Mytho-Poetic Wisdom as Origins of Self-Knowledge—Part 2

Mytho-Poetic Wisdom as Origins of Self-Knowledge—Part 2

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To understand the imaginative universal one has to begin with myth which for Vico is the primordial spiritual movement of primitive man, the mediator between nature and spirit, between what is useful and what is moral, between natural necessity and law. Vico is the first thinker to be aware that indeed myth is truth that incarnates itself in images, a symbol of truth, as it were. Myth is a very concrete image of the world expressing in very rudimentary fashion the ethico-religious experience of primitive man; an experience rooted in fear and wonder and which is always at the origins of religion. For Vico, myth rather than logical thinking, is the first form through which truth reveals itself. In other words, myth is the primordial historicization of the eternal and mytho-poetic mentality is always related to religion even when it appears in adversary relationship to it. It is the first indication of the passage from the bestial to the rational, but even more importantly, it is the veil of transcendence hiding under the particular and the finite—the concrete historical moment of Being.

Based on this speculation on myth, Vico can confidently assert that the first science to be mastered in recapturing human origins is the interpretation of myths (SN, 51). Myth is primitive man’s answer to questions he cannot answer conceptually but which demand a prompt answer on which may hang the very future of civilization, even the very meaning of life. Myth is the instrument of imagination for making sense of the surrounding world and giving it some kind of shape and meaning. The first of these meanings is identifiable for Vico in thundering Jupiter, father of the gods. This is a god that provokes fear, an emotion on which, as pointed out by Lucretius, primitive religion is based. But this fear is positive: it orders the bodily activity of primitive man and is the foundation of human thought and human society. To understand human origins, it is necessary to somehow recapture that primordial fear.

As the Vico scholar Donal Phillip Verene has well rendered it: “Any genuine beginning in thought requires the power of fantasia to produce true speech. The reflective mind is not the support of itself, any more than reflective society is the support of itself, but develops and always has beneath its activity the imaginative forms of early life.” (Vico’s Science of Imagination, p.18). This is the crisis of any beginning placated by the expression of the myth, a sort of faith in the myth. Great poets like Dante are able to re-create this fear of beginnings as they begin their work. Because of that first myth of thundering Jupiter Vico could confidently declare that primitive man’s life is “poetic.” He could moreover declare that the most difficult and yet most necessary task of the reflective mind of modern man is that of pondering the origins of human existence, not in an abstract way, but concretely by paying attention to particulars and then showing how providence unfolds its plan.

In my opinion, this concept of providence is the most unique concept of Vico’s historicism, and yet it has hardly been understood by modern and post-modern man. More often than not it has been relegated to a less privileged position in the whole of Vico’s speculation. Benedetto Croce is a philosopher who while being generally sympathetic toward Vico, did in fact relegate the Vichian concept of providence to a secondary position.

Vico is also the first thinker to point to a development in man’s spiritual life: at the beginning man is all sense, then he is fantasia, and finally he is intellect. To those three stages correspond three forms of language: sign, images, concepts. Thus the “poets,” as myth makers turn out to be the first historian of primitive humanity. The universal incarnated itself in the image and becomes a fantastic universal which presents itself as a “poetic character.” Hence, properly understood, the gods and the heroes of antiquity represent aspects of life and moments of history. Here are a few representative examples:

  • Hercules: the founding of the institution of the family through the twelve enterprises needed to safeguard it.
  • Medusa: the victory of Man over the primeval forest. Venus: sacred and profane love. Mercury: commerce.
  • Neptune: navigation.
  • Cibele: the earth’s fertility.
  • Flora: springtime.
  • Pomona: autumn

And so on down a list of thirty thousand gods enumerated by Varro, ushering from the fertile imagination of primitive man who, spurred by emotions of fear or wonder, created a separate divinity for just about every natural phenomenon he observed.

Here it bears repeating that Vico is the first to point out that Homer could not exist as an actual individual poet: the Iliad and the Odyssey have different poetic styles. Homer is a poetic character to be interpreted as an image of primitive man who was a “poet” and made history by narrating it in the imaginative language and mode consonant with the particular era in which he lived. As Vico himself renders it: “the mother of wonder is ignorance of reasons and scarcity of abstraction.”

