Between Descartes and Nietzsche

Between Descartes and Nietzsche

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I cannot understand how our minds, which have been formed by responses to the emergencies of a small corner of space and time, could possibly comprehend a revelation of the total universe, even if it were granted them. I can understand that we might be given a mystical intuition of the nature of the universe, and this would penetrate to the core of our being, which lies far beneath the level of our consciousness, and would determine our thoughts and actions—indeed, I believe that we must have received such an intuition, for otherwise we would not so often love life when by all logical criteria it unlovable.

—Dame Rebecca West

To fully appreciate Vico as a valid alternative to Enlightenment rationalism one needs to examine another philosopher who also proposed his thought as an alternative to the Enlightenment, namely Friedrich Nietzsche. At the end of the 19th century, he was fully aware of the malaise of nihilism that would afflict the 20th century. One of his most brilliant insights was that the deterioration of the positive value of history came about when the historians chose to become “scientific” and began recreating the past ignoring the value judgments and the social impact of their work. Nietzsche pointed out that the historians had decided to forget the basic premise that the same man who tells his history also makes it by telling it through language. Thus they had become less and less capable of generalizing and ended up swamping their readers with trivial boring “facts.” To relate history dryly, without raising emotions in the reader came to be considered the “correctly scientific” mode of doing history; which is to say, the historian in the process of writing history objectively should not show that he is in any way affected by any particular event of the past, for that would compromise his objectivity.

Nietzsche thought that the alternative to this kind of historian is a man who can make himself “a mirror where the future may see itself.” In other words, history needs to be written by men of experience and character with minds which are perceptive and capable of envisioning the future. Undoubtedly this proposal puts much more emphasis upon man’s humanity, will and character than the more encompassing understanding of history as the necessary outcome of the world process culminating with rational man at its apex. Since this scheme is deterministic and necessary, it ultimately justifies its excesses. Nietzsche on the other hand, puts the burden of responsibility back on man and insisted that history must proceed from life, from its origins, and then return to life. He dared to say the unpardonable in German academic circles; that “the professor” who creates much of modern culture, may not be the highest form of culture. This stance echoes Vico’s “boria dei dotti,” the conceit of scholars.

Nietzsche argued that the antidote to “the professor” is the “unhistorical” and “super-historical,” i.e., man must become his own master again by knowing himself. The Greeks were exemplary in this respect. For them, the journey into self-knowledge begins at its origins when man looks afresh at his true necessities and learns once again to organize the chaos around him. No wonder Nietzsche has been re-discovered. Like Vico, he offers an alternative to the rationalism of the Enlightenment by proposing a return to origins. Heidegger will do likewise with his notion of “originative thinking.”

Nietzsche however takes a position even more extreme than Vico’s position vis a vis reason. He pronounces the Enlightenment dead, paradoxically advocates the abandonment of rationalism on rational grounds, and calls for the revitalization of man through an ethical struggle for the reconstruction of meaning. Indeed Nietzsche appears so much like Vico that they have been confused. Often they are both branded protoromantics. In present day Italy Nietzsche is still in vogue while Vico, considered less modern, is relegated to academic circles. But the two, despite appearances, are quite different at a deeper level of their speculation on history. That difference begins with the madman’s shout “God is dead,” and the conception of history as eternal return culminating with the Ubermensch of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Only a madman could declare, in 19th century Europe, that God no longer explained one’s cultural world.

Nietzsche boldly proclaims that the only true Christian had died on the cross and that Christianity had become a religion of meek slaves. After this profound loss of meaning exemplified by the madman shouting the death of God, a new purpose and ideal was needed. That ideal was the Superman created by man’s will: man as he could be if only he willed to transcend himself. What logically follows is the “will to power,’ be it only over oneself. So, whatever increases this feeling of power is good, anything proceeding from weakness and decreasing it is bad. God may be dead, but this will to power, or the will to create man’s faith in a higher existence can live on. Man has become his own destiny. He no longer is an end in himself but a bridge between lower nature (the animals) and the Superman.

