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Poetry/Philosophy History/Providence in Vico's New Science

A very interesting book by Raymond Barfield was published last year by the University of Cambridge Press titled The Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry. The book was positively reviewed. What attracted my attention was the fact that a whole of chapter six was devoted to Vico’s New Science. It follows a treatment of Plato’s and Aristotle’s views on the subject, then St. Augustine’s neo-Platonic Christian view placing revelation above both poetry and philosophy, a position modified by Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of beauty related to a more positive account of poetry, albeit one which keeps poetry subordinate to philosophy and revelation. Barfield gives particular importance to Aquinas refusal to write after 1273. He interprets Aquinas’ silence as he did Plato’s Seventh Letter, concluding that for both thinkers there exist some mysteries or experiences that exceed our capacity to articulate them. The same point is made in Dante’s Paradiso where Dante seems to be struggling to articulate the experience of the transcendent revealed realities he encounters.

In chapter six, Barfield examines Vico’s New Science, in which poetry and myth are the equivalent of divine revelation. It is only when philosophy arrives that humans move from imaginative universal accounts to an intelligible universal one. But this substitution is not one of progress, because philosophy in turn becomes a type of ironic poetry and a new myth is needed to replace it. For Vico, this cycle between poetry and philosophy is interrupted with the historically true myth of Christ’s Incarnation. With this new historical event, the philosopher’s consolation resides not in the hope of earthly wisdom but in the recognition of divine providence, something larger than either the poet or the philosopher. It is divine providence that enables us to move from poetry to philosophy and then from philosophy to the irony and paradox of which the philosopher can be aware. Croce disregarded the concept of providence in Vico, but it remains central to the proper understanding and interpretation of the New Science.

I’d like to pursue this nexus between philosophy, poetry and revelation by examining in their original language some key passages in Vico’s New Science, especially as they relate to Homer and the poetical. This has become necessary nowadays in the light of the charge that it is because of bad translations of Vico that he has been turned into a historicist. I continue to contend that to deprive Vico of his historicism is to rob him of his uniqueness and originality. Most Vico scholars agree that whereas in De antiquissima Italorum sapientia Vico still sought primary philosophical truths in the primitive language of the Italic peoples, by the time he wrote the Scienza Nuova he had come to see poetry as the hidden source of all subsequent forms of knowledge, part of a primitive culture where imagination has the upper hand over reason and the mental faculties that later forms of civilization put to the fore. This change is responsible, then, for the sudden primacy of Homer as a topic in his work, a theme that occupies the third of the five books in the 1744 edition. The centrality of Homer to the architectonics of this complex project is hardly an accident. In the frontispiece of the last two editions, a figurative emblem characteristic of the times clearly features a statue of Homer struck from behind by a divine light reflected off a figure of Metaphysics (see Figure 1). The statue rests on a cracked pedestal, which Vico says represents the discovery of the true Homer, which until this time has remained hidden. It is worth citing in full what Vico symbolizes in this emblem of Homer, as it announces well before the full discussion in book 2 the topic of poetic wisdom: “Lo stesso raggio si risparge da petto della metafisica nella statua d’Omero, primo autore della gentilità che ci sia pervenuto, perché, in forza della metafisica (la quale si è fatta da capo sopra una storia dell'idee umane, da che cominciaron tal’uomini a umanamente pensare), si è da noi finalmente disceso nelle menti balorde de’ primi fondatori delle nazioni gentili, tutti robustissimi sensi e vastissime fantasie; e – per questo istesso che non avevan altro che la sola facultà, e pur tutta stordita e stupida, di poter usare l’umana mente e ragione - da quelli che se ne sono finor pensati si truovano tutti contrari, nonché diversi, i princìpi della poesia dentro i finora, per quest’istesse cagioni, nascosti principi della sapienza poetica, o sia la scienza de’ poeti teologi, la quale senza contrasto fu la prima sapienza del mondo per gli gentili. (SN, par. 6) The translation of this original passage is as follows: “the same ray [of divine providence] is reflected from the breast of metaphysic onto the statue of Homer, the first gentile author who has come down to us. For metaphysic, which has been formed from the beginning according to a history of human ideas from the commencing of truly human thinking among the gentiles, has enabled us finally to descend into the crude minds of the first founders of the gentile nations, all robust sense and vast imagination. They had only the bare potentiality, and that torpid and stupid, of using the human mind and reason. From that very cause the beginnings of poetry, not only different from but contrary to those which have been hitherto imagined, are found to lie in the beginnings of poetic wisdom, which have from that same cause been hitherto hidden from us. This poetic wisdom, the knowledge of the theological poets, was unquestionably the first wisdom of the world for the gentiles. “

