Giambattista Vico’s Three Ages: A Brief Exposition

Vico is famous for his teaching that all human cultures inevitably develop along the same three stages: an age of gods, an age of heroes, and an age of men. This Vico calls corso e ricorso. What I am offering in the comments that follow is a short exposition of Vico’s three stages. My simplified sketch will be qualified on almost every point by later posts. The reader will see in the fullness of time, it is hoped, why I have chosen to paint rapidly, and with such a broad brush, in this, the second in my series of posts on Vico.

According to Vico, man started out as a solitary hunter-gatherer who had immense physical and imaginative powers, but had no language and, indeed, no thought![1] Primitive man possessed no shared experience, if by experience we mean conscious memory of events. The ball got rolling once a huge primal storm broke out over the whole “great forest of the earth” where these men were traipsing.[2] In short, man unconsciously invented culture and society out of the awe and fear that the storm drummed up inside of him.

Man’s history can be split into three stages: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men. In the age of gods, men get their first thought and their first memory by imagining that the thundering sky of the primal storm is a huge body that mirrors their own fears and passions (naturally, these primitives do not know they are projecting their own affections and sensations onto natureit is automatic).[3] The cosmic cloudburst inspires fear in the barbaric nomads, for this sky-corpus is larger and more powerful than their own bodies. Indeed, though men may have feared and avoided more powerful men before the Jove experience, it is precisely the all-encompassing nature of the storm (they are naked and have no shelter from the rain, wind, lightning and thunder) that qualifies the Jove experience as a “break in being”[4]; the whole sky is pressing down upon the whole earth not unlike the Greek creation myth, wherein Ouranos lay upon Gaia before a scythe pried them apart, thus suspending the primal rape and giving birth to otherness (on the anxious side of consciousness) and to ordered movement in space and time (on the serene side of consciousness).[5]

Men just happen to be copulating with feral, unwilling women when the primal storm erupts. Vico says that men, before the first peal of thunder, had no reason to differentiate one object from another; so, men never looked up at the sky before that moment. After looking up at a powerful body that seemed to be threatening them with violence, these beastly men looked down at their women, felt pudor or shame, and so dragged the women to caves, where they solemnized their unions through a ritual auspice-taking.[6] This was the beginning of marriage, and soon men supplemented their monogamy by burying their dead relatives (yes, now we have the first families, since women are quarantined and so give birth to sons of certain parentage) and by creating enclosures (the first cities) that accepted clientes as non-blood relative helpers who were given protection from the remaining feral men outside the enclosure.[7] And that is how society came about.

Words were few in number in this age of gods. The first word was “Jove!” or “Pa!”: an imitation of the sound of the “voice” of the divine body that kick-started them into thinking and feeling.[8] As men’s minds became more able to differentiate the bodies, regions, and qualities that they were sensing, they named each after a different god. By the time we get to the age of heroes, language has evolved from grunts of fretful onomatopoeia like “Jove!” into something more like military commands. Vico uses the example of heraldry: pictures on a flag that represent the virility and joie de vivre of the family or ethnos.[9] The third stage, the age of men, sees the flowering of man’s reason. Now the emblems of the age of heroes are replaced with little marks that have little or no intrinsic relation to anything bodily or even verbal. They represent sounds and are grouped together to stand for spoken words.[10] There is a problem here: In the age of gods, men curbed their physical domination of less powerful bodies out of fear of an inscrutable, huge body; in the age of heroes, prominent men commanded less powerful men through unquestioned directives; in the age of men, concern with force of argument overrides any reliance on physical force. Anything can and is questioned. We are all equal in our rationality (in theory). But, as De Maistre once averred, if we take all of the hallowed truths of society and subject them to pitiless scrutiny, we end up eroding any possibility of consensus.[11] We become reasonably deluded, one might say. Vico thinks that the age of men can lead to a new barbarism, a new age of gods, though this ricorso would not be a return to the ferine peregrinations of the Jovian epiphany.

Notes

[1] Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, Third Edition, translated by Thomas G. Bergin and Max H. Fisch (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968 [1744]), §447, p. 150.

[2] Ibid., §369, p. 112-113.

[3] With the Jove experience, man “enters the first stage [of freedom] through the advent of fear: men start to behave differently from animals, when they stop feeling the mere metus, the mere instinctive fear, and start feeling the fear of something they imagine as superior: it is the metus numinis, the fear of god. Pudor is modesty in the face of the power of a superior being, coupled with shame; man is ashamed of his own nudity and of his bestial life. Pudor brings about the domain of reason over the senses…” (Mirella Vaglio, Truth and Authority in Vico’s Universal Law [New York: Peter Lang, 1999], p. 79).

[4] 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] Hesiod, Theogony, 126, 137-181. See also James L. Kelley, Orthodoxy, History and Esotericism: New Studies (Dewdney, B.C.: Synaxis, 2016), pp. 142-143.

[6] Vico, New Science, §506, pp. 171-172. See also James Robert Goetsch, Jr., Vico’s Axioms: The Geometry of the Human World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 30.

[7] Vico, New Science, §529, pp. 184-185; §556-557, pp. 197-198.

[8] Ibid., §448, pp. 150-151.

[9] Benedetto Croce, The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, translated by R. G. Collingwood (London: Howard Latimer, 1913), p. 51.

[10] Vico, New Science, §32, p. 20-21, and §34, pp. 21-22.

[11] Joseph de Maistre, Etude dur la souverianeté, in Oeuvres complètes, 14 volumes (Lyons: Vitte et Perussel, 1884-1886), 1.366.

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2 Responses to Giambattista Vico’s Three Ages: A Brief Exposition

  1. Vico’s been on my shelf for some time, but I’ve never gotten to him. Look forward to more posts!

  2. romeosyne says:

    The New Science (red cover) and the First New Science (blue cover) are the ones I started with. If you want a good secondary source to get you started, you cannot go wrong with Mark Lilla’s G. B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern. Hope the posts help!

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