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1. Rene Descartes vs Vico Giambattista
In the period before 1750 which we call the Early Enlightenment, the prevalent philosophy was rationalistic perspective of Rene Descartes who is considered as father of analytic geometry and the founder of modern rationalism. Descartes’ philosophy focused on the matter of realization which was epistemology. He insisted that every information or realization should be examined by rational perspective (or rational experimentation). This epistemology of Descartes has been applied in various areas such as mathematics, physics, geometry etc. Descartes has also tried to apply his view of epistemology in History like what he did in those areas. And Descartes devaluated History because the unlike mathematics and geometry, objects of history are not distinct because they come from experiences. So his epistemology excluded possibility of History being more than anecdotal for the reason that the History did not produce clear concepts. Therefore his point was that the History should not be valued in the matter of epistemology. This theory became more prevalent by success of Newton who succeeded to explain certain phenomenon by rational experimentation.
Vico Giambattista proposed a theory that opposed the Cartesian view on History at that time. He strongly disagreed with the devaluation of History made by Descartes. He argued that the epistemology proposed by Descartes must be supplanted by verum factum (Vico, 1744), a principle suggested by him which states that truth is verified through creation or invention and not, as per Descartes, through observation. He stated in his book, “New Science (1744)” that “the first men of the gentile nations, children of nascent mankind as we have styled them in the Axioms , created things according to their own ideas. (Vico, 1744)” This statement supports the idea that History is created by human. Therefore, according to the theory of verum factum (Vico, 1744), human can analyze and realize all about History because human being is maker of History.
It is really true that History can never be analyzed or realized by rationalistic means unlike mathematics and geometry. Descartes’ theory that conceived of human nature as fixed and static was truly anti-Historical. I highly value the attitude of Vico in treating the History. He admired the value of History with respect. He well pointed out that Descartes’ theory could not be suitable for the area of History.
2. The Three Stages – Age of gods, Age of Heroes and Age of Men
However, I disagree with three stages proposed by Vico that History repeats. Although his theory introduced many people the view on History and human nature which insisted value of History, there are several errors in his notions. I believe that it would be helpful for us to briefly look into his theory of three stages.
First is what we call the age of the gods (Vico, 1744), in which the gentiles believed they lived under divine governments, and everything was commanded them by auspices and oracles, which are the oldest institutions in profane history. This is much similar to view of Mircea Eliade that archetypal messages were from above. (Steven Kreis, 2001)
Second is the age of the heroes (Vico, 1744), in which they reigned everywhere in aristocratic commonwealths, on account of a certain superiority of nature which they held themselves to have over the plebeians. In this stage there will be clear classes among people according to power and wealth they have. (Steven Kreis, 2001)
Third is The age of men (Vico, 1744), in which all men recognized themselves as equal in human nature, and therefore there were established first the popular commonwealths and then the monarchies, both of which are forms of human government. In this stage high cultural institution emerged for first time. There was the rise of democratic republics. But such liberty and democracy was not stable because differentiation doesn’t end and this instability led to civil wars. (Steven Kreis, 2001) And at the end of this stage, people cease to think about public good and are only concerned about their private interest. Selfishness, greed, and ambition are prevalent among people. At this point, the culture and civilization are destroyed and there will again be the time of barbarian. People will lose their well developed civilizations which they had before.
This theory of Vico is almost the same with the cyclical conception proposed by Mircea Eliade. Eliade, in his book “Cosmos and History (1954)” insisted that “everything takes place cyclically.(1954)” Actually I agreed in my position paper on Mircea Eliade’s theory with the view of Eliade that History repeats certain patterns. What I mean by patterns here is fundamental feelings and experiences people normally have. And I mentioned about God’s providence (which is linear) on human History. I limited cyclical History as a view of Human being not God.
It seems to be a wild idea for me to explain whole History with these three stages. Vico suggested the perfection of the cycle which says the cycle of History can never be destroyed. In my opinion, Human History is cyclical but it is an imperfect cycle because there have been interferences of God on human History which were more on linear (and which could not happened in the cycle). And wheather Human like or not the History has been running as what God planned. Although Vico mentioned about providence of God in age of gods, his theory does not seem to really consider the being of God and His providence. What I mean here is that Vico does not really admit God’s work in History in fact.
And I also disagreed with the part of Vico’s theory that at certain point where people does not think of public good and become selfish and ambitious, the world will move to age of gods(primitive) from age of men (Vico, 1744)“.. It would mean that well developed civilization can be destroyed or declined. Actually, in History, many civilizations have been built up and collapsed but it does not mean that we lost our civilization. After collapse of certain civilization, a new civilization which was more developed has come. Although there was confusion in a process of coming of a new civilization, it does not mean human being lost their civilization or when back to age of gods which is primitive. The time of confusion was just a transitional period.
The direction of human civilization is toward development. The human society has been developing as it has passed the time of establishment and collapse. It has never declined. Human society or civilization develops and never goes back to age of gods. The fundamental things human have never change. Those things appear cyclically from generation to generation. But the appearances of human nature (which refers to society and civilization) are different time to time. They are changeable and developmental.
I admire him about the fact he approached to History with respect and opposed Descartes’ anti-Historical view by pointing out that a matter of History cannot be analyzed and realized by rational approach. But his theory somehow denies God’s work and providence on Human History in fact. I strongly say that there can never be proper understanding unless we consider God as the maker and owner of History. Basically our History is cyclical in human’s perspective but with God, our History is no longer cyclical but linear.
Vico Giambattista(1744). The New Science New York: Ithaca
Mircea Eliade (1954). Cosmos and History New York: Harper Torchbooks
Steven Kreis(2001). The Vision of Human Progress: Vico, Gibbon and Condorcet Retrived 20:10 July 8, 2009 from http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/lecture10a.html
Sungbeen, Paul. “Position Paper # 2 Vico Giambattista.” 07/15/2009. <http://parksungbeen.blogspot.com/2009/07/position-paper-2-vico-giambattista-1.html>.