The Immanence of Providence’s Action within Man’s History
Vico is particularly interested in demonstrating through his science of humanity the presence of a reality, which he calls providence, immanent within man’s history and operating primarily through man’s freedom, but also through social phenomena and institutions such as shame, honor, utility, authority, religion, family, language.
In his De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia Vico had already pointed out that God cannot be demonstrated a priori, but only through a posteriori effects. God’s action appears mingled with man’s action, or better, hidden under man’s action. This is indeed the problematic of God’s providence vis a vis Man’s freedom. If providence is wholly immanent within Man’s social life, how can man possibly be free? If, on the other hand this providence transcends Man’s social life, how does it operate in Man’s human history? Isn’t the very attempt to explain God, even if only symbolically, an attempt at controlling God’s freedom and transcendence?
Vico navigates this conundrum by first pointing out that God created human being with minds that celebrate their nature in social intercourse. The social nature of this mind is evident by 1) “common sense,” 2) religion, 3) the heterogeny of ends. He defines common sense as a spontaneous agreement of a whole population on certain values and ideas instinctively felt to be essential to one’s nature. When these ideas arise spontaneously in separate societies one can discern a common ground of truth which precedes the erudite reflection of philosophers. This ordinary people’s common ground of truth is for Vico “the criterion taught to the nations by divine providence to define what is certain in the natural law of the gentes” (SN, 144). Moreover, the universal character of common sense together with its function of preservation of Man’s social life is a sign of divine Providence operating in their civil nature. It is because of these common notions of eternal truth that men are able to communicate with each other and celebrate their social nature.
The second phenomenon is that of religion and its historical manifestations. In its origins is it a perturbing “fear of divinity” that shakes man’s conscience to its very foundations. Through a powerful imagination primitive man saw in frightening natural phenomena, such as thunder, the signs of all-seeing super-Mind. This was quite natural to them, since they spoke through signs. Thunder was but a sign of Jupiter. A religion grounded in primordial fear rather than love is necessary as a consequence of original sin which corrupts human nature. Had there been no original corruption, religion would have been unnecessary; love would have sufficed. This religion of fear is indeed another aspect of divine Providence that restrains Man by fear and shame. It is the fountainhead of natural law.
Without religion no primitive social world is even conceivable. The only way out of wanton savagery on the way toward one’s humanity is religion underpinned by fear. This is providence through religion, or the representation through a vivid imagination of a divine providence operating in human affairs. It is the means employed by God (i.e., transcendent Providence) to bring Man back to social intercourse after original sin.
The idea of a divine providence originates in Man’s conscience but it is God who has originally placed a religious need within man’s spirit. Indeed, as Jung discovered, man is religious by nature. If he does not worship the living God he will end up worshipping an ideology and killing for it. In any case, it is thunder that makes it possible for the idea of divinity to reemerge from within Man’s conscience. This idea, not the thunder itself, is the essential cause. The thunder may well be indispensable but it remains secondary.
The third Vichian theme is that of the “heterogony of ends,” a term coined by Wundt later on but aptly expressing Vico’s important insight that within the particular deeds of Man with their particular intentions one may discern another intention, another end which, while remaining immanent within those deeds, issues forth from a superior Mind, a Mind who through such actions realizes the common good, i.e., the preservation of civic and social life. This end of the common good comes about even when men have intentions that tend to destroy it.
Let us recollect once again the Biblical story of Joseph as previously examined: Joseph’s brothers are primarily interested in their selfish ends; the end result is a greater awareness of an unavoidable interdependence. This second intention immanent in man’s deeds and issuing in a different end from that intended is what Vico simply calls “providence.” Try as one may, can hardly be explained (although Croce and others have tried to explain it merely as “the irony of history”) unless one presupposes a superior Mind which operates in such a way as to incorporate within a wider picture of general salvation those actions which tend to destroy man’s social life. In other words, Vico is saying that once Man’s deeds are illuminated by the idea of providential divinity, they will concur, despite egotistical intentions and ends (i.e., the centrifugal tendency in human nature due to original sin) to keep Man within social life according to his true nature (i.e., the centripetal tendency). For Vico, this insight is a sign revealing a transcendent Providence (see SN, 38, 132-133, 1108).
However, here Vico is dealing with providence at a purely natural level, concerned with the preservation of the social structures of human nature, not at the theological level of grace, salvation or redemption; a level with which Vico, as a professed Catholic, was surely familiar. Further down I’ll examine a bit more thoroughly the nexus between this purely immanent understanding of providence operating in Man’s actions and the transcendent Providence, the existential living God of Abraham.
Even without that nexus, we can already appreciate why Vico rejects chance (the Epicurean philosophy), fate (the Stoic philosophy), purely naturalistic explanations of human events (Grotius’ philosophy), or for that matter, divine action as extraordinary miraculous interventions (Selden’s philosophy) (see SN, 310-313, 318). Vico, in fact, is the first to point out that the notion of Divine Providence has functions in the civil and social world of man more than in the physical world of nature. Therefore he can confidently declare “in one of its principal aspects, this Science must therefore be a rational civil theology of divine providence…And it is in the contemplation of this infinite and eternal providence that our Science finds certain divine proofs by which is confirmed and demonstrated” (SN, 342).