Brian Young

What It Is To Be Human

A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century


Allen Lane / The Penguin Press 553pp £25 order from our bookshop

The modesty of John Burrow’s title, preferring as it rightly does the indefinite to the definite article, is reflected in the attractive and becoming modesty with which he undertakes an unprecedented exploration of over two thousand years of historical writing. His book is a hugely ambitious project, and one which works wonderfully. That it does work so satisfyingly for the general reader is due, in no small part, to its author’s now sadly unusual sense of the historian’s need for intellectual modesty when considering the chronicles of human experience. Although Burrow properly disavows the temptation to write a grand narrative, there is a consistent theme in the book, which is what one might call a peculiarly historical sensibility, concerned with the sheer multiplicity of human experience and the plurality of histories resulting from considered reflection on that experience. If he is occasionally impatient with the ‘scientific’ variant of history that grew up in the new-found intellectual and political confidence of nineteenth-century Europe and America, complete with its grand narratives and self-conscious achievement of historical ‘objectivity’, it is largely because it tends to ride arrogantly over the larger sensibility which Burrow identifies in historians from ancient Greece to such celebrators of the everyday details of the human comedy as the late Richard Cobb.

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