The Janus-Face of the European Union

The Janus-Face of the European Union

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What is urgently needed in the debate on the future of Europe is the substitution of old Machiavellian paradigms based on “real politick” considerations with new imaginative ones based on humanistic considerations. Unless we manage that substitution we shall end up pouring new wine in old putrid wineskins. One of the cultural guides for discovering such paradigms and creating a novantiqua Europe is Giambattista Vico.

Were one to read carefully the more thoughtful contributions to the debate on the future of Europe, one would have to come to the conclusion that, culturally speaking, Europe has a Janus-face: one side is rationalistic beginning with Descartes and ushering in the Enlightenment, and the other is humanistic beginning with Petrarch and attempting to synthesize antiquity (the old) and modernity (the new) and proposing a Europe that is “novantiqua.” In my opinion, the foremost proponent of this novantiqua Europe is the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), a philosopher of European and global stature, author of The New Science (1725), and considered by many scholars as the culmination of Italian Humanism. Such a work leads the readers to a deeper notion of Europe’s cultural identity, and may even motivate them to adopt him as a cultural guide (its “Leitkultur”) for the New Europe still in the making.

If we survey the Italian tradition of Humanism, we will soon discover that it was fundamentally concerned with the question of the primacy of the poetic word and metaphor. For this tradition, the metaphorical image is not a “reproduction of reality.” In the image, “another” reality is expressed which can only appear under the veil of the senses. This is the new human reality of Humanism. It is the sensory “veil,” as the Humanists say, that we make use of in metaphor and which in no way is a hindrance, but rather a necessary and appropriate instrument for the realization of man’s existential act of “being-there,” or what Heidegger calls Dasein.

In other words, the metaphor is that which cannot be derived by mere logical inference and cannot be expressed through rational language. It expresses that which is beyond the grasp of rational logic: the particular and the concrete. Man is his own history and he makes history through cultural artifacts: language (which is primary), art, and political and religious institutions. Paradoxically, Vico never gave up the opposite pole of the Universal which he calls Providence. He holds them together in a complementary mode. He also holds together the transcendent and the immanent within his concept of Providence, something lost on idealists such as Benedetto Croce who attempted to subsume Vico under Hegelian philosophy. The point here being that Vico is far from the dichotomy made by Descartes between purely rational and humanistic modes of thinking with his famous “Cogito ergo sum.” He understands that to divorce mythos from logos is a very risky cultural operation leading to charismatic men (the Nazi type in love with the myths of the super-race) or technological man (man as a machine, the “Terminator” type in love with push-button technological solutions).

Vico’s problem is fundamentally that of origins, the “archai” of historicity of the human world. A discovery in which he uncovers the indicative semantic principles that are at the basis of the “humanization” of nature. We can only attain a “humanization” and “historicization” of nature by giving meaning to the phenomena that our sensory tools offer to us and with regard to the realization of human existence. As Vico himself elegantly puts it: “And the order of human ideas is to observe the similarities of things, first to express oneself and later for purposes of proof.” (The New Science of Giambattista Vico, trans. Thomas Bergin, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1948, par. 498). Ingenium is for Vico “the capacity to unite things that are separated.” (De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia , an oration of Vico, in Opere di G. Vico, ed. Fausto Nicolini, Naples: Ricciardi, 1953, p. 295.)

In accordance with Vico’s position, we are dealing with two Europes and two philosophical traditions seen at variance with each other. If this is so, it makes eminent sense that traditional logic, as well as the a priori thinking of German Idealism from Kant to Hegel, and formal logic (including formalistic structuralism), are all forced to deny to the Humanist tradition any kind of philosophical relevance and to put aside the problem of imagination and ingenium as metaphysically inessential, since they have no place for these questions in their general scheme of things branded as rationalism and mistaken as the non plus ultra of reason itself.  

Most modern and post-modern humanists with a holistic view of what constitutes reason however, assert that it is Vico, with his theory of the topical, ingenious and imaginative form of thought, who truly makes clear what the philosophical meaning of the Humanist tradition is. He remains essential for a recovery of that tradition; for indeed when man arrives at the third cycle of history (that of pure reason) there is a real danger of falling into what Vico calls the “barbarism of the intellect,” into a rationality devoid of the poetical,an imaginative that makes the trains run on time with no concern for their destination, that plans a Holocaust in two hours, executes it in two years, and then logically rationalizes the monstrosity with an ideology.

This phenomenon is well illustrated in the novels of Dostoevsky (The Possessed being the most exemplary), or the commentary of Martin Buber on the same, or Erick Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, or Jacques Ellul’s The Decline of the West. On the particular issue of topics in Vico, an essay that immediately jumps to mind is Edward Kessler’s “Vico’s Attempt Towards a Humanistic Foundation of Science”; also see chapter six pp. 67-77 of my book on Vico titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Mellen Press, New York, 1993).

Culturally speaking, there are indeed two Europes and we deceive ourselves if we think that it matters not which one we end up choosing.