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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.

Secondly, authority and legitimacy, which hold a nation together, are associated with homely patriarchal emotions, and that is why any stable civil order comes to rest upon them. If the legitimacy of monarchy imagined as paternity is not the basis of the state, then the fraternity of the ideal republic, a memory of Roman virtue, is always apt to be recalled as an image of true citizenship, as later in the French Revolution. Only in a phase of final decadence, toward the end of a civilization’s cycle, does a restless probing into the philosophical basis of obedience shake individuals free of their ties. Then we can be sure that a regression to barbarism is not far away, “the barbarism of reflection,” in Vico’s striking phrase. Benthamism and rational calculations of measured welfare would be for Vico the ideal case of the “barbarism of reflection.”

Professor Lilla quotes the following central passage from the Scienza Nuova:

Our new Science must therefore be a demonstration, so to speak, of what providence has wrought in history, for it must be a history of the orders which, without human discernment or counsel, and often against the designs of men, providence has given this great city of the human race. For though this world has been created in time and particular, the orders established therein by providence are universal and eternal.

Why should modern skeptics be impressed by this metaphysical idea of a universal history behind the scattered histories of particular peoples? Is not this mumbo-jumbo irrelevant to the objective study of the past? I think such an objection underrates the power and the utility of the notion of providence, or of some notion very close to it, in most historical writing, from Burke and Michelet onward, even when the associated Christian doctrine is missing.

Vico confronted a problem about understanding the human past that is perennial and that is certainly not confined to Christian believers, even if the story of the Fall and of the Tower of Babel is the most striking dramatization of the problem. Can there be an intelligible history of mankind as a whole apart from a biologist’s story of the evolution of a particular species? Is the history of mankind just a jumble of separate histories? Can we attach sense to “the great City of the human race”? Or are the dispersed cities that exist necessarily dispersed culturally and morally, with their different customs, family structures, arts and literatures? Is moral relativism—autre temps, autres moeurs—the final truth?

Is there an intelligible pattern of social development which can be discerned in diverse cities and cultures, even though they can be seen to be at different stages of development? If there is no such common thread running through the separate histories and literatures of all the nations, how do we acquire the insight that is required if we are now to understand cultures that have perished, together with their languages and their ways of thought? How can we be sure that we have not fallen into the trap of anachronism, interpreting the customs and the literature of the classical or primitive past in terms that are authentically applicable only to the present? But it is a fact that we do enter imaginatively into the harsh reality of the Iliad and its disastrous heroes, and we can remake in our minds that war which was on the surface so unlike our wars and yet has become intensely familiar to many generations who seem to have remembered it almost as part of their own history.

Again, how can we now understand Roman law except as a system of abstract propositions if we have no concrete and first-hand experience of the ways of life of those who administered the law and of those who suffered from it? If we cannot reconstruct the distinctive tones of voice which citizens used when talking to their household slaves, can we ever know whether Latin comedies give a true account of the master-slave relation?

Vico had an answer to these questions, an answer that came to him as part of a general theory of how language is acquired and also from brooding on the special case of Homer, the font and exemplar of poetic invention and of Greek self-consciousness. The stages in the development of mankind as a whole replicate, as macrocosm to microcosm, the stages in the development of a person, from an imaginative and inventive childhood driven forward by free fantasies and strong emotions, which is succeeded by a tired, selfcritical, and prosaic middle age, and leading on to the disorders of senility. Then in social history the whole cyclical process starts off again in the corso and recorso of particular cultures and literatures, which exhibit a universal rhythm of poetical beginnings declining into dry, intellectual, and philosophical prose. It is of the nature of culture that every culture should recapture its own distinguishing past and should play past themes over again, as in Europe with classical revivals, ever recurring, or with Gothic revivals, with the opposing tendency. For Vico any culture is always a recapitulation. This is the corso and recorso of collective self-consciousness, driven to reflect on its own history and to parody its own literature, on the downward path, first, to a silver age and then to a final break-up in skepticism, leading finally to violence.

Imagination, for Vico, is memory set free of any conscious purpose, and we can all return ourselves to the fantastic fictions and to the poetry of childhood, unless we are frozen by the cautions of our intellect. So we can enter into the poetry of the early pagan world before the rise of Christian monotheism, when the gods were still proudly local gods and did not point in unison toward a common path to moral redemption.

