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Vico and Spinoza

Author(s): James C. Morrison


Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1980), pp. 49-68
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709102 .
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VICO AND SPINOZA
BY JAMES C. MORRISON
The
following
is a
comparative study
of Vico's New Science and
Spinoza's
Theological-Political
Treatise.1 A common link which unifies
these
apparently quite disparate
works is found in the
concept
of
history,
for as Vico laid the basis for the modern historization
of philosophy,
so
Spinoza
laid the basis for the modern historization
of religion. Although
our main
purpose
is to
bring
to
light
the
major philosophical relationships
holding
between these two
revolutionary
and foundational works of mod-
ern
philosophy,
we believe that the numerous
striking agreements among
them in
thought, expression,
and intention make it
highly probable
that
Vico had read
Spinoza
and was influenced
by
him.2 We also
hope
to
demonstrate that a
comparative study
of the New Science and the Theo-
logical-Political
Treatise contributes
significantly
to a clarification of the
works themselves. The
recognition
of the
Spinozistic
elements in Vico's
thought
is
especially
useful for
disclosing
his real
(but veiled)
intentions
and the ultimate
implications
of the New Science for
religion
and
Scripture.
1
All direct
quotations
and references to Vico are from the
English
translation
by
T. G.
Bergin
and M. H.
Fisch,
The New Science
of
Giambattista Vico
(Ithaca,
N.
Y., 1968),
hereafter
designated
as
NS;
numbers refer to
paragraphs,
which are
the same as those in the edition of Vico's
Opere,
Vol.
IV,
ed. Fausto Nicolini
(Bari,
1942).
When
quoting directly
from
Spinoza
we have used our own translations
based on Carl Gebhardt's
edition, Spinoza Opera,
Vol. III
(Heidelberg, 1924).
Numbers refer to
pages
of this
edition,
hereafter
designated
as
Op.,
and to the
English
translation
by
Elwes in Works
of Spinoza,
Vol. I
(New York, 1951),
hereafter
designated
as TPT.
2 In
regard
to the
question
of
Spinoza's
direct influence on
Vico,
cf. Frederick
Vaughan,
"La Scienza Nuova:
Orthodoxy
and the Art of
Writing,"
Forum
Italicum, II,
No. 4
(1968), 350; Vaughan
asserts that Vico's New Science was
"written under the
spell"
of the
Theological-Political
Treatise and
Spinoza's
idea
of a "new kind of critical
history."
He even
goes
so far as to
say
that
"Spinoza
was the most
important
influence on the formation of Vico's
philosophy."
Cf.
also
Vaughan's
The Political
Philosophy of
Giambattista Vico
(The Hague, 1972),
44-51. We have not been able to find an
unequivocal
affirmation of
Spinoza's
direct
influence on Vico in the
writings
of Fausto Nicolini or in the
Bibliografia
Vichi-
ana,
2 vols., ed. B. Croce & F. Nicolini
(Naples, 1947-58).
Croce
says
in one
place,
"non
par
dubbio,
il Vico aveva letto il Tractatus
theologico-politicus
del
reprobo Spinoza."
And when
discussing Spinoza's
views on Moses and the
Pentateuch,
he adds that "si direbbe
quasi
che dalla critica biblica dello
Spinoza
il Vico avesse avuto incentive alla sua della formazione e dello
spirito
dei
poemi
omerici,
e
che, passato per
tal modo dalla storia sacra alla
profana,
da Mose a
Omero,
si fosse
poi
ostinato a non
ripassare
a niun
patto
da Omero a
Mose,
dalla
storia
profana
alla sacra." La
Filosofia
di G. B. Vico
(Bari, 1965),
182. On this
latter
point,
cf. Section III below.
49
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50 JAMES C. MORRISON
Our discussion is divided into five sections. In Section I we make
some
introductory
remarks about the
general
thematic and aims of both
works;
in Section II we discuss the
critique
of divine
providence;
in Sec-
tion III we turn to the
general critique
of revealed
religion
and
Scrip-
ture;
in Section IV we deal with
politics
and natural
law;
and in Section
V we draw some of the ultimate
implications
of Vico's and
Spinoza's
methods, arguments,
and doctrines.
1. The
Theological-Political
Treatise has a
philosophical, theological,
and
political purpose.
These are
intimately
connected.
Spinoza says
in
his Preface that
"philosophical
readers" will find mere
"commonplaces"
(TPT 11; Op. 12).
This means that the work is written not for actual
philosophers
but for
potential
ones. The latter are those who could or
would become
philosophers
were
they
not inhibited
by
the Christian and
Jewish claims to
possess
a
suprarational
truth which has been revealed
by
God. The belief in such a revelation
inevitably
leads to a tension be-
tween reason and faith.3 This tension
expresses
itself either as
skepticism,
the subordination of reason to faith and
revelation,
or
dogmatism,
the
subordination of faith and revelation to reason. The
Theological-Political
Treatise, then,
is a
philosophical critique
of revelation addressed to Chris-
tian or Jewish
skeptics
or
dogmatists
in order to convert a few of them
to
philosophy
and the use of reason. But the free use of reason is inhib-
ited not
only by
faith in revelation but also
by political
and ecclesiastical
authority. Spinoza
tries to remove this other obstacle to
philosophy by
arguing
that
everyone ought
to have the freedom to "think what he likes
and
say
what he thinks"
(TPT 6, 11,265; Op. 7,12,246-7).4
He thus
addresses himself to
present
and future rulers in order to
persuade
them
to
permit
freedom of conscience and
expression.
His
argument
is that
such freedom is
necessary
both for
"piety"
and
"public peace"
(TPT 6;
Op. 7).
In other
words,
the Theological-Political Treatise seeks to free
actual and
potential philosophers
from
persecution by promoting
the
establishment of a liberal democratic state. But the
political
and
legal
free-
dom to
think,
speak,
and write is
ultimately
worthless unless reason itself
is freed from the limitations
imposed by
belief in revelation. The freedom
to think without fear of
political
and ecclesiastical
persecution
therefore
requires
for its full realization
complete
confidence in the "natural
light,"
i.e.,
one's
capacity
to know the truth
by
one's own reason.5 For when
the
philosopher's
own
capacity
to know is doubted his will to know is
paralyzed.
The resolute commitment to a task
presupposes complete
con-
3
In his discussion of miracles or "that which cannot be
explained through
natural
causes," Spinoza says
that he
recognizes
no distinction between a truth
supra
naturam and contra naturam
(TPT 85,87; Op. 85,86).
Since the
spheres
of nature and reason are
coextensive,
a truth above reason would also be a truth
against
reason. ". .. For whatever is
against
nature is
against reason,
and what
is
against
reason is absurd and so must be
rejected" (TPT 92; Op. 91).
4
Cf. the subtitle to the Treatise.
5
Cf.
Spinoza's critique
of the belief that "the human
understanding
is
naturally
corrupt"
(TPT 7-8; Op. 10).
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VICO AND SPINOZA 51
fidence in one's
ability
to
complete
the task. The
philosophical quest
for
wisdom would be annulled in advance it one did not have
complete
con-
fidence in one's
ability
to become wise. The
possibility
of revelation or a
suprarational
truth leaves
open
the
possibility
of a contrarational truth
and hence casts into doubt the
certainty
of reason's clear and distinct
ideas. The
"deceiving
demon" of revelation must therefore be exorcized
by
reason and
philosophy
themselves,
which must demonstrate their
autonomy
and
power by demonstrating
the limitations and deficiencies
of revealed
religion.
