The Encounter with History as Extension of the Self—Part 1

In viewing humanity in its historicity as the primary subject of philosophy, Vico had in mind something very similar to what after Heidegger would describe as “humanity’s being in the world.” Vico, like Heidegger, pointed out that the puzzling nature of humanity is characterized by its being not just the theme of philosophical knowledge but also its very subject and bearer of it. For Vico, history is always a form of experience of the self. It obeys the ancient command “know thyself.”

This self-experience does not come by way of introspection, but rather by meeting others and their worlds, i.e., by way of history. Life teaches us who we are and what our human nature is much better than introspection ever could. Vico conceived of human nature as dynamic, as something that develops and grows. He in fact identifies three particular stages of human development: the era of the gods, the era of the heroes, the era of men. He also postulates what he calls “senso comune,” or the common sense of the race; that is to say, human nature is much the same everywhere and the basic elements of life’s experience are common to all humans. In other words, within the three Vichian cycles (which are phenomenological as well as chronological) there are constants of human nature. For example, the transitory nature of human affairs and the very human impulse to overcome fleeting time with the scaffolding of human artifacts: language, literature, arty, myth, religion, music, dancing, the institutions of the family, the tribe, the nation, and so on.

Vico is far from denying that experiences may change from individual to individual, or that different individuals may perceive the same experience differently; however, he insists that the constant can also be discerned. He means constants such as the corrupt nature of all we possess, love, hate, fear, and most visible of all, the omnipresence of death which determines for all human beings, not excluding those who shun meditating on it, the very meaning of life. It is by reflecting on those constants that the horizon of our self-experience broadens.

We may now ask: how can history perform this broadening of the horizon or our self-experience if our relation to it is one of spectator at a play? After all, even the professional historians among us do not seem to exhibit an unusual degree of self-knowledge! But we ought not be too surprised at that phenomenon were we to reflect on the fact that many historians, under the influence of a pervading Cartesian paradigm of reality, perceive what they investigate as part of a closed past. What seems to interest them is merely how things developed and what resulted from that to which people looked forward in fear and hope.

It is precisely that kind of “objective” knowledge that will distort our view of past reality. Within a Cartesian paradigm this distortion is practically unavoidable, because we know too much; that is to say, we know more than the people who actually lived through the events we study. It is that “extra knowledge” that invariably lessens the solidarity which makes the study of history productive for our self-experience. Hindsight makes it difficult to imagine that the people under study are moving toward a yet incalculable and hidden future; that as a rule people venture the diagnosis of their existential situation in fear and hope.

This distortion by hindsight, this knowing too much so to speak, may even apply to a description of my own life’s past situations. The value of keeping a diary lies precisely in the fact that in such a diary my existential fears and hopes are still fresh and unresolved and will be described as such. Later on, in recounting the events of a battle, let us say, I may indeed be able to recollect and describe in some detail the objective events of that battle: confusion, shouting, military strategies and so on, but what will remain more difficult to do is to relive the exact emotions I felt as I faced the distinct possibility of personal extinction. It is exactly in those emotion, not in the objective journalistic events, that we may hope to find the genuine elemental part of the experience of a battle. It does little good to look back at events as the objective historian if I am unable to recapture those emotions. The high school drop-out has definitely intuited something when he defines history as “the story of dead people.” Chances are that history has been presented to him as dead past by teachers who while taking part in their rigorous “objectivity” are unable to make history come alive.

Indeed, it remains difficult for rational man’s imagination, and even more for his rationality, to recapture past emotive states. The mere fact that I survived a battle means that already a distance has been established which makes it difficult for me to integrate the actual past situation with all its fears and anxiety with my present self so that I may continue growing. Poets seem to be much more capable of this difficult imaginative operation than historians.

To illustrate this point let us take two examples from classical literature: Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Caesar both made and wrote history. However, in reading his recounting of his own war exploits we have difficulty perceiving the hope fulfilled or frustrated, the fears that never came to pass, and how these motivated the decisions of his military campaign. What is rather obvious is that Caesar is engaging in falsification by hindsight. His boast “Veni, vidi, vici” comes across as inauthentic. Not only is Caesar seeing events in retrospect and hiding from us the casualty figures (more than a million), but also his consummate ambition to become the supreme ruler of Rome. To have revealed that hope and the accompanying fear of not succeeding would have meant to present a Caesar who is less than a demi-god; which is to say, at the time of the writing Caesar already knows too much.

At the time Caesar is already a winner and thus unable to describe the deceptions a human being can fall into when he is unsure of his future and is confronted by enemies ready to dash his hopes. What Caesar is in fact revealing to us are the fossilized realities of the past and in so doing setting himself up on a pedestal as a great conqueror deciding the destiny of millions. This is nothing more than history as a monument of sort. In short, it is the killing of history and as such it could not have led to any kind of self-discovery and expansion of Caesar’s self. Rarely if ever is the reader of The Gallic Wars is confronted with open possibilities, or the confusion and the uncertainty issuing from not knowing what form the historical facts will take.

Let us now look at another, radically different example of classical literature: Dante’s journey which in his Commedia begins thus: “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself in a dark wood/where the right way was lost./Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell what this wild and rough and difficult wood was/which in thought renews my fear!/So bitter it is that death is little more.” (Inferno, Canto I: 1-6/ Translated by Charles Eliot Norton).

Obviously, Dante is not narrating here a factual historical event of his life. Rather, he is describing an existential fact of the human condition through that most universal of archetypes: the journey through life of Everyman from womb to tomb. Hence the possessive adjective employed is not “my” but “our.” And yet, it is also his and only his particular life-journey: “I found my self in a dark wood,” as he renders it. In other words, this is both and at the same time Dante’s journey but also our journey because there are, as pointed out above, constants in human nature. One of them being the experiencing of life as a journey with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Another constant is the awareness in mid-life that one may be on the wrong track.


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