Giambattista Vico’s reputation as a thinker rests on a set of powerful ideas derived from his historically unique insight into the generative relationship between the sacred, language, and human order: that language is a product of mimesis, that the first language was poetry rather than prose, sung rather than spoken, that the objects of this language were sacred rather than profane, and–as is rarely mentioned–that this elementary sacred, constituted by anthropomorphic explanations of natural phenomena, is a providential means for imposing order through terror on “savage” society. To these we may add the methodological principles of Vico’s “new science”: that we can only fully know (that is, analyze) what we ourselves have constructed (verum factum), and that we should study the human in general by discovering what all human societies have in common.
It is not the least fascination of La scienza nuova that these intuitions and principles are accompanied by a sublimely uncritical approach to historical data. Vico’s Scienza Nuova is far from the only book that people talk about without having read. (All citations are from The New Science of Giambattista Vico, tr Bergin & Fisch, Cornell UP, 1948.) But in contrast with similar cases–Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Marx’s Das Kapital–the less known parts are likely to shock those familiar only with the author’s main argument. Thus we learn that after the Flood only the Hebrews remained humans of normal size while the “gentiles” grew into giants; that these giants were terrified of thunderstorms because lightning was unknown for centuries after the flood; that the word myth is cognate with the word mute, demonstrating that myths were originally written rather than spoken, and so on. It is easy to forget in reading Vico’s mixture of folk-etymologies and speculative myth interpretations that he was only twenty years older than Voltaire and that the third edition of La Scienza (1744) antedated Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Inequality (1755) by little more than a decade. Vico grafts an Enlightenment ideal of scientific method onto a pre-Cartesian mind that takes biblical and classical lore at face value and invents word derivations that would make Plato’s Cratylus blush. Beneath his quasi-Spinozistic claims to logical rigor, the man often called “the greatest Italian philosopher” is closer in mentality and culture to Montaigne than to Kant.
In Book I of La scienza, Vico expounds the principles of his science in pseudo-Euclidean manner as a chain of “axioms” linked by a logic generously supplemented with tendentious interpretation. His three stages of world history–sacred, heroic, and simply “human”–each with its political, legal, religious, and social frameworks described in considerable detail, situate him half way between Hesiod and Auguste Comte. Vico defines three corresponding types of originary language: the language of the gods (mute, gestural and/or graphic), the language of heroes (half-mute, half-spoken), and the mostly spoken language of the people. These languages are also described as coeval, and Vico variously describes the first linguistic signs as gestures, graphic representations, onomatopoetic sounds, emotional interjections, and rhythmic monosyllables derived from song.
All these pregnant speculations are informed by Vico’s central generative intuition–one yet today ignored by the empirical study of human origin–that the first language designates an object of sacred terror that imposes order on a potentially violent nascent human community. Marcel Danesi’s proposal of a Vichian originary anthropology,Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language (Indiana UP, 1993), is justified by this intuition alone, although Danesi unsurprisingly discusses his linguistic insights in the context of the individual mind rather than in the religio-ethical framework of what Vico calls “a rational civil theology of divine providence” (342), where the first, “sacred” language serves the religious function of deferring violence.
The following passage from Book I, the first and most incisive of several dealing with the origin of language and religion, reveals both the profundity and the limits of Vico’s anthropological intuition, as well as illustrating his inimitably assertive expository style:
177. Wherever a people has grown savage in arms so that human laws have no longer any place among it, the only powerful means of reducing it is religion.
178. This axiom establishes the fact that divine providence initiated the process by which the fierce and violent were brought from their outlaw state to humanity and entered upon national life. It did so by awaking in them a confused idea of divinity, which they in their ignorance attributed to that to which it did not belong. Thus through the terror of this imagined divinity, they began to put themselves in some order.
179. Such an [initiating] principle of things Thomas Hobbes failed to see among his own “fierce and violent men” . . .
180. When men are ignorant of the natural causes producing things, and cannot even explain them by analogy with similar things, they attribute their own nature to them.[. . .]
182. The physics of the ignorant is a vulgar metaphysics by which they refer the causes of the things they do not know to the will of God without considering the means by which the divine will operates.
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185. Imagination is more robust in proportion as reasoning power is weak.
186. The most sublime labor of poetry is to give sense and passion to insensate things; and it is characteristic of children to take inanimate things in their hands and talk to them in play as if they were living persons.
187. This philologico-philosophical axiom proves to us that in the world’s childhood men were by nature sublime poets.
This series leads to the description of “savage and cruel” witches (190) as the originators of “bloodthirsty religions” and human sacrifice, thus confirming the saying “fear first created gods in the world,” and to the conclusion that “all this [religious violence] was necessary to tame the sons of the cyclopes and reduce them to the humanity of an Aristides, a Socrates . . .” (191).