In
short,
the ultimate aim of the
Theological-Political
Treatise is to refute the revealed
religion
of
Christianity
and Judaism
and
replace
it
by philosophical
wisdom.
Whereas
Spinoza's
Theological-Political
Treatise is a
propaedeutic
to
philosophy dealing primarily
with
theological
and
political questions,
Vico's New Science is a
philosophical
work
dealing primarily
with
philo-
sophical
and historical
questions
and
only secondarily
with
theological
and
political
ones.
Although Spinoza's
work is
primarily
theoretical,
it
has an
important practical purpose.
Vico's New Science is also
primarily
theoretical but seems to have little direct
practical bearing.6
Its main aim
is not to free
potential philosophers
from a
pre-philosophical
servitude
to faith and revelation but to
lay
the basis of a new
philosophy.
Vico's
whole
problematic
rests on a fundamental distinction between the world
of nations
(history)
and the world of nature. This distinction is linked
with the
epistemological principle
that the knower can know
only
what
he has made and the
metaphysical-theological principle
that nature can-
not be the
subject
of human science
(NS
331).7 Vico nowhere tries to
bridge
the
dichotomy
between nature and
history
or to reconcile them
in a
higher unity.
For him there is no
all-embracing single
whole but
two
mutually
exclusive
parts.8
The
specific subject-matter
of Vico's "new
science" is "the common nature of nations" or "the
origins
of
institutions,
6
Only
in
##1405-11 (not
included in the
published
versions of the Scienza
nuova)
does Vico
explicitly
raise the
question
of the
"practice" (prattica)
of his
work. There he
briefly
alludes to
possible political implications
and
applications
of the
"theory"
of the New Science for "the wise men and
princes
of the com-
monwealths" who desire "to recall the
peoples
to their acme or
perfect
state"
(#1406).
These sections have
recently
been translated and
published
in Giam-
battista Vico's Science
of Humanity,
ed. G.
Tagliacozzo
& N. Verene
(Baltimore,
1976),
451-54.
7
It also follows that man can have no
knowledge
of God. Nor can man know
that nature has been created
by
God. From the
point
of view of Vico's
science,
the belief in God and His creation is a mere
postulate.
Men can know the divine
only
insofar as it is a human creation. Vico's
point
is that human
knowledge
is limited to the human. It ends where the realm of
history
ends and that of
nature
begins.
8
By contrast, Spinoza's thought
is
essentially
a doctrine about an
all-embracing
whole.
Everything
that
is,
is either nature or an
aspect
or
part
of nature
(the
substance,
its attributes and
modes).
Human
things
are
merely
finite
parts
of an
infinite whole. Humans and their creations are thus
wholly
natural.
They
do
not constitute an
independent
realm in
opposition
to nature but are themselves
ultimately
manifestations of the
power
of nature.
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52 JAMES C. MORRISON
religious
and
secular,
among
the
gentile
nations"(NS 31).
Its aim is to
study
these "in the
light
of divine
providence"
(NS 31,342).
On one
level this means
showing
how "God" or "the divine will
operates"
(NS
182).
On another level it means
showing
the
way providence "naturally"
guides
the
process by
which man becomes human or the families and
civil
society develop
from the natural state of "bestial
wandering"
(NS
146,310,338).
On
yet
another level it means
showing
"that the world of
civil
society
has
certainly
been made
by
men"
(NS 331).
Vico's
argument
moves
vertically
from the divine to the natural to the human.
The chief
accomplishment
of the New Science is therefore the secular-
ization of human
history.
The old Judaeo-Christian theocentric under-
standing
of human
things
as
guided providentially by
a divine mind is
replaced by
a new
anthropocentric
doctrine
according
to which men
themselves have made the world of nations.
Tacitly recalling
the Car-
tesian
assumption
that all traditional
opinions might
be
false,
Vico
speaks
of "the
night
of thick darkness
enveloping
the earliest
antiquity."
All
historical
knowledge
is obscure and hence doubtful. But in the midst of
this "darkness" Vico discovers the "eternal and never
failing light
of a
truth
beyond
all
question:
that the world of civil
society
has
certainly
been made
by
men . . ."
(NS 331).
The "truth" that the human world
has been made
by
men recalls the Cartesian
"certainty"
of the
cogito.
But Vico
replaces
the Cartesian "Archimedian
point"
of self-conscious-
ness
by
human
self-making:
the
identity
of thinker and
thought
becomes
the
identity
of maker and made. He
thereby completes
the
Copernican
revolution in
astronomy
and the Cartesian revolution in
metaphysics
with a new revolution in
history.
Human
things
will be understood
by
Vico
solely
in human terms: men have not been made
by
God or nature
but
by
themselves. Human
self-making
will in turn
provide
the basis for
the
accomplishment
of the ultimate aim of the New
Science,
namely,
to
unite
history ("philology")
and
philosophy.
II.
If the
history
of human
things
is to be understood
anthropologic-
ally,
the
theological conception
of divine
providence
must be
"demytholo-
gized":
it must be shown to be a
metaphor enclosing
and
concealing
human truths. In Vico's own
terminology,
it must be translated from an
"imaginative genus"
into an
"intelligible genus."
This is in fact what Vico
does. He
presents
a
non-theological
and non-traditional account of the
corso of the nations under the veil of a
theological
and traditional account
of divine
providence.
But at the same time he
provides
the hermeneutical
rules for
stripping away
this
poetic-theological
surface and
disclosing
its
historical-human nucleus. For the New
Science,
which
overtly presents
the method of
interpreting
the divine
poems
of the
"theological poets,"
also
covertly presents
the method for
interpreting
its own divine
poem
of
history
as the
unfolding
of
providence.
Just as all
myths
are essentially
"civil
histories,"
so the
mythical guise
of Vico's
providence
masks the
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VICO AND SPINOZA 53
historical-philosophical
truths which make
up
the real content of the
New Science.9
According
to the surface
argument
of the New
Science,
the idea of
providence
is linked to the division between gentiles and Jews, for God
aids the former
"naturally by
divine
providence"
and the latter
"super-
naturally by
divine
grace"
(NS 136;
cf.
310, 313).
This
division,
Vico
says,
was made
by
the Jews themselves
(NS
313).
It is thus not a
philo-
sophical
division but a traditional
opinion.
Consistent with his
purpose
of
replacing
old
opinions by
new
knowledge,
Vico
persistently ignores
the division between the
history
of the
gentiles
and that of the
Jews,
eventually collapsing
the distinction between them and
replacing
the theo-
logical
ideas of
providence
and
grace
by
the
philosophical
idea of "the
ideal eternal
history"
which holds
universally
for all nations
(cf.
NS
245,
250,349,393).
Vico's distinction between the
"ordinary help
from
provi-
dence" for the
gentiles
and the
"extraordinary help
from the true God"
for the Jews
(NS 313)
is
strikingly
reminiscent of
Spinoza's
distinction
between "the internal aid of God" and "the external aid of God."10 The
former is "whatever human nature
by
its own
power
alone can do for
preserving
its existence," while the latter is "whatever accrues to man's
use
by
the
power
of external causes"
(TPT 45; Op. 46).
