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Doubting our superiors

Today there is a story in the press about finding Cambyses vanished army. At one point, the article says “The tale of Cambyses’ lost army, however, faded into antiquity. As no trace of the hapless warriors was ever found, scholars began to dismiss the story as a fanciful tale.” Now that actual evidence has been found, they are of course changing their tune.

But this little incident points to a larger problem. Scholars are conditioned to doubt anything they read in the ancient sources unless they can find something in the archeological evidence to back it up. But this is the exact opposite of the way that scholars should approach the ancient sources. Scholars should be taking the ancient sources as gospel truth unless they can find some evidence that falsifies them. And the the absence of evidence never falsifies anything.

To understand why Scholars should assume that the ancient sources are right, you first have to understand why scholars’ default assumption is to look at ancient sources skeptically. In the first place, ancient sources are often contradictory. In the second place, ancient sources often contain things that are unbelievable to modern mind. But I believe the primary reason why scholars are so skeptical is that their training pounds into their heads how human bias can distort how humans see the world around them. Thus, the modern scholar is always trying to correct for the bias of sources that he is reading.

The problem with this approach is that it causes scholars to put themselves in a place of superiority over those that they are reading. As a result, they substitute their own bias in place of of the bias of those that they are reading.

This is not a new problem. Josephus mentioned this problem himself saying…..

However, I may justly blame the learned men among the Greeks, who, when such great actions have been done in their own times, which, upon the comparison, quite eclipse the old wars, do yet sit as judges of those affairs, and pass bitter censures upon the labors of the best writers of antiquity; which moderns, although they may be superior to the old writers in eloquence, yet are they inferior to them in the execution of what they intended to do. While these also write new histories about the Assyrians and Medes, as if the ancient writers had not described their affairs as they ought to have done; although these be as far inferior to them in abilities as they are different in their notions from them.

Josephus’ point is still valid today. With all our technology and learning, we still know less about what was going on in ancient times then the people who were alive and writing then. And no matter their evident faults, we ought always to keep in mind that they were superior to us in this, if in nothing else.

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