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Vico and Hermes

Giambattista Vico - Lucian of Samosata Wiki

Vico was born in 1668 and says the idea that all the world's wisdom came out of Egypt fit into his proto-Anthrolopogical idea of “the conceit of nations.” Vico was overweening in his awareness, via his astounding breadth of reading, of what we would call today “ethnocentrism.” He knew of Casaubon's finding and honored it. In discussing the effect of Roman scholars' belief in Egyptian ancient wisdom as ultimate source (on how Hermes influenced Diodorus Siculus and even Plato), Vico writes, “In sum, all these observations about the vanity of the ancient Egyptians' profound wisdom are confirmed by the case of the forgery Pimander, which was long palmed off as Hermetic doctrine. For Isaac Casaubon exposed the work as containing no doctrine older than the Platonists, whose language it borrows.” - New Science, number 47.

Vico goes on to make a classic philosophically anthropological thought: “The Egyptians' mistaken belief in their own great antiquity sprang from the indeterminacy of the human mind, a property which often causes people to exaggerate immeasurably the magnitude of the unknown.”

And yet Vico draws heavily from what he ascribes as an Egyptian idea of historical cycles, see section 432 of New Science. Also…the it turns out the Egyptians had quite the antiquity, so Vico was sorta wrong. But he's right about the “indeterminacy of the human mind,” isn't he? This is Vico: right even when he's wrong. (And sometimes just plain wrong. But always: edifying and fun to read.)

Back to Vico's reading of Hermes: the first nations were founded by a severe poetry that became the Laws of the Ruling Class, or “heroes.” The first bards sang out these laws. Much later they were written down. Thus it is with all nations, anywhen. But Hermes supposedly handed down writing, and then the laws were known. For Vico's origins of knowledge and poetic archetypes, this gets things backwards. As he writes, “How were dynasties founded within Egypt before the arrival of Hermes Trismegistus? As if letters were essential to laws! As if Spartan laws weren't legal when a law of Lycurgus himself prohibited the knowledge of letters!” (#66-67)

So how does Vico negotiate “Hermes Trismegistus”? He cites a “golden passage” from Iamblichus in which it is asserted that every invention necessary for civil life is attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. “Thus, Hermes could not have been an individual rich in esoteric wisdom who was later consecrated as a god. Instead, he must have been a poetic archetype of the earliest Egyptian sages who, being wise in vernacular wisdom, founded first the families and then the peoples who eventually made up the great nation.” (#68)

And yet Vico, living in Naples, still had his own problems with the Catholic Church. But for that sometime later.

Vico's peculiar form of rationality notwithstanding, the trickster and god of messages survives. And people still believe in the influence of planets on their personal fortunes; people still use magical thinking…even well-educated and “rational” people. The Hermes archetype lives on within us.

I assert that Hermes resides in this entire blogpost; Authorities may justly kill him off, but he never dies. That's not the way the Gods and Goddesses roll, folks. Where do poets and inventors get their ideas?

Michael. “Overweaning Generalist: Vico and Hermes”. 05/07/2013. <>.

vico/vico-and-hermes.txt · Last modified: 2014/01/14 23:20 (external edit)