More Historical Ambiguity in Vico as Background to the Emergence of the Novel in a Human World

Early draft version extract of work in progress for a project on philosophy of the novel, beginning with the importance of Vico even if he does not address the novel. He does address Homer and the approach of his New Science is a highly suggestive in relation to the genre of the novel. Limited references. All references to Vico’s New Science  give paragraph section followed by page number in the Cornell University Press (Ithaca NY) 1975 edition translated by Thomas Goddard Berhin and Max Harold Fisch.  A pdf of the first, 1948, edition of that translation can be found here.

Post Carries on from the post two down from this one

The most basic aspect of the understanding of the history of civil institutions in the New Science is the three stage structure of history, which could also be said to be a four stage history, appropriately for a book that both creatively and frustratingly keeps pushing at the limits of its own declared structure. The first stage is the divine world of pre-urban communities of those who have left forests that cover the Earth. They are giants whose communities are loosely composed of family communities with no more than token central authority.

Vico is alluding to the idea that the earliest communities emerged from the forests after Genesis style floods, before which there were the kind of human communities described in Genesis, before the time of Noah. That of course suggests another stage other than the given four in a first history before great floods, but Vico has little to say about that. Apart from referring to the way history started, or restarted, after the great floods, Vico is thinking of the next beginning of history, which was western and central Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west.

How the Eastern Roman Empire fits in, which became known as the Byzantine Empire, though it is more properly known as Romania (land of the Romans), and survived for another 1000 years, or as a major state maybe for another 700 years, past the mid-fifth century collapse in the west  is  not at all clear, but again the oddities are a part of Vico’s creativity. Anyway, the ‘barbarian’ invaders of the west seem to be taken as analogues for the pre-urban ur-communities, but that would rely only fit at all with relation to communities still in the German forests, and that is maybe what Vico means.

The emergence of states initially under the leadership of the German invaders in the Iberian peninsula, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria, and in more fleeting way north Africa brings those regions in a world of hero-aristocrats. The initial appearance of the hero-aristocrats in the first cycle of history is associated by Vico with the kings and heroes of Homer, and that association is at the centre of the New Science. He also regards the History of Rome by Titus Livius Patavinus (Livy) as a source on the heroic age, and thereby equates the Rome of the early kings and the early patrician phase of the republic, with the kingdoms of Mycenaean Greece. Again the reader is left with a sense of anachronism (in the original meaning) and again it works remarkably well for thinking about the historical stage in which very militaristic aristocrats dominate states, and regard the lower classes, as close to animals or as internal enemies.

The next stage is the democratic-human age, which is approached largely through the more democratic phases of the Greek and Roman republics. Carthage is also mentioned and that is one reason for not thinking of Vico as just an advocate of the centrality of Graeco-Roman antiquity, though he can lean in that direction. The human age itself divides into two phases, which is source of the three or four dilemma in counting Vico’s stages. The human age achieves democratic institutions, but the gatherings of citizens become disorderly and riven between factions. That s why a human monarchy appears, which of course makes Vico confusing to the new reader, for the reason that he refers to kings from the divine and barbaric age, though he thinks of these as having limited power on behalf of the very disordered class of heroic nobles, all convinced of their connection with the gods, along with the absolute importance of hanging onto land and privilege, in relation to each other, the plebeians, and external enemies.

The human kings are more absolute and more concerned with the rights of all and the harmony of the community. They resolves fights about the meanings of laws between patricians and plebeians, and factions with those groups, through a very contextual and flexible activity as judges. The model clearly is the Roman Emperors, who were the supreme judicial authority and were indeed sometimes extremely diligent in resolving the legal claims of citizens high and low. Returning to the second cycle of history, Vico thinks of the knights of the middle ages as like the Homeric heroes, with city saints reviving the religious distinctions of pagan antiquity between the gods of different communities.

The literature of chivalry is equated with Homer and Livy, Le Chanson de Roland serving as the main example. A more human age then merges as kings consolidate powers over independent minded knights and aristocrats, launch wars against Muslims in Iberia and the Middle East, and revive Roman law. The last aspect is a process which relies on the survival of some understanding of Roman law in Italy, which Vico acknowledges, but not the role of the second Rome in Constantinople, where Justinşan decreed the greatest gathering and codification of Roman law. How all this fits into the cycles of history, and apparent apocalyptic end of history in the fifth century is not discussed much, but presumably should lead us to think of each cycle leaving traces for the next cycle, rather than terminating in complete annihilation.

The consequence of the new knowledge and development of Roman law is more clearly defined rights, known more widely, for all, which are enforced with increasing energy and power by kings. Again another problem with the stages emerges as Vico does not have much to say about the human-democratic phases as distinct from what should be the later stage of kings who can claim to be democratic-human in inspiration, though making solo decisions. One of those who might be of interest to him as a human-democratic leader is Cola di Rienzo, the popular Roman leader of the fourteenth century, however, Vico dismisses hşm as barbaric and childish. Anyway the urban politics of traders, bankers, and guilds in the Middle Ages is presumably what Vico thinks of as the democratic pre-monarchical phase of the second historical cycle.

He might be thinking of the polities of Florence and other Italian city states in Machiavelli’s time, particularly as Machiavelli had a positive view of the role of the plebeians in Roman republican history, largely based on his interpretation of Livy in the Dicourses on the First Decalogue of Titus Livius. Of course Vico was not likely to say anything that could be taken as praise of Machiavelli’s political thought, living under the Naples branch of the Inquisition, as well as depending on patronage of members of he church hierarchy. In any case, this seems a bit late, since Vico associates the rise of ‘human kings’ with the crusades to the Holy Lands beginning in the eleventh century, though he could also be referring to the Reconquista in Iberia, which had its first, if small, success shortly after the eighth century Moorish invasion. So the space for the repeated human democracy before the human-democratic monarchs seems to vanish. Vico was living under an absolute monarchy in Naples and was perhaps very wary publishing anything, which might be taken to hint at an alternative democratic tradition to the monarchical tradition, in Europe since the Middle Ages. The urban politics of city state, and even cities within kingdoms since these other had some kind of corporate self-management is I propose the second human-democratic world, though as ever the chronology and succession of stages is full of overlaps and ambiguities.

More on the philosophy and literature theme coming soon


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