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Human beings know that their origin lies in the intersection of two paths, in the lucky coincidence of sperm and egg

Home · Your account · Current issue · Archives · Subscriptions · Calendar · Classifieds · Newsletters · Gallery · NYR Books Volume 41, Number 18 · November 3, 1994
Vico for Now By Stuart Hampshire
G.B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern by Mark Lilla
Harvard University Press, 255 pp., $39.95 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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