History; “the prophetess of truth” and “mother-city of philosophy”

In this post we present Diodorus Siculus‘ perception on History using the Introduction of his monumental work ‘Library of History‘.


“It is fitting that all men should ever accord great gratitude to those writers who have composed universal histories, since they have aspired to help by their individual labours human society as a whole; for by offering a schooling, which entails no danger, in what is advantageous they prove their readers, through such a presentation of events, with a most excellent kind of experience. 2 For although the learning which is acquired by experience in each separate case, with all the attendant toils and dangers, does indeed enable a man to discern in each instance where utility lies — and this is the reason why the most widely experienced of our heroes suffered great misfortunes before he

*Of many men the cities saw and learned their thoughts;

yet the understanding of the failures and successes of other men, which is acquired by the study of history, affords a schooling that is free from actual experience of ills. 3 Furthermore, it has been the aspiration of these writers to marshal all men, who, although united one to another by their kinship, are yet separated by space and time, into one and the same orderly body. And such historians have therein shown themselves to be, as it were, ministers of Divine Providence. For just as Providence, having brought the orderly arrangement of the visible stars and the natures of men together into one common relationship, continually directs their courses through all eternity, apportioning to each that which falls to it by the direction of fate, so likewise the historians, in recording the common affairs of the inhabited world as though they were those of a single state, have made of their treatises a single reckoning of past events and a common clearing-house of knowledge concerning them. 4 For it is an excellent thing to be able to use the ignorant mistakes of others as warning examples for the correction of error, and, when we confront the varied vicissitudes of life, instead of having to investigate what is being done now, to be able to imitate the successes which have been achieved in the past. Certainly all men prefer in their counsels the oldest men to those who are younger, because of the experience which has accrued to the former through the lapse of time; but it is a fact that such experience is in so far surpassed by the understanding which is gained from history, as history excels, we know, in the multitude of facts at its disposal. For this reason one may hold that the acquisition of a knowledge of history is of the greatest utility for every conceivable circumstance of life. 5 For it endows the young with the wisdom of the aged, while for the old it multiplies the experience which they already possess; citizens in private station it qualifies for leadership, and the leaders it incites, through the immortality of the glory which it confers, to undertake the noblest deeds; soldiers, again, it makes more ready to face dangers in defence of their country because of the public encomiums which they will receive after death, and wicked men it turns aside from their impulse towards evil through the everlasting opprobrium to which it will condemn them.

2 1 In general, then, it is because of that commemoration of goodly deeds which history accords men that some of them have been induced to become the founders of cities, that others have been led to introduce laws which encompass man’s social life with security, and that many have aspired to discover new sciences and arts in order to benefit the race of men. And since complete happiness can be attained only through the combination of all these activities, the foremost meed of praise must be awarded to that which more than any other thing is the cause of them, that is, to history. 2 For we must look upon it as constituting the guardian of the high achievements of illustrious men, the witness which testifies to the evil deeds of the wicked, and the benefactor of the entire human race. For if it be true that the myths which are related about Hades, in spite of the fact that their subject-matter is fictitious, contribute greatly to fostering piety and justice among men, how much more must we assume that history, the prophetess of truth, she who is, as it were, the mother-city of philosophy as a whole, is still more potent to equip men’s characters for noble living? 3 For all men, by reason of the frailty of our nature, live but an infinitesimal portion of eternity and are dead throughout all subsequent time; and while in the case of those who in their lifetime have done nothing worthy of note, everything which has pertained to them in life also perishes when their bodies die, yet in the case of those who by their virtue have achieved fame, their deeds are remembered for evermore, since they are heralded abroad by history’s voice most divine.

4 Now it is an excellent thing, methinks, as all men of understanding must agree, to receive in exchange for mortal labours an immortal fame. In the case of Heracles, for instance, it is generally agreed that during the whole time which he spent among men he submitted to great and continuous labours and perils willingly, in order that he might confer benefits upon the race of men and thereby gain immortality; and likewise in the case of other great and good men, some have attained to heroic honours and others to honours equal to the divine, and all have been thought to be worthy of great praise, since history immortalizes their achievements. 5 For whereas all other memorials abide but a brief time, yet the power of history, which extends over the whole inhabited world, possesses in time, which brings ruin upon all things else, a custodian which ensures its perpetual transmission to posterity.