Both of these
reduce to "the fixed and
unchangeable
order of nature or the chain of
natural
things" (TPT 44,
cf.
82,89; Op. 45-6; 82,89).
So for
Vico,
the
"help"
of divine
providence
reduces to the
unchanging
order of the corso
of the nations. Both
Spinoza
and Vico therefore secularize the divine.
Spinoza
does so
by
naturalizing
providence
and
identifying
it with the
course of
nature,
Vico
by
historicizing
providence
and
identifying
it with
the course of
history.
According
to orthodox
belief,
a
primary
manifestation of divine
providence
in the Old Testament is God's covenant with the Hebrews.
For
Spinoza,
however,
the "election and vocation" of the Hebrews has
only
a
political meaning.
It has to do with "the
temporal happiness
and
advantages
of
sovereignty"
(TPT 47;
cf.
48; Op. 48;
cf.
49). Apart
from
that,
"God is
equally
kind, merciful,
etc. to all"
(TPT 49; Op. 50).
Solomon,
who
speaks
"more
rationally
of God" than
anyone
in the Old
Testament,
"taught
that all the
goods
of fortune to mortals were vain"
(TPT
39; Op. 41).11
The difference between Jews and
gentiles
is not
based on the fact that the Jews alone had the
gift
of
prophecy,
for all
9
This is the real
meaning
of Vico's
phrase,
"rational civil
theology
of divine
providence"
(NS 342).
Vico's
reasoning
shows that the
theology
of divine
provi-
dence is
really
a civil
history (cf.
NS
352).
10
Vaughan
has
pointed
this out but not
developed
it;
cf.
op. cit.,
349-50.
11
Cf.
Spinoza's
account in the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione of his
decision to dedicate himself to
philosophy
"after
experience taught
me that all
things
which are
usually
found in common life are vain and futile."
Spinoza
Opera, op. cit., II,
5.
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54 JAMES C. MORRISON
nations
possessed prophets.
The
gentile "augurs"
were "true
prophets"
and the Jews themselves were often deceived
by
false
prophets
(TPT
49-
52; Op. 50-3).12 Vico,
when
discussing
the three "kinds of
reason,"
calls
the first kind "divine" and defines it as a form of "external
speech"
to
the
gentiles "through
the
auspices,
the
oracles,
and other
corporeal signs,"
and
"through
the
prophets
and
through
Jesus Christ to the
Apostles"
(NS 948).13 Spinoza
asserts that "the
prophets always
had some
sign by
which
they
became certain of the
things they
were
imagining prophetic-
ally,"
that the
prophets'
revelations were
always accompanied by
"words
and
figures,"
and that
only
Moses heard a "true voice." But God re-
vealed Himself "to Christ's mind
immediately,"
for Christ was not so
much a
prophet
as "the mouth of God"
(TPT 25,28,64; Op. 28,30,64).14
According
to
Vico,
the
ignorant
and
vulgar
"refer the causes of the
things they
do not know to the will of God without
considering
the means
by
which the divine will
operates"
(NS 182).
A little earlier he
suggests
that this "means" is "a confused idea of
divinity"
(NS 178).
Because of
this
ignorance
of natural
causes,
"the human mind" "makes itself the
rule of the
universe,"
so that men ascribe to the
gods
what
they
them-
selves do
(NS 180;
cf.
375).
Where
Spinoza
asserts that
"misconcep-
tions" about God arise from the view that "all
things
in nature act as
men themselves
act,
namely,
with an
end,"1'
Vico
says
that "because of
the indefinite nature of the human
mind,
wherever it is lost in
ignorance
man makes himself the measure of all
things"
(NS 120). Spinoza speaks
of men
"imagining
miracles,"
believing
themselves to be "God's
favorites,
and the final cause for which God created and
continually
directs all
things" (TPT 82; Op. 82).
"The law and word of God" is "used meta-
phorically
for the order and fate of nature"
(TPT 169; Op. 162).
The
idea of God as
"legislator
or
prince"
is used
by
Paul
only
as a concession
to the weakness of "the
understanding
of the
vulgar"
(TPT 65; Op. 65).
Such
usage
illustrates the method which
"depicts
all
things poetically
and
refers them to God"
(TPT 92; Op. 91).
In the same
way,
Vico
speaks
12
Cf.
Spinoza's
reference to those who "dream that nature had
formerly
created different kinds of men"
(TPT 45-6; Op. 47).
". .. All
men,
Jews as
well as
Gentiles,
have
always
been the
same,
and in
every age
virtue has been
very
rare"
(TPT
166:
Op. 160).
13
As far as we can
determine,
Vico refers
explicitly
to Christ in
only
two other
places
in the New Science. One reference is to a Jesuit who claimed to have
read
(Chinese?)
books written "before the
coming
of Christ"
(NS 50).
In the
other
reference,
Vico
says
that
during
"the returned barbarian times"
paintings
of
God, Christ,
and
Mary depicted
them as
"exceedingly large" (NS 816).
14
Cf.
Spinoza's interpretation
of Exodus VII:
1,
where he
says
that
Aaron,
in
communicating
Moses' words to
Pharoah,
acted the
part
of a
prophet,
and Moses
himself was "like a God to
Pharoah,
or one who
plays
the
part
of God" (TPT
13; Op. 15).
15 In the
Ethics, Spinoza
calls "the will of God" "the
sanctuary
of
ignorance."
"Everyone judges
of
things according
to the state of his
brain,
or rather mistakes for
things
the forms of his
imagination."
Ethics,
Part
1,
Appendix.
Cf. TPT
86; Op.
86.
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VICO AND SPINOZA 55
of "that
religious way
of
thinking according
to which it was the
gods
who did whatever men themselves were
doing"
(NS 629;
cf.
922).
III.
The
Theological-Political
Treatise is a
critique
of both
religion
and
Scripture,
for
Scripture
is the record of God's revelations to man.
Revelation is the essential element common to Judaism and
Christianity.
The conclusion of
Spinoza's critique
of Biblical revelation is that
Scrip-
ture contains no
speculative philosophical
truths about God but
only
"vulgar"
moral
precepts
(TPT 8,190-5; Op. 9,180-5).
Scripture
does
not teach or claim to teach theoretical
knowledge
but
only practical
obedi-
ence: it "has
nothing
in common with
philosophy"
(TPT 9; Op. 10).
Scripture
demands
only justice
and
charity
in
practice.
Whereas
Spinoza
launches his attack
against
Biblical
authority
di-
rectly,
Vico
proceeds
under the mask of the
pagan poet
Homer. Homer
is Vico's
pseudonym
for Moses."' The first and
greatest
of the
pagan
poets corresponds
to the first and
greatest
of the Hebrew
prophets.
The
question
of the historical existence of Homer is the
question
of the his-
torical existence of Moses. The
question
of whether Homer wrote the
Iliad and
Odyssey
is the
question
of whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch.
The
questions
whether Homer was wise and whether his
poems
contain
"esoteric" or
philosophical
wisdom are whether Moses knew God better
than all other
prophets
and whether the Pentateuch contains true knowl-
edge
of the nature of God
(cf.
NS
780).
