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Vico for Now

G.B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern

by Mark Lilla
Harvard University Press, 255 pp., $39.95

Once established, monotheism surely has a lot to answer for. Disorder and unregulated variety were no longer acceptable, either in morality or in nature. As soon as one sovereign creator was recognized, it became natural, even logical, to suppose that God’s intentions both governed the destiny of humanity and determined a unified master plan for the whole natural order. So both Christians and Jews supposed, as they turned their backs on pagan polytheism, which had allowed a plurality of moral adventures. With monotheism came the belief that there should also be a coherent set of natural laws, with no loose ends unaccounted for, no waste or muddle or mere randomness in nature.

In his magisterial system Leibniz explained this necessity more than half a century before the last, and still uncompleted, edition of Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova in 1744. Leibniz wrote at a high point during the theodicy that brought Christianity and the new natural science together. There is, in his view, a sufficient reason for all the sequences of things that come to exist in space and time. With our limited minds we cannot always find the reasons, but God certainly wanted his chosen world to be the best of all possible worlds, and nothing could possibly stand in his way. Similarly, the moral order, which ought to direct our passions, comes from a single source, and in the long run there should be no inexplicable variety of moral cultures. There must be one set of moral laws willed by God, as there is correspondingly one set of natural laws.

Professor Lilla finds an alternative Christian theodicy in Vico. Among recent commentators on Vico he can claim some originality for starting with Vico’s theology and deriving from it not only Vico’s theory of knowledge and theory of language but also his famous theory of history and of its cycles. Benedetto Croce and Collingwood concentrated their attention on Vico’s glorification of historical knowledge at the expense of the physical sciences, and on his praise of poetry and the imagination as opposed to the clear and distinct ideas of the intellect. I am persuaded that Professor Lilla comes nearer to Vico’s true interests than Croce ever did, and that he is right to insist that the Scienza Nuova is a new justification of the ways of God to man, and is designed to replace the theodicies of Descartes and of Leibniz.

Vico thought that to fall into the sin of anachronism, and to interpret the literature and law of the past in peculiarly modern terms, are the worst of vices in a historian or a philosopher. Professor Lilla is sufficiently a Viconian to avoid this trap and to trace the leading ideas of the Scienza Nuova back to Vico’s earlier works on Greek and Roman literature and on Roman jurisprudence.

Vico was born and lived and died in Naples, on the periphery of Europe and a long way from Paris. He never acquired, or wanted to acquire, the tone and methods of argument of Fontenelle and Bayle or of any other of the plain and disciplined thinkers of that time. Only Hobbes was a possible model for him. In the Leviathan, as in the Scienza Nuova, prose can still rise above itself and in a flash burst into a sort of poetry with some grim image or digression. The Scienza Nuova is exaggeratedly without evident structure, often inspired in its insights and its imagery, with absurd excursions into etymology and into fanciful ancient history, and lacking the ordinary constraints of evidence and scholarship. The style of the book is what it should be according to its own argument: a poetical prose that breaks the mold of enlightened reasoning.

Philosophers of a severely analytical cast of mind find Vico unreadable because his thought is full of intellectual curios and marvels and sudden flights of fancy. A true admirer will be happy with such observations as “The ancient Roman law was a serious poem and the ancient jurisprudence was a severe kind of poetry.” Vico meant this seriously, and the Scienza Nuova itself has its passages of severe poetry: for instance, in its descriptions of the ultimate decadence of tired civilizations and of the anarchy that can return to ruined cities and scattered populations, when citizens regress to primitive violence. But beneath the bric-a-brac of strange learning, there is a clear theme.

Vico’s argument, as Professor Lilla reconstructs it, starts from the one God the Creator, the God of the Jews and of the Christian Church, who replaces in human thought the casual polytheism of the dispersed communities of the pagan world. The recognition of one transcendent God and creator entails that a single history for mankind as a whole must also be recognized: this single history Vico calls “the ideal eternal history of the gentile nations.” The decisive transhistorical, or ideal, events in God’s relation to mankind are, first, the Fall, which leaves only the Jews with the direct access to God through their prophets, and, secondly, the Tower of Babel, which deprives mankind of any single language and culture and hence of any single set of institutions for communicating with God and for reflecting on its history, the history of mankind as a whole.

