Voice recognitions in history

History is full of people reporting what other people have said and done. To capture historical truth is to recover the voice of all those who wished to speak to us, the consumers and readers of history. It is also to recognise authentic voices and distinguish them from less genuine ones.

For the ancients, the best kind of history one could write was something called autopsy. It was a type of history based on the historian’s eyewitness account. It comes from the Greek word autopsia ‘a seeing with one’s own eyes’.

But most written history wasn’t autopsy. It was second-hand, reported, oblique. It was less about what the historian saw than what the historian knew that others had seen, heard, said and done.

The reporting of other peoples’ voices went on outside the field of history writing. While a large part of ancient literature and philosophy has been lost in transmission and didn’t reach us, we are nevertheless fortunate enough to preserve some of the voices of those whose works didn’t come down to us. We know about the lost works of antiquity from the writings of those authors whose works did survive and who reported what the others had written. For instance, most of the writings of Europe’s first philosophers, the so-called pre-Socratics, have been lost; the little we know about this group of people comes from the report of later philosophers and historians, scattered quotes which scholars are still struggling to put together into meaningful pictures.

Tracks in the mud. But even these tracks can be misleading and things are not always what they appear to be. The Greek historian Thucydides multiplied the number of speeches that his characters are said to have uttered, and which he wouldn’t have witnessed. And we have no way of knowing whether the voices we hear are genuine or fabricated. The scholars’ odyssey of bringing texts home and recovering lost voices continues. The winds keep blowing, but not always from the right direction.

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