Clio among the Muses: A book review by Bob Morris

Clio:MusesClio among the Muses: Essays on History and the Humanities
Peter Charles Hoffer
NYU Press (2013)

How and why “history stands, and should stand, at the center of our quest for a truly humane spirit”

The title refers to Clio who, in Greek mythology is the muse of history and, like all the other Muses, she is a daughter of Zeus and the Titaness Mnemosyne. All of the Muses were considered to be the best practitioners of their fields, and any mortal challenging them in their sphere was destined to be defeated. They were often associated with Apollo. The most common number of the Muses is nine, but the number is not always consistent in earlier mythologies. Hesiod is generally considered to have set their number, names, and spheres of interest in his poem “Theogony.” Clio, sometimes referred to as “the Proclaimer,” is often represented with an open scroll of parchment scroll or a set of tablets. The name is etymologically derived from the Greek root κλέω/κλείω (meaning “to recount,” “to make famous,” or “to celebrate”). Now you know something about her and her possible relevance to history and the humanities. In this volume, Peter Charles Hoffer explores the relationships between and among history and seven related disciplines: religion, philosophy, the social sciences, literature, biography, policy studies, and the law.

He devotes a separate chapter to each, in fact, after first identifying what he characterizes as “the problem with history”: its lack of credibility in recent years as a reliable source for guidance in human affairs. As he explains, although she had for more than two millennia inspired those who assayed to sing, tell, and write stories of the past (e.g. Homer, Plutarch, Herodotus), “Clio’s enticements faded as war and genocide in the twentieth century turned history into a horror story…and drove Clio from her pedestal…The pervasive disenchantment of the academics echoed popular perceptions of the futility of historical study. Entertaining though it might be, it was still ‘bunk,’ ‘lie,’ and ‘one damn thing after another.’ ” What we have here then, is Hopper’s attempt to tell “the story of history and its related disciplines” as he inquires “into the validity of historical judgment” as “a vital intellectual task not just for the historian, but for anyone who reads history and takes it seriously.”

Hoffer suggests — and it is a key point to keep in mind — that although Clio and her companions (i.e. religion, philosophy, the social sciences, literature, biography, policy studies, and the law) sometimes squabble, “they are “inseparable.” How to separate religion and philosophy from the history of the Reformation? How to separate literature and biography from the history of the Renaissance?

After considering several options, Peter Charles Hoffer selected the synecdotal method to present his material, acknowledging that this approach is “not exactly sampling, but using selected parts to represent the hole, I focused on the critical moments when history and its companions were in genuine conversation…By selecting portions of the long dialogue between history and its companions rather than tracking the entirety of the conversation, I found I could illuminate my thesis without blinding my reader.” Indeed, this approach widens access to the material provided; moreover, his lively and eloquent narrative provides a frame of reference within which his reader can select not only “critical moments” but major figures and recurring themes as well as patterns of thought and behavior. Clio thus serves a guide to the best and worst of western civilization. This book is a brilliant achievement. Bravo!

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