Polybius, Histories: On the Folly of Relying on a Part to Understand the Whole (4.1-4.11)

“For, those who have faith that examining a part of history judiciously explains the whole of it seem to me to suffer the same thing as men who, once they have seen the dislocated limbs of a previously living and beautiful creature, believe that they can suffice as a witness of that same animal alive and well. If anyone else could put the thing back together and make the animal whole again in its appearance and possession of its life, then he would be able to show to these men—and I think that all of them would quickly agree—that they were themselves dislocated far from the truth, as if men lost in dreams. Indeed, it is possible to gather some notion of the whole from its parts, but it is impossible to derive knowledge and an unchanging opinion. For this reason, we must recognize that a specialized history can contribute only something small toward a confident understanding of the whole. From the overlapping influence of everything in relation to everything else, and still from carefully examining their differences and similarities, a man is able to approach and empowered to derive both the usefulness and pleasure of history.”

καθόλου μὲν γὰρ ἔμοιγε δοκοῦσιν οἱ πεπεισμένοι διὰ τῆς κατὰ μέρος ἱστορίας μετρίως συνόψεσθαι τὰ ὅλα παραπλήσιόν τι πάσχειν, ὡς ἂν εἴ τινες ἐμψύχου καὶ καλοῦ σώματος γεγονότος διερριμμένα τὰ μέρη θεώμενοι νομίζοιεν ἱκανῶς αὐτόπται γίνεσθαι τῆς ἐνεργείας αὐτοῦ τοῦ ζῴου καὶ καλλονῆς. εἰ γάρ τις αὐτίκα μάλα συνθεὶς καὶ τέλειον αὖθις ἀπεργασάμενος τὸ ζῷον τῷ τ’ εἴδει καὶ τῇ τῆς ψυχῆς εὐπρεπείᾳ κἄπειτα πάλιν ἐπιδεικνύοι τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐκείνοις, ταχέως ἂν οἶμαι πάντας αὐτοὺς ὁμολογήσειν διότι καὶ λίαν πολύ τι τῆς ἀληθείας ἀπελείποντο πρόσθεν καὶ παραπλήσιοι τοῖς ὀνειρώττουσιν ἦσαν. ἔννοιαν μὲν γὰρ λαβεῖν ἀπὸ μέρους τῶν ὅλων δυνατόν, ἐπιστήμην δὲ καὶ γνώμην ἀτρεκῆ σχεῖν ἀδύνατον. διὸ παντελῶς βραχύ τι νομιστέον συμβάλλεσθαι τὴν κατὰ μέρος ἱστορίαν πρὸς τὴν τῶν ὅλων ἐμπειρίαν καὶ πίστιν. ἐκ μέντοι γε τῆς ἁπάντων πρὸς ἄλληλα συμπλοκῆς καὶ παραθέσεως, ἔτι δ’ ὁμοιότητος καὶ διαφορᾶς, μόνως ἄν τις ἐφίκοιτο καὶ δυνηθείη κατοπτεύσας ἅμα καὶ τὸ χρήσιμον καὶ τὸ τερπνὸν ἐκ τῆς ἱστορίας ἀναλαβεῖν.

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