And
just
as the Homeric
poems
are "two
great
treasure houses of the customs of
early
Greece"
(NS 904),
so the Old Testament should be read as a treasure house of the
history
of the Jews: their
customs, institutions, beliefs, laws,
etc. In
short,
the
method which Vico uses to "discover the true Homer" is the same method
to be used to discover "the true Moses."
The aim of Book III of the New
Science,
"Discovery
of the True
Homer," is,
in common with the aim of
Spinoza's
Theological-Political
Treatise,
to undermine the
authority
of
Scripture.17
That
explains why
16
Vico also sometimes uses Homer as a
pseudonym
for all the authors of
Scripture.
From this
point
of
view,
the Iliad
corresponds
to the Old Testament
and the
Odyssey
to the New Testament. For
example,
he
emphasizes
that the
Odyssey
was
composed
later than the Iliad because it contains references to more
advanced and refined customs. For while in the latter violent
passions pre-
dominate,
in the former there is evidence of an increased level of reason. The
hero of the
Iliad, Achilles,
is "the hero of
violence,"
while the hero of the
Odyssey,
Ulysses,
is "the hero of wisdom"
(NS 879). Similarly, Spinoza
views the Old
Testament as more
primitive
than the New Testament because in the latter
apostles
or teachers of
morality replace prophets
or
interpreters
of God. Whereas
the
apostles
wrote their
epistles "solely by
the natural
light,"
the
prophets prophesied
by
their vivid
imaginations (TPT 24-25,161; Op. 27-28,155).
Paul and the other
apostles "philosophized,"
but the Jews
always "despised philosophy" (TPT 164;
Op. 158).
17
According
to
Nicolini,
Vico
adopts
in Book III
"precisamente
il metodo
instaurato dal filosofo d'Amsterdam e dal mentovato
Simon,
e
perfezionato
dalla
critica
moderna,
nello
sconvolgere analogamente
la tradizionale storia esterna o
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56 JAMES C. MORRISON
Vico made it the central book. What
initially appears
as a
digression-a
discussion of the existence and characteristics of an historical
person-is
in
reality
the center: a
critique
of the truth of
Holy Scripture.
While the
conclusion of the
Theological-Political
Treatise is that
Scripture
contains
no
philosophical
theoretical
knowledge
but
only vulgar practical precepts,
the conclusion of Vico's
critique
of the Homeric
poems
is that
they
con-
tain no
philosophical
wisdom but
only vulgar opinion
about the
history
and customs of the Greek
peoples.
The real content of the Homeric
poems
is not
philosophical
but historical:
they give
us not
philosophical
truths but
philological
certainties. ". . . The
meanings
of esoteric wisdom
were intruded into the Homeric fables
by
the
philosophers
who came
later"
(NS 834).'8
The Homeric
poems
are an
"expression
of the
history
of the natural law of the
gentes"
(NS 904).
Vico
argues
that the
(false)
belief that Homer was a real historical individual and the actual author
of the works
traditionally
attributed to him has obscured this fact from
historians. This
suggests
that the
(false)
belief that Moses was a real his-
torical individual and the actual author of the Pentateuch has
prevented
historians from
realizing
that the Old Testament is an
expression
of the
natural law of the Hebrews. Vico
argues
that Homer was not an his-
torical individual but an
imaginative
genus:
"Homer" is a class term
denoting
an indefinite number of historical
individuals.l'
As the literal
meaning
of the name "Homer"
implies,
Homer was "a binder or
compiler
of fables"
(NS 852),"'
"an idea or a heroic character of Grecian men"
(NS 873),
"the Greek
peoples
were themselves Homer"
(S 875).
Moses,
viewed as the
great law-giver
of the Hebrew
people,
is
analogous
to
Solon,
the
great law-giver
of the Athenians. Solon too was not an in-
dividual
person
but "the Athenian
plebeians
themselves." Moses is to the
strutturale del Vecchio Testamento." La
Religiosita
di Giambattista Vico
(Bari,
1949),
147.
Vaughan
too maintains that Vico uses Homer as a "screen" for his
critique
of the Bible.
Op. cit.,
353.
18
Cf.
Spinoza's
criticism of Maimonides' method of
interpreting Scripture,
according
to which reason is used as a standard for
deciding
what a
given
text
means and the
prophets
were considered
"supreme philosophers
and
theologians."
Thus,
if the literal
meaning
of a text is unreasonable or
false,
it must be
interpreted
metaphorically.
For
Spinoza,
this amounts to a distortion of
Scripture (TPT
115-17; Op. 113-15).
Cf. Section V below.
19
Nicolini recalls how Finetti (an
early
vociferous critic of Vico's
heterodoxy)
noted
that,
once Homer is reduced to a "carattere
poetico,"
"non v'e alcuna
ragione
valida
per
non adotterla anche nei
riguardi
della
personalita
storica dell'autore dei
Salmi."
Op. cit.,
148-49.
20
Vico derives homeros from homou
(together)
and erein
(to link) (NS 852).
Cf. Martin Buber's
surprisingly
Vichian
analysis
of the name "Moses" as
meaning
"he who draws
forth,"
which
signifies
Moses as "the one who drew Israel forth
from the flood." Buber calls the Mosaic books an historical
"saga"
or
"mythisa-
tion of
history," i.e.,
"the
report by
ardent enthusiasts of that which has befallen
them." Moses
(New York, 1958), 17,36.
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VICO AND SPINOZA 57
Hebrews as Solon is to the
Greeks,
Romulus to the
Romans,
Thrice-great
Hermes to the
Egyptians (NS 414-6).21
Although Spinoza,
unlike
Vico,
accepts
the historical
reality
of
Moses,22
he too denies that Moses
actually
wrote the Pentateuch. Just as
Vico's Homer is reduced to a
"compiler
of
fables,"
so
Spinoza replaces
Moses
by
the "editor" Aben Ezra. For
Spinoza
the
Pentateuch,
like
Vico's Homeric
poems,
is a
complex
collection of written and oral tradi-
tions
extending
over
many years
and
issuing
from
many
hands and
mouths
(TPT 128-30; Op. 125-7).
Just as Vico's Homer lived
many
years
after the events his
poems
describe
(cf.
NS
804,806),
so
Spinoza's
Mosaic books were written and edited
long
after the Mosaic
period.
Ac-
cording
to Vico's
Chronological
Table,23
the revelation to Moses at Sinai
occurred in the
"year
of the world" 2491. (Given that the traditional
year
of creation was 4004
B.C.,
this means 1513
B.C.)
The same table
says
that in the
year
3290
(=
714
B.C.) "vulgar
letters
[alphabetical
writing]
had not
yet
been invented." This
implies
that the
Pentateuch,
at least in its
present
form,
could not have been written
by
Moses.24 Since
alphabetical writing
is,
according
to
Vico,
always preceded by
heroic and
divine
writing
(or
"hieroglyphs"),
"Moses" must have been a number
of
theological poets
who wrote fables about the
gods
in "a divine mental
language"
and
imagined
that all
things
were done
by
the
gods
(NS 933-5;
922,929).
If we take this conclusion and relate it to Vico's
description
of the
synchronous
structure of "the course the nations run" outlined in
Book IV
(cf.
NS
915ff.),
we
may
draw the
following
inferences about
his view of Hebrew
history during
the Mosaic
period.
