Some Concluding Reflections at the End of the Journey into Vico’s Mind—Part 1

Some Concluding Reflections at the End of the Journey into Vico’s Mind—Part 1

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In his 1924 book on The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, Edwin Arthur Burtt wrote this perceptive passage: “An adequate cosmology will only begin to be written when an adequate philosophy of mind has appeared, and such a philosophy of mind must provide full satisfaction both for the motives of the behaviorists who wish to make mind material for experimental manipulation and exact measurement, and for the motives of idealists who wish to see the startling difference between a universe without mind and a universe organized into a living and sensitive unity through mind properly accounted for. I hope some readers of these pages will catch glimmerings of how this seemingly impossible reconciliation is to be brought about. For myself I must admit that, as yet, it is beyond me” (p. 324).

We are now in the 21st century but despite Whitehead’s process philosophy and cosmology, and Sagan’s and Hawking scientific cosmological schemes the above mentioned reconciliation has yet to fully appear. To be sure there are some encouraging signs on the horizon. I am thinking here of scientists at the cutting edge of quantum physics already lying the foundations for a new revolutionary cosmology. See The Quantum Self by Danah Zohar (1990) and The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot (1991). I would like to suggest that the bridge between the extremes of scientism and idealism may well prove to be Vico’s philosophy of history, correctly understood.

As we have already intimated, for Vico the historical course of civilizations within a providential order is that “Men first feel necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance” (SN 241). Thereafter, when a society at the last stage of development in its “barbarism of reflection” fails to heal itself by taking responsibility for its history, the Vichian ricorso takes place, i.e., the return to primitivism and barbarism which restores simplicity, religion and poetic wisdom (SN, 1106). It is that ricorso which saves Man by preserving his humanity.

Here we need to return to Vico’s concept of Providence, the centerpiece of his speculation. Anselm and Aquinas have taught us that God is the prototype of the thinker in as much as he creates being by thinking it. Vico too, as we have seen, points out that thinking and making are one and the same for God. Therefore, in as much as God has granted his own Logos to both being and the organs of knowledge, “created being” is “thought being” that bears traces of the divine intellect. Vico patterns this convertibility of thinking and making to man’s artifacts and shows that Man is capable of truly knowing only what he himself has made. He will never comprehend fully either nature or its Maker, at least here within time and space.

And here lies the root of contemporary Man’s cultural malaise: in the presumptuous conviction that the human mind can and in fact will in the future encompass God’s mind. At that point Man will be a god of sorts. As we have pointed out above, Vico describes thus the last stage of deterioration of a whole civilization: “And finally they go mad.” What brings about the madness is the delusion of being a god which is nothing else but the worshipping of one’s cleverness and its derivations; what the Bible calls idolatry. This is the real original sin: the stubborn refusal to be a creature and the arrogant attempt to become a god. This is the secret wish of Adam surfacing in Hawking who boldly declares that “then we shall know the mind of God.” In other words, then we shall narcissistically worship ourselves as the creators of the eighth day of creation.

Surveying ancient history we see a Roman Empire at the summit of its splendor and organizational genius, when unaided human power could go no further, producing a Caligula, perhaps the most representative of the Roman emperors and a civilization on the brink of its own self-destruction gone mad with the worship of its own achievements. Rome becomes a goddess too. Caligula proudly leads the Roman army to the shores of Northern Gaul and commands his generals to collect shells on the beach for him. A god need not give justifications for his whims.

Closer to us, we still have on German soil an American army wonderfully equipped with all kinds of technologically sophisticated weapons (smart bombs, computer guided tomahawk missiles, stealth bombers, and so on). They are there as part of Nato to protect the Western Europeans (now known as the EU) against a Soviet Union no longer in existence. The Germans on the other hand not too long ago were still paying the salaries of the Russian soldiers still on former East German soil. Nobody envisaged or expected the new threat to the West which arrived on 9/11. This confusion is typical of a civilization which in its technological hubris has perfected the means and neglected the goals. A civilization that by idolatrous self-adoration of its own cleverness ends up discarding the living God.

As Carl Sagan puts it at the end of the introduction to Hawking’s A Brief History of Time(1988): “Hawking is attempting, as he explicitly states, to understand the mind of God. And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so far: a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do” (p. x). This is the Cartesian mind-set at work: first God is made the underpinning of one theory of knowledge. Eventually He is discarded as superfluous. For indeed, in our consumer-produced society, having nothing to produce is the equivalent of being superfluous. Once God has been made superfluous, then anything is possible and allowed. As Dostoyevsky points out in his The Brothers Karamozov, if there is no God authority itself loses it legitimacy. Then the world will be governed by Machiavellian “virtù” and “fortuna” with man asserting himself in the world as amoral energy. Inevitably the “will to power” will tend to replace the “will to truth.” The gulags and the lagers become not only thinkable but possible. This is the “sickness unto death,” a “self-forgetfulness” of one’s nature, the final dehumanization of Man.

This is the dead-end on which Man is presently embarked in a closed world utterly immanent and deprived of any transcendent principle. When Man in his freedom wills such a world God respects that freedom and simply leaves it alone. He becomes the absent God. As J. Ellul renders it: “The silence of God entails the disappearance of the very meaning of western history. The paradox that is the West exists no longer…The West is dying because it has won over God” (The Betrayal of the West). Those are powerful words. Perhaps more than any other contemporary thinker, Ellul has pointed out that we are the heir of Cartesian world, both in theory and in practice. That is the logic behind a dehumanized world emphasizing technological progress at the expense of Man’s humanity. Ellul calls it the world of “efficient ordering” implying the transformation of al the spheres of human activity, be they productive, political, and even psychological, into systems of order arrived at through technology. All spheres of life are ultimately converted into procedures and structures. Humanistic thought rooted in imagination and intuition is simply excluded from this kind of efficient ordering (See J. Ellul’s The Technological Society, 1964). What lies behind this modern phenomenon is the Cartesian scientific mind-set.