paparella01_400Thus from the very first page of the work, Vico casts Homer at us as a figure of primacy tied to an antiquissima sapientia, but one now seen in a new light as a primitive “poetic wisdom” that characterizes the first age of the gentile world (the Hebrews’ world of revealed truth is a different matter). Two features of prime importance are 1) the association of this early wisdom with the childhood of the human race, and 2) that the understanding of this age is shaped by the conditions of embodiment (since the first peoples erano quasi tutti corpo e quasi niuna riflessione (NS, par. 819) and what is directly experienced, grows directly from innate imitative capacities, and is powerfully informed by the imagination and the passions. On the one hand, this means that the prior stage of civilization must be understood in its own terms—and here Vico parts company with those learned allegorists who remake heroic poetry in their own philosophical image. But on the other hand, it is clear that, just as childhood is very different from adulthood, the experiences of the former are foundational to the latter. Hence while Vico edges toward a certain historicism in approach, at the same time he holds to the notion that there is a common link between human societies that his new science will trace. Among the axioms or degnitá of his first book, is the apodictic assertion that “There must in the nature of human institutions be a mental language common to all nations, which uniformly grasps the substance of things feasible in human social life and expresses it with as many diverse modifications as these same things may have diverse aspects” (SN, par. 161). He goes on to assert “This common mental language is proper to our Science, by whose light linguistic scholars will be enabled to construct a mental vocabulary common to all the various articulate languages living and dead” (SN, par. 162). Moreover, Vico has discovered a vital central fact: “the first gentile peoples, by a demonstrated necessity of nature, were poets who spoke in poetic characters,” an insight that empowers his broad reading of mythology and constitutes the “master key” of his new science (la chiave maestra di questa scienza (NS, par. 34).

Though Vico seeks commonalities that link the disparate civilizations of history together into a total picture, it is the essential difference of the primitive age he first explicates in other degnitá stated at the outset of this study. A number of them essentially sketch the nature of early humanity. Men are naturally impelled to preserve the memories of their laws and institutions (NS, par. 201)—hence poetry is very early linked to memory and historical consciousness. All barbarian histories have fabulous beginnings (NS, par. 202); the human mind is naturally impelled to take delight in uniformity (NS, par. 204)—which is responsible for the narrativizing of disparate facts and events into coherent stories. Children naturally filter all subsequent experience through the ideas and names of the first people and things they encounter (NS, par. 206)—meaning that the tendency to unify things in the form of poetic characters is tantamount to a primitive scheme of classification. In children, memory is extremely vigorous (vigorosissima), hence their fantasy is vivid to excess (vivida all’eccesso), since imagination is nothing other than expanded or compounded memory (NS, par. 211)—this explains the vigorous expressiveness of the poetic images to be found in the primitive age, what Vico calls deliberately il primo mondo fanciullo. And finally, children excel in imitation and regularly amuse themselves by imitating whatever they apprehend (NS, par. 215), which “demonstrates” that the primitive world was one of poetic nations, since poetry is nothing but imitation (“Questa degnitá dimostra che ‘l mondo fanciullo fu di nazioni poetiche, non essendo altro la poesia che imitazione”). What is apparent here is that primitive poetry represents a social condition of knowledge, or what we today would term a “mentality” or episteme, that hangs between human ignorance and human knowing, in conformity with the very first axioms of the book: “Because of the indefinite nature of the human mind, wherever it is lost in ignorance man makes himself the measure of all things” (NS, par. 120), and “whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand” (NS, par. 122).

