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Ovi Symposium; Twelveth Meeting Ovi Symposium; Twelveth Meeting
by Dr. Lawrence Nannery
2013-11-29 11:48:49
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Drs. Nannery, Paolozzi and Paparella
Twelveth Meeting: 7 November 2013

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Participants:

nannery01Dr. Lawrence Nannery has studied at Boston College, Columbia University and at The New School for Social Research where he obtained his Ph.D. He founded The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal and authored The Esoteric Composition of Kafka’s Corpus. Devising Nihilistic Literature, 2 vols. Mellen Press.

 

enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

 

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

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Table of Content for the 12th Meeting of the Symposium (7 November 2013)

Section 1: “Croce as an historian of Aestheticism”: A Presentation by Dr. Ernesto Paolozzi as translated from his book L’Estetica di Benedetto Croce.

Section 2: “The Museum Girolamo Devanna in Bitonto. A New Jewel in Italy’s Artistic Patrimony.” An addendum by Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella.

Section 3: “A Vichian Journey into the Hermeneutics of Self-knowledge.” A presentation by Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella

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1

Croce as an Historian of Aesthetics
A Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi
as translated from his book L’Estetica di Benedetto Croce

Given his historicism, even though it is a very peculiar and particular historicism, Croce could not ignore the issue of the history of aesthetics. Already we detect in his first Aesthetics a history who the same Croce subsequently judged too reductive and rigid, but nevertheless it had marked a fundamental moment within European culture.

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Croce’s Aesthetics as Science of Expression and General Linguistics (2008)
Originally published in Italian in 1902 with later revisions and expansions

Croce returns to those authors and cultural movements which he had depicted, via various essays which were subsequently arranged in his A History of Aesthetics via Essays.

Croce The Two Worldly Sciences: Aesthetics and Economy published in 1931 became quite famous. Inthat essay the philosopher held a thesis, which appeared paradoxical and certainly debatable, according to which the genuine philosophy of art was born in modern times, with the modern philosophy of the spirit and of the subject which detached itself from metaphysics, thus becoming worldly. The same process occurred, according to Croce, with economy. As Croce puts it: “The ongoing and increasing intensity of political economic and artistic achievements in the first centuries of the modern era, expressed itself theoretically with the formation of two novel modes of thought or two new disciplines: politics and economy (which here we consider within the substantial philosophical unity within which they are found) and the philosophy of art or Aesthetics. Those two sciences had been all but ignored by medieval philosophy which, within the pragmatic sphere knew only of morality, and resolved political and economic problem via morality when they presented themselves and could not be bypassed, while within the theoretical sphere logic predominated thus reducing poetry and art to mere means of signification and dissemination of sacred truths.

But with the arrival of the Renaissance, we first detect a strong new science called science of the States or Politics, followed by the art of prudence, and more slowly, the science of economics, which incarnated itself in laws and regulations in the 18th century even if it did not present itself with a full philosophical self-awareness. Thus began the distinguishing of law from morality, and the investigation of the concepts of poetry, of figurative arts, of architecture, of music, attempting to find a common foundation and the intellectual faculty from which they all sprang. This research within the 18th century, it arrives at an initial conclusion when, having found the originality of this new principle, it constructed an autonomous science to which was appended the name of Aesthetics.”

As mentioned, this thesis is debatable on many of its aspects, given that the same Croce asserts by implication in some of his writings, it cannot be denied that the ancient and medieval world had their own aesthetic and economic consciousness. In any case, it is an astonishing and original thesis.

The enterprise of the historian of aesthetics carried out by Croce was pervaded by a will to find common foundations, to propose once again or rediscover theories that had been forgotten or undervalued and on the other hand to demolish traditional positions accepted without challenge by the scientific community which he considered erroneous or ineffectual.

As is well known, Croce considers Vico his most authentic predecessor and De Sanctis his ideal master deemed by him the greatest Italian philosopher of art, undoubtedly superior to many professional philosophers, just as in the context of that other-worldly political philosophy he finds Niccolò Machiavelli superior by far. An analogous judgment is expressed by Croce for French culture. He individuates the poets Flaubert and Boudelaire, as the greatest art philosophers. He places Baumgarten in a central position within the history of aesthetic and analyzes with deep care Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He considers Hegel’s aesthetic confusing and over-intellectualized, and prefers the acute and brilliant reflections of Schleiermaker as a theoretician of pure visibility while evaluating the positivists as trivial and the idealists as empty, preferring to those the English Peter, the German Hanslick and the Dutch Lange.

