Few outside the academy know anything about Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), though he is undoubtedly the greatest Italian philosopher of his time, and is arguably one of the greatest philosophical minds to ever hail from Italy. Before the middle of the last century, Vico typically was seen as a proto-historicist who either presaged revolutionary ideologies such as Marxist-Leninism, or inaugurated a “Counter-Enlightenment” whose anti-Cartesianism found its purest rival in the philosophes who inspired (or were inspired by) the French Revolution.[1] It is perhaps a bad sign for political science that a compelling case can be made for either option! A positive spin, though, can make of Vico a third-option thinker who breathes fresh air into the polarized (because hyperpolitical) atmosphere that typifies today’s public discourse on the history of ideas (such as it is).

Mark Lilla’s 1993 book G. B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern is perhaps the first book-length treatment that does not give short shrift to Vico’s theological fundaments, especially as they are evinced in the Neapolitan’s early works.[2] Lilla’s portrait of Vico as a conservative whose worship of the irrational has had a baleful influence on the history of ideas tells us more about Lilla the American Liberal than about Vico himself. Be that as it may, the brilliance of Lilla’s book is its presentation of Vico’s doctrine of conatus as a metaphysical red thread that connects his earliest essays to his later writings. We distort history if we retroject the Roman Catholic’s Church’s official subscription to Thomism in the late nineteenth century onto the Reformatio Catholica, with its freewheeling, even loose adoption of Scholastic terminology and its often quasi-nominalist moderation. Vico, with his fitful, idiosyncratic synthesis of ancient philosophy, Medieval Scholasticism, and contemporary jurisprudence, fits into this Counter-Reformation milieu as well as anyone. Lilla shows us that Vico’s lifelong goal was to establish that there is a single divine Truth that is fully known only by the Holy Trinity Itself because it is eternally “made” out of God’s own thoughts or logoi (Vico does not use the term “logoi,” but rather “elements” or “ideas”). The Fall occurred when Adam was tempted into mistaking his participation in divine Truth for infinite, perfect knowledge of the forms or logoi in God. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit know their own Truth because they generate it eternally out of themselves and contemplate it as something they make ad intra.[3]

As with all Roman Catholic theology, however, there is a problem when we try to express just how this realm of forms, forever generated inside the divine essence, relates to God’s creation ad extra. Are all of the logoi represented in the cosmos? How is the eternal generation of the Son from the Father different from the eternal generation of the logoi or exemplars in the divine essence, and how are both distinct from the creation ex nihilo of material bodies? When the Son became Incarnate as the Logos, did He contain only the logoi for this cosmos within Himself, or did he contain all possible logoi, a kind of somatic plenum of divine forms? If not, was the Incarnation somehow incomplete?

For Vico, man cannot ever know these ideas in God from the inside. God knows the future, but this does not imply any lack of free will on man’s part (or God’s part!). Man fell from his finite participation in the ideas in God when he presumed to grasp this “knowledge of good and evil” in order to “be as gods.” However, God foreknew that man would fall, and so He created man so that, even when he loses contact with God’s ideas or forms, he can still find God indirectly through conatus. A Scholastic term introduced into modern philosophy by Hobbes, conatus is used by Vico to mean the divine mode or power of creation that ensures that man, despite his efforts to the contrary, will nonetheless find himself participating in divine truth, at least on a lower, though in some sense broader, societal level. Here is the meaning of Vico’s famous “ideal eternal history of the gentile nations”: Ham and Japeth’s descendants literally forgot about divine truth as it was followed by the Hebrews, but Providence in the form of conatus continued to shape how these non-semitic wanderers went about their business. Man did not fall into anarchy, but was instead called back to a kind of baseline order through pagan religion, which man invented as a result of what Vico scholar Donald Verene has termed the “Jove experience.”[4] Inspired by Verene’s adjective “epiphanic” to limn this irruption of a “false,” yet providentially directed experience of the divine, I have coined the term “Jovian epiphany.”[5] What is this mysterious God-man interface, if not a direct experience of the Holy Trinity? After all, Vico is trying to establish that there is a single God-directed Truth that operates in practical human affairs as well as in the interior life of the Trinity.

More on this next time…


[1] David L. Marshall, Vico and the Transformation of Rhetoric in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 1. On the origin of the term “Counter-Enlightenment,” see p. xxvn1 in Henry Hardy’s introduction to Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, 2nd edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[2] Mark Lilla, G. B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[3] For Vico, conatus “is the power of moving, and in God, the author of conatus, it is rest; so prime matter is the power of extension, and in God, founder of matter, it is the purest mind. (…) Division is the act of body, but the essence of body…consists of what is indivisible” (Giambattista Vico, On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians Drawn out from the Origins of the Latin Language, translated by Jason Taylor [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010 (1710)], IV.1, pp. 61-62). Vico refers to this work as his “Metaphysics.”

[4] For the phrase “Jove experience” see Donald Phillip Verene, “Introduction: Interpreting the New Science,” pp. 1-14 in Giambattista Vico, Keys to the New Science: Translations, Commentaries, and Essays, edited by Thora Ilin Bayer and Donald Philip Verene (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009), at p. 10.

[5] Vico: “…God both founded the true religion of the Hebrews upon worship of His infinite and eternal Providence and punished the first authors of the human race for their desire to know the future, thus condemning the whole race to toil, pain and death. Whence the false religions all rose from idolatry, i.e. from the worship of imaginary deities, falsely believed to be bodies with supernatural force, who give succour to men in their final afflictions” (Giambattista Vico, The First New Science, translated by Leon Pompa [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002 (1725)], 9, p. 10).

This entry was posted in Amniotic light, analogia entis, Ancient Religions, Antiquity, Catholicism, conatus, conjectural history, Creation, Critical Theory, Deviant Sexuality, Divine Names, Divine Providence, Exemplars, free will, freedom, Giambattista Vico, Greco-Roman History, Historiography, History of Sexuality, Jovian Experience, logoi, Logos, Marc Lilla, Mass Culture, nominalism, Nous, paganism, Social Theory, Uncategorized, Vico and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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