Perhaps the most startling feature of Vico’s historical anthropology is his highly active and creative view of memory: “Memory thus has three aspects: memory when it remembers things, imagination when it alters or imitates them, and invention when it gives them a new turn or puts them into proper arrangement and relationship. For these reasons the theological poets called Memory the mother of the Muses” (NS, par. 819). Thus the poetry of the heroic age is defined as a kind of creative memory—a record of the past, to be sure, one that is universally practiced by all the fanciulli delle nazioni, but one that also implies a constant degree of imaginative distortion. This is particularly important in reference to the anthropomorphism in Greek mythology that generates the age-old negativity of Homeric religion.

Vico renders it thus: “Gli uomini le cose dubbie ovvero oscure, che lor appartengono, naturalmente interpetrano secondo le loro nature e quindi uscite passioni e costumi. Questa degnità è un gran canone della nostra mitologia, per lo quale le favole, trovate da’ primi uomini selvaggi e crudi tutte severe, convenevolmente alla fondazione delle nazioni che venivano dalla feroce libertà bestiale, poi, col lungo volger degli anni e cangiar de’ costumi, furon impropiate, alterate, oscurate ne’ tempi dissoluti e corrotti anco innanzi d’Omero. Perché agli uomini greci importava la religione, temendo di non avere gli dèi così contrari a’ loro voti come contrari eran a’ loro costumi, attaccarono i loro costumi agli dèi, e diedero sconci, laidi, oscenissimi sensi alle favole. (par. 220-221) The translation of the passage is this: “Whatever appertains to men but is doubtful or obscure, they naturally interpret according to their own natures and the passions and customs springing from them. This axiom is a great canon of our mythology. According to it, the fables originating among the first savage and crude men were very severe, as suited the founding of nations emerging from a fierce bestial freedom. Then, with the long passage of years and change of customs, they lost their original meanings and were altered and obscured in the dissolute and corrupt times beginning even before Homer. Because religion was important to them, the men of Greece, lest the gods should oppose their desires as well as their customs, imputed these customs to the gods, and gave improper, ugly, and obscene meanings to the fables.”

In essence, Vico approaches in his views of primitive society a theory of projection in the formation of mythology, but one that is built around the historical truth of poetic texts as a kind of elaborated memory. Instead of straightforward Euhemerism, Vico’s “poetic characters” of the gods are rather personalized condensations of historical notions and ideas quite close to Jung’s archetypes. Since memory is an active and deeply psychological process, the work of the new science is one of recovery: “Le tradizioni volgari devon avere avuto pubblici motivi di vero, onde nacquero e si conservarono da intieri popoli per lunghi spazi di tempi. Questo sarà altro grande lavoro di questa Scienza: di ritruovarne i motivi del vero, il quale, col volger degli anni e col cangiare delle lingue e costumi, ci pervenne ricoverto di falso.” (NS, par. 149-150), which is translated as “Vulgar traditions must have had public grounds of truth, by virtue of which they came into being and were preserved by entire peoples over long periods of time. It will be another great labor of this Science to recover these grounds of truth—truth which, with the passage of years and the changes in languages and customs, has come down to us enveloped in falsehood.”

It is no surprise, then, to find that the third book on Homer is in fact a work of historical recovery, as its title states: Della discoverta del vero Omero. Students of the infamous “Homeric question” are of course familiar with Vico’s surprising anticipation of the issue of collective authorship, of his synthetic characterization of Homer neither as a pure fiction nor an identifiable individual, but rather as “an idea or a heroic character of Grecian men insofar as they told their histories in song” (NS, par. 873). “Homer” is for Vico the name of a textual process. The Greeks themselves were this “Homer” (essi popoli greci furono quest’Omero, par. 875).