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Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) who wrote The New Science

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Francesco De Sanctis (1817-1883): 19th century literary critic
judged by Croce his ideal teacher

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De Sanctis’ Storia della Letteratura Italiana (1871)

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Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790)

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Machiavelli’s The Prince (1515) which began Political Science

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Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten’s Aesthetica  (1750)
which introduces the current term “aesthetics”

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 2

The Museum Girolamo De Vanna in Bitonto:
A New Jewel in Italy’s Artistic Patrimony
An Addendum from Emanuel Paparella

Introduction: considering that this symposium is dedicated to Aesthetics and the envisioning of a new Humanism, I’d like to revisit a jewel of a museum as originally explored in Ovi magazine on April 22, 2009. The contents of the museum, an art collection gathered over a period of fifty years,  is a donation by Dr. Girolamo De Vanna (a cousin on my mother’s side) to the people of the city of Bitonto. Admission to the public is free. I go there every time I am in town. It is a cultural oasis, a place for the contemplation of beauty as if on the Aristotelian “isle of the blessed,” a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm of an Italian humanistic culture that could save us if we desisted from the obsessive preoccupation with mere pragmatic political and economic concerns. In this regard the lesson of Croce’s synthesis of aesthetics and economics as described above by Ernesto Paolozzi could prove quite instructive. Croce, like Da Vinci and Vico before him, can show us how within the unity of knowledge, it is not only possible but in fact desirable to build a bridge and render two seemingly antithetical disciplines harmonious and complementary to each other.

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The palazzo Sylos Calò (1529), home of the Galleria Devanna

I have included, besides the samples interspersed in article itself, a few selected illustrations of paintings found in the museum via two links at the bottom, also part of the original publication in Ovi magazine. One is a u-tube presentation with a commentary, in Italian, by an art professor. The other is a selected display of some of the museum’s notable masterpieces. They render a more thorough visual idea of the impressive exterior architecture of the museum (going back to the Renaissance), its interior décor, as well as its  hermeneutical arrangement within time and space. A veritable aesthetic feast for the eyes of an appreciative Ovi readership.

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Interior courtyard of the Palazzo Calò

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Main entrance to the Galleria Devanna

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 Going up the stairs to the galleria’s 2nd floor

On April 18, 2009, some four years ago, in the Italian region of Puglia, city of Bitonto, a few miles from Bari, a brand new museum opened its doors. It is named the Galleria Devanna. It bears the name of its donor, in Italy known as a “mecenate” (a patron of the arts), namely Girolamo Devanna, who donated his own personal art collection to the city. He stipulated that the museum is to be free to the public. Presently it is the only State Art’s museum in the whole region of Puglia; all the others being regional museums. It is also the second biggest private collection museum; the biggest one being located in Naples.

     
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Giuseppe De Nittis (1846-1884)
Trafalgar Square (1878)

A Sample of Notale Paintings as found in the Galleria Devanna

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Potrait of a monk by El Greco (1541-1614) from the Galleria Devanna

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Madonna by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588)

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Portrait of a nobleman by Diego Velasquez (1599-1660)

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Painting by Artemesia Gentileschi (the first woman painter of the Renaissance:1593-1656)

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Madonna and Infant by Artemesia Gentileschi

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Painting of a sculpture by Andrea Appiani (1754-1817)

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Painting of a shipwreck (1833) by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) 

The museum is situated in the historic center of the town, a medieval town which is the largest medieval town in Puglia possessing a wonderful cathedral dating back to the 11th century. I had already had an opportunity in the past to admire this exquisite jewel of artistic collection in the very home of the donor, across from the cathedral, given that he happens to be my cousin on my mother’s side. But now, the collection has taken its proper place in a beautiful Renaissance palace with an arched courtyard (see photos above), the so-called palazzo Silos Calò which has been restored for the occasion by the Italian State.

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Portrait by Giuseppe De Nittis (1846-1844)