Denouncing the artificial rationalism of social contract theory, Vico affirms that only religious “terror” can tame a “savage” people in Hobbes’s state of nature. Providence generates this terror by awakening an idea of the sacred that is first attributed to the new post-diluvian phenomena of thunder and lightning. This natural sacred is understood anthropomorphically, following the principle that men attribute “their own nature” to forces they do not understand. Whence the universality of the god Jove/Jupiter, who, Vico insists, is found (along with his son Hercules) in “every gentile nation” (196). The power to “give sense and passion to insensate things”–presumably, to make gods out of natural forces–is attributed to “the most sublime labor of poetry,” a product of “the world’s childhood” (186).
It is not far from Vico’s insight that fearsome representation of the gods defers human violence among the gentile “giants” to the hypothesis that fear of the gods itself derives from the fear of human violence. Vico’s reference to “that frightful thought of some divinity which imposed form and measure on the bestial passions of these lost men and thus transformed them into human passions” (340) follows the logic of the originary hypothesis in making “thought” of the sacred the locus of the transition between animal appetite and self-conscious–and controllable–human desire. Yet after anthropologizing the sacred, Vico re-naturalizes it: rather than the Hobbesian fear of fellow human beings, the originary inspiration for the gentile sacred is the age-old tarte à la crème, terror at thunder and lightning.
We observed in Hobbes’s notion of God an unconscious duality, realized in his text but never conceptualized: God gives humanity the gift of language; “God” is a sign that “honors” its infinite referent without being able to describe it (see Chronicles 176 and 215). Vico is the first thinker to articulate this duality. In Vico’s pseudo-Biblical scenario which, more radically than Condillac’s, returns the “fierce and violent” gentiles to virtual prehuman status after the Flood, it is “providence” that infuses in them the “idea of divinity.” We may compare this with a later passage (II, 4: 447): “. . . at the same time that the divine character of Jove took shape–the first human thought in the gentile world–articulate language began to develop by way of onomatopoeia . . . By the Latins Jove was at first, from the roar of the thunder, called Ious; by the Greeks, from the whistle of the lightning, Zeus . . .” The fanciful etymology of the specific names for the storm-god is less important than Vico’s implication that the originary use of language served to affirm his sacred character, “the first human thought in the gentile world.” But this world cut off from God cannot generate the sacred; the human imagination of false gods depends on the true God’s prior existence. It is providence that supplies the paradoxical link between the transcendental concept of divinity and the worldly object of the gentiles’ fear.
This intervention of providence is not a mere sop to the Inquisition. The divinity of the gentiles is derivative in relation to true divinity, just as the gentiles themselves are degenerate forms of an originally articulate humanity. Vico associates poetic mimesis with childhood, in nations as in individuals:
215. Children excel in imitation; we observe them generally amuse themselves by imitating what they are able to understand.
216. This axiom shows that the world in its infancy was composed of poetic nations, for poetry is nothing but imitation.
Neither here nor elsewhere does Vico conceive the “infancy” out of which civilization emerges as itself an emergent higher level of mimetic intelligence. Even his insistence on the priority of poetry over reasoning is ultimately privative: “the first men, the children as it were of the human race, not being able to form intelligible class-concepts of things, had a natural need to create poetic characters, that is, imaginative class-concepts or universals . . .” (209). These “children” who think in concrete rather than abstract terms are identical with the “fierce and violent” creatures who must be “brought from their outlaw state to humanity.” Vico never sees the “savage” mimetic violence that the sacred defers as itself a product of nascent human intelligence; on the contrary, the supernatural force of providence is required to counter humanity’s decline into savagery. Rather than being generated within, and projected out of, the proto-human community, originary significance, of transcendental origin, is attributed by the savage mind to the most distant and inhuman objects within the human world.
The idea that humans created the gods is at least as old as Xenophanes; what is new in Vico’s originary anthropology is the idea that in creating the gods, humanity created itself. The only Enlightenment thinker to conceive language and the sacred in holistic, cultural terms, Vico comes as close as the Weltanschauung permits to treating “gentile” religion as a purely human construction. Yet the Vichian sacred remains a transcendent force, analyzed in its effects but not in its constitution.
It is in the post-Darwinian age of Nietzsche and Durkheim that the nature of the sacred–if not its fundamental relationship to language–begins to be analyzed within a wholly anthropological context. But only post-WWII victimary epistemology that validates resentment as a denunciation of injustice provides a sufficiently radical critique of human difference to allow us to conceive sacred difference itself in the light of our “originary resentment.” GA founds its new way of thinking on this radically anthropological conception of sacred significance, which Vico comes closer to anticipating than any thinker before Durkheim, and, in many respects, before Girard. It is not Vico’s least claim to greatness that his anthropological insights, conceived over a century before Darwin and two centuries before the Holocaust, have yet to be absorbed by the social science of our own era.