The "nature" of
the Hebrews was
"poetic
or creative"
(NS 916);
their "customs" were
21Vico remarks that Homer was called "the founder of Greek
polity
or
civility" (NS 897).
22
In
many respects, Spinoza's interpretation
of Moses is
strikingly
similar to
Machiavelli's
description
of the virtuous
prince.
Moses is the
great law-giver,
the
founder of the Hebrew
people, nation,
and
religion.
For Moses
"surpassed
the
others in divine
virtue"; by
his virtue "he established divine
rights
and
prescribed
them to the
people";
"because of his virtue and at the divine command he intro-
duced a
religion
into the commonwealth"
(TPT 75;
cf.
74,39; Op. 75; cf. 74,41).
Cf. for
example
Machiavelli's discussion in
Chapter
VI of 11
Principe
of the
virtu and deeds of the four
great princes, Romulus, Theseus, Cyrus,
and Moses.
23
Cf. the insert at the
beginning
of Book I of the New Science.
24
Nicolini calculates that
according
to Vico
alphabetical writing
succeeded hiero-
glyphic writing
no later than the 7th or 6th centuries B.C. He thus draws the obvious
conclusion that Vico believed that Moses had not written the
Pentateuch,
Joshua the
Book of
Joshua,
David the
Psalms,
nor Solomon the works associated with his name.
For the events recorded in these books
actually occurred,
and were said to have oc-
curred,
before the
development
of
alphabetical writing.
In
short,
Nicolini infers that
Vico's
chronology
of the
history
of
language "significava
asserire che la materia
anche di ciascuno di codesti libri
santi,
al
pari
di
quella
dei
poemi omerici,
si fosse
formata
poligeneticamente; significava, insomma, aderire, implicamente
se non
esplicamente,
alle conclusioni del Tractatus
theologicus politicus
dello
Spinoza
e
dell' Histoire
critique
du Vieux Testament del Simon."
Op. cit.,
145-47.
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58 JAMES C. MORRISON
"tinged
with
religion
and
piety"
(NS 919):
their "natural law" was "di-
vine," i.e.,
"made or done
by
a
god"
(NS 922);
their
"government"
was "theocratic"
(NS 925);
their
"jurisprudence"
was a
"mystic
theol-
ogy"
(NS 938);
the "time" of Moses was "the
religious
times"
(NS 976),
etc.
(Cf.
NS
944,948,955.)
The reader of the
Theological-Political
Treatise will
recognize
in the
above the basic characteristics of
Spinoza's
own view of the
early
He-
brews. Further similarities between Vico and
Spinoza
also
readily sug-
gest
themselves. Where Vico notes that Homer was called "the father of
all other
poets"
(NS 900), Spinoza
follows tradition in
calling
Moses
the chief of the
prophets.
And when Vico
says
that Homer was "the
source of all Greek
philosophies" (NS 901), Spinoza suggests
that
Moses'
prophecies
became the basis of all
subsequent theology
(cf.
TPT
7-8; Op. 9).
Where Vico
says
that one of the three chief aims of all
great poetry, including
Homer's,
is "to teach the
vulgar
to act
virtuously"
(NS 376),
Spinoza says
that Moses' laws aimed at
controlling
the "stiff-
necked" and "obstinate" Hebrews
(TPT 75; Op. 75). Spinoza speaks
of the Hebrews at the time of Moses as "men accustomed to the
super-
stitions of the
Egyptians,
crude and sunk in the most wretched
slavery"
(TPT 38; Op. 40-1).
For
Vico,
the Hebrew exodus from
Egypt
would
be an instance of the rebellion of the
plebs against
the
patricians
or the
"clients"
against
the "fathers."
Moses,
like
Solon,
would have been a
leader of the
plebs
and their first
law-giver (cf.
NS
416).
The
Pentateuch,
as the
history
of the
beginnings
of the Hebrew
people
and
nation,
would
be a barbarous and fabulous
history
of barbarous and bestial men with
"quite wild and
savage
natures"
(cf.
NS
338, 302, 840).
When Vico
speaks
of the
poverty
of the Greek
language
in
early
times
(cf.
NS
830),
we recall
Spinoza's complaints
about the obscurities and
inadequacies
of
the ancient Hebrew
language
(cf.
TPT
108ff.; Op. 106ff.).
Finally, many
of Vico's remarks about
early
Roman
history
would
be
applicable,
mutatis
mutandis,
to
early
Hebrew
history.
The most ob-
vious
example
is his
lengthy
discussion of the Roman Law of the Twelve
Tables. Vico's main concern is to
prove
that this law was not
imported
by
the Romans from Greece but was an
indigenous expression
of the
natural law
(sc.
natural
customs)
of the Romans themselves.
Similarly,
the Mosaic
Decalogue
was not
adopted by
the Hebrews from
Egyptian
law,
but was an
indigenous expression
of the natural customs of the He-
brews.25 The
Hebrews,
like all
peoples
in the divine
age,
attributed their
laws to the
gods.
For
Vico, however,
this
poetic myth
should be "cor-
rected"
by replacing
God and Moses
by
the Hebrew
people.
The stone
tablets on which the
Decalogue
was inscribed are the
poetic equivalent
of the bronze tablets of the Roman Law of the Twelve Tables.
They
were
25
In NS
44,
Vico
explicitly
raises the
question
of whether Moses
brought
Hebrew "divine institutions" from the
Egyptians;
and in NS 396 he
says
that
Selden had failed to
prove
that the Jews
"taught
their natural law to the
gentiles."
Cf. NS 794.
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VICO AND SPINOZA 59
thus
written,
not
by
the hand of God or
Moses,
but
by
the Hebrew
peo-
ple (if
indeed
they
ever
actually
existed).
The Mosaic
Decalogue
was
formulated
long
after the Mosaic
period by
several unknown authors in
order to
codify
traditional Hebrew
customs,
just
as the Twelve Tables
were a later formulation of Roman
legal
tradition. And
just
as the
validity
of the Roman law is delimited
by
the
geographical
confines of Rome
and her
territories,
so the
validity
of the
Decalogue
is limited
by
the
temporal
and
geographical
confines of the Hebrew state. It is not a uni-
versal law valid for all men at all
times,
but a law
only
for the Hebrews-
just
as the Roman law was
binding only
on Roman citizens and
subjects.
This
conclusion,
at least in its main
outlines,
corresponds
to
Spinoza's
interpretation
of the Mosaic law as a "national law"
(TPT 17; Op. 19)
and Hebrew law and
ceremony generally
as valid
only
for the Hebrew
state while it existed and for the Hebrews when
they
lived within its
borders. The Hebrew God was "the God of the land" and the laws of
the Old Testament were revealed
only
to the Hebrews
(TPT 37; Op. 39).
In
short,
for Vico as for
Spinoza,
the
morality
of the Old Testament
is not the true
morality simpliciter
nor
by implication,
is that of the New
Testament. The revelation at Sinai and the Sermon on the Mount are
merely historically
conditioned
expressions
of the historical lives of
par-
ticular
peoples. They
must therefore be
replaced by
a new moral teaching
and a new doctrine of the natural law. Both Vico and
Spinoza, although
in different
ways, attempt
to effect this
replacement by
means of a new
philosophy.
