The Encounter with History as Extension of the Self—Part 2

It does indeed take about half of one’s lifetime before one becomes aware that our existential condition is, to say it with Heidegger, of “being thrown into the world.” Youth, misguidedly perceiving itself as immortal is rather slow in perceiving this condition. Dante, on the other hand, is a mature man who has engaged in the politics of Florence and the vicissitudes of life, had undergone frustrations and disappointments and is now aware that he is lost. He is both the author of the Commedia but also its pilgrim on a journey. He knows this because at this point he has at least an inkling, symbolized by the rising sun, of what the right path might be.

However, unlike Caesar, Dante refrains from giving us a retrospective falsification by hindsight. To the contrary, he masterfully recreates, as only a poet can, the very conditions of fear and anxiety he felt when he became painfully aware of being a lost soul on the road to perdition. As he puts it: “in thought renews my fear.” He is well aware that unless he can conjure up the terror and the confusion he felt at the beginning of his journey, he will end up with a fossilized historical account which will not yield self-knowledge either for himself or for his readers. Without that self-knowledge no right way will be discovered.

It is therefore not surprising that Vico greatly admired Dante. For Dante is saying poetically what Vico would theorize philosophically. I as a human being can understand history (including my own past life) only on condition that I made myself contemporary with other people and other eras’, or even my own, past situations by empathizing, via imagination, with the decision of that particular moment in time. It is here that lies the particular power and fascination of myth. It allows us to empathize with the archetypes pf the human condition. As Berdyaev has well rendered it: “imagination calls up something better than the reality around us. Creativeness always rises above reality. Imagination plays this part not only in art and myth but also in scientific discussions.”

So it turns out that paradoxically Dante’s subjective mytho-poetic account of the human condition turns out to be more “historical” than Caesar’s purportedly objective account of actual real events. There is in fact more truth in Dante’s fictional journey into transcendent worlds than in Caesar’s war exploits. But there is more. In both examples examined, the goal posited by the two authors as the future toward which they tend, determines to a large extend the significance of the past. In other words, the evaluation and meaning of what is remembered gives us standards for the present and the future. Thus our own understanding and planning of life are the starting points for historical understanding. What we discover there affects us and leads us to an expansion of individual and collective experience.

The first lesson to be learned from Dante and Vico is that understanding starts in life and forces us down to new depths. Which is to say, the way up is the way down. In order for Dante to return to the lost Garden and then to Purgatory and Heaven he has to first descend into the depths of the earth. It is only in its feedback to life and society that The Divine Comedy and The New Science achieve its supreme significance for both authors and readers. The objectivity of formal knowledge turns out to be a mere transitional stage, not an end in itself and to reduce reality to what may be consciously rationalized ultimately means to limit life’s experiences.

Like Dante and Vico I may also encounter myself by way of history and of the microcosmic reflection of humanity and myself actualized and depicted in innumerable examples, but I can do so only if I understand history in terms of myself, my own decisions, and my open present. I must place myself within the Vichian hermeneutical circle, which is to say that it is not enough to understand myself as a mere product of the past. I must put history at the service of life. Even more, I must make it a critical history and bring it to judgment, if need be. It is only that kind of critical history that points to the relation between identity (self-knowledge) and history.

Here is how the hermeneutical circle functions: my own self-understanding opens up history for me. In turn, when I understand history thus it has an effect on me by making explicit my implicit identity. Once I know what that identity is, what it means to be human, then I can come before the past not as its passive by-product but as a dynamic prosecutor. I can oppose my own identity to history and interact with it. Here history imitates life which is not passive as the Cartesian paradigm suggests (i.e., the extension of matter into space), but rather active and dynamic (the interaction of matter and spirit) as implied by the Vichian paradigm. Dante and Vico point the way. They don’t merely supply us with information about historical processes. They do much more. They teach us, the readers to bring a self to oppose to history in dialogue, thus rendering us capable of having and experience of the self.

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