Mytho-Poetic Wisdom as Origins of Self-knowledge—Part 1

Vico insists throughout his opus that in order for Man to understand himself and avoid the danger of scientific objectification, he needs to attempt a re-creation of the origins of humanity. This is achievable in as much as it was Man himself who created his own origins, and therefore he can return to them. By doing so he can hope to understand the destiny and meaning of his striving in space and time, which is to say, in history. In the beginning there is the end.

This kind of hermeneutical operation cannot be carried out by means of scientific archeological tools but by an act of the imagination, that most human of faculties which Vico calls fantasia. It is through imagination that Man may recreate mytho-poetic mentality. While the modes of thought of primitive Man were different from ours, the mind which created them is the same. Imagination may be impoverished in rational Man of the third Vichian historical cycle but it remains one of those modes of perceiving reality and remaining human. It is a sine qua non for the discovery of his human nature. How does Vico explain the process?

Vico points out that primitive Man could not have been a creature of the intellect. He was steeped in the senses and the imagination. This gave his language, religion and other institutions a peculiar character. Which is to say, the character of primitive Man’s institutions reflected the character of his mind, especially those pertaining to language. It bear repeating here that Vico identified three stages of human development: (1) the poetic or divine age: the age of the gods wherein imagination is strongest and reasoning is weakest. The mind of this era ascribes to physical things the being of substances animated by gods. (2) The heroic age: the age when heroes believed themselves to be of divine origin. This is the mind that creates Homer’s or Dante’s heroes. (3) The age of men: the age when reason and intellect reign supreme. This is the mind that produces the age of Enlightenment, so called. To these stages of development accrue thee different kinds of natural law: (1) divine laws, dictated by the gods, (2) heroic laws, dictated by the strength of the heroes but curbed by religion, (3) human laws, dictated by developed and autonomous reason.

The human mind not being static develops slowly over time and Vico, in the light of those three stages of natural law, says that it is a mistake (dubbed by him as boria dei dotti or “the arrogance of scholars”) to claim as universal features of all societies a law based on fully developed reason belonging to the third stage of development. This conceptual mistake is the result of a mistaken assumption, namely that the ideas and institutions of all historical ages are the product of a human mind whose character is fixed. This mistake explains in turn the inability on the part of philosophers and historians, who are the product of the third rational age of men, to recreate and understand fully mytho-poetic mentality, a sine qua non for the recreation of origins.

While this kind of misconception abounds in academia, it can also be easily found in popular culture. Let us take an example from the film medium. The movie Quest for Fire was inspired by the book The Naked Ape. Both book and movie purport to show primitive man’s first tentative steps toward his own humanity and toward civilized life. However, I would submit, that far from getting a recreation of origins, the reader and viewer is served an image of primitive man as seen through a Cartesian paradigm. Both narrator and director bring to the recreation of primitive mentality all their rationalistic premises and assumptions. The most egregious and erroneous is the assumption that primitive man’s mind functions as a sort of lower underdeveloped rational mind. Corollary to this assumption is the one which holds that man’s origins can best be understood rationally, for the vantage point of the third cycle of history, that of full-fledged rationality.

That is so is apparent from the very outset of the movie. Nowhere are the gods, issuing from primitive man’s fertile imagination, to be seen or heard. As Vico has pointed out, without a recreation of early man’s religious impulse, without the fear and the wonder inherent in this primordial religion, no beginning of man’s humanity and of his civilization can be recreated. And in fact, nowhere in the book and the movie is an act of “piety” to be discerned. Acts such as, the burial of the dead, ritual dancing, marriage, sacrifice to the gods, cave painting. What we are treated to instead is strife and violence, indiscriminate mating and a thinly veiled competition for primitive technology, fire. The message is clear: the fit and the winners deserve to survive.

All this is presented despite the latest archeological findings of eminent archeologists, such as Leaky, suggesting that there might have been much more cooperation among early men than has been surmised; that what in fact assured their survival was less competition for natural resources and more of a common concern for the common good of the tribe. And that explains why the book and the movie lacks social phenomena such as ritual dancing and singing, initiation, the telling of fables or myths by which primitive man attempts to create order out of the surrounding natural flux continually assaulting his senses.

What gets most glaring ignored is the most important institution of early man, namely language. Language is understood rationalistically as an utilitarian means of communication and an instrument of social control. What is accorded a privileged position is the incessant anxious search for fire and the constant struggle with other men that such a search and possession entails. The premise seems to be that the tribe who controls fire wins the technological competition and earns the privilege of carrying on the evolutionary process. The unfit simply perish.

Within a Vichian paradigm, this is an obvious distortion. It is nothing less than a portrayal of modern rational man fighting for oil in Kuwait, and measuring his humanity and civilization by mere economic standards. This rationalistic premise even assumes the character of a dangerous myth devoid of its logos when it takes on racial overtones. At the conclusion of the movie we are treated to the contemplation of the “naked ape,” the blue eyed, successful conqueror of the primeval forest (the Anglo Saxon?) washing himself under a water fall while his dark swarthy, less successful colleagues (the minorities) grove in filth in a cave. This is practically a Madison Avenue advertisement: technological control of resources (fire) and hygienic living (water and soap for one’s body) leads to “enlightenment” and civilization. Indeed the ape is naked in more ways than one. The nakedness is primarily one of spirit and intellect. That kind of impoverishment leads right back to the cave, albeit one endowed with a cellular phone and a fax.

Vico, on the other hand defines primitive man’s mode of thinking as “poetic wisdom” and considers it nothing less than the master key to the understanding of his thought. As already seen, in the first two stages of development, imagination prevails over reason, and myth (the image) prevails over logos, i.e., the rationally explained meaning of those myths. In those two first stages, imaginative universals are preeminent over any, if indeed there are any, intelligible universals derived from abstract thought.

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