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Vico's Conception of Mytho-Poetic Wisdom Vico's Conception of Mytho-Poetic Wisdom
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-01-14 09:47:41
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Abstract: Vico insists throughout his opus that in order for Man to understand himself and avoid the danger of scientific objectification, he needs to attempt a re-creation of the origins of humanity. This is possible in as much as it was Man himself who created his own origins, and therefore he can return to them. In the beginning there is the end. Thus he can hope to understand the destiny and meaning of his striving in space and time, which is to say, within history.

This kind of hermeneutical operation is possible but cannot be carried out by means of scientific archeological tools but by an act of the imagination, that most human of faculties which Vico calls fantasia. It is through imagination that Man may recreate mytho-poetic mentality. While the modes of thought of primitive Man were different from ours, the mind which created them is the same. Imagination may be impoverished in rational Man of the third Vichian historical cycle but it remains one of those modes of perceiving reality and remaining human. It is a sine qua non for the discovery of his human nature. Let us briefly explore how Vico explains the process.

Vico points out that primitive Man could not have been a creature of the intellect. He was steeped in the senses and the imagination. This gave his language, religion and other institutions a peculiar character, which is to say that the character of primitive Man’s institutions reflected the character of his mind, especially those pertaining to language. He identified three stages of human development: (1) the poetic or divine age: the age of the gods wherein imagination is strongest and reasoning is weakest. The mind of this era ascribes to physical things the being of substances animated by gods. (2) The heroic age: the age when heroes believed themselves to be of divine origin. This is the mind that creates Homer’s or Dante’s heroes. (3) The age of men: the age when reason and intellect reign supreme. This is the mind that produces the age of Enlightenment, so called. To these stages of development accrue thee different kinds of natural law: (1) divine laws, dictated by the gods, (2) heroic laws, dictated by the strength of the heroes but curbed by religion, (3) human laws, dictated by developed and autonomous reason.

The human mind not being static develops slowly over time and Vico, in the light of those three stages of natural law, says that it is a mistake (dubbed by him as boria dei dotti or “the arrogance of scholars”) to claim as universal features of all societies a law based on fully developed reason belonging to the third stage of development. This conceptual mistake is the result of a mistaken assumption, namely that the ideas and institutions of all historical ages are the product of a human mind whose character is fixed. The mistake explains in turn the inability on the part of philosophers and historians, who are the product of the third rational age of men, to recreate and understand fully mytho-poetic mentality, a sine qua non for the recreation of origins.

While this kind of misconception abounds in academia, it can also be easily found in popular culture. Let us take an example from the film medium. The movie Quest for Fire was inspired by the book The Naked Ape. Both book and movie purport to show primitive man’s first tentative steps toward his own humanity and toward civilized life. However, I would submit, that far from getting a recreation of origins, the reader and viewer is served with an image of primitive man as seen through a Cartesian paradigm. Both narrator and director bring to the recreation of primitive mentality all their rationalistic premises and assumptions. The most egregious and erroneous is the assumption that primitive man’s mind functions as a sort of lower underdeveloped rational mind. Corollary to this assumption is the one which holds that man’s origins can best be understood rationally, for the vantage point of the third cycle of history, that of full-fledged rationality.

That this is so is apparent from the very outset of the movie. Nowhere are the gods, issuing from primitive man’s fertile imagination, to be seen or heard. As Vico has pointed out, without a recreation of early man’s religious impulse, without the fear and the wonder inherent in this primordial religion, no beginning of man’s humanity and of his civilization can be recreated. And in fact, nowhere in the book and the movie is an act of “piety” to be discerned. I mean acts such as the burial of the dead, ritual dancing, marriage and sacrifice to the gods, cave painting. What we are treated to instead is strife and violence, indiscriminate mating and a thinly veiled competition for primitive technology, fire. The message is clear: the fit and the winners deserve to survive. This is not the primitive mind-set but pure social Darwinism.

All this is presented, mind you, despite the latest archeological findings of eminent archeologists, such as Leaky, suggesting that there might have been much more cooperation among early men than has been surmised; that what in fact assured their survival was less competition for natural resources and more of a common concern for the common good of the tribe and that religion was essential for conceiving the common good. And that explains why the book and the movie lack social phenomena such as ritual dancing and singing, initiation, the telling of fables or myths by which primitive man attempts to create order out of the surrounding natural flux continually assaulting his senses.

