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 manâ€™s history and operating primarily through manâ€™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. Godâ€™s action appears mingled with manâ€™s action, or better, hidden under manâ€™s action. This is indeed the problematic of Godâ€™s providence vis a vis Manâ€™s freedom. If providence is wholly immanent within Manâ€™s social life, how can man possibly be free? If, on the other hand this providence transcends Manâ€™s social life, how does it operate in Manâ€™s human history? Isnâ€™t the very attempt to explain God, even if only symbolically, an attempt at controlling Godâ€™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) â€œcommon sense,â€ 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 oneâ€™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 peopleâ€™s common ground of truth is for Vico â€œthe criterion taught to the nations by divine providence to define what is certain in the natural law of the gentesâ€ (SN, 144). Moreover, the universal character of common sense together with its function of preservation of Manâ€™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 â€œfear of divinityâ€ that shakes manâ€™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 oneâ€™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 Manâ€™s conscience but it is God who has originally placed a religious need within manâ€™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 Manâ€™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 â€œheterogony of ends,â€ a term coined by Wundt later on but aptly expressing Vicoâ€™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: Josephâ€™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 manâ€™s deeds and issuing in a different end from that intended is what Vico simply calls â€œprovidence.â€ Try as one may, can hardly be explained (although Croce and others have tried to explain it merely as â€œthe irony of historyâ€) 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 manâ€™s social life. In other words, Vico is saying that once Manâ€™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 Iâ€™ll examine a bit more thoroughly the nexus between this purely immanent understanding of providence operating in Manâ€™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 (Grotiusâ€™ philosophy), or for that matter, divine action as extraordinary miraculous interventions (Seldenâ€™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 â€œin one of its principal aspects, this Science must therefore be a rational civil theology of divine providenceâ€¦And it is in the contemplation of this infinite and eternal providence that our Science finds certain divine proofs by which is confirmed and demonstratedâ€ (SN, 342).