The Rehabilitation of Myth: Vicos New Science

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They had only the bare potentiality, and that torpid and stupid, of using the human mind and reason. From that very cause the beginnings of poetry, not only different from but contrary to those which have been hitherto imagined, are found to lie in the beginnings of poetic wisdom, which have from that same cause been hitherto hidden from us.

This poetic wisdom, the knowledge of the theological poets, was unquestionably the first wisdom of the world for the gentiles. Two features of prime importance are 1 the association of this early wisdom with the childhood of the human race, and 2 that the understanding of this age is shaped by the conditions of embodiment since the first peoples erano quasi tutti corpo e quasi niuna riflessione NS, par.

On the one hand, this means that the prior stage of civilization must be understood in its own terms—and here Vico parts company with those learned allegorists who remake heroic poetry in their own philosophical image. But on the other hand, it is clear that, just as childhood is very different from adulthood, the experiences of the former are foundational to the latter. Hence while Vico edges toward a certain historicism in approach, at the same time he holds to the notion that there is a common link between human societies that his new science will trace.

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A number of them essentially sketch the nature of early humanity. Men are naturally impelled to preserve the memories of their laws and institutions NS, par. All barbarian histories have fabulous beginnings NS, par. Children naturally filter all subsequent experience through the ideas and names of the first people and things they encounter NS, par.

And finally, children excel in imitation and regularly amuse themselves by imitating whatever they apprehend NS, par.

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Thus the poetry of the heroic age is defined as a kind of creative memory—a record of the past, to be sure, one that is universally practiced by all the fanciulli delle nazioni , but one that also implies a constant degree of imaginative distortion. This is particularly important in reference to the anthropomorphism in Greek mythology that generates the age-old negativity of Homeric religion. This axiom is a great canon of our mythology.

According to it, the fables originating among the first savage and crude men were very severe, as suited the founding of nations emerging from a fierce bestial freedom.

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Then, with the long passage of years and change of customs, they lost their original meanings and were altered and obscured in the dissolute and corrupt times beginning even before Homer. Because religion was important to them, the men of Greece, lest the gods should oppose their desires as well as their customs, imputed these customs to the gods, and gave improper, ugly, and obscene meanings to the fables.

It will be another great labor of this Science to recover these grounds of truth—truth which, with the passage of years and the changes in languages and customs, has come down to us enveloped in falsehood.


For Vico, Homer is a problem to be fixed, but it can neither be resolved with the traditional philosophical resources, nor can one trust the philologists to reach the real heart of the matter. It is rather in the marriage of philosophy and philology, the quest for the eternal truth and the quest for the historically certain, that the Homeric problem acquires its proper significance.

The negativity of Homeric religion and mores remains intact, in a sense, while at the same time one gets successfully beyond it. The basic alterity of the primitive mind implies that we cannot judge the sublime works of heroic poetry by our own moral standards and theological ideas. In this sense, Vico strongly asserts a historicist principle to which he holds uncompromisingly.

Philosophical critique is a child of abstraction, and can only prosper in the wake of the richness of invention.

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Behind the negativity of Homeric mythology, then, stands the inherent historical alienation of the human mind from itself through the course of its development. For the thought-world of the past is in essence falsified by the thought-world of the present. NS, par.

It is equally beyond our power to enter into the vast imagination of those first men, whose minds were not in the least abstract, refined, or spiritualized, because they were entirely immersed in the senses, butted by the passions, buried in the body. That is why we said above [par. The heavy stones tied to her feet denoted the stability of marriage, for which Vergil calls solemn matrimony conjugium stabile [Aeneid 1.

The past is not self-evident; as embodied in the Homeric text, it is authoritative yet mystified, lapidary yet in need of decipherment. But when properly decoded, Homer divulges primeval truths that modernity must listen to in order to overcome its own historical alienation and be present to itself as a human and humane totality. There is an element of nostalgia in Vico for the brave old world of sublime imagination, one that serves as a means of delivering a critique of modern reason.

But he insists that such world is lost to the rational age, though it continues to serve as its foundation. Modern man forgets that original foundation at its own risk. The risk consists in accepting a deterministic scheme of history as inevitable progress, a la Hegel. Ovi Web Advanced Search. Newsletter Subscribe Contact Search. Advanced Search. Ovi PDF.

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