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A serious poem

June 2, 2014

[For context, read this post.]


Vico’s allegorical frontispiece

The history of history contains many paradoxes. Among them is the history of the idea of a historical dialectic, i.e. an invisible hand guiding the human race as it raises itself from its brutal and superstitious beginnings through various socio-economic stages and to a final cosmopolitan enlightenment. Though exemplified by those German rationalists Hegel and Marx, it was invented by Giambattista Vico, an Italian Catholic who called the force behind the dialectic “providence” and a philologist who thought primitive man’s main attribute to be the poetic imagination.

Vico’s Principi di Scienza Nuova d’intorno alla Comune Natura delle Nazioni, that is, Principles of the New Science of the Common Nature of Nations, first edition 1725, much revised 1730, revised further in a posthumous edition 1744, has much in common with later theories, but is both darker and stranger. It tells a story of how humanity, from its initial condition of primeval chaos, unfolds itself successively through the three ages of civilization, the divine, the heroic, and the human, only to collapse again into a renewed barbarism, beginning the cycle once more. We who live in the human age can only with the most intense effort imagine how the inhabitants of previous ages lived and thought. We are creatures of reason; they were creatures of poetry.

Vico’s task is to show us how different the two are. I think it would be fair to call this work, like the Roman jurisprudence he loved, “a serious poem”: an imaginative act meant to make possible a civilized way of life. Like any serious poem, Roman jurisprudence was, as Vico imagines it, “severe”: it drew stark boundaries, and enforced them, because crossing those lines meant a return to chaos. Only gradually did humanity arrive at a rationality that would allow it to evaluate and adjust boundaries as needed in an attempt to make possible the best way of life. And more likely than not, that rationality will soon be destroyed, most likely due to a failure to appreciate its contingency. Vico’s serious poem tells a story that will make preserving rationality possible, and it is, I think, best appreciated as a story.


This is Vico’s story.

In the beginning, or, rather, after Noah’s flood, lightning was impossible, or so said Vico’s 18th-century science: lightning was caused by the exhalation of vapors from the ground, and at first the ground was so soaked that no such vapors were released. At this time, as in all barbaric ages, humanity lived as the beasts, copulating wildly in the fields.

Then lightning strikes, and the divine age begins. A few men seize brides and take them to caves, where they will be safe from the lightning-god. They do not infer the existence of gods from the lightning; they cannot yet make such subtle distinctions. After all, men in this age have no spoken language; they communicate with mute signs, such as holding up three ears of corn to signify three years. Thus lightning is perceived as such a sign, as an action performed by a god, who must be propitiated. Since these men now have permanent residences, they must bury their dead; such burials come to mark the land as possessed. Marriage, too, becomes formalized, as a means of ensuring that a man’s sons, rather than the sons of another man, will inherit his property; and the father’s authority over his children is absolute–they too are his property. Hence, from the initial lightning-blast, Vico derives religion, marriage, burial, and property.

Soon men who had not settled down once the lightning began come to these settlements seeking protection from the brutality of the state of nature, and are granted protection, that is, entry into the family, in exchange for complete submission to the father’s will. With this expansion of the family a new, heroic age is inaugurated, defined by the conflict between paterfamilias and slave, that is, between patrician and plebeian. The patricians, previously each a law unto himself, band together into an aristocracy in order to consolidate their rule over the plebeians, and to deny them all of the rights of man–they are allowed neither religion, nor marriage, nor burial, nor property. Jurisprudence is introduced in order to maintain this system, and prosperity expands with the invention of agriculture, sea-faring, and the like. Spoken language emerges, but it is all metaphorical; hence all of the Roman and Greek myths are to be interpreted, not as literal accounts of persons and their actions, but as metaphors for the actions of the entire community as it arrives at all the various trappings of civilization.

But now that the world has stabilized the plebeians no longer feel gratitude to the patricians for their very lives, and inevitably seek the equality that they feel to be theirs; this attempt leads to the third, human age. The struggle can continue for some time, and can result in temporary reversals, but eventually, either one by one all the rights of the patricians are extended to the plebeians, or they revolt and take what they believe to be theirs. The former results in a democracy, the latter in a populist tyrant. Both such attempts require conscious articulation of the principle of equality, and the rational state of mind that must accompany such articulation. Philosophy and philosophical history and jurisprudence now become possible. Poetry fades with the fading of metaphorical thought. Once equal rights are secured, reason has little real work to do, and the nation begins to grow decadent, individualistic, and self-absorbed. Lacking social cohesion it quickly becomes prone to collapse due to an outside threat or a natural disaster.


To be sure, this story many flaws. For one, it almost certainly isn’t true. Not only does it get particular facts wrong, it’s wrong about the course of history in general. “Primitive” civilizations still spoke languages with logical syntax. Dark Ages don’t mean a return to the state of nature; if we look at his paradigmatic example, the fall of the Roman Empire, we see immediately that it’s not as if all that rational-language philosophy and jurisprudence just vanished. Fragments of the old civilization lived on, inside the new.

But if Vico gets a lot wrong, he still, I would say, gets two big things right. Even setting aside the poetic brilliance of his story, these make him philosophically worthwhile.

First, Vico recognizes that history is not just stuff that happens; it unfolds. And it did not, as Augustine would have it, stop unfolding when Christ ascended. It may be true that, in a theological sense, such unfolding does not matter, but we are not dead yet. We must live in the city of men, even if only as pilgrims, and we must make some sense, however tentative, of its goings-on. At the same time, Vico does not posit a final historical destination; history unfolds the way it does, but not because something is guiding it. Nations can progress, but they can also regress. The Course of Nations is not contingent, for it defines what it is to be a nation, but the nations themselves are contingent beings.

Second, even if Vico is wrong about the impossibility of expressing rational thought in primitive languages, he is right that rationality was not always as valued as it is now, and that rational thought as a distinct type is fairly new. Nothing forces us to care about making rational sense. And we cannot assume, when looking at historical figures, that they made sense of themselves in the way we want to.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 3, 2014 12:45 am

    Hey Joseph,

    I was recently asked to participate in something called a “blog hop.” Basically its an invitation to share your thoughts about the writing process by answering four questions.

    Here they are in the post I tagged you in:

    Looking forward to hearing from you!


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