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HOME > Classical Novels > Theory & History of Historiography > APPENDIX I ATTESTED EVIDENCE
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If true history is that of which an interior verification is possible, and is therefore history ideally contemporary and present, and if history by witnesses is lacking in truth and is not even false, but just neither false nor true (not a hoc est but a fertur), a legitimate question arises as to the origin and function of those innumerable propositions resumed from evidence critically thrashed out and 'held to be true,' although not verified, and perhaps never to be verified, but nevertheless employed even in most serious historical treatment. When we are writing the history of the doctrine known as the coincidentia oppositorum, or of the poem called I sepolcri, the Latin of the Cardinal di Cusa and the verse of Foscolo obviously belong to us, both as to the thoughts and the actual words, pronounced by ourselves to ourselves, and the certainty of those historical facts is at the same time logical truth. But that the De docta ignorantia was written between the end of 1439 and the early part of 1440, and Foscolo's poem on the return of the poet to Italy after his long military service in France, is evidence founded upon proofs, as to which we can only say that they are to be considered valid, because they have been to some extent attested, but we cannot claim them to be true. No amount of acute mental labour upon them can prevent another document or the better reading of an old document destroying them. Nevertheless, no one will treat of the works of the Cusan or of Foscolo without availing[Pg 137] himself of the biographical details as to their authors which have been preserved.

An esteemed methodologist of our day has been tempted to found the faith placed in this order of evidence upon a sort of telepathy of the past, an almost spiritualistic revival. But there is nothing so mysterious in the genesis of that belief as to need a risky and fantastic explanation, to which even Horace's Jew would not give credence. On the contrary, it is a question of something that we can observe in process of formation in our private life of every day. We are noting down in our diary, for instance, certain of our acts, or striking the balance of our account. After a certain interval has elapsed those facts fade from memory and the only way of affirming to ourselves that they have happened and must be considered true is the evidence of our notes: the document bears witness; trust the book. We behave in a similar way in respect to the statements of others on the authority of their diaries or account-books. We presume that if the thing has been written down it answers to the truth. Doubtless this assumption, like every assumption, may turn out to be false in fact, owing to the note having been made in a moment of distraction or of hallucination, or too late, when the memory of the fact was already imprecise and lacking in certainty, or because it was capriciously made or made with the object of deceiving others. But just for this reason, written evidence is not usually accepted with closed eyes; its verisimilitude is examined and we confront it with other written evidence, we investigate the probity and accuracy of the writer or witness. It is just for this reason that the penal code threatens with pains and penalties those who alter or falsify documents. And although these and other subtle and[Pg 138] severe precautions do not in certain cases prevent fraud, deception, and error (in the same way that the tribunals established for the purpose of condemning the guilty often send away the guilty unpunished and sometimes condemn the innocent), yet the use of documents and evidence works out on the whole in accordance with the truth; it is held to be useful and worthy of support and encouragement, because the injuries that it is liable to cause are greatly inferior to those that it prevents.
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