IV. The New Science and the
Theological-Political
Treatise both con-
tain a doctrine of natural law. Their
respective teachings
differ from one
another
and,
even more
importantly,
from the traditional
theory
about
natural law. Vico and
Spinoza try
to refute the traditional
teaching by
subverting
it,
that
is,
by collapsing
the distinctions which served as its
basis or essence.26 For
example,
the traditional view contrasts nature
(physis)
and custom
(nomos).
The distinction between the natural and
the
customary
was the distinction between what exists
independently
of
man and what exists as a result of human
thought
and
activity.
Vico,
however,
derives his doctrine of natural law
(diritto naturale)
not from
nature
simply
or from human nature
(in
contrast to human
customs)
but from those human customs which are found
historically among
all
men: "the natural law is coeval with the customs of the nations"
(NS
311;
cf.
134-5).27 Thus,
the distinction between the natural as what
exists
everywhere
and
always among
men,
and the
customary
as what
26
The
blurring
and
collapsing
of basic distinctions and the
tendency
to reduce
transhuman
phenomena
to the human is
typical
of classical
Sophists.
On
Spinoza's
relation to
sophistic doctrines,
cf. Hermann
Cohen,
Jiidische
Schriften,
Vol. III
(Berlin, 1924),
303-04.
27
Cf. NS 309 as an
example
of how Vico
characteristically
blurs and
collapses
the distinctions between diritto and
legge,
costumi and natura.
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60 JAMES C. MORRISON
exists
only
in some
places
and
times,
collapses.
Vico's central notion of
"the natural law of the
gentes"28-a single
law which is both a law of
nature
(ius naturae)
and a law of the
peoples
(ius gentium)-thus
im-
plies
the reduction of
political
and moral
right
to historical
fact:
what
ought
to be is what
everywhere
and
always
is,
has
been,
or will be. Polit-
ical
philosophy thereby
becomes an
"aspect"
of the
philosophy
of
history
or the
unity
of
philosophy
and
philology.29
Traditional
political philoso-
phy
also rested on the
opposition
between
right (ius)
and
power
(poten-
tia). Spinoza,
however,
identifies
right
and
power.
Natural
right
is
simply
the
power (conatus) every
individual
being
has
by
nature to act and
per-
sist in its existence
(TPT 10;
cf.
200-01; Op. 11;
cf.
189-90).
This
means that
political
and moral
right
are reduced to natural
fact:
what
ought
to be is what
every being
can do. Political
philosophy thereby
is
derived from the
philosophy
of nature or the doctrine of the
unity
of
substance.
Traditional
political philosophy
conceived natural law as a trans-
human
standard,
knowable
by
human
reason,
prescribing
limits to hu-
man actions.3" Vico
denies,
contrary
to
Spinoza,
that the natural law is
known
by
reason.
Rather,
it is known
by
"sense," i.e.,
the "common
sense"
possessed by
all
peoples
of what is useful or
necessary
for life.
"Human needs and utilities" are "the two sources of the natural law of
the
gentes"
(NS 141,142;
cf.
145). Spinoza
denies that a natural
right
is a trans-human standard
possessing prescriptive
force in
itself;
for "it
depends
on human decree that men
yield,
or be
compelled
to
yield,
the
right
which
they
have from nature and bind themselves to a certain
plan
of
living"
(TPT 57; Op. 58).31 Spinoza
does not
say
that natural
right
is itself the
product
of human decree. Natural
right
in the sense of one's
natural
power
and desire is
given by
nature. But this natural
right
be-
comes a
political
and moral
right,
and hence a standard for
action,
only
when men "decide" to
yield
it to those who will rule
them, i.e.,
when in-
dividual men
by
a "contract"
(pactum)
create a ruler or
sovereign
(TPT
10,
cf.
202-05; Op.
11;
cf.
191-94).32
Since men "have had to decree and
establish most
firmly
to direct all
things
. . .
only by
the dictate of rea-
son,"
it follows that man is not
by
nature a rational animal but
by
"com-
28
Vico's
expression
is diritto naturale delle
genti.
29
Vico calls the sixth
"principal aspect"
of the New Science "a
system
of the
natural law of the
gentes,"
which is a
"history
of human nature" or a
"history
of
the
ideas,
the
customs,
and the deeds of mankind"
(NS 394,368).
30 Cf.
Hugo
Grotius' succinct definition of the
jus
naturale as a dictatum rectae
rationis. De Jure Belli ac
Pacis, I,I,X,1.
31
On
Spinoza's tendency
to reduce reason to a
"plan"
or
"project"
cf. Leo
Strauss, Spinoza's Critique of Religion (New York, 1965),
16.
32
The "utilitarian"
aspect
of
Spinoza's political thought
and his
theory
of the
compact
are no doubt the reason for Vico's
contemptuous description
of
Spinoza's
"commonwealth" as a
"society
of hucksters"
(NS 335).
For
according
to such a
view,
the state is formed
by striking
a
bargain
on the basis of mutual self-
interest and
profit.
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VICO AND SPINOZA 61
pact"
(TPT 203; Op. 191;
my emphasis).
A life in accordance with
reason is not natural but "conventional." "Human nature" is so "consti-
tuted" that "all indeed seek their own
utility,
but not from the dictate of
sound reason"
(TPT 73; Op. 73).33
Men do not
by
nature
pursue
what
is
good,
but each man
pursues
his own self-interest or what he
"judges"
is the
greatest good
or the least evil.
Spinoza
adds that "this law is so
firmly
inscribed in human nature that it
ought
to be
placed among
the
eternal truths which no one can
ignore" (TPT 203; Op. 192).34
For
Vico,
the state is not a deliberate creation
resulting
from a "com-
pact"
or
"yielding"
of natural
right,
but
develops naturally
from families
or
"society."
Families are the first societies since
they
consist of the
"fathers" and their socii
(or dependents).
These form the basis of the
later
political
classes of civil
society,
i.e.,
the
patricians
and
plebs.
The
state or civil
society emerged
not when isolated individuals
yielded
their
right
or
power
but when the fathers chose a leader to defend themselves
against
the rebellion of their
dependents
who
sought
to share the natural
rights already possessed by
the fathers
(NS 583-4;
cf.
554-5).
"Civil
power" emerged
from
"family authority" (NS 585).
Since those who
made
up
the families "were concerned
only
with the necessities of
life";
"they
did not
recognize good
faith"
(NS 570). Thus,
a
compact,
which
presupposes
mutual
trust,
was
impossible.
In other
words,
for Vico
neither the state nor
society
can arise from a
compact
because
compacts
presuppose
the state and
society.35
For both Vico and
Spinoza
the state
arises from human actions. But for
Vico,
these actions are not a con-
tractual
agreement against
nature but historical
responses
to natural ne-
cessities. The decision to found a state is not a decision to live
rationally
according
to a
"plan"
rather than
naturally according
to desire and
pas-
sion,
but is a natural
response
to natural needs and utilities. While
Spin-
oza contrasts human reason and
nature,
Vico coalesces
them;
for
Spinoza
the state is an
artifice,
for Vico it is a natural institution
arising
from
natural customs.
Spinoza
and Vico also differ
concerning
the end or
purpose
of civil
society.