The reason why Vico and Nietzsche have been confused is that if eliminate the concept of providence from Vico’s thought, we easily end up with Nietzsche charismatic man: the Superman: man who makes his own history and wills himself to greatness. This is a man who transcends conventional morality and goes “beyond good and evil,” and in so doing he creates himself and makes history a work of art. But Vico’s speculation is a wholly different alternative to Enlightenment rationalism. For if God is dead, then the telos of history is also dead and the very idea of history with a sense of direction and purpose is invalidated. There will be no final telos or purpose, or an end of history toward which man may aspire. There will be no stages or eras through which man may reach the final purpose. What one is left with is mere random change in a universe where time is infinite. However, since space is finite, the universe will eventually return to conditions that are identical to its previous state. This is the eternal recurrence. In such predetermined universe, what is man to do? Simply to combat chaos and meaninglessness by his “will to power.”

This concept of eternal return has reappeared nowadays in the theoretical constructs of astronomers and physicists such as Sagan and Hawkings. Imperceptibly, but dramatically, the focus within historicism has shifted from Vichian self-knowledge as will to truth, to Nietzschean self-knowledge as will to power. Therein lies the confirmation that the universe is eternal and therefore, strictly, speaking God is superfluous as Sagan indeed asserts in the preface to Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time.

What Nietzsche was prophesying in the 19th century was the advent of nihilism in the following century. A phenomenon this which has its roots in Descartes disastrous separation of human values from science. Not unlike Vico, Nietzsche was indicting the whole Western scientific value-free scientific tradition. He had correctly intuited that man’s history cannot be deduced from a mere rationalistic scheme. However, the alternative he proposed was one wherein the pole of transcendence, very much present in Vico, is jettisoned, thus leaving technocratic man all alone to create his own immanent values. This explains the appeal of Nietzsche, to the left and to the right, at the end of the 20th century.

Nowadays, we have begun to suspect that the much vaunted technological Marcusian revolution may prove to be a short-lived phase of human history. We now find ourselves at the crossroads with no apparent purpose discernible in the universe while the open frontiers seem to be closing in. Man’s technological advances have carried him way beyond the old assumptions about “inevitable progress.” Technology seems more and more to have a mind of its own. As Nietzsche predicted, in such a dehumanized world, man has no truth to discover, only power by which to assert his self-made values.

Not too surprisingly, the previous century was the century of anxiety and ideologies that have been asserted as truths to be imposed from above with raw power. Such an operation invariably leads to the debunking or the falsification of history. Religion will be debased to the level of an ideology, a rival ideology to be liquidated, the sooner the better. Thought police and political correctness are the outer symptoms of this cultural malaise ending in the panacea of modern relativism.

This cultural disaster need not have occurred had Vico’s historicism been considered and accorded a fair hearing; had it been recognized that Vico’s merit lies in the fact that he begins with the particular without ever sacrificing the universal, and, even more importantly, without ever sacrificing the will to truth to the will to power. An undistorted Vico, that is to say, a Vico whose concept of providence is left as the most valuable part of his thought, remains nowadays the most valuable part of his thought, the best alternative between the two dehumanizing extremes of Cartesian rationalism ushering in technocratic man ready to efficiently order the world and conceiving of himself as a machine of sort, and Nietzschean anti-rationalism ushering in charismatic man ready to “transvalue values” and impose his superior elitist values on the rest of the world.

I am afraid that the alternative above suggested will not be discerned as long as Vico remains the property of a few academic experts within the confines of philosophy departments. Vico needs to be placed in the hands of ordinary people. After all, it was for them that the New Science was written, for one of the fundamental ethical purposes of Vico’s masterpiece is that of “insegnar il volgo a virtuosamente operare,” i.e., “to teach ordinary people how to live virtuous lives.”