What gets most glaringly ignored is the most important institution of early man, namely language. Language is understood rationalistically as a mere utilitarian means of communication and an instrument of social control. What is accorded a privileged position is the incessant anxious search for fire and the constant struggle with other men that such a search and possession entails. The premise seems to be that the tribe who controls fire wins the technological competition and earns the privilege of carrying on the evolutionary process. The unfit simply perish.

Within a Vichian paradigm, this is an obvious distortion. It is nothing less than a portrayal of modern rational man fighting for oil in Kuwait, and measuring his humanity and civilization by mere economic standards. This rationalistic premise even assumes the character of a dangerous myth devoid of its logos when it takes on racial overtones. At the conclusion of the movie we are treated to the contemplation of the “naked ape,” the blue eyed, successful conqueror of the primeval forest (the Anglo Saxon?) washing himself under a water fall while his dark swarthy, less successful colleagues (the minorities) grove in filth in a cave. Paradoxically the ancient Romans also thought of the Anglo Saxon as a dirty primitive man who did not know how to wash himself. But whether ancient or modern, this is practically a Madison Avenue advertisement: technological control of resources (fire) and hygienic living (water and soap for one’s body) leads to “enlightenment” and civilization. Indeed the ape is naked in more ways than one. The nakedness is primarily one of spirit and intellect. That kind of impoverishment leads right back to the cave, albeit one endowed with a cellular phone and a fax.

Vico, on the other hand, defines primitive man’s mode of thinking as “poetic wisdom” and considers it nothing less than the master key to the understanding of his thought. As already seen, in the first two stages of development, imagination prevails over reason, and myth (the image) prevails over logos, i.e., the rationally explained meaning of those myths. In those two first stages, imaginative universals are preeminent over any, if indeed there are any, intelligible universals derived from abstract thought.

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. It is the instrument of imagination for making sense of the surrounding world and gives 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 Donald 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, but not in an abstract way but concretely, paying attention to particulars, and then showing how providence unfolds its plan.

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 the three forms of language: sign, images, concepts. Thus the “poets,” as myth makers turn out to be the first historians 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 also 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.”

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 certainly 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 a topic 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; and intuition/reason. This complementation 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 complementation 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 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, which is so in vogue in today’s literary circles.

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Sand2008-01-14 15:29:09
Ethics and morality are a wonderful playground for speculation as to what may and what may not be be universal good and evil. An exploratory article indicating how these can vary can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1&ref=science&oref=slogin

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-14 16:27:27
I seeeeeeeeeeeee! That is why Dante wrote the Divine Comedy. So that people could get their jollies in imagining immorality duly punished. How medieval! And yet, and yet, the Divine Comedy and The New Science continue to be taught at Harvard and Yale Universities. They may have gothic architecture but are surely not mere intellectual vestiges of the Dark Ages. Those works of the imagination and the intellect are not taught there as a caricature and a spoof on the Middle Ages. That ought to leave a tiny doubt in the mind of the Harvard professor and his cohorts of nihilists and relativists including the atheist Bertrand Russell that perhaps the concept of hell has a nexus to the concept of free will, given that all those people we meet there in Dante’s hell (all historical and including three Popes) are there of their own free choice. Santayana, for one well understood that nexus. He too taught at Harvard University.

Sand2008-01-14 17:13:40
I assume your comment was to Mr. Pinker who wrote the article. Perhaps you should send it directly to the New York Times Magazine where it is more likely to be noticed than at this site.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-14 18:30:23
You don't seem to think much of this site, despite the fact that you contribute to it. You should not put yourself down that way. This site received 500% more visits a few days ago due to the article on the American linguist and philosopher Searle. You ought to congratulate all the Ovi team for that.