History also contributes to the power of speech, and a nobler thing than that may not easily be found. 6 For it is this that makes the Greeks superior to the barbarians, and the educated to the uneducated, and, furthermore, it is by means of speech alone that one man is able to gain ascendancy over the many; and, in general, the impression made by every measure that is proposed corresponds to the power of the speaker who presents it, and we describe great and human men as “worthy of speech,” as though therein they had won the highest prize of excellence. 7 And when speech is resolved into its several kinds, we find that, whereas poetry is more pleasing than profitable, and codes of law punish but do not instruct, and similarly, all the other kinds either contribute nothing to happiness or else contain a harmful element mingled with the beneficial, while some of them actually pervert the truth, history alone, since in it word and fact are in perfect agreement, embraces in its narration all the other qualities as well as that are useful; 8 for it is ever to be seen urging men to justice, denouncing those who are evil, lauding the good, laying up, in a word, for its readers a mighty store of experience.”

(Source: “The Library of History”, by Diodorus Siculus, Loeb Classical Library)

*He refers to Odysseus; the line comes from the “Odyssey”


NovoScriptorium: Before anything else, we identify a Pan-Human attitude of Diodorus. He writes about ‘the race of men‘. The different people, in Time and Space, are only variations of the one and only ‘race of men‘.

Then, we identify strong bits of Theology; he writes about the Divine Providence that controls the Universe and, of course, Men.

He writes about cleverly taking advantage of Historical knowledge using “the ignorant mistakes of others as warning examples for the correction of error” and “to imitate the successes which have been achieved in the past“.

He writes about the importance of “immortal glory” and “public encomiums received after death“, and how equally important for one is to avoid the condemnation of an “everlasting opprobrium“.

For Diodorus, Historical knowledge is considered as “the guardian of the high achievements of illustrious men, the witness which testifies to the evil deeds of the wicked“. More accurately, in the original Greek text we read:

ηγητέον γαρ είναι ταύτην φύλακα μεν της των αξιολόγων αρετής“,

which means “we must consider her (History) as the guardian of the virtue of the illustrious men“. “Virtue” does not equal “high achievements” and certainly makes a lot of difference in the general meaning of the text.

Everything in History, for Diodorus, is turning around Virtue, Education, the Divine Providence and a Pan-Human, i.e., a Humanistic perception of the World, beyond ‘racism’ or ‘nationalism’ or any other discrimination. There are only ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ people.

A Man’s living, for Diodorus, must be “noble“;  a systematic effort to achieve “complete happiness” (ευδαιμονία – eudaemonia is the exact word in the ancient text and it has a broader and deeper -theological and philosophical- meaning rather than just ‘happiness’), through Education, Virtue and noble deeds, always with a deep respect to the Divine Providence. A Man should always try to “confer benefits upon the race of men” so that he happily ends up “gaining immortality“.

About the “power of speech (λόγος – logos)” Diodorus writes that “a nobler thing than that may not easily be found” and “it is this that makes the Greeks superior to the barbarians, and the educated to the uneducated“. Hence, the only apparent discrimination between people which is accepted by Diodorus is not a ‘racial’ or a ‘national’ one, but, instead, a qualitative one; their use of λόγος, i.e., their education (Παιδεία – Paedeia is the exact word, which has a broader meaning than ‘education’). This obviously suggests the belief (which was a core belief of ancient Greek Philosophy) that a properly educated person, a philosophically educated person, will necessarily become ‘Good’ while the opposite will be the result of a non-Philosophical education.

Last but not least, Diodorus provides us with the information that there have been many people of the past who have been ‘deified after death’. Hence, countless ‘gods’ of the ancients were simply human beings of past times who achieved ‘immortal honours’ due to their benefactions towards “the race of men“.


Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Isidoros Aggelos

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