There are a total of 229 paintings and 108 drawings, spanning 700 years, from 1300 to today. The museum consists of seven rooms (one for each century) full of masterpieces from famous painters on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Veronese, El Greco, Orazio e Artemisia Gentileschi, Titian, Criscuolo, Figino, Soens, Corona. Delacroix, De Nittis, Poussin, Beatrice Wood and Joseph Stella, and the list could go on and on. And who is Girolamo Devanna? Were I to describe him in a sentence I would say he is the most passionate collector of everything beautiful and ancient I have ever known. He was born in Argentina from Italian immigrant parents (his father is my mother’s brother) but was raised and educated in Italy. I have met him repeatedly in both Italy when I visit there, and America when he traveles here to visit American museums. He is presently a professor of American literature (his major at the University of Urbino) and humanities at the same University of Urbino, the same place where I have repeatedly taken my American students to study Italian language, literature and art. He began as a nine year old to collect ancient Roman and Greek coins which can still be found in the Puglia region, and then he started collecting works of art which became for him a veritable passion for everything that is beautiful. From American literature he passed on to the history of art and collecting works of art which became his life career. The donation represents fifty years of laborious collection, jealously cured and protected for half a century by Girolamo Devanna and his sister Rosaria in their residence across the 11th century Romanesque cathedral of Bitonto.

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Portrait of a nobleman by Tiziano (around 1550)

It bears mentioning here that Bitonto, as a Southern Italian town of barely sixty thousands inhabitants, while not being exactly at the crossroads of tourism nowadays (mentioned however by Boccaccio in his Decamerone), is the home of a magnificent 11th century cathedral recently restored uncovering an older 8th century church and attracting discriminating visitors from all over the world (see photo below). Now it is also the home of a world-class museum that will surely be around centuries from now as a lasting testament to the humanistic spirit of Italy which, if properly grasped could become the needed cement to unify a Europe in search of its identity and soul. We are grateful for Girolamo Devanna’s magnanimous generosity of spirit which has increased our appreciation for the splendors of European humanism and the liberal arts.

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Eleventh Century Romanesque Cathedral of Bitonto

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9UTwgw3COI&feature=email

http://www.bitontotv.it/cms/index.php?mact=Album,m5,default,1&m5albumid=33&m5returnid=63&page=63

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3

A Vichian Journey into the Hermeneutics of Self-knowledge
A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella

In asking why is there is so much pessimism and despair in the air in our Western Civilization one arrives at the ineluctable conclusion that the root cause of such despair and nihilism may well be that we have forgotten the very meaning of “the pursuit of happiness” and the contemplation of beauty and the poetical and aesthetics as Aristotle understood them (basically as virtue).In our relativistic times we no longer seem to have any notion of what the commonalities and the very essence of human nature may be, and what may possibly render such a nature happy, not in Walt Disney’s sense of “fun” and distraction and dissipation, but in Aristotle’s sense of “eudemonia,” the flourishing life, a holistic life that fulfills the potential of a nature that is human. The question arises: were Vico living nowadays how would he interpret what is presently going on within human history?

Fortunately we have his philosophy of history and therefore we can hazard an answer.  Vico’s New Science has often been identified as “a science of humanity.” As such it leads its readers to an exploration of what it means to be human, that is to say, to a journey into the self.  Vico considered self-knowledge essential for the road to wisdom, even more so than knowledge of mathematics, metaphysics, and natural science. He conceived of wisdom in classical terms, as the summation of an authentic holistic life, able to harmonize the material, the intellectual and the spiritual components of one’s humanity. A life, in other words, that is neither one of Dionysian excess nor one of mere Apollonian clarity; one that while accepting and integrating man’s imaginative and rational spheres, remains at all times capable of transcending both; hence the importance of his concept of Providence in his philosophy.

A Vichian intellectual journey requires, at a minimum, a willingness to dialogue with Vico and then among ourselves. What makes the dialogue possible is the common humanity we share and we bring to the conversation. As a guide of sort into Vico’s complex thought I need to be the first one to bring my own humanity and life experience to the hermeneutical process which a Vico reading inevitably engender, or my invitation will be moot.

So, how did I personally come to this hermeneutical process? During graduate studies at various institutions of higher learning (New York University, Middlebury College, The University of Perugia, Yale University), I came in contact with various theories of literature. A new one seems to appear on the academic scene every five or six years. A theory of which I am particularly fond is that of Hermeneutics: a theory of interpretation claiming that in the reading of literature the reader’s own self-understanding necessarily comes into play. In other words, either a particular text addresses me, the reader, as a person, or there is no encounter with it. Far from being mere conceptual knowledge, literature is, properly speaking, life experience. A literature which is incapable of relating to me standing in the present with an historical horizon, is dead. I may of course play academic games of literary pathology with it, dissect the cadaver and maybe even re-construct it again; but those games will not bring the text to life. On the other hand, if a text is capable of producing a dynamic personal meaning, the reader’s self-knowledge will inevitably be enhanced. With self-knowledge acquired via history understood as a narration of man’s journey, (in Italian the word for history and story are one and the same) one may more confidently project a future. Such was my own personal experience, a sort of epiphany, when I first read Vico’s Scienza Nuova some forty years ago under the inspiring influence of recognized Vico scholars such as Gianturco, Mazzotta, Verene, Bergin, just to mention a few.