For
Spinoza,
"the end of
every society
and
government"
is that
men
may
live with
"security
and comfort"
(TPT 47; Op. 48).36
To
achieve this end it is
necessary
"to free
everyone
from fear."
Living
se-
33
It follows from this that the
philosophical
life-or the
pursuit
of rational
truth and wisdom-is also not natural for most humans.
Philosophy
is not the
fulfillment of man's inherent nature. Cf.
Spinoza's opening
statements in the
Preface about men
being naturally superstitious (TPT 3-5; Op. 5-7).
34
Cf. Vico's statement that
"legislation
considers man as he is" in order to
turn human vices into virtues
(NS 132).
35
Vico
quotes
with
approval Pomponius:
"when the institutions themselves
dictated
it,
kingdoms
were founded''
(NS 584).
36 Cf.
Spinoza's interpretation
of God's "choice"
(electio)
of the Hebrews
and their "vocation"
(vocatio)
in terms of
"temporal happiness
and
advantages"
(TPT 47;
Op. 48).
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62 JAMES C. MORRISON
curely
involves not
only
the
safety
of the
body
but the exercise of one's
"free reason": "therefore the end of a
republic
is indeed
liberty"
(TPT
258-9; Op. 240-1).
For
Vico,
the aim of civil
society
was first to render
secure the
lives,
property,
and
rights
of the
family
fathers
against
the
armed threat of their
dependents
and
ultimately
to make
possible
the full
deveopment
of reason and thus human nature itself
(SS 326,554-5,918,
924,927,973,1008).
The corso of the nations is therefore fulfilled in a
monarchy,
in which the natural
equality
of all men is actualized and
protected by
law and institutions
(NS 995-8,1008).
In this
sense,
mon-
archy
for Vico is both the most natural and the best form of
government
because it is consistent with both the natural end of the historical
process
and human nature.
By
contrast,
Spinoza's
reduction of
right
to
power,
and hence natural
right
to natural
power, implies
that
democracy
is the
most natural
regime,
for there is no natural
hierarchy
of better and worse
and no natural end of either
history
or man. Since all men are
naturally
"equal," democracy
is "most in
harmony
with human nature"
(TPT 263;
Op. 245).
And because
sovereignty
is the
product
of a
compact,
a
ruling
class does not exist because of its natural
superiority
but
by
a common
convention.
Democracy
is also the most natural form of
government
be-
cause it is "most consonant with individual
liberty"
(TPT
207; Op.
195).
For
Vico, however,
there is a natural
hierarchy
not
only
in civil
society
but also in the state of nature. This
hierarchy
is
ultimately
de-
termined
by superior
virtue or
piety,
for the founders of the families and
the cities were the
pious
ones whose fear of the
gods
caused them to set-
tle in one
place.37
The fathers were the virtuous
few,
the natural aristoi.
In this
sense,
for Vico
aristocracy
is
natural,
since it is rule
by
the natur-
ally
virtuous few over the
naturally
vicious or bestial
many.38
But this
natural
inequality
is,
in the
development
of the
nations,
replaced by
the
progressive emergence
of reason and the demand of the
plebs
for an
equal
share in the
rights, privileges,
and
power
of the
patricians.
This is
accompanied by
a
weakening
of the
plebs'
belief that the
patricians
are
of a different "nature" from
themselves, i.e.,
that
they
are descended
from the
gods.
The old belief in natural
inequality
is
replaced by
a new
belief based on the
recognition
of the sameness of nature insofar as all
men are rational. That
is,
it is
replaced by
the belief in a common human
nature
which,
in its state of
perfection,
is "reasonable" and
"intelligent"
(NS 918).
The
original
natural
inequality
of
piety
is
replaced by
the
natural
equality
of reason:
pious
virtue and
justice
become rational virtue
and
justice.
37
. . . The
frightful thought
of some
divinity
.. .
imposed
form and measure
on the bestial
passions
of those lost men and thus transformed them into human
passions" (NS 340;
cf.
177,338,339,376ff.). Spinoza, however, explicitly
denies
that
religion
exists in the "natural
state,"
in that "no one knows from nature
whether he owes
any
obedience towards God." The state of nature is without
religion
or law
(TPT 210; Op. 198).
38 "The earliest
kings
were chosen
by
nature," that
is,
because of their
greater piety, strength,
and
courage (NS 584).
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VICO AND SPINOZA 63
Vico
presents
his "rational civil
theology
of divine
providence"
as a
refutation of the doctrine of "chance" of Hobbes
(despite
Hobbes's de-
terminism), Machiavelli,
and
Epicurus,
and the doctrine of "fate" in
Spinoza
and Zeno
(sc.
the
Stoics) (NS 179,1109).
In Vico's
refutation,
he
says
he sides with "the divine
Plato,"
the
"prince"
of "the
political
philosophers"
(NS 1109;
cf.
130).
He also
presents
his
philosophy
as
a refutation of the atheistic doctrine of
Bayle
and
Polybius, according
to which human
society
and virtue are
possible
without
religion
and
piety
(NS 179, 1109).
Vico refutes the "false dictum of
Polybius
that if
there were
philosophers
in the world there would be no need for reli-
gions"
(NS 179,1112).
Human
things
cannot be understood without
the
recognition
of the essential role of religion and
religious
belief. Al-
though
Vico does not associate
Spinoza
with the atheistic
enlightenment
view of
Bayle
and
Polybius
that science or
philosophy
could
replace
reli-
gion,
he
might easily
have done so. For the main
purpose
of the Theo-
logical-Political
Treatise is
precisely
to show that a
"republic" requires
the freedom of
thought
and
expression,
i.e.,
the freedom to
philosophize
without restriction. Thus a
society
of atheists is not
unqualifiedly
con-
demned.
However,
a
society
of
philosophers
in the sense of rational men
living
in accordance with a
plan
cf reason rather than the
impulsion
of
natural desire is not
possible,
since it contradicts human nature.39 For
all men are
by
nature
superstitious
(TPT 3; Op 5).
Only
a
very
few can
perform
the
extremely
difficult unnatural feat of
mastering
their
passions
by
means of reason.4 Whereas for
Spinoza
a
society
of
philosophers
is
a natural
impossibility,
for Vico it is an historical
impossibility.
So too
for a
society
of atheists. For
society presupposes
law and law
presupposes
religion.
The first
society,
that of the
families,
rests on the three
"princi-
ples"
of
religion, marriage,
and burial
(belief
in
immortality).
The first
laws and institutions were believed to be of divine
origin,
for law or
juris-
prudence
was
originally
"the science of Jove's
auspices"
(NS 398).
And
since civil
society presupposes
families,
it too rests on
piety
and
religion
(NS 179). Finally, philosophy presupposes religion
because it
presup-
poses
civil
society,
for
philosophy
is
possible only
when reason has
emerged
from
passion
and
imagination,
and this can occur
only through
the historical
development
of the nations.
Philosophy
thus arises
only
in
the third and last
stage
of the monarchical form of
government
(NS
927,
951; 1040-3).
V. Vico found the "master
key"
to
understanding
the
myths
of the
early
men in the
"discovery"
that "the
early gentile peoples, by
a demon-
39 Laws are
necessary
because men are "so constituted
by
nature" that
they
do not desire
only
"what true reason dictates" but are motivated
by
"desire and
the
passions
of the mind"
(TPT 73; Op. 73).
