature (κατὰ φύσιν). Both examples relegate ἐμπειρία specifically to first-hand experience devoid of secondary studies, an approach to knowledge which earns the disdain of Plato. While Plato’s attitude toward the value of ἐμπειρία is more negative than Thucydides’, both authors define the term in the same way. The multiple passages (e.g. APo II.19,100a6-8; EN VI.7,1141b14-21; Met. I.1,980a27-981b14) in which Aristotle discusses the role of ἐμπειρία in the acquisition of knowledge are much debated (see e.g. Biondi, Butler, Lebarge, and Hasper and Yurdin). Although there are some inconsistencies in his use of the term, however, his definition of ἐμπειρία – toward which he is more favorable than his predecessor – as based on personal experience is largely consistent with Plato. In the Nichomachean Ethics (1181b2-6), for example, Aristotle directly contrasts the reading of medical texts with knowledge based on ἐμπειρία.

Despite the significance of ἐμπειρία in prior historical and philosophical texts, Polybius’ use of the term to describe second-hand knowledge acquired through reading or study – while not unprecedented (cf. Xenophon, Mem. 4.7.2-4 on geometry and astronomy) – is inconsistent with the predominant definition of ἐμπειρία. It also contrasts with its meaning elsewhere in Polybius' work explicitly to describe first-hand experience (e.g. 12.25g.1; cf. Sacks, 35). This suggests that Polybius has not completely changed the definition of ἐμπειρία but is applying the term in a special way to the study of history. This helps to rectify an apparent contradiction in Polybius’ work between the didactic value of history and his repeated emphasis on the unrivaled value of personal experience. Despite his claim in his preface, for example, that history offers the most vivid (ἐναργεστάτην) means of education (1.1.2), Polybius later claims (1.35.7) that practical experience is, in fact, more vivid (ἐναργέστερον). Thus, Polybius’ reapplication of the term ἐμπειρία becomes particularly significant, as it frames the study of history analogous to real-life experience. Polybius’ aim is not to alter completely the definition of ἐμπειρία but rather to compose a history so vivid that it becomes equivalent to first-hand experience.

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Texts and Contexts: Learning from History

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