There is much more to this theory, but what I initially wish to convey to the reader is this: meaning and meaningfulness are contextual in nature. The interpretation of any of man’s artifacts, especially linguistic artifacts, always stands in the situation in which the interpreter himself stands. Meaning is immanent within the very texture of life and is a perception with a nexus which is a priori to the subject/object separation in thought. In the absence of a dialogue with literary texts, much of what passes for literary humanistic studies in our academies ends up assuming a dehumanizing mode. By objectifying the work of literature one fails to bring one’s own humanity to the conversation and the hermeneutical circle cannot be closed. Literature becomes mere conceptual knowledge with which to make a living and build an academic career.

Objective knowledge needs to be brought back to the sphere of life and human experience from which it originally sprung. Had Dante wished to write his Commedia for the exclusive monopoly of scholars and university professors, he would in the first place have written it in Latin which he was perfectly capable of doing. Similarly, Vico did not write his New Science for the mere furtherance of his academic career at the University of Naples (where indeed he remained largely unappreciated), but rather “per insegnar il volgo a virtuosamente operare,” i.e., “to teach ordinary people how to live virtuously.” This ethical mission is at the core of the New Science, deeply interested in human origins and identity. Like the ancients of antiquity, Vico insists that without self-knowledge there is no acquisition of wisdom. His was the question of the ancients re-discovered by the high medieval and Renaissance humanists: what does it mean to be human; how does one live humanly? And the question is addressed to each one of his readers.

Vico, as the ultimate Italian Humanist, endeavors to answer those ethical questions. For the moment let me simply mention that, from my own standpoint in space and time, and given the predicaments of our technological rationalistic despairing civilization which threatens to swallow up our freedom and our very humanity, I remain as convinced as I was forty years ago that Vico’s concerns are more relevant and urgent than ever. It is indeed crucial that the average non-academic layman who is well informed on the cultural currents and cross-currents of our time, become better acquainted with Vico’s speculation. To that end it may be best to eschew a too cumbersome academic form replete with technical jargon, footnotes and bibliographical overkill, while adopting a simple colloquial style. This is not an apology for superficiality. On the contrary, Vico resists oversimplification. He needs to be pondered and taken in slowly. He is indeed a hard nut to crack but once cracked the rewards are plentiful and inestimable; a personal epiphany of sort may ensue. Therefore, initially I ask of the readers as we begin this journey section by section, four things: 1) to imaginatively supply their own erudition wherever mine falls short as we journey and explore with Vico various interrelated disciplines and fields of study; 2) some initial forbearance with what may remain obscure despite my efforts; 3) an initial open mind which reserves judgment for the end of the journey; 4) finally, to bring their own humanity to the historical horizon, for as Vico will reveal to any who reads him seriously and with open ears, man is his own history. If we venture on this journey across disciplinary boundaries the results may indeed astonish us; for it is at the edge of boundaries that life and knowledge meet most fruitfully.

II

Having glimpsed at a broad and general overview of Vico’s  poetic philosophy, let us now focus on some of its most important aspects, first and foremost his idea of providence which, as the commentary on The New Science’s frontispiece hints at, informs the whole of Vico’s science of humanity. The reader should be alerted that we are not dealing here with the God of the theologians or the God of Abraham, Isac and Jacob, nor with the God of the philosophers (Decartes and Spinoza jump to mind) but a paradoxical idea of Providence which encompasses at the same time the immanent and the transcendent in man’s human historical experience. I dare say that even a non-believer or an atheist can profit from this idea. Under this idea reality will appear much less chaotic and confusing as indeed is the case within our present civilization where absurdity abounds and the war of all against all and final dissolution seems to have begun. In other words, Vico wished to demonstrate the presence of a reality, which he calls Providence, that is immanent within man’s history, operating primarily through man’s freedom, but also through social phenomena and institutions such as shame, honor, utility, authority, religion, family, and language.

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Frontispiece to Vico’s New Science (1725) showing the eye of Providence in the upper
left corner, Philosophy standing on the world on the altar, and Homer representing the poetic

In his De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia, he had already pointed out that God cannot be demonstrated a priori, but only through a posteriori effects. God’s action appears mingled with man’s actions—or better—hidden under man’s actions. This is the crux of the problematic of providence vis-à-vis man’s freedom. Is providence wholly immanent within man’s social life? And if so, how does man remain free? On the other hand if providence is transcendent, how exactly does it operate in human history within time and space? Isn’t the very attempt to define God, even if only symbolically, a reduction of his transcendence to the purely human?