Mankind is splintered and, in a later phraseology, alienated from itself, in many separate cultures, with their diverse languages and institutions and forms of self-consciousness: each culture experiences its own history in its own style. The Greeks, in Vico’s view, thought of their history in terms of the awakening of reason, while the Romans thought of their history as the development of civic authority and of traditions of public virtue.

The language of Greek reasoning and philosophy was for the Greeks the model of all reasoning, and the language of Roman law was for the Romans the origin of all law and of all sound government. The object of Vico’s “new science” is to disclose the “ideal of eternal history” which lies behind the separate histories of the gentile nations and to show that it reveals a deep structure which is common to them all. This universal and eternal history, not manifest and immediately legible in day-to-day events, is the story of God’s providence, and it is Vico’s claim in his new science that, better than Saint Augustine in The City of God, he can discern God’s providence at work in history, and particularly in the history of languages and literature and of social rituals and customs.

In ancient history there is the providential transition from the dominance of the Greeks’ rational speculation and search for truth to the dominance of Roman law and respect for authority. The Romans provided a perpetual example of the successful search, not for metaphysical truth, but for the authority and certainty that are attainable only through stable institutions and inherited traditions of law and serious citizenship. Civil society requires the certainties and reassurances of well-established customs and habits of thought, and it is only undermined by the restless and arrogant inquiries of philosophers.

Directly contradicting Descartes, Vico argues that the natural sciences can never produce knowledge which is certain and secure, because God made the natural order, and fallen man can never grasp his vast designs. In the natural sciences we can achieve some subjective confidence and general agreement in our representations of natural processes, but we can never claim ultimate truth for them, because they are only the representations of limited and uncreative minds. One can only know, in the full sense and beyond doubt or the possibility of correction, one’s own intentions and creations (the principle of verum factum), and for this reason human beings can acquire authentic and intimate knowledge of human creations, of their languages, histories, literatures, and cultures. In their imaginations, they can enter into the human world of Homer’s Iliad and into the rituals and myths and symbolisms of pagan societies. They can all be reconstructed because they bear the marks of a common humanity, and not of the divine. As children we have all played with poetic fictions and rituals, and with the symbols of family romance and of war.

Natural languages in Vico’s view are supreme among human creations and they are not God’s work. They are the contingent products of the imagination of fallen men dispersed in time and place. They are not the ideal “mental language” that “uniformly grasps the substance of things feasible in human social life.” The design of natural languages and their histories are open to our reconstruction, and we can trace the concepts they represent back to the primitive imagery from which they are formed.

The study of mankind and its dispositions and powers is properly called philology, and its essentially historical methods are completely different from the methods of the natural sciences, which seek to represent, however imperfectly, an order of objects that is independent of their representation. In the humanities we project ourselves imaginatively into ancient and primitive cultures, and try to reconstruct in our own minds the movements of imagination that were natural to them.

It was this rigid distinction between the humanities and the natural sciences that made Vico seem indispensable to Michelet and to Croce. He was used as a defense against the rising tide of positivist philosophies of knowledge from the early nineteenth century until today.

Professor Lilla’s point is that it is a distortion to separate Vico’s vindication of the humanities from the theology at its foundation, and specifically from the metaphor or myth of the Fall, which for Vico was the first truth of metaphysics. Lilla recalls that Bacon is accused by Vico of failing to recognize that “all that man is given to know is, like man himself, limited and imperfect.” The contrast between the understanding accessible to imperfect, limited, and scattered human beings and divine understanding applies not only to knowledge, but also to language. We have to assume, Vico argued, that lurking beneath the many natural languages that have been formed through the centuries, there is a deep structural language. This language is universally shared, and includes within itself the fundamental metaphors and myths that enter into the constitution of civil societies at all times and everywhere: for example, the myth of thunder in the sky as a sign of divine anger, engendering fear and shame, and of the expulsion from the garden of innocence as the beginnings of morality; and all the images associated with the universal relationships of family life.

Hobbes and Locke failed in their reasoning to understand that the transition from brutishness, the state of nature, to civil society is inconceivable without the mediation of the family. These northern Protestants had turned “the order of ideas and things” and the “ideal eternal history” on their head, Vico believed, and by so doing opened the door to moral skepticism. The family as an institution is intermediate between nature and culture, the indispensable bridge between them. Unmarked and unsheltered by a definite status within the family, individuals become nonentities or madmen, like Lear on the heath. There is no conceivable way of learning to talk, and therefore of learning to think, except through the ritualized interchanges of family life.

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