On the Renaissance: History, Science, and the True Meaning of Data

The achievements of science since the Copernican Revolution have been absolutely astounding. When we study the ancients, we do so with the knowledge of the microscope and the telescope, which have captured visions of worlds entirely invisible until the last several centuries. Faced with this flood of precise scientific clarification, even the most committed classicist may start to feel that the ancients were primitively beholden to the fantasies of myth, poetry, and literature. Science still advances to applause, while classicism seems politely jealous and disapproving. The apparently triumphant scientific mainstream has little interest in classical research, and modern intellectuals, insofar as they are ‘progressive’ in the literal sense, have little patience for regressions back into classical literature. Even worse, the remaining prestige of classical learning may be easily and effectively hijacked to serve an uninformed, reactionary agenda.

Though most people attracted to Classics as a discipline are small “c” conservative personalities, the past is no longer the dusty realm of professors. Classical learning is now a rather eccentric, perhaps even reckless pursuit.  A professional degree in the sciences needs no further explanation or justification, and academic research in natural science is still widely well-respected. Likewise, while the modern social sciences may be challenged, they are still more likely to arouse the passions and sympathies of the general public. Natural and social science is at the foreground of public life, while the amorphous world of ancient literature lurks suspiciously in the background. What are these people up to, that they should still spend their lives reading Vergil when their scientific colleagues have mapped the humane genome?

The classical humanist’s response to the charge of wayward irrelevancy has been expressed in an entire generation of literature critical of narrowly scientific academia. As the criticism goes, science has established a reliable framework by which we may investigate scientific facts, but has left a vacuum of meaning and purpose that can only be filled by the humanities. This line of thought has its origins in the romantic reaction against mechanical determinism, and persists in our digital world. James Hankins, a professor of Renaissance intellectual history at Harvard, summarizes the response in  contemporary terms at the conclusion of his recent article “How Not to Defend the Humanities“:

The voice of the old humanities, which is the voice of the best in our civilization, teaches another lesson. It teaches that our life is more valuable when we care about the sort of person we are becoming, when we learn to love what deserves to be loved, when we are admired by people whose good opinion is worth having. It prevents us from becoming ideological puppets of the powerful, it defends us against the sham values of commercialized culture, and it gives us a center that is our own. It makes us, in a word, humanior—more human.

Hankins supports this vision of the humanities with a particular insight into his own period of specialization, the Renaissance, literally the “rebirth” of classical learning. The term is somewhat misleading, as Hankins points out that classical scholarship as such was not an innovation of the period. The common view that Europe somehow lay in a ‘medieval slumber’ until the rediscovery of classical texts was an invention of the Renaissance itself, exulting in its new embrace of ancient Greco-Roman ideals. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics of the preceding centuries were clearly reading Aristotle, but with an entirely different sense of  priorities — pagan philosophy was expected to serve as a secondary ornament of church doctrine. While the methods of Renaissance humanists may seem unscientific in the sense of modern research, the movement arose from a basic scholarly impulse. Through an act of academic honesty, by reading sources faithfully and accurately, the Renaissance scholars revived something closer to the original pre-Christian spirit of antiquity, and contributed to the development of a “more human” alternative to medieval Scholasticism. 

By accepting classical antiquity on its own terms, the Renaissance affirmed an objective, external sense of history even as it placed the figures of Greece and Rome within immediate public consciousness. Greco-Roman thought now had a place in history separate and distinct from church doctrine, so that it may be engaged to various degrees by the new humanists, who did not dispense with Christianity, which was the modernity of their time. Because the past had been vividly distinguished from Christian doctrine, it might partake in the intellectual life of Christendom as its own force. Intellectual life gained depth, otherizing the Greco-Roman world so that it might be engaged as a lively and provocative background. The development of perspective in painting during the same period supplies an elegant analogy for this historical process.

school of athens
School of Athens, Raphael (1511) – The classical past set in artistic and historical perspective.

After the Renaissance, modern science begins in earnest. This historical relationship between Renaissance humanism and the development of science can help illustrate why the scientific pursuits of the modern university must be reunified with the classical humanities if either is to survive and flourish. While many early modern scientists were doubtlessly inspired by the cultural achievement of the Italian city states, the Renaissance was more than a vaguely secularizing spiritual forerunner of the later Cartesian world. While the humanists did not demand that history be rendered ‘objective’ in the sense of impossible exactitude, their separation of present opinion from ancient sources mirrors the scientist’s need to separate personal conceptions from external data. Though the fact was ideologically inconvenient for the medieval church, Cicero was not affirming the Nicene creed. Besides reviving the scientific attitudes of ancient authors like Lucretius, the Renaissance scholar’s faithful historical interpretations established a new scientific standard for intellectual life. 

But aside from this intellectual history of the emergence of modern science, there is still a more fundamental point to be made. The scientific method begins with data, which every good classicist reads as “that which has been given“. The scientist begins with irreducible primaries, the raw facts of nature from which any more abstracted system must be built. While this primacy of the given has often brought the scientist into conflict with the philosopher, who prefers to begin from a priori principles, the historian quietly appreciates this methodology even as science reigns and history flounders. Historical research starts from the presumption that the records of our past have meaning and value as a data, as the given, irreducible facts of the still evolving human story. 

In fact, if we elevate the common sense understanding of history and qualify the common confidence in science, we can see that there is one basic methodology underlying both fields. Starting from the data given in human experience, either natural or social, scientific and historical accounts attempt to abstract relevant segments of data into meaningful principles and patterns. The finer truths of both disciplines are correspondingly less certain. The historian is fully convinced that Julius Caesar existed, retains some skepticism about his accounts of Roman wars in Gaul, and can only infer, however impressively, the general’s personal understanding and practice of Epicureanism. Likewise, the scientist is certain that Saturn exists, forms reasonable hypotheses regarding its weather, and must speculate as to what Saturn’s orbit tells us about how other solar systems may be constructed. History and Science seem like solid monoliths of Final Knowledge, as deductive philosophy and mathematics suggest, but in truth both only extend provisionally beyond the data. 

However, there is one sense in which science is actually a subset of history. Any set of data, a set of given experiences, must reside in the past if a scientist has gathered them for analysis. Even when scientific data is obtained deliberately through an experiment, it becomes a part of scientific history, joining the comprehensive record of observational data. We may also attempt to influence history, but historical experiments, however intentional, eventually join the long list of human exempla, their former originality long forgotten.

While this observation may at first seem trivial in the case of science, observe how dramatically the sense of scientific research has changed since the discovery of the geological and fossil records. Many of science’s most pressing questions are now essentially historical, informed by the comparison of historical data with present trends. Climate change only became a topic in science with the rise of a climate history, and the warnings of climate scientists will only be proven or discarded as a historical thesis. unfolding over centuries like Marx’s dialectical historical process. Science now attempts to discern if life on Mars may have once existed, just as Gibbon attempted to reconstruct the failure of the Roman empire.

In the spirit of the Renaissance, scientific training should today begin with the mastery of the underlying historical method, the method which originally gave the modern world a sense of scientific data. To deny the importance of history is also to deny the importance of science, as it is to deny the fundamental role of empirically given information in constructing a worldview. For both the historian and the scientist, there is one disarmingly humble formula beneath all higher knowledge — “it once happened that…” For what is science but a history of our interactions with the natural world over the centuries, articulated and formulated so that its insights are timeless? Which is to say — what is science but what history could become once again?

Heraclitus and Democritus
Heraclitus and Democritus – The sad philosopher and the happy scientist reunited!

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