Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Jove in the Clouds

We recently had some (very mild) thunderstorms here; and thunderstorms always put me in mind of Giambattista Vico, the Italian contemporary of Descartes and (I suppose one could argue) the last great Renaissance humanist.

Vico imagined a time in which the Gentile nations of the world turned feral, and collapsed into what he called, if I'm remembering correctly, "a barbarism of sense." So things went for centuries, until one fateful day, while they were all running about like animals, doing beastly and horrible things, they heard thunder and saw lightning for the first time - "the voice of Jove in the clouds," Vico calls it - and fled, in terror, into caves. For many years after that the skies thundered, and the law of the people was the thunder in the clouds; activities that they were doing when it thundered became taboo, or, if they were unavoidable, had to be combined with special rituals. So began religion, government, rituals showing respect for the genial bed, and rituals showing respect for the dead, the great constants of civic life. A civil theology grew up, and as time went on, by its own inexorable logic it began to approximate the natural theology developed by reason. (Vico uses this as a historical argument for the existence of divine providence.) All because of Jove in the clouds.

Now, Vico held that history follows a helical path: it spirals round and round, never exactly the same, but always following similar courses. And he also held that in the modern era we began to collapse into a "barbarism of reflection," different from, but in its own way similar to, the barbarism of sense. Just as the original barbarism of sense involved a beastly depravity of passions and imaginations, the new barbarism of reflection involves a beastly depravity of reason and will. So the interesting question arises (Vico, so far as I know never answers it):

What will be our Jove in the clouds, restoring us to the right use of reason?

--> Some Vico quotes:
"Common sense is judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire nation, or the entire human race." (The New Science 1.142)

"Uniform ideas originating among entire peoples unknown to each other must have a common ground of truth." (The New Science 1.144)

"Men first feel necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance." (The New Science 1.241)

"Metaphysics abstracts the mind from the senses, and the poetic faculty must submerge the whole mind in the senses. Metaphysics soars up to universals, and the poetic faculty must plunge deep into particulars." (The New Science 3.4.821)

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