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From a new translation of Herodotus’ The Histories, by Tom Holland, out this month from Viking.

Just suppose that someone proposed to the entirety of mankind that a selection of the very best practices be made from the sum of human custom: each group of people, after carefully sifting through the customs of other peoples, would surely choose its own. Everyone believes his own customs to be far and away the best. Indeed, there is a huge amount of evidence to support the conclusion that this attitude to one’s own native customs is universal. Take, for example, this story from the reign of Darius. He called together some Greeks who were present and asked them how much money they would wish to be paid to devour the corpses of their fathers — to which the Greeks replied that no amount of money would suffice for that. Next, Darius summoned some Indians called Callantians, who do eat their parents, and asked them in the presence of the Greeks (who were able to follow what was being said by means of an interpreter) how much money it would take to buy their consent to the cremation of their dead fathers — at which the Callantians cried out in horror and told him that his words were a desecration of silence. Such, then, is how custom operates; and how right Pindar is, it seems to me, when he declares in his poetry that “Custom is the King of all.”

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May 2014

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