For Vico, Homer is a problem to be fixed, but it can neither be resolved with the traditional philosophical resources, nor can one trust the philologists to reach the real heart of the matter. It is rather in the marriage of philosophy and philology, the quest for the eternal truth and the quest for the historically certain, that the Homeric problem acquires its proper significance. The tradition of learned allegoresis is one of the delusions of the learned (boria de’ dotti), but the new science allows us access to the past in a newly legible form, from which the grand pattern of universal history emerges in its distinct clarity. The negativity of Homeric religion and mores remains intact, in a sense, while at the same time one gets successfully beyond it. The basic alterity of the primitive mind implies that we cannot judge the sublime works of heroic poetry by our own moral standards and theological ideas. In this sense, Vico strongly asserts a historicist principle to which he holds uncompromisingly. The first age of the world was occupied, he tells us, with the “first operation of the human mind” (NS, par. 496), which was topical invention and not critique. Philosophical critique is a child of abstraction, and can only prosper in the wake of the richness of invention. “Thus the first peoples, who were the children of the human race, founded first the world of the arts; then the philosophers, who came a long time afterward and so may be regarded as the old men of the nations, founded the world of the sciences, thereby making humanity complete” (NS, par. 498). While the total picture of humanity is thus complete, the rational and imaginative ages are in a sense mutually exclusive in their fullest forms, which, Vico knows, upsets a whole tradition of poetic theory from Aristotle down to Castelvetro and the Straussians of today as well: “For it has been shown that it was deficiency of human reasoning power that gave rise to poetry so sublime that the philosophies which came afterward, the arts of poetry and of criticism, have produced none equal or better, and have even prevented its production. Hence it is Homer’s privilege to be, of all the sublime, that is, the heroic poets, the first in the order of merit as well as in that of age” (NS, par. 384). The civilized mind, then, has to work against its own ingrained rationality in order to grasp the “first operation” thinking of the heroic age, which, Vico clearly asserts, was closer to its own corporeality and in a sense to Nature. Behind the negativity of Homeric mythology, then, stands the inherent historical alienation of the human mind from itself through the course of its development. For the thought-world of the past is in essence falsified by the thought-world of the present. As Vico renders it: “Ma, siccome ora (per la natura delle nostre umane menti, troppo ritirata da’ sensi nel medesimo volgo con le tante astrazioni di quante sono piene le lingue con tanti vocaboli astratti, e di troppo assottigliata con l’arte dello scrivere, e quasi spiritualezzata con la pratica de’ numeri, ché volgarmente sanno di conto e ragione) ci è naturalmente niegato di poter formare la vasta immagine di cotal donna che dicono “Natura simpatetica” (che mentre con la bocca dicono, non hanno nulla in lor mente, perocché la lor mente è dentro il falso, ch’è nulla, né sono soccorsi già dalla fantasia a poterne formare una falsa vastissima immagine); così ora ci è naturalmente niegato di poter entrare nella vasta immaginativa di que’ primi uomini, le menti de’ quali di nulla erano astratte, di nulla erano assottigliate, di nulla spiritualezzate, perch’erano tutte immerse ne’ sensi, tutte rintuzzate dalle passioni, tutte seppellite ne’ corpi: onde dicemmo sopra ch’or appena intender si può, affatto immaginar non si può, come pensassero i primi uomini che fondarono l’umanità gentilesca. (NS, par. 378). The translation of this passage is as follows: “But the nature of our civilized minds is so detached from the senses, even in the vulgar, by abstractions corresponding to all the abstract terms our languages abound in, and so refined by the art of writing, and as it were spiritualized by the use of numbers, because even the vulgar know how to count and reckon, that it is naturally beyond our power to form the vast image of this mistress called ‘Sympathetic Nature.’ Men shape the phrase with their lips but have nothing in their minds; for what they have in mind is falsehood, which is nothing; and their imagination no longer avails to form a vast false image. It is equally beyond our power to enter into the vast imagination of those first men, whose minds were not in the least abstract, refined, or spiritualized, because they were entirely immersed in the senses, butted by the passions, buried in the body. That is why we said above [par. 338] that we can scarcely understand, still less imagine, how those first men thought who founded gentile humanity.”

