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Empathy and Ancient Historiography

Regina M Loehr

Furman University

Polybius claims that history should instruct the readers through learning from others’ experiences in the past (Polybius, 1.1.3).  That is, they should benefit from others’ experiences and live through them, learning what path and choices to take (and what not to take) without having to undergo those experiences.  However, Polybius also argues that a historian should write from personal experience first and foremost and in Book 12 famously criticizes Timaeus for failing to do so.  Polybius also claims that the point of historiography is to find one who can join in one’s own anger, pity, or justice (Polyb., 3.31.5-9).  Thus, the point of history is not only for one to learn from others’ experiences, but to be able to find others to empathize with oneself.  I argue that the modern study of empathy provides a useful, parallel frame for analyzing Polybius’ purpose of historiography.  Empathy involves complex processes on both cognitive and affective levels for one to share experiences and emotions with others.  I investigate how modern theories of empathy illuminate Polybius’ views on the purpose of historiography.

First, I provide a brief summary of modern scholarship on the types of empathy and focus particularly on cognitive empathy (Maibom 2017; cf. Stueber 2018).  The subject feeling empathy witnesses others’ experience and emotion, reflects and applies the situation to themselves, and feels with and for the other.  Next, I analyze Polybius’ purpose of historiography following the process of cognitive empathy.  Polybius states that the purpose of history is to learn from experience without such suffering, which accords with the modern theory of cognitive empathy:  readers witness others’ experiences (and emotions) in history, apply the situation to oneself, and learn how to make decisions based on this process (Polyb., 3.31).  Moreover, Polybius states that the reader benefits from history by being able to discern who will grow angry together, who will feel pity with the reader, and who will join with the reader in rectifying the situation (Polyb., 3.31.9; cf. 2.56.12-13, 38.4.8-9).  Polybius applies the empathic process to his readers’ benefit:  From understanding others’ past experiences and emotions, they will be able to tell who will empathize with themselves as well.  Polybius’ version of historiography should lead to emotional awareness and intelligence, a benefit of empathy which finds parallels in modern studies of emotion. 

This paper builds off of current studies of ancient historiography.  John Marincola’s work opened studies into the historians’ statements of purpose and the study of emotion in historiography (Marincola 1997; 2003).  Arthur Eckstein and Craige Champion have analyzed rhetorical, literary, and moral aspects of Polybius’ Histories and thus provide a foundation for this paper on Polybius’ historiographical agenda (Eckstein 1995; Champion 2004).  Moreover, Eckstein has recently and persuasively analyzed Polybius’ criticisms of “tragic historiography” and Phylarchus, who provided exaggerated detail and narrative in order to stir emotions in his readers inappropriately (Polyb., 2.56.7-11; Eckstein 2013).  My study of Polybius’ historiographical purpose as a process of empathy builds off of Eckstein’s analysis and demonstrates that Polybius deemed appropriate emotion essential to history, both in evaluating and in using history.

Session/Panel Title

Principles and Practices of Greek Historiography

Session/Paper Number

2.4

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