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  • Writer's pictureDrew Maglio

Providence and Human Agency in Giambattista Vico’s New Science

In the 18th Century AD, Giambattista Vico wrote his landmark work, The New Science, which revolutionized the study of the philosophy of history, anthropology, language, politics, and colloquial human development in society, i.e. philology. In The New Science, Vico postulated that human development through time is essentially cyclical—as opposed to linear—in the sense that human civilization may regress or progress in so far as it accords with, or rejects, the guiding hand of Divine Providence. Vico began his inquiry from the premise that man is inherently a social animal endowed with agency, rejecting both the notion that man could live a solitary existence in the state of nature, or alternatively that man’s existence is determined and lacking agency:

The human race, as far back as memory of the world goes, has lived and still lives conformably in society, this axiom alone decides the great dispute still waged by the best philosophers and moral theologians against Carneades the skeptic and Epicurus . . . namely, whether law exists by nature, or whether man is naturally sociable, which comes to the same thing. This same axiom, together with VII and its corollary, proves that man has free choice, however weak, to make virtues of his passions; but that he is aided by God, naturally by divine providence and supernaturally by divine grace.[1]

For Vico, these necessary contingencies (of man living in society with agency) is mostly due to the “natural law of gentes”[2] and the guiding hand of Providence which directs human agency towards the end of civil harmony through the three ubiquitous and universal human institutions of religion, marriage, and burial:

We observe that all nations, barbarous as well as civilized, though separately founded because remote from each other in time and space, keep these three human customs: all have some religion, all contract solemn marriages, all bury their dead . . . For, by the axiom that "uniform ideas, born among peoples unknown to each other, must have a common ground of truth," it must have been dictated to all nations that from these three institutions humanity began among them all, and therefore they must be most devoutly guarded by them all, so that the world should not again become a bestial wilderness.[3]

For Vico, there are three stages of development for human civilization, namely the vulgar, the heroic, and the divine which correspond with their respective institutions: “This was the order of human institutions: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies.”[4] The subject of this inquiry is not the transition from vulgar to heroic to divine, but rather the ambiguous force of “Providence,” by which human development is directed and ecouraged.

One recurring and overarching claim that Vico makes throughout his New Science, is that all human beings—who exist first as individuals, then families, and finally as cities made up of smaller political communities—develop due to a marrying of human agency with the force of Divine Providence, which convicts even those living in barbarous and vulgar times to found institutions which foster human advancement:

This axiom establishes that divine providence initiated the process by which the fierce and violent were brought from their outlaw state to humanity and by which nations were instituted among them. It did so by awaking in them a confused idea of divinity, which they in their ignorance attributed to that to which it did not belong. Thus through the terror of this imagined divinity, they began to put themselves in some order.[5]

It is in this providential way that even those human beings living under vulgar conditions have some semblance of a metaphysical understanding of the universal, which inspires action towards the end of human refinement and advancement through the creation of the three sacred institutions which lay the groundwork for further human development. Thus for Vico, “without religion no commonwealths can be born, and if there were no commonwealths in the world there would be no philosophers in it.”[6]

In such a conception, it may be said that while religion may give birth to philosophy and other divine pursuits (in so far as they attempt to order man’s soul and his commonwealth according to what Providence has ordained), it is human nature itself that gives birth to two conceits—that of nations and scholars—which by conceiving of things contrary to their divine order undermine the guiding hand of Providence, thereby regressing man from divine or human times to human or barbarous times, respectively:

In such commonwealths the entire peoples, who have in common the desire for justice, command laws that are just because they are good for all. Such a law Aristotle divinely defines as will without passions, which would be the will of a hero who has command of his passions. These commonwealths gave birth to philosophy. By their very form they inspired it to form the hero, and for that purpose to interest itself in truth. All this was ordained by providence to the end that, since virtuous actions were no longer prompted by religious sentiments as formerly, philosophy should make the virtues understood in their idea, and by dint of reflection thereon, if men were without virtue they should at least be ashamed of their vices . . . And from the philosophies providence permitted eloquence to arise and, from the very form of these popular commonwealths in which good laws are commanded, to become impassioned for justice, and from these ideas of virtue to inflame the peoples to command good laws. Such eloquence, we resolutely affirm, flourished in Rome in the time of Scipio Africanus, when civil wisdom and military valor . . . happily united . . . But as the popular states became corrupt, so also did the philosophies. They descended to skepticism. Learned fools fell to calumniating the truth. Thence arose a false eloquence, ready to uphold either of the opposed sides of a case indifferently. Thus it came about that, by abuse of eloquence . . . these citizens provoked civil wars in their commonwealths and drove them to total disorder. Thus they caused the commonwealths to fall from a perfect liberty into the perfect tyranny of anarchy or the unchecked liberty of the free peoples, which is the worst of all tyrannies.[7]