Sand2008-01-14 18:41:38
As usual you have jumped off the deep end to try to disparage my relationship to this site. If you think Mr. Pinker, who wrote the article I recommended, and whom you seem convinced is aware of your comment on his article, will take notice of your cloud cuckoo reply then you are again demonstrating your profound stupidity. I merely said that if you want to make him aware of your reply you have to write to him directly. Nothing insulting to this site in that.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-15 15:29:50
I assume that "your cloud cuckoo reply demonstrating your profound stupidity" was meant to champion Professor Pinker's assumptions in the article you enthusiastically recommended? Given your track record, why else would you have chosen and recommended the piece except for the fact that it agrees with and supports your own cuckoo views? I and my students must thank you for providing us with such exemplary demonstrations on pseudo scholarship parading as rigorous search for truth and objective perception of reality. I teach two philosophy classes every week; so those demonstrations come handy to show the students the fallacies of pseudo-logic and how not to do philosophy, and how to tell when the Emperor is naked but deviously wants to persuade us that he is wearing a grand suit. It is also enhances the class with some humor and hilarity. So, without having to write in the New York Times or the Global Spiral you are acquiring a grand reputation at Barry University as a clown of sort who wants to be taken seriously. After all, the New York Times, Ovi, Global Spiral, are all public fora where one can clown around at one's heart content. We thank you for your invaluable contributions. You have a right to feel delighted to be contributing in your own unique way to the education of the young.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-15 15:38:18
P.S. For instance, one insight to be derived from the very first comment to the above article, is that the comment was not written to discuss the article and carry on a dialogue but to cast aspersion on it, despite the denials of the naked Emperor. In fact that was the intention: to distract from a serious discussion of the generally recognized views on the meaning of myth of Giambattista Vico who is taught at both Yale and Harvard University. Vico to the bonfire you go.

Sand2008-01-15 15:47:50
If your students find Pinker's article amusing I must congratulate them for a unique sense of humor. What they think of me is of no consequence to me.From the tenor of your comment I gather your emotion was not of amusement.

Sand2008-01-15 15:53:16
Since any mild criticism of any of your authorities arouses in you such violent emotions as to cast them into your fire I take it that you are so subservient to any authority that you consider analysis as a form of total destruction. Strange attitude for someone labeling himself as a philosopher.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-15 16:31:31
Is that what the voices told you? Don't believe them, they are liars.

Sand2008-01-15 16:58:43
Your behavior belies your denials. Just saying so doesn't cut it.

Marco Andreacchio2010-12-25 18:10:04
Mr. Paparella,

Nowhere in Vico's writings does "Vico insist [...] that in order for Man to understand himself and avoid the danger of scientific objectification, he needs to attempt a re-creation of the origins of humanity."

Nor does Vico state or even suggest that "it was Man himself who created his own origins, and therefore he can return to them."

Perhaps you would wish to refute the two negations stated above with counter-evidence from primary sources.

In reality (in critical response to Hobbes' doctrine of "the state of nature") Vico calls his reader to "intend" (*not to imagine*) the beastly, wild natures of pre-civilized men as hypotheses--by "covering-up the utter-forgetfulness [oblio] of their own imaginations and of their own memories, so as to leave a place free for the sole intending-mind" (Scienza Nuova 1730/1744, "Of the Method," par. 1).

Vico's call is set in the context of a treatment of the origins or "principles of Gentile Humanity," i.e. authorities (or Authors) in the order of time. Here, Vico (after, inter alia, Dante's Convivio and Commedia) states that "we must go to a Vulgar Metaphysics, which was the Theology of Poets, and from that repeat the principle that to the beastly passions of those lost [perduti] men set mode and measure, and rendered them human passions. This Principle cannot be other than the conatus, which is proper of human volition..." (ibid., par. 2). Instead of any "re-creation of the origins of humanity," what we have here is a regaining for ourselves ("ripetere" is a recalling of what is our own to begin with) of the civilizing principle of poetry, i.e. the virtue personified by the poets of classical antiquity.

It would be a grave error to assume that Vico presents the virtue in question as being in any way something we create.

Best regards,

leslie gardner2012-02-11 16:50:17
i believe this piece has been here a long time - but i disagree that we need dismiss a scientific language - after all, Vico had imagined that he was creating a new science - its key is poetical/rhetorical - but it is an aspect of a new form of how to seek verification for fact - but it accomodates subjectivity and imagination

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