Vico’s begins to solve the conundrum of transcendence/immanence by pointing out that God created humans with minds which celebrate their nature in social intercourse. This social nature of the mind is evident by 1) common sense, 2) religion, 3) the heterogeny of ends. He defines common sense as a spontaneous agreement of a whole population on certain values and ideas instinctively felt to be essential to one’s nature. When these ideas arise spontaneously in separate societies one can discern a common ground of truth which precedes the erudite reflection of philosophers. This ordinary person’s common ground of truth is for Vico “the criterion taught to the nations by divine providence to define what is certain in the natural law of the gentes” (NS, 144). Moreover, the universal character of common sense together with its function of preservation of man’s social life is a sign of divine providence operating in their civil nature. It is because of these common notions of eternal truth that men are able to communicate with each other and celebrate their social nature.

The second phenomenon is that of religion and its historical manifestations. In its origins it is a perturbing “fear of divinity” that shakes man’s conscience to its very foundations. Through a powerful imagination, primitive man saw in frightening natural phenomena, such as thunder, the signs of an all-seeing super-Mind. This was natural to them, since they spoke through signs. Thunder was but a sign of Jupiter. A religion grounded in primordial fear rather than love is a necessary consequence of original sin which corrupts human nature. Had there been no original corruption, religion would have been unnecessary; love would have sufficed. Religion as fear is indeed another aspect of divine providence restraining man by fear and shame. It is indeed the fountainhead of natural law.

Without religion, Vico points out, no primitive social world is even conceivable. In fact the only way out of wanton savagery on the way toward one’s full humanity is religion underpinned by fear. Vico precedes Christopher Dawson by some two hundred years in his insistence that any culture, even the most primitive, is a spiritual community which owes its unity to common beliefs and common ways of thought. This is providence through religion, which is to say, the representation through a vivid imagination of a divine providence operating in human affairs. It is a means employed by God (i.e., the transcendent Providence) to bring man back to social intercourse after original sin.

Vico writes that this idea of a divine providence originates in man’s conscience, but it is God who has originally placed a religious need within man’s spirit. It is thunder that makes it possible for the idea of divinity to reemerge from within man’s conscience. This idea, not the thunder itself, is the essential cause. The thunder may be indispensable but remains secondary. In other words, man is religious by nature, as Carl Jung will also find and theorize in his phenomenon of the collective unconscious. If man does not worship the living God, he will end up worshiping idols and ideologies galore, if nothing else his own cleverness or technological prowess. That stage is reached in the third historical cycle: that of full-fledged rationalism which detached from the poetical leads to eventual dehumanization.

The third most intriguing and original Vichian theme is that of the “heterogony of ends,” a term coined by Wundt later on but aptly expressing Vico’s insight that within the particular deeds of man with their particular intentions one may discern another intention, another end which, while remaining immanent within those deeds, issues forth from a superior Mind, one who via such actions realizes the common good, i.e., the preservation of civic and social life. What is fascinating is that this end of the common good results even when men tend to destroy it with their bad intentions.

The Biblical story of Joseph is exemplary here: Joseph’s brothers are intent on their selfish ends, but the end result is a greater awareness of an unavoidable interdependence. It is this second intention, immanent in man’s deeds and issuing in a different end from that intended, that Vico calls “providence.” Some idealists have explained this concept away by calling it “the irony of history,” but that explanation will not do unless one presupposes a superior Mind which operates in such a way as to incorporate within a wider canvas of general salvation those actions which by themselves tend to destroy man’s social life. Chaos generates chaos. Whenever order is present one needs to assume a Mind, what the ancient Greeks called Nous and Vico calls Providence.

What Vico is basically saying is this: once man’s deeds are illuminated by the idea of providential divinity, they will concur, despite egotistical intentions and ends (the centrifugal tendencies of human nature due to original sin and abuse of one’s freedom) to keep man within social life according to his true nature (the centripetal tendency). For Vico this insight in itself is a sign revealing a transcendent Providence (See NS, 38, 132-133, 1108). However, this idea of providence functions as a purely natural level, almost a utilitarian mode, concerned with the preservation of the social structures of human nature, not at a theological level of grace, salvation and redemption, a level not unfamiliar to Vico as a practicing Catholic. The nexus between the immanent and the transcendent in this idea results in originative and paradoxical thinking which we’ll examine more extensively later on.

