The Idea of Providence within Vico's Poetic Science of Humanity

Having provided for the readers a very broad and general overview of Vico’s poetic philosophy I would now like to focus via a weekly column on some of its most important aspects, first and foremost the Vichian idea of providence which, as announced in the commentary on The New Science’s frontispiece, informs the whole of Vico’s science of humanity.

Vico wished to demonstrate the presence of a reality, which he calls providence, that is immanent within man’s history, operating primarily through man’s freedom, but also through social phenomena and institutions such as shame, honor, utility, authority, religion, family, and language. In his De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia, Vico had already pointed out that God cannot be demonstrated a priori, but only through a posteriori effects. God’s action appears mingled with man’s action—or better—hidden under man’s action. This is the crux of the problematic of providence vis-à-vis man’s freedom. Is providence wholly immanent within man’s social life? And if so, how is man free? On the other hand if providence is transcendent, how exactly does it operate in human history? Isn’t the very attempt to define God, even if only symbolically, an attempt at reducing his transcendence to the purely human?

Vico’s begins to solve the conundrum of transcendence/immanence by pointing out that God created humans with minds which celebrate their nature in social intercourse. This social nature of the mind is evident by 1) common sense, 2) religion, 3) the heterogeny of ends. He defines common sense as a spontaneous agreement of a whole population on certain values and ideas instinctively felt to be essential to one’s nature. When these ideas arise spontaneously in separate societies one can discern a common ground of truth which precedes the erudite reflection of philosophers. This ordinary person’s common ground of truth is for Vico “the criterion taught to the nations by divine providence to define what is certain in the natural law of the gentes” (NS, 144). Moroever, the universal character of common sense together with its function of preservation of man’s social life is a sign of divine providence operating in their civil nature. It is because of these common notions of eternal truth that men are able to communicate with each other and celebrate their social nature.

The second phenomenon is that of religion and its historical manifestations. In its origins it is a perturbing “fear of divinity” that shakes man’s conscience to its very foundations. Through a powerful imagination, primitive man saw in frightening natural phenomena, such as thunder, the signs of an all-seeing super-Mind. This was natural to them, since they spoke through signs. Thunder was but a sign of Jupiter. A religion grounded in primordial fear rather than love is a necessary consequence of original sin which corrupts human nature. Had there been no original corruption, religion would have been unnecessary; love would have sufficed. Religion as fear is indeed another aspect of divine providence restraining man by fear and shame. It is indeed the fountainhead of natural law. Without religion, Vico writes, no primitive social world is even conceivable. In fact the only way out of wanton savagery on the way toward one’s full humanity is religion underpinned by fear. Vico precedes Christopher Dawson by some two hundred years in his insistence that any culture, even the most primitive, is a spiritual community which owes its unity to common beliefs and common ways of thought. This is providence through religion, which is to say, the representation through a vivid imagination of a divine providence operating in human affairs. It is a means employed by God (i.e., the transcendent Providence) to bring man back to social intercourse after original sin. Vico writes that this idea of a divine providence originates in man’s conscience, but it is God who has originally placed a religious need within man’s spirit. It is thunder that makes it possible for the idea of divinity to reemerge from within man’s conscience. This idea, not the thunder itself, is the essential cause. The thunder may be indispensable but remains secondary. In other words, man is religious by nature, as Carl Jung will also find and theorize in his phenomenon of the collective unconscious. If man does not worship the living God, he will end up worshiping idols and ideologies galore, if nothing else his own cleverness or technological prowess. But that stage is reached in the third historical cycle: that of full-fledged rationality or rationalism.

The third most intriguing and original Vichian theme is that of the “heterogony of ends,” a term coined by Wundt later on but aptly expressing Vico’s insight that within the particular deeds of man with their particular intentions one may discern another intention, another end which, while remaining immanent within those deeds, issues forth from a superior Mind, one who via such actions realizes the common good, i.e., the preservation of civic and social life. What is fascinating is that this end of the common good results even when men tend to destroy it with their bad intentions. The Biblical story of Joseph is exemplary here: Joseph’s brothers are intent on their selfish ends, but the end result is a greater awareness of an unavoidable interdependence. It is this second intention, immanent in man’s deeds and issuing in a different end from that intended, that Vico calls “providence.” Croce and other idealists have explained this concept away by calling it “the irony of history,” but that explanation will not do unless one presupposes a superior Mind which operates in such a way as to incorporate within a wider canvas of general salvation those actions which by themselves tend to destroy man’s social life.

What Vico is basically saying is this: once man’s deeds are illuminated by the idea of providential divinity, they will concur, despite egotistical intentions and ends (the centrifugal tendencies of human nature due to original sin and abuse of one’s freedom) to keep man within social life according to his true nature (the centripetal tendency). For Vico this insight in itself is a sign revealing a transcendent Providence (See NS, 38, 132-133, 1108). However, this idea of providence functions as a purely natural level, concerned with the preservation of the social structures of human nature, not at a theological level of grace, salvation and redemption, a level not unfamiliar to Vico as practicing Catholic. The nexus between the immanent and the transcendent in this idea results in paradoxical thinking which I’ll examine more extensively later on in this column.

In conclusion, this brief schematic exploration of Vico’s concept of providence will perhaps give readers a better grasp of Vico’s uniqueness within the Western philosophical tradition. They may better appreciate why Vico rejects chance (the Epicurean philosophy alive and well in the West), or fate (the Stoic philosophy), or purely naturalistic explanations of human events (Grotius’ philosophy), or for that matter, divine action as extraordinary miraculous interventions (Selden’s philosophy). Vico is, in fact, the first to point out that the notion of Divine Providence has functions in the civil and social world of man more than in the physical world of nature (see NS, 310-313, 318). Hence he can confidently declare that “in one of its principal aspects, this Science must therefore be a rational civil theology of divine providence…And it is in the contemplation of this infinite and eternal providence that our Science finds certain divine proofs by which it is confirmed and demonstrated” (NS, 342).

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