7. Vico, Language, Barbarism

I mentioned yesterday that, for Vico, the degradation of civilization was tied to a sort of forgetting which began in the corruption of language.  I promised to elaborate, so here we are. 

Recall that the foundation of civil society is exteriorized memory, preserved in things such as grave markers, statues, the structure of cities, and, most importantly, in laws and language.  In language, Vico believed, was preserved the common sense of a people, and by tracing the origins of words, the this common sense could be discovered.

Some necessary background: I characterized this method as “semi-” novel yesterday, and it’s certainly not a common one among modern historians, particularly in the weight which Vico places upon his rhetorical investigations.  However, there is an important antecedent in Medieval thought, which often utilized etymology to get at the true knowledge of things.  In other words, knowing the nature of the word which denotes the thing tells us about the nature of the thing itself.  The golden exemplar of this mode of thinking is Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, a sort of encyclopedia that was hugely popular and influential throughout the Middle Ages. 

The importance of his investigation of words cannot be understated.  Vico’s philosophy is rhetorical, and, as such, a direct rebuff of Cartesian science.  Whereas Descartes had dismissed the human world as uncertain, looking towards math, and following math the natural sciences, as the supreme mode of knowing which gave true certainty, Vico rejects this, arguing that since God had created the natural world, only He could truly know it.  However, the human world, the world of civil society, was created by man, and thus could be understood by man.  If indeed we can know the human world and if this world preserves the common sense of humanity, then through Vico’s rhetorical investigations, we can discern the eternal truths which underlie society and history.  This principle, known as the verum-factum (what is made is true), is the foundation of his New Science and his critique of Cartesian thought. 

Returning to the main thread, Vico lays out a number (114, in fact) establishing principles that guide his science.  I’ll quote them here to give a better impression of what Vico means by “common sense” and what can be derived from it.  These are principles 10-17, and they aren’t quoted in full, Vico explains each in greater detail, but hopefully you get the idea:

  • “Philology observes the creative authorship and authority of human volition, from which we derive our common knowledge of what is certain…this axiom defines as philologists all the grammarians, historians, and critics who have contributed to our understanding of peoples’ languages and deeds…”
  • “Since human judgment is by nature uncertain, it gains certainty from our common sense about what is necessary and useful to humanity; and necessity and utility are the two sources of the natural law of nations.”
  • “Common sense is an unreflecting judgment shared by an entire social order, people, nation, or even all humankind.”
  • “When uniform ideas arise in entire nations which are unknown to each other, they must have a common basis in truth.”
  • “The nature of an institution is identical with its nascence at a certain time and in a certain manner.  When these are the same, similar institutions will arise.”
  • “The inherent properties of things are produced by the mode or manner in which they arise.”
  • “Popular traditions always have a public basis in truth, which explains their birth and their preservation for many years by entire peoples.”
  • “Vernacular expressions are invaluable witnesses to the customs current among ancient peoples as their languages were forming.”

The upshot is that common sense reflects the truth of human societies, encoded in language at the origin of human institutions, and through investigating language, we can discover that truth.  That’s the upshot in terms of Vico’s science, at least. In terms of civil society, it means that language is key to preserving and passing on the memory of the truths which establish and bind together that society. 

However, in their decadent phase, civilizations experience a corruption of language, primarily through “learned fools” who malign the truth and the misuse of eloquence capable of arguing both sides of a cause with equal force to attain money and power.  Sophistry, in other words.  Sophists, here I’m borrowing from Josef Pieper, create a psuedoreality whose fictitious nature is indistinguishable from actual reality, stupefying the populace and corrupting the very fabric of civil society.*  Common sense is lost, as each individual retreats into their own realities, divorced from the society which collapses around it.

Against this disease of stupefaction, Vico suggests that providence, the motive force of history, has three remedies: an Augustus who restores order through force of arms, subjugation by some external power, and, severest of all, descent into the barbarism of reflection, a condition far worse than the original barbarism from which society emerged, “For early peoples displayed a generous savagery, from which others could guard or defend themselves or flee.  But decadent peoples practice an ignoble savagery, and use flattery and embraces to play against the life and fortunes of their intimates and friends.”

There are no war bands of brothers here, only poison, corruption, and alienation. It is a barbarism of the intellect, caused by the clever-silly decadent abandonment of the traditions and religion embodied in language, and the recognition that these modes of memory contain the vital world-engendering truths that knit a people together.  Without these bonds, beset by the poison of envy, deceit, and self-interest, society consumes itself and falls inward, returning back to the beginning, giants in the forest:

“Like beasts, such people are accustomed to think of nothing but their own personal advantage, and in their extreme fastidiousness, or rather pride, they are filled with bestial rage and resentment at the least provocation.  Although their bodies are densely crowded together, they live like monstrous beasts in the utter solitude of their private wills and desires.  Not even two of them can agree, because each pursues his own pleasure or caprice.  Seeing all this, providence causes their obstinate factional strife and desperate civil wars to turn their cities into forests and their forests into human lairs.”**

And thus the cycle begins again, as these new giants emerge into the clearing and consecrate it with their dead.

“Thus, providence renews the piety, faith, and truth which are  both the natural foundations of justice, and the race and beauty of God’s eternal order.”


*We might call to mind Baudrillard on hyperreality, etc. here discussing the modern permutations of this phenomenon.

**With this mention of forests, I’d like to plant a seed for a future discussion of Ernst Junger’s Forest Passage, which I think has some fascinating connections to Vico’s ideas that I’m still trying to work out for myself. 

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