If Giambattista Vico’s theory of history is even remotely accurate, we are now living at the end of a cycle of history, ready to see this era dissolve and a new cycle begin. Vico, who lived from 1688 to 1744, published his work Scienza Nuova (The New Science) in 1725. A Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Napoli, he was relatively unknown in his lifetime, but had a profound effect on 19th and 20th century thinkers. Karl Marx, James Joyce (Finnegan’s Wake is an extended version of Vico’s cycles of history), Isiah Berlin, and pragmatist philosophy all look to Vico for inspiration.
An an enlightenment thinker he also recognized the now well known weakness of the enlightenment. Skepticism, whether in its early Roman or current post-modernist forms, always undercuts arguments that try to prove anything from reason alone. Vico’s approach, Verum Factum, was an alternate to both Cartesian rationalism and Lockean empiricism, arguing that anything human made could be known and understood scientifically by humans. This means we can study history with scientific certainty, while in the natural sciences — when we’re studying a nature we’re simply born into — the best we can do is practical knowledge. This line of thought would have a lot in common with later ideas, amongst them pragmatism and constructivism/social constructivism.
However, more interesting for me at this point is his actual theory of history, “Corso e Ricorso.” For Vico, history unfolds in a series of cycles, each with three eras. The driving force of this progressive development of history is class struggle and status inequities. This is one of the first evolutionary theories of historical progression, pre-dating Marx, Darwin and Hegel. Even human nature develops, and human ends and interests are social as well as individual products. Essentially each era starts with imagination and superstition, moves towards rational and orderly thought, and then descends again into imagination. Politically this goes from anarchy to oligarchy, to monarchy and democracy, and then a decline back to anarchy. A devout Catholic, Vico considers the Hebrews to be outside this theory, as God direclty intervened on their history.
Vico posits humanity as emerging from an era when all were primitive and free, wildly procreating and living by their passions and superstitions. Their beliefs about the world were imagination driven, and the first Gods were thunder Gods, reflecting peoples’ fear that the Gods disapproved of their behavior. This motivated them towards monogamy and initial family structures. At some point families developed religious beliefs and rituals of marraige and burial. Burial plots brought private property into existence, and separated out the new ‘patriarchs’ who were developing stable family and clan structures from those who continued to live in anarchy.
Many remained in anarchy, but over time the weaker hunters started to move into the “asylums” — fields which surrounded the burial plots of the patriarchs. The patriarchs formed an alliance with these security seekers to wipe out the “marauders” — those who remained in anarchy. Once the marauders were eliminated, the patriarchs entered into a feudal relationship with the serfs who had sought their protection. The patriarchs treated them as virtual slave labor, not allowing them to marry or have private property. This was the aristocratic age of heroes, reflected in the first Greek city states.
Of course, the serfs soon rebelled against their condition and demanded basic rights, such as marriage and property rights. This class became known as the ‘plebes,’ struggling constantly for increased social status. Because their labor was needed and they outnumbered the aristocrats, they were able to slowly win practical rights, including the ability to marry and be part of society. For Vico this coincides with the development of the Roman Republic. Finally, internal divisions within the Republic gives way to Monarchy and organized rule, as the Roman Empire achieved its highest level of development, progressing in philosophy, the sciences, and political organization. But Roman philosophy would become critical and skeptical, and soon Rome’s core values weakened, its virtues undercut by a decadent and skeptical public no longer unified by the heroic ideals of the past. Rome weakened slowly from within until that great civilization collapsed, having run it’s course of history.
From there, a new course of history started, one destined to surpass the last. The early Christian church became the new era of the Gods. The feudal middle ages to the renaissance represented the new age of aristocratic heroes. Finally the enlightenment and the rise of modernism was the development of the new age of man. For Vico, writing at the dawn of the modern era, this was destined to lead to great advances, moving beyond anything that the Romans had discovered. He also thought that the Christian faith was a true version of religious faith, showing progress from Roman polytheism. Vico predicted, however, that reason would again become overly critical and skeptical, and that this would lead to a society being self-questioning and self-absorbed. The result would be another civilizational collapse, and yet another course of history.
For Vico the current era of hyperconsumerism and baseless materialism could be seen as a predicted break down of the accomplishments of the enlightenment. Moreover, this is a necessary outcome of enlightenment thought, since modern rational thought can never escape skepticism and self-critical reflection; it in facts demands it. Post-modernism, the current variant of age old skepticism, is simply that late Roman nihilist philosophy coming back — improved, as each era does progress, but destined to unravel the current civilization.
So from a Viconian perspective, we’re at the end of a third course of history, and are about to see our civilization unravel into anarchy, moving back to the age of Gods, although one progressed beyond the original thunder Gods or early Christian ideals of the last two cycles. To be sure, Vico’s theory doesn’t work as well if one thinks about non-western cultures, and his interpretation of history is as poetic and imaginative as it is scientific. But what if in broad terms he’s correct?
Reason and humanism seemed dominate Europe and the US by the 19th century, but then WWI and WWII showed how critical and skeptical reason could lead to ideologies and chaos. While for Vico this chaos leads to Monarchy and a restoration of order (as in the Roman Republic to an Empire); we seem however to have moved towards more democracy. Yet if you look at the post-WWII order, it is not truly democratic. Power is held by bureaucratic and corporate elites, elections are primarily marketing campaigns, and one wonders how much control the people truly have. If you look at consumerism and crass materialism defining our culture, we seem to have slipped into decadence. The inability of so many to see the obvious economic imbalances leading to the current crisis also show a touch of delusion.
Skeptical and critical reasoning has taken to dominate our thinking. Many of us, including myself, embrace that — thinking critically is a way to liberate ourselves from the chains of irrational tradition or control by those with power and propaganda. Yet it also pushes us away from the traditions cultural norms that unify society, creating division and lack of coherence. Add that to the consumer/material decadence, and perhaps we are drifting towards collapse. Many have compared the United States to Rome. And if the last few years have shown that we are not as invulnerable as we once thought. With GM on the verge of failure and the economy looking as bleak as anytime since the Great Depression, one could imagine things falling apart further. Michael Moore’s new movie project is supposedly about the “End of an Empire.” You can guess which one.
Climate change, oil shortages, or increased violence from a Third World destroyed by colonialism and whose corrupt leaders have been enabled by western greed, could all push towards a new barbarism, with terrorism and other dangers hard to combat. Perhaps we are simply living in the final days of this particular cycle of history.
Or perhaps not. Even if Vico isn’t simply representing a misguided 18th century effort to make broad sweeping statements of history, even if he is on to something, there’s no reason we can’t break out of the cycle. The way to do it would be to create a critical reasoning that does not undercut society and cultural coherence. We’re part of the way there; the core values of the United States are based on reason but also the creation of a tradition that stresses tolerance, compromise, and pragmatism. These values can compliment critical reasoning, and in fact be a culture that can be strengthened by such “post-modern” thinking.
The signs aren’t promising. In recent years nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia about immigrants, and militarism have been strong. Fear of Islam and terrorism fed a tendency for politics to seem more like holy war than rational discourse. Instead of Madison and Jefferson, we get Limbaugh and Hannity. Read blogs left and right, and it’s less about discussion, more about defending an orthodoxy on each side. It’s better than the late Roman Empire, but Vico would expect that — each cycle progresses. But perhaps this last election reflects an attempt to re-connect with our values. If Vico’s on the right track (and for the sake of this post I’m playing the assumptiont hat he is) the way out of corso e ricorso is to construct a culture that can mesh with even critical and skeptical reasoning. Are we there yet?