A Revolutionary New View of History and Humanity—Part 2

In this concern of Vico, to demonstrate that even the shadows of the most distant past may prove to have more truth than the exact sciences, we begin to sense the far reaching implications of his speculation. Let us explore briefly the most important of these implications. In the first place it is worth noticing that after Vico the very facticity despised by the Greek world is worth knowing and can in fact be accorded the privilege of truth.

For Anselm, the cosmos that God conceived and made (one and the same operation for God) was the object of truth. In other words, the truth consists of knowing the logos content of the world. Its content are not facts but their reference to the Logos. As we have observed, for Descartes the ontic givenness of the thinking I is truth of the first order, while deduced truths are secondary. So, in both Anselm and Descartes a form of being is the truth. In the former being as a conceived and made totality; in the latter being focused on the existing subject of thought. Something is true because it has a share in being.

With Vico it is otherwise: historical facticity is privileged to be the content of possible truth. We know this truth and its causes because we ourselves are causes. Here the thesis is this: something is true as, and because, it is made by us. Secondly, Vico dares to light up even mythical prehistory with the torch of truth, despite the fact that objective knowledge of events is largely ungraspable in this sphere. He can do so because he is convinced that he has found a new and modern form of knowledge; a form of knowledge by now familiar to us as hermeneutics, a truth that is disclosed in the grasping of causes; a truth of “understanding” which is present when something that is related to us reveals itself to us. For example, when we encounter another personal life that affects our own personality. Admittedly it is rare but it constitutes the essence of true friendship hardly graspable in a cold objective fashion. That is what Vico means when he says that we may find the principles of the prehistoric world within the modifications of our own human spirit. In other words, there is an analogy between prehistory and us that makes it intelligible.

This should intimate that properly speaking Vico is the grandfather of modern hermeneutics even if little or no credit is accorded to him in courses on mythology or history of religions. It is on the basis of Vico’s speculation that Bultman attempts later the feat of demythologization and Jung that of the interpretation of myths and the archetypes of the human mind. Even if Vico does not use the term “understanding,” it is obvious that he has entered the field of hermeneutics to break through to new modern aspects of human experience: humanity can comprehend history because history derives from it. Vico’s speculation is nothing less than the proclamation of the historicizing of the understanding of reality. The modern age is the story of the implications deriving from such a view of reality. This view was so novel that it went largely ignored.

Later on we shall explore more thoroughly Vico’s concept of Providence already broached above. Here we should take notice that throughout his speculation Vico’s anthropology remains always anchored to a theological base. That such is the case can be gathered from his restriction of the human knowledge of truth to the knowledge of history. The world of nature remains accessible only to the divine insight, since God created nature, not us, and therefore only God can see it as his work. Even when Vic asserts that we may know history as “spirit of our spirit,” he never means to say that history can be regarded wholly as our own creation. On the contrary, he says that treating the historical past as a kind of objectification and echo of our own spirit is possible only because our spirit is privileged to have a part in the divine Spirit and is thus put in a position to see in history the providence of God and the thoughts of his divine spirit. In other words, the meaning of history is manifest to our spirit to the degree that we look to providence.

A corollary to the above view is Vico’s rejection of a conclusion that one may be tempted to draw from his anthropological outlook, namely that within modernity philosophy can replace theology as the representative of the human spirit. Vico expressly opposes the notion of the rationalistic philosopher of history Polybius (second century B.C.) that religion becomes unnecessary when philosophers undertake the explanation of the world. Vico argues that philosophers did not suddenly fall from heaven but emerged from an intellectual tradition rooted in religion.

By taking an anti-Cartesian stance Vico is basically saying only a belief in providence can relate us to the orders of family, tribe, and nation. It is only when these institutions are transparent and let the divine planning that is operating in them shine through that they can bind us together. The very semantic meaning of the word religio in Latin is “to bind together.” So, despite Vico’s important principle that things are true and perceptible only for those who cause them, humanity is never for him the wholly autonomous lord of the history that it creates. His concept of providence give things a different aspect: humanity meets itself in history because it is built into it as the agent of providence and therefore it can perceive the earlier self-manifestation of providence.

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