Vico systematically deciphers Homer as an archive of social memory, and he does this in a way that works considerably to reduce the shocking nature of Homer’s scandalous myths. The binding of Hera, for example, was a “hieroglyph or fable” that originally represented the sanctity of marriage. She was suspended in the air to signify “the auspices essential to the solemn nuptials,” while the rope about her neck recalled “the violence used by the giants [the first gentiles] on the first wives” (NS, par. 514). He goes on, “Her hands were bound in token of the subjection of wives to their husbands, later represented among all nations by the more refined symbol of the wedding ring. The heavy stones tied to her feet denoted the stability of marriage, for which Vergil calls solemn matrimony conjugium stabile [Aeneid 1.73; 4.126].”

Piety and religion made these early men prudent, just, temperate (content with one woman for their lifetime), strong, industrious, and magnanimous. It was not a time, Vico insists, when pleasure was law, “as effeminate poets later pictured it,” “For in the golden age of the theological poets, men insensible to every refinement of nauseous reflection took pleasure only in what was permitted and useful, as is still the case, we observe, with peasants” (NS, par. 516). In fact, the course of history used the very impulsion of lust to create the first kind of human society: “Per venir i primi alla prima di tutte, che fu quella de’ matrimoni, v’abbisognarono, per farglivi entrare, i pugnentissimi stimoli della libidine bestiale e, per tenerglivi dentro, v’abbisognarono i fortissimi freni di spaventose religioni, come sopra si è dimostrato. Da che provennero i matrimoni, i quali furono la prima amicizia che nacque al mondo; onde Omero, per significare che Giove e Giunone giacquero insieme, dice con eroica gravità che tra loro “celebrarono l’amicizia” (NS, par. 554), translatable as “For in order that the first of them should reach that first kind of society which is matrimony, they had need of the sharp stimulus of bestial lust, and to keep them in it the stern restraints of frightful religions were necessary. Thus marriage emerged as the first kind of friendship in the world; whence Homer, to indicate that Jove and Juno lay together, says with heroic gravity that “they celebrated their friendship”

Vico was avidly read by Marx for his attention to the origins of class struggle, and Livy figures prominently in his understanding of the evolution of conflict between patricians and plebeians—though Vico makes this a general condition of developing nations and not just the particular trajectory of Roman social history. Vico’s work is indeed a sterling example of how Homer becomes implicated in a totalizing project of historical understanding, one that departs from the epistemological advantage of modernity (the “new science” of Descartes and Galileo) yet relies heavily on a particular deployment of the past. The past is not self-evident; as embodied in the Homeric text, it is authoritative yet mystified, lapidary yet in need of decipherment. But when properly decoded, Homer divulges primeval truths that modernity must listen to in order to overcome its own historical alienation and be present to itself as a human (and humane) totality. There is an element of nostalgia in Vico for the brave old world of sublime imagination, one that serves as a means of delivering a critique of modern reason. But he insists that such world is lost to the rational age, though it continues to serve as its foundation. Modern man forgets that original foundation at its own risk. The risk consists in accepting a deterministic scheme of history as inevitable progress, a la Hegel. However, given Vico’s cyclical view of history, the ages of the gods and heroes will cycle round again in the ricorso of the nations, hence there remains the possibility of regression to the mondo fanciullo—paradoxically, it is that return to origins that implies real progress in an age of overationalism where what should never have been rationalized has been rationalized…, and this is one of the free unearned gifts of Divine Providence to humankind as Vico describes it.

Dr. Emanuel Paparella. “Poetry/Philosophy History/Providence in Vico's New Science”. 02/06/2012. <>.

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