To reiterate, Vico’s thought has ethico-religious dimensions. The Vichian particular moves the imagination and is aesthetically beautiful, but it does more than that, for “poetic wisdom” is a movement of the divine (the transcendent) descending into the human and conversely, of the human (the immanent) reaching for the divine. These two complementary poles, human free will and divine providential order, appear contradictory and mutually exclusive to the reflective mind. They are however paradoxically related and inseparable. The particular of primitive mytho-poetic mind and the universal of abstracting “pure” mind capable of reflecting upon itself may be distinguished but may not be separated: they remain complementary to each other.

Croce erred in trying to downplay one pole (the transcendent) in favor of the other (the immanent). The Vichian mind-set, on the contrary, has little in common with a Cartesian mode of thinking. This is so because it is so immersed in life and history that its clarifying processes coincide with the clarification of life and history. That kind of clarification is never as neat as abstract thought, but it is less sterile.

What Vico is saying is basically this: the coming wisdom of the philosophers is already implied non-rationally in the “poetic wisdom” of primitive man. When Man begins to think humanly, he has already given birth to a rudimentary kind of metaphysics. As Ernesto Grassi has pointed out in his Rhetoric as Philosophy: the Humanist Tradition, within the human mind the cognition of things precedes judgment about them; hence topics necessarily precedes critique. The faculty of topics makes the mind ingenious and ingenium is the source of the creative activity of topics; it is the ability to see and make connections between disparate and even contradictory notions. In other words, ingenium is a “grasping” rather than a deductive property. In as much as primitive mytho-poetic mind possesses ingenium, it has an unconscious metaphysics which becomes conscious later through reflection. The historical process, however, admits of no fractures between one moment and the next.

Man is continually moving between two complementary poles such as passion/virtue. Barbarism/civilization, spontaneity/reflection, intuition/reason. This complementarity seems to be built in the very structure of reality. Later Heidegger, like Vico, will reach the conclusion that “…multiplicity of meaning is the element in which all thought must move in order to be strict thought…” (What is called thinking). This complementarity and multiplicity is especially present in Vico’s concept of providence.

One caveat is in order. Throughout the New Science Vico remains aware that ethical action cannot be founded on purely imaginative truth but more properly on reflected truths (SN, 1106). Vico, after all, has not called his work a myth but a science. In order to alleviate the primordial fear, early man had a psychological need to grasp a global vision of reality through the myth and thus evaluate choices. However, the contradictions remained largely unresolved, and that is fine at the first stage of development. However, when it happens at a later stage, problems arise. When, within a fanatical organization such as the Nazi party, myth wants to guarantee its own irrefutability, it proceeds to suppress the logos, i.e., the content or rational meaning within it. Wagner’s German myths certainly were used in a such a mode by the Nazis with some help from an equally misconceived Nietzschean philosophy emphasizing “the will to power.”

Guido De Ruggero in his Da Vico a Kant best explains the relationship of myth to reason in Vico by pointing out that within the “imaginative universal: the aesthetic element is expressed by the adjective (imaginative), while the intellectual rational element is expressed by the noun (universal). The proper function of imagination, therefore, remains that of a limiting adjective and neither adjective nor noun can be absolutized; they are complementary to each other.

Another way of explaining the relationship myth/reason is to think of the relationship form/content. Without content, form is meaningless. The form is myth, the content reason. An adjective is meaningless by itself when it is deprived of the noun it modifies. Similarly, mythic assertions self-destroy when they are separated from logos. On the other hand, the proper function of myth is never that of reducing the unknown and mysterious to rational clarity, rather it is that of integrating the unknown and the known together in a living whole wherein the limitations of the external self may be transcended. To use a metaphor adopted by Unamuno somewhere, myth is like a mountain on the small island of rationality and scientific knowledge, the more we climb the mountain the more vast the expansion of the sea of what is still unknown will appear to the climber.

So the search for the true meaning of myth becomes for Vico one of the essential tasks of literary interpretation. In that sense, Vico is the grandfather of modern hermeneutics.