In light of this decay caused by the exercise of philosophy divorced from its emphasis on virtue and justice—I.e. seeking to understand, align with, and acquiesce to Divine Providence—Vico argued that Providence causes in such cases,[8] either internal reform or external destruction. This process of redirection occurs continually when human beings err, in order to reset the equilibrium of history and reorder the course of human affairs towards their proper End, which seems for Vico, a combination of individual virtue and justice melded with a harmonious commonwealth, where each individual serves the common good, by exercising his or her will and ability in the service of others as Christ instructed. In this way, there is for Vico, an interplay between human agency and the force of Divine Providence that manifests itself in space through temporal time which may be called history, aiming at an End that seems to be beyond human comprehension, though intelligible to a certain degree through the activity of philosophy which is birthed from natural religion. While it seems to me Vico believed Divine Providence would actualize its will in the temporal world in time, it is also true that human agency can act in a manner that does not accord with the Divine Will and therefore history is in actuality, essentially cyclical—in so far as it is a perpetual falling away from, and reconciling to, the Divine Providential Mind. And while Providence will ultimately triumph through the actualization of the Divine Will in temporality, the action of human beings—in so far as we are endowed with the ability to accord with (or depart from) the ambiguous and elusively nebulous force of Providence (thereby elevating or debasing ourselves into the three stages of development)—remains contingent upon human agency, rather than determined by forces and circumstances outside of individual or societal control.

Throughout his New Science, Vico used language such as the word “caused” to describe human actions that he felt were directed and ordained by Providence towards some great end:

In our religion, divine grace causes virtuous action for the sake of an eternal and infinite good . . . providence, through the order of civil institutions discussed in this work, makes itself palpable for us in these three feelings: the first, the marvel, the second, the veneration, hitherto felt by all the learned for the matchless wisdom of the ancients, and the third, the ardent desire with which they burned to seek and attain it. These are in fact three lights of the divine providence that aroused in them the aforesaid three beautiful and just sentiments; but these sentiments were later perverted by the conceit of scholars and by the conceit of nations.[9]

While it is abundantly clear that Providence does direct the course and actions of men spatially in the temporal world towards the end of “an eternal and infinite good”—i.e. the fulfilling of man’s ultimate teleological purpose by aligning with and sharing in the divine nature communally—how this is accomplished is much more perplexing. My intimation—based on the cited passages and the text as a whole—is that Providence operates not necessarily consciously or directly, but rather through the congruous vehicles of natural law, reason, and conscience, which all simultaneously drive man towards family and civilization (i.e. through the universal institutions of marriage, burial, and religion), thereby refining and reforming his character to align with what he was created to be. In this way Providence seems to be universal and directed, yet reconcilable with free notions of human agency which Vico frequently acknowledges throughout the text as a necessary contingency for true virtue and goodness. And yet, because there is a clear teleological end to which Providence directs the actions of men, it transcends the “skeptical” labels of Fate, Fortune, and/or Chance, which the Stoics and Epicureans employed (but Plato rightly recognized as erroneous).[10] Similarly, from his axiom established in Book 1, paragraphs 135-136, it is certain that Vico acknowledged the supernatural reality of revelatory Divine Grace, which superseded the natural intimation and inclination of Divine Providence.[11]

[1] Giambattista Vico, Thomas Goddard Bergin, and Max Harold Fisch, The New Science of Giambattista Vico: Revised Translation of the Third Edition (1744) (Cornell University Press, 1984), 135-136.

[2] In Book 11, subheading 550, citing his earlier axiom in subheading 146, Vico wrote: “the natural law of the gentes was by divine providence ordained separately for each people, and only when they became acquainted, did they recognize it as common to all.

[3] Ibid., 333.

[4] Ibid., 239.

[5] Ibid., 178.

[6] Ibid., 179.

[7] Ibid., 1101-1102.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 1110-1111.

[10] Ibid., 130.

[11] “This same axiom, together with VII and its corollary, proves that man has free choice, however weak, to make virtues of his passions; but that he is aided by God, naturally by divine providence and supernaturally by divine grace.”


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