Ancient history stresses a contrast between Rome as the ecumenical state and civilization, and, specifically, between Roman law, which was an attempt to unify mankind within a single language of government, and the essential divisiveness of Greek civilization, at least in the classical age of the city states and of Periclean Athens. Providence imposing its universal pattern of development is, as Professor Lilla shows, Vico’s idea of the unity of mankind, replacing the scholastic idea of mankind as unified by the rationality of natural law, which commends itself to the intellect of all men everywhere, however separated they may be in their customs and traditions.

The New Science asks us to forget the myth of reason as a binding, unifying force, which was the error Plato and Descartes made, and to remember both that human beings grow and that they grow in a uniform way; and so must mankind, conceived as a totality, also grow uniformly. Our humanity consists in the uniformity of pattern in our movement from the fantasies of childhood to the adult dominion of specific customs and specific traditions. The universality does not reside in the particular content of the customs and traditions, but only in the order of their formation, which is truly universal. Everywhere language is first formed by ritual observances and poetic similes and metaphors, and everywhere myth and fantasy must precede and shape the philosophy and science that come later. The order of development under providence is immutable.

Reflecting in The New Science on the possibilities and privileges of historical knowledge, in contrast with those of the natural sciences, Vico tried to reconcile two apparently incompatible features of our past and of our relation to our past: first, that cultures and languages are incurably diverse, each limited by their distinguishing customs and traditions and not capable of mutual understanding: secondly, that all the gentile nations participate in a single and providential march of mind and they can each learn to recognize how far they have gone in this march, too far toward decadence, for instance, or not far enough for maturity. Providence, Vico argued, has supplied us with this key to the interpretation of our own history in Europe and to the interpretation of the ancient world.

Vico’s philosophy was to offer a saving self-consciousness. Given this reconciliation of the unity and the diversity of mankind, we have an answer ready for the skeptics and relativists who deny any validity and lasting value to the particular notions of justice and morality that happen to prevail at one particular time. The particular notions have their assigned place in the pattern, and this order of things is God’s design. Any particular notion of justice is contingent upon its historical setting, but the appropriate setting is still underwritten by God’s providence. It is as if God created the framework and the imagination of men filled in the different languages and institutions that composed the different nations.

The interest of Professor Lilla’s exposition is that it forces the reader to consider seriously whether Vico’s philosophy of history can possibly make sense without its theological underpinning. So many commentators seem simply to have assumed that it could, and that Vico’s providence could be an active force in history even though it has not identified itself as God’s providence. The stages of development through which human societies must pass in their separate histories, as projected by Marx and Comte, are secularized versions of a providential pattern. Their theories claim that humanity has a common destiny and is subject to a single law of development, and, secondly, that humanity’s divisions and conflicts will be redeemed in the final stage. This implicitly Christian doctrine of the Fall, alienation and redemption through historical consciousness, is even more evident in the philosophy of Hegel. But if there is not one God, the great Artificer at work, and if there was no Fall to start the process of gentile history, why should not each of the gentile nations in its pride trace its history back only to its own tutelary God or legendary founder, as in pagan times? Without the providential vision of a single creator, could there possibly be Vico’s single ideal history, for mankind as a whole?

Vico thought that the only coherent alternative to providence in history was the operation of chance, as proposed by the Epicureans. As atoms, each following their own path, randomly swerve and collide, forming new units, so nations and peoples chance to come into conflict with each other and so form new national units, which in their turn carry on a story that has no predestined ending and no overall shape or pattern.

The word “modern” in Professor Lilla’s subtitle refers to some such skeptical philosophy, a philosophy which denies that any single consistent set of values could be ordained by God and could always override all the indefinitely many other interests that human beings happen to have. For the skeptical mind, the Babel of languages and scattered cultures is not to be reduced to one stable pattern of development. Following Nietzsche, but with different arguments, “modern” skeptics may claim that division and conflict are the natural state of things both within societies and between societies, and that division and conflict are also the natural state of things within the minds of individuals whose desires and interests are never harmonious and consistent, and where chance and coincidence always play a part.

Human beings know that their origin lies in the intersection of two paths, in the lucky coincidence of sperm and egg; and when, in a romantic mood, they revere individual genius, they also revere chance. If we are not to be reassured by the workings of divine providence, we may as well celebrate the accident of our birthdays and of the birth of a language and of a nation. Professor Lilla’s book helps one to see more clearly the link between Christian monotheism and the philosophies of history which imagine a path toward a final harmony for all humanity. His book has a thorough and discriminating bibliography of Vico studies and a brilliant introduction. It is concise, well written, and altogether admirable.

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