An objection to objectivity

An iconographically subjective Julius Caesar depicted in a 15th-century manuscript, Paris, BnF, Français 54

Despite their important differences, Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars and Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions and fundamentally kindred. They are autobiographical accounts, a series of snapshots from the lives of their writers, a philosopher, theologian and church leader on the one hand, a politician and military leader on the other. Both works focus on a significant period from the life of their respective author. The scope of the Confessions (13 books) ranges from Augustine’s infancy to his baptism (350s-386 AD); the Commentaries (8 books) cover Caesar’s eight-year military campaign against the tribes in Gaul between 58 and 50 BC.

The Confessions are written in the first person, the Commentaries, famously, in the third. The former are the more introspective, meditative and confessional; the latter have the trappings of an objective account, a historical report, even a piece of journalism; in any case, they appear to us, as they did to their Roman and post-Roman readers, as a dispassionate account of an agent of history clashing against the forces of circumstance, and landing on his feet.

Caesar’s trick is a fashionable one – the trick of nowhere-ness or the myth of objectivity – one that we still pursue today.

The only natural perspective is that of the subject. The only given perspective is subjective. We only see outside of ourselves through ourselves, each of us through each of us. Even when we profess to look at things objectively, we still look at things, no matter how much we’d like to mute the ‘we’ or the ‘I’ in some sentences.

Distance creates the illusion of objectivity, but distance is merely the interposition of space between the viewer and the view. That distance is often essential for getting the job done, whether in science, law or history. But it is also important to recognise that distance is but distance, the eye forever watching, and the view from nowhere is, in fact, nowhere to be found.

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