Clio Speaks: History Today

Why Clio?

October 4, 2019

By Dr. Randall Souza

Clio has come to be identified as the Muse of History: in Greek mythology, she is one of the nine daughters born to Zeus and Mnemosyne (“Memory” personified). Hesiod, writing at the end of the 8th century BCE, describes his encounter with this group as a sort of initiation:

Once they taught Hesiod beautiful song
as he watched his sheep near holy Mt. Helikon;
this is the first thing the goddesses told me,
the Olympian Muses, daughters of aegis-shaking Zeus:
"Rustic shepherds, evil oafs, nothing but bellies,
we know how to say many lies as if they were true,
and when we want, we know how to speak the truth.”
This is what the prompt-voiced daughters of great Zeus said;
they picked and gave me a staff, a branch of strong laurel,
a fine one, and breathed into me a voice
divine, to make famous what will be and what was.

(Theogony 22-32, translation adapted from Richard S. Caldwell)

In some ways, it is not a promising debut for the Muses. For one thing, they begin with verbal abuse, mocking Hesiod and other mortals as incompetent and greedy. Do we want to align ourselves with demigods who think so little of humanity? Isn’t inspiration supposed to be positive and affirming?

For another, when the Muses mention their powers, they lead not with an ability to tell the truth, but with an ability to seem to tell the truth. This double-edged sword resonates grimly today, when trust in experts is extremely low, and lower still if they’re saying something you don’t want to hear. It also explains why the annual gala of the global advertising industry is the Clio Awards.

Lastly, Hesiod says that his new divine voice aims to celebrate, and Clio is particularly implicated here: her name means “Make Famous.” Historians today insist on a critical approach to their subjects, and avoid simple narratives full of glorious deeds. Fawning on celebrities is usually bad history.

But Clio is still a good Muse for historians.

Humans can indeed be short-sighted and greedy. Someone who has sufficient resources and yet spends time and energy to accumulate more might well deserve the label “evil oaf” or “nothing but belly.” Laozi, composing only slightly later than Hesiod, agrees: “There is no greater calamity than not knowing what is enough” (Daodejing 46, translation from Philip J. Ivanhoe). After physical needs are met, a whole universe of opportunities for greater fulfillment opens up, and curiosity is a historian’s virtue. Clio reminds us to cultivate curiosity.

There is no reason to hide the fact that historians, like other experts, can suppress inconvenient evidence, under- or overstate significance, and coat incoherent arguments in academic jargon. However, when we teach critical methodologies, source criticism, and public engagement, we give our students the ability to evaluate claims about history on their own terms. Clio reminds us to be responsible scholars.

Making something or someone famous does not have to mean that we offer only blind praise. The point of historical research is to produce new knowledge, whether by discovery or reanalysis, and to communicate this knowledge to others. We know a great deal about “what was,” and while we do not know for certain “what will be,” we have educated ideas about how the world has worked up until now. Clio reminds us to share what we learn.

History has come a long way since Hesiod’s daydream, and historians today have the good fortune of being able to draw inspiration from many more sources than just the ancient Greeks. Muses take many forms, and every so often we may want to hear from Memory’s daughter.