The Paradox of Transcendence and Immanence in Vico's Concept of Providence

One of the most misunderstood concepts in Vico’s speculation is that of Providence, yet it remains the sine qua non for presenting an undistorted Vico. Within Vico’s concept of Providence there are two complementary poles, namely transcendence and immanence. Some have misguidedly attempted a resolution of the antinomy by searching for the right rational middle ground, much the same as some physicists attempted to discover the elusive middle ground between the corpuscular and the wave theory of light without arriving at a resolution of the paradox of light. Ultimately quantum mechanics showed the way.

The way lies in returning to origins, for as Vico points out, doctrines must begin at the beginning of the matter of which they treat. It is conceivable that when the scientist has climbed the last arduous cliff of unified theory he will find the mystic on the top of the mountain waiting for him. Intuitive knowledge is surely one approach to truth just as valid as rationality. It is not trendy in the relativistic times in which we live to speak of ultimate beliefs and values, or of the autonomy of truth from power and human volition. On the other hand it is not in vogue to oppose to an abstract rational vision or reality the concrete world of art, music, poetry, history. The power of abstract reasoning, since the Enlightenment, is still seen as the supreme achievement of Man. And yet it is precisely this cold, calculating reason that needs to be humanized by harmonizing it to the passions, the sentiments, intuition, myth, imagination. Some have seen the solution in the Nietzschean alternative but, as already argued, such a road goes around in circles and leads nowhere.

Vico was in the middle of two views: one about to die, and the other yet to be born. Croce had intuited at the beginning of the 20th century that Vico was the hinge between ancient and modern aesthetics. Where Croce erred was in reducing Vico to idealism and Hegelianism and then subsuming him under his own theory of aesthetics. He misses the fact that Vico was the first to understand the function of myth in history and its importance for human creativity. It is Vico who discovered that myth is the first form which truth assumes in revealing itself. It is nothing less than the first historicization of the Eternal. From this historical event understood philosophically issue logic, morality, economy, politics. For Vico myth is the sign of the first transition from the bestial to the rational and contains religious reverberations even when it appears contrary to religion. It is the veil of transcendence appearing under the form of the particular in a concrete historical moment and in which the whole of reality manifests itself.

For Vico myth is an “imaginative universal” which expresses historically the development from poetic wisdom to rational wisdom. It is a religious truth manifesting itself as a “perturbed imagination.” What is at work here is a complementary movement of the Divine coming down into the human and, vice versa, of the human aspiring to the Divine; finitum quod tendit ad infinitum, that is to say, the principle of complementarity: two seemingly contradictory poles paradoxically related and complementary of the same reality. At its primordial origins Being confronts primitive man (that Vico calls the bestione, a wild creature with little if any reflexive mode of thought) who becoming aware of the phenomenon reacts in fear with a gesture or a scream. Something is born with that scream! A scream, in fact, usually heralds human birth. Nobody is born philosophizing. Next, the “bestione” articulates words to express a vision and a myth is born. Within that myth resides the primordial objective voice of Providence to which the bestione had originally reacted.

Thus we have reached the crux of the paradoxical complementarity of transcendence/immanence in Vico’s concept of providence to which are assigned two complementary poles: pole n. 1, transcendence: God understood as a transcendent reality with ontological existence underpinning the whole of creation, including Man’s nature. Pole n. 2, immanence: the representation (arrived through fantasia and reason) of a providential divinity operating in human affairs through chance and accident. Those poles are complementary. A useful metaphor for the elucidation of complementarity within such a concept is that of the olive tree: depending on the direction of the wind the tree will appear either green or silver. Actually it is both green and silver since its leaves are green on one side and silver on the other. To perceive only one color is indeed to miss half of the reality of the olive tree. Donald Phillip Verene also uses the metaphor of a tree to characterize Vico’s dialogic language. In his Vico’s Science of Imagination he writes that “Vico’s ‘New Science’ demonstrates the importance of a language that can preserve opposition without resolution. In this sense it is a true language of humanity whose actual life is not that of the category…What is lost in the fatigue of history…is the language that can speak in two ways at once, that can produce both the mute imitation and the monosyllabic interjection. This language that originally give life to the whole is not monologic. It is dialogic, reflecting the opposition of the branches of the tree which themselves reflect the duality of mind” (p. 219). Verene is saying that in a rational era like ours, when imagination is weakest, this dialogic character of language (that is to say, a language that can encompass opposite and even contradictory statements) is usually lost sight of. Imagination is then narrowed to the mere aesthetic, as Croce did with Vico’s fantasia.