In conclusion, this brief schematic exploration of Vico’s concept of providence will perhaps give readers a better grasp of its uniqueness within the Western philosophical tradition. They may better appreciate why Vico rejects chance (the Epicurean philosophy alive and well in the West), or fate (the Stoic philosophy), or purely naturalistic explanations of human events (Grotius’ philosophy), or for that matter, divine action as extraordinary miraculous interventions (Selden’s philosophy). Vico is, in fact, the first to point out that the notion of Divine Providence has functions in the civil and social world of man more than in the physical world of nature (see NS, 310-313, 318). Hence he can confidently declare that “in one of its principal aspects, this Science must therefore be a rational civil theology of divine providence…And it is in the contemplation of this infinite and eternal providence that our Science finds certain divine proofs by which it is confirmed and demonstrated” (NS, 342).

III

“But that was it—you never could think what things would be like if they weren’t just what and where they were. You never knew what was coming, either; and yet when it came, it seemed as if nothing else ever could have come. That was queer—you could do anything you liked until you’d done it, but when you had done it then you knew, of course, that you must always have had to.
                                                                                                                 --John Galsworthy

Let us now further explore how this idea of Providence interacts with that of freedom. As most students of Western Civilization would readily acknowledge, the idea of freedom is peculiar to the West. Moreover, for the Western imagination this idea is nothing short of the underpinning for the historical consciousness. In fact, the consciousness of Man being his own history is one of the most striking characteristics of the Western world. It allows the self to turn back upon itself and judge itself ethically. This is possible because that same self conceives of itself as created in God’s own image and therefore essentially free, for this is a God that is free and creates freely. I dare say that therein lies the theological genius of the West but unfortunately it has been all but forgotten. Hence it is now possible to write a Constitution based on nothing but economic considerations leaving out the very idea of God, and idea which is the foundation of some 90% of the world’s constitutions. One such is the so called “Treaty of Lisbon” which passes for a constitution of sort for the European Union.

Let me illustrate this with a personal anecdote. Several years ago in the mid-eighties, I taught Ethics and Comparative Religions in a private Episcopal School (St. Andrew’s of Boca Raton, Florida). At one point I ran into a theological controversy with the school’s chaplain who taught biology. The controversy centered on the issue of God’s freedom and whether or not God necessarily had to create the universe as we know it. He had delivered in chapel a wonderfully poetic narration of the creation event as described in Genesis. I praised his narration but took issue with one of its statements: “Then God felt lonely, so he created Man.” It seemed to me that such a statement invalidated the whole Judeo-Christian theological understanding of God and his creation. For if God needed to create out of loneliness, then He is deficient and determined and not free. And if God is not free, then the creatures he creates in his own image cannot possibly be free either.

This is the dilemma that used to preoccupy Albert Einstein which led him to the famous statement: God does not play dice with the universe. Even God cannot declare that 2+2 is 3. But on the other hand without freedom, love, the greatest of Christian virtues, is also moot. It is the intertwining of love and freedom that makes for the grandeur of Dante’s Commedia; without them Western civilization cannot possibly be understood.

Despite the Inquisition, the Crusades, the scandal of the Papal schisms and the corruption of the clergy, Christian theology has always understood in principle (by which principle it also condemns itself when it falls short) that genuine love always desires the increase rather than the diminishing or the control of others’ freedom. On the other hand, as Dostoyevsky has shown in his novels, without the freedom to hate and to refuse love, one cannot possibly love either God or one’s neighbor. It is in that freedom that lies the human drama of Dante’s Inferno, rather than an alleged sado-masochistic medieval propensity for asceticism, pain and misery, as the Enlightenment philosophers, among whom Voltaire, misguidedly surmised.

Ultimately the chaplain and I concluded that a better description of what might have been going on prior to creation might be that God, far from being lonely, was already in good company in communion with his Son. Michelangelo depicts this on the wall of the Sistine chapel with a Christ that looks like a Greek Apollo. That Christ in fact scandalized many pious Christians but obviously He is not merely the historical Jesus of Palestine born or incarnated as a human being at a particular place, at a particular time, from a particular people. It was the overflowing of this reciprocal love between Father and Son (the Spirit) that prompts God to freely create the cosmos in order to freely share this love as Aquinas intimates in the Summa. In fact, the human community of which the primordial prototype is the family is conceivable only because there is already a transcendent paradigm of community, what Christian theology calls the Trinity. Therefore the goodness and abundance of life derive ultimately from love, and God in his act of creation far from being determined, remains utterly free and transcendent.

