Today I read two things that spoke with the same voice. One was Erich Auerbach’s account of Giambattista Vico’s theory of history, according to which any account of human action—whether a description of the past or a future’s prediction—cannot be reduced to a science in the modern sense of that word. Vico, who lived in the 18th century (and Auerbach, born at the turn of the twentieth and living through the World Wars) distinguish between “the world of the nations” made by man and “the world of nature” made by God. The world of nature can be described and predicted according to the conventions of scientific experimentation, which requires the control of conditions in the observation of phenomena. The world of the nations, on the other hand, alone can truly be known by men “[because it] was made men themselves” (Auerbach).
Auerbach goes on: “Since Vico’s time, it is true, far more rigorous methods of observing and recording human behavior have been devised; but they have neither shaken nor supplanted our empirical confidence in our spontaneous faculty for understanding others on the basis of our own experience (actually this faculty has been very much enriched by the findings of modern science).
“Indeed, strict scientific methods are not applicable to historical phenomena or to any other phenomena that cannot be subjected to the special conditions required by scientific experimentation. Thus the investigation of historical processes in the broadest sense…still depends very largely on the investigator’s judgment, that is, on his faculty for “rediscovering” them in his own mind.” (Auerbach, E. (trans. R. Manheim) Literary Language and its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. New York, 1965: 7–8)
But of course Vergil had already said it better about two thousand years earlier.
ac prius ignotum ferro quam scindimus aequor, / uentos et uarium caeli praediscere morem / cura sit ac patrios cultusque habitusque locorum, / et quid quaeque ferat regio et quid quaeque recuset. /…continuo has leges aeternaque foedera certis / imposuit natura locis, quo tempore primum / Deucalion uacuum lapides iactauit in orbem / unde homines nati, durum genus. Gerogicon Liber 1.50–63
Before we cleave the unknown field with iron,
Our job’s to learn the winds and character
Of heav’n; our fathers’ ways of toil and tillage,
And what each region bears and each refuses.
You see that nature has imposed these laws,
Eternal pacts, on certain places, when
Deucalion first cast stones to the empty earth
Whence men, hard race, were born.…
Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being the gadfly of my discipline.