Examining more closely those two complementary poles we notice that in the first place the immanent pole of the concept of providence produces two effects: 1) it reveals the mental level reached by primitive man, and 2) it is a means (named guisa by Vico) used by Providence to persuade man to return to his natural good, i.e., social life. If we keep in mind the distinction we have pointed above between cause and occasion, it follows that this idea of divinity (i.e., the second immanent meaning of providence) could not possibly have arisen in primitive man’s conscience unless God had been at the origin of man’s being and had placed within man’s conscience a religious structure which, even when corrupted, remains alive as fire under the ashes. Thunder is this occasion which allows the reemergence of the idea of divinity. In Biblical language they are called chance and accident. When Providence as a transcendent ontological reality operates through man’s conscience, it avails itself of the common notions of eternal truth, namely the idea of a providential divinity. Those are two poles of the same concept which to the logical mind appears as a paradox. What needs to be done is to reorient one’s thinking and see the two poles as complementary of the same reality: while it is true that through chance and accidents the idea of providence brings man back to God, it is equally true that Providence uses this providential idea immanent within human history to bring man back to his own good.

While providence operates through natural ways and means and reveals itself immanent within human reality, it nevertheless remains a sign of divine order even within such an immanent revelation, for as Vico renders it “without order (which is to say, without God) human society cannot stand for a moment” (SN, 1100). In Vico there is always the presupposition of a creation prior to the mind. Man is never the exclusive protagonist of history as Croce and other idealists and/or positivists logically assert after jettisoning the pole of the transcendent from Vico’s concept of providence. Within idealism, in fact, more often than not Vico’s concept of providence is reduced to nothing more than a sort of Hegelian human rationality or “natural necessity” or merely impersonal forces branded as “the irony of history.” In effect, Vico is distorted subsumed under what is purported to be a more advanced idealistic paradigm. What is lost sight of is the complementarity inherent in Vico’s dialogic language.

Vico sees within history a ceaseless effort to lower the transcendent within the human and to raise the human to the transcendent. There is no assigning of priority and no ultimate synthesis. Throughout the New Science oppositions are preserved without any resolution. Man’s mind remains both a symbol and an instrument of God’s mind. Therefore, the idea of providence as generated by Man’s mind is both the idea he has of it (immanence) and the revelation through this idea of something, better still, of Someone who transcends that idea (transcendence). In Vico there is Plato (the universal) on one end of the pole of providence, but there is also Tacitus (the contingent facts of history) on the other end held together in a complementary relationship.

Vico’s providence operates through the human heart and human events and is not dissimilar from the Biblical concept of providence as revealed in Joseph’s story. In fact, Western man’s historical consciousness of which Vico is the father, issues from Biblical historical consciousness. The transcendent Being who is the ground of the human mind is the same Being who made the nature from which the human mind evolves. Sagan is correct in that respect: we are made of the stuff of the stars. Where he wholly misses the point is in not being able to discern, as Dante certainly could, that God made those stars in the first place and that his loving care keeps them moving; that as Vico points out, since the human world of nations has not come about by mere chance (it being an occasion utilized by Providence), being is none other than God.

It can be concluded that Vico is the precursor of a tradition that, while remaining grounded in Platonism, searches for the relation between absolute values (Plato’s Republic) and the world of contingency (which Vico calls rather descriptively “the feces of Romulus”). Transcendence is to be located in the immanence of the temple of the human conscience. The Cartesian scientific paradigm insists in seeing this nexus as an unbridgeable antinomy, as a paradox of sort. But it is precisely this paradox that appeals to contemporary man, disillusioned as he is with neat dispassionate theories of knowledge and ideologies reducing Man to a cog in economic-social schemes. This man is acutely aware that what is urgently needed is a mode of thought that is both more human and more existentially related to life’s experiences and the transcendent concerns of his humanity.

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