The roots of this powerful Western idea go deeper than Christianity itself. They are found in Jewish theology of which Christian theology is an offshoot. The Jews, without philosophically articulating a theoretical understanding of the philosophy of history (we need to wait for Vico for  that kind understanding), were the first people to fully grasp the importance of freedom for the whole created order and its development through time and space. We now take it for granted, but this idea of a free God who freely creates creatures who in turn freely determine their destiny, is a truly revolutionary idea. It presents us with a God who is radically different from all the other capricious anthropomorphic gods of Western or Oriental religions up to then. It is that idea that makes room for another revolutionary idea, that Man is his own history.

This is not to deny that both the ancient Greeks and Romans contributed advanced ideas regarding intellectual and political freedom. However, their kind of freedom was grounded in political and social institutions rather than in the self. Rome, after a while, is not only an idea but a goddess through which the Romans, not unlike modern technocratic society, narcissistically and idolatrously worship their own achievements. On the other hand, the consciousness of freedom residing in a self related to its Creator is a uniquely Jewish phenomenon which enters the Western world via Christianity and eventually becomes the fountainhead of man’s historical consciousness.

The reader may be wondering, what exactly is the definition of historical consciousness? Were I to condense the various definitions given by cultural anthropologists I would hazard this one: an attitude that holds that history is a paradigm, a myth, if you will, of perceiving and ordering Man’s reality. Now, this concise definition assumes a faith in the presence of meaningful purpose and order in a universe ever reaching for a greater realization of meaning. Without some rock bottom beliefs neither historical consciousness nor science itself is possible.

The inner dynamic for this historical consciousness can be located in the biblical covenant between man and God, of which the most significant event is the giving and receiving of a promise with an ongoing and ever renewed expectation of its fulfillment. In other words, this relationship between Man and God is based on a promise and a trust in its fulfillment. This constituting of certain persons (e.g., the prophets), certain places (e.g., Jerusalem), and certain times (e.g., the Exodus event) as of eternal significance, intimately involves God in the historical process. It is intriguing that the very connotation for the word truth in Hebrew is “trust in the future,” practically a definition for faith itself.

We are back to the conundrum of God’s providence and man’s freedom. We may well ask: if Man, created in the image of God, is free and responsible for his own history, how can he possibly remain such if God, at critical junctures, intervenes in human history? Are not man’s freedom and God’s providence mutually exclusive? It seems like a contradiction but in reality it  is a paradox, at least in Vico’s philosophy of history. 

In his book Chance and Providence: God’s action in World Governed by Scientific Law (S. Scribner, N.Y., 1958), William G. Pollard suggests that the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers is exemplary of how God is involved in the historical process and how Man retains ultimate responsibility for that process. Pollard rightly points out that perhaps only a story or a myth is capable of fully integrating the two realities of Man’s freedom and God’s providence.

This story begins with a deliberate evil deed committed by Joseph’s brothers: the selling of their brother Joseph into slavery. Joseph’s subsequent rebuke, “you meant evil against me,” is meant to suggest that they are utterly responsible for their foul action. Their guilt on the other hand is revealed in this statement by the brothers themselves: “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for the evil we did to him.” Joseph however reassures them thus: “Fear not, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Pollard points out that this is the Judeo-Christian concept of destiny. Destiny is whatever is willed by God. God’s will is creation’s destiny. Or as C.S. Lewis renders it in his Preface to Paradise Lost, “Those who will not be God’s sons become his tools.”

In fact, the moral lesson that Pollard wants us to derive from this biblical story is that through fortuitous chances and accidents, working through Joseph’s life-history, God’s providence emerges. The brothers meant evil, the outcome is good. Joseph’s words are instructive here: “Am I in the place of God?” Which is to say, in the light of the happy outcome of the story, Joseph far from seeking revenge can only be grateful for God’s providence at work in human events and turning to good what Man meant for evil.

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The Encounter of Joseph with his Brothers

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Chance and Providence by William Pollard (1958)

From this simple but powerful story we gather that the biblical view of chance and accident is that they are integral part of the fabric of providence which operates in what Martin Buber has described as the world of I-Thou; a world where we find notions such as freedom, grace, destiny, judgment, redemption, repentance, forgiveness. Those notions are alien, even repugnant, to the world of I-it, the rationalistic Cartesian world of observable objects and events with which modern science is mainly concerned. The problem arises when the scientific mind-set attempts to reduce even history to the unfolding of deterministic impersonal laws within nature. This became inevitable once the Cartesian paradigm was in place in the seventeenth century. Within that paradigm nature itself is placed under the firm control of man’s rationality thus ending up with naturalism or economic and social determinism. That, I dare say, is what unfortunately the EU Constitution reflects.

