Thursday, April 05, 2012



Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), pp. 78-79:
When Vico speaks of the splendour of the Homeric poems and gives reasons why they could only have been produced in a society dominated by a violent, ambitious, cruel and avaricious elite of 'heroes', so that such epics could not be generated in his own 'enlightened' times; when Herder tells us that to understand the Bible we must try to enter the world of nomadic Judaean shepherds, or that men who have seen sailors struggling with the waters of the Skagerrak can better understand the stern beauty of the old Scandinavian sagas and songs; when both thinkers maintain that unless we succeed in doing this we shall not understand what these earlier men lived by, spiritually as well as materially, they are not telling us that the values of these societies, dissimilar to ours, cast doubts on the objectivity of our own, or are undermined by them, because the existence of conflicting values or incompatible outlooks must mean that at most only one of these is valid, the rest being false; or, alternatively, that none belong to the kind of judgements that can be considered either valid or invalid. Rather, they are inviting us to look at societies different from our own, the ultimate values of which we can perceive to be wholly understandable ends of life for men who are different, indeed, from us, but human beings, semblables, into whose circumstances we can, by a great effort which we are commanded to make, find a way, 'enter', to use Vico's term.

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