The Madness of Cambyses: Herodotus and the Problem of Inquiry

in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought
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  • 1 Emory University, Atlanta, ga, USA

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In his evaluation of the mad despot Cambyses, Herodotus proclaims that preference for one’s own culture persists after examination. This paper examines how Herodotus’ treatment of Cambyses reveals the insidious ways that thought is bounded by cultural attachments. Blindness to one’s attachments spurs the drive to empire by covering and justifying expansionist appetites. Herodotus’ treatment of Cambyses’ imperialist inquiries will thus not only implicate the Persians, but raise unsettling questions about the Hellenes’ own appetites. Herodotus offers his own methods of inquiry as an alternative. Rather than denying appetite and rendering it subterranean, Herodotus suggests that inquiry must be motivated by the quest for self-knowledge – understanding the diversity of the world helps reveal the fuller contours of human nature. Herodotus’ storytelling engages affect by provoking the intellectual curiosity of his audience. It promises that expansionist appetites can be rehabilitated into genuine curiosity and openness to difference.

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