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I and Thou by Martin Buber (1923)

What these rational historical theories seem to lack is a theme in history. They abysmally fail to suggest to the reader a sense of the grandeur and drama of history; that is to say the vision of history as narrative and drama with a beginning, a middle and an end, open to new choices and directions, with a plot that while remaining hidden hints at a forward movement and a sense of direction. Indeed, the very first line of Genesis intimates to the perceptive reader that this is definitely not a boring story. It is a story worthy of Michelangelo’s brush. God is both author and story teller as John intimates with his “In the beginning was the Word.” The universe is God’s poem. The name that the Judeo-Christian tradition gives to this drama is “Providence.”

In as much as this drama remains open-ended, since chance and accident intermingle with the reliable and the predictable, it is different from science. Events and behavior cannot be controlled in history as in a laboratory. Oscar Handlin, for example, in his Chance and Destiny: Turning points in American History, draws attention to the fact that crucial military victories have been won or lost due to the sudden arrival of a storm. Something like that happened in the biblical Exodus event. This drama, unlike scientific experiments, is not repeatable except in Man’s imagination. Moreover, contrary to science, the human historical drama rests its confidence on the fact that not the most probable but the most improbable can be counted on happening.

One caveat is in order here. A false dichotomy between science and religion has been promoted by some who are religiously inclined. It consists in conceiving of God’s providence in an over-spiritualistic or vitalistic mode, as a sort of deus ex machina, an added non-physical force within nature. When science cannot find this force, it proceeds to debunk the whole of man’s religious experience. This estrangement leaves both science and religion the poorer for it. But in reality the deus ex machina is not the biblical notion of providence. While not provable objectively, it is not an irrational, quasi magical extra-terrestrial force within nature. It is merely inaccessible to a detached, uninvolved, strictly objective Cartesian mode of apprehending reality, for it simply does not rest on the same presuppositions underpinning scientific knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is discovered knowledge. The same Greek word for truth (aletheia) means to discover. On the other hand, the providential drama of history is apprehendable by an historical consciousness which to the Jews meant revealed knowledge. This kind of knowledge is accessible only through a relationship, namely that of the covenant with the living God. A covenant is much like a marriage, and in fact the concept of Christian marriage derives from it as Solomon’s Song of Songs or Paul’s metaphor of the Church as Christ’s bride would suggest). The knowledge that a husband and wife have of each other is inaccessible outside the covenant, the commitment if you will, of the marriage bond. A so called “live-in” with no commitment will yield a different, inferior kind of knowledge, that which accrues to a corporation’s contract wherein unmet expectations leave the partners free to abrogate the whole contract. Within the covenant however, the Jews remain eternally the “chosen” people. This living God is like a jealous husband who cares for his creation by acting primarily in human history through the events and situations of his creation. This is an historical experience simply because an historical people, living in an historical place, at an historical juncture in time, entered into a covenant relationship with God. That experience yields real knowledge, albeit different from that obtained through science from observing and studying nature.

This paradox of freedom and providence is essential to Vico’s speculation on history and  providence as basis of historical consciousness cannot be grasped by the limited route of rational science. By its very nature science can deal only with what is apprehended in an objective mode by an observing, uninvolved subject. Chance has to be eliminated as much as possible to allow for the repetition of controlled experimental conditions. But even here there is a caveat. Modern quantum mechanics has strongly suggested to the modern Cartesian mind-set that perhaps the rationalistic object/subject dichotomy may prove a bit too simplistic for the apprehension of reality. That perhaps contrary to what Einstein presupposed God does indeed play dice with the universe after all, which is to say, there is no iron clad determinism and everything is possible.

What we should come away with from those musings on the biblical notion of providence is that the Jews gave us a preliminary revolutionary way of making sense of reality, a myth if you will, whose logos or meaning is this: Reality is historical and is based on the seeming paradox of God’s and Man’s freedom in a complementary relationship. It is only with Vico, however, that this Western historical consciousness becomes fully self-conscious and systematic. Perhaps the reader has now begun to intuit the relevance of Vico’s philosophy for the proper in depth analysis of Western civilization’s current cultural predicament.

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End of 12th meeting of the Ovi Symposium (7 November 2013)

 

 

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Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting -

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