40 Since
only "very
few" can
acquire
"the
disposition
of virtue from reason
alone,"
without
Scripture
"we would doubt of the salvation of almost all men"
(TPT 199; Op. 188).
Cf. the
concluding
statement of the Ethics: "But all
things
excellent are as difficult as
they
are rare."
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64 JAMES C. MORRISON
strated
necessity
of
nature,
were
poets
who
spoke
in
poetic
characters"
(NS 34).
Later he
speaks
of the need "to descend
from
these human and
refined natures of ours to those
quite
wild and
savage
natures,"
namely,
the
passionate-imaginative
minds of the first
theological poets
(NS 338;
my emphasis).
Once one understands that the first men were of a differ-
ent "nature" from
ourselves,
that
they
could
imagine
and fantasize but
not think and
conceive,
the true
meaning
of the
myths
and
early stages
of human
history
can be understood. For
Spinoza, too,
the master
key
to
understanding
the
early stages
of Hebrew
history
is the
discovery
that
"the
prophets
conceived God's revelation
by
the aid of
imagination"
(TPT 25; Op. 28).41 Prophecy
is the result "not of a more
perfect
mind,
but a more vivid
imagination"
(TPT 19; Op. 21).42
Because
they
could
imagine
but not
think,
the
prophets
believed that God was a
body,
they
"saw" God in
visions, dreams,
etc.
(TPT 18-9; Op. 20-1).
So for
Vico,
the
early peoples
conceived of
everything
as a
body; they
were "all
body"
(NS 570).43
The
primitive
character of
Spinoza's early
Hebrews in
par-
ticular and Vico's first men in
general
is
proved by
their
anthropomor-
phic
idea of God.
Scripture speaks
of God as
having
a
heart,
a mind and
body,
emotions, breath,
etc.
(TPT 22-3; Op. 25).
Similarly, according
to
Vico,
the
theological poets
in their fables about the
gods expressed
everything
in
imaginative genera, "they
attributed senses and
passions
. . .
to bodies" and made their own minds the measure of what is
(NS 402;
cf.
180,405).
Vico's first men were the children of the human
race,44
for
it is in childhood that
imagination predominates
(NS 211,408).
Accord-
ing
to
Spinoza,
the
early
Hebrews were "like
children,"
with
absurd,
childish,
and irrational views about God and nature
(TPT 165;
cf.
44;
Op. 159;
cf.
45).4'
Like all children and
primitive peoples,
the
prophets
could not
distinguish
between dream and
reality, sleeping
and
waking,
an
imaginary
voice and a real voice.
Neither
Spinoza
nor Vico maintains a clear distinction between an-
cient
religion
and
superstition;
Vico,
for
example,
defines
piety simply
in
terms of belief or fear of the
gods,
not in terms of the truth of the belief.
Thus,
pagans,
Jews,
and Christians are
equally pious. Spinoza says
that
if someone is
obedient,
"he has
pious
faith,"
even if he believes false
41
Spinoza goes
so far as to
identify
"the
imagination
of the
prophets"
with
"the mind of God"
(TPT 24; Op. 27).
42
Both Vico and
Spinoza
see an inverse
relationship
between the
power
of
imagination
and reason.
Spinoza's
statement,
"those who are
especially strong
in
imagination
are less skilled in
understanding things" (TPT 27; Op. 29)
is
virtually
paraphrased by
Vico in his "axiom":
"imagination
is more robust in
proportion
as
reasoning power
is weak"
(NS 185).
43
Thus Vico calls the first men
"giants," i.e.,
"sons of Earth"
(NS 531).
44
But far from
being
noble
innocents, they
were
"stupid, insensate,
and hor-
rible beasts"
(NS 374).
Vico is
wholly
devoid of the
"sentimentality"
of his
near
contemporary
Rousseau.
45
Cf.
Spinoza's
statement that he had been imbued from his
"boyhood"
with
the
ordinary opinions
about
Scripture (TPT 139; Op. 135).
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VICO AND SPINOZA 65
things
(TPT 181;
cf.
186; Op. 172;
cf.
176). Spinoza's
basic distinction
is not between
superstition
and traditional
religion
but between
philoso-
phy
and
reason,
on the one
hand,
and
religion
and
superstition
on the
other.
Superstition
reduces to belief in a
suprarational
truth;
it "teaches
men to
despise
reason and nature"
(TPT 99; Op. 97).
Superstition origi-
nates in human
passions.
Men "desire without
limit,"
vacillate continu-
ally
between
"hope
and
fear,"
are
"extremely prone
to
credulity,"
and
ignorant
of the true causes of
things.
The
principal
cause of
superstition,
however,
is fear
(TPT 3-5; Op. 5-7).
Corresponding
to
Spinoza's analy-
sis,
is Vico's
quotation
of the
maxim, primos
in orbe deos
fecit
timor. He
asserts that "false
religions
were born not of
imposture
but of
credulity"
(NS 191),
for the
ignorance
of "natural causes" leads men to "attribute
their own nature to them"
(NS 180)
and to think that
gods
cause natural
phenomena
(NS 375;
cf.
182).
And where
Spinoza says
that men are
superstitious
because
they
cannot
"govern
all their circumstances
by
set
rules"
(TPT 3;
Op.
5),
Vico
says
that men first conceived "some notion
of God" when their own
power
or "natural forces" fail them
(NS 339).
On the most fundamental
level,
Vico's master
key
to his new science
of man and human
things implies
that to understand the creations of the
mind one must first understand the mind itself. Since man can
only
know
what he himself has
made,
and since this
making
is an
activity
of the
mind,
a science of the creative activities and
powers
of the mind-a
"metaphysics
of the human mind"- is the
necessary
and sufficient con-
dition for
understanding
human
history.
Thus,
to understand
primitive
creations one must understand the
primitive mentality
that created them.
Like
Vico,
who
proves
that the ancient
myths
and old books like the
Iliad contain no "esoteric" or
philosophical
wisdom because the men who
created them could not think in
concepts
but
only
in
images
and meta-
phors, Spinoza
denies that
any
theoretical or
speculative knowledge
is
contained in the Bible because the
early
Hebrews,
and
especially
the
prophets,
had "vivid
imaginations"
not
"perfect
minds."46 In
short,
since
the
early
writers could not think
rationally,
their
writings
cannot contain
any
rational
knowledge. According
to
Vico,
to
interpret
such "hiero-
glyphic" writings
one must
peel away
their
mythical-theological
surface
and disclose their
historical-political
core. "Our
mythologies,"
he
says,
"will be seen to be civil histories of the first
peoples,
who were
every-
where
naturally poets"
(NS 352).
In this
way,
"truth is sifted from false-
hood" in all the
"vulgar
traditions"
(NS 356;
cf.
149).
Spinoza
too at-
tempts
to understand
"hieroglyphic"
or obscure
books,
namely
the
Bible,
by
means of a new method of
interpretation.
His method
requires
that
one "examine
Scripture completely
anew with a free mind and affirm
nothing
of
it,
and
accept nothing
as its
doctrine,
which
[one]
cannot de-
46Cf.
Spinoza's
denial that the Hebrews were
specially
elected because of
their
superior
"intellect" or "virtue"
(TPT 46-7; Op. 48).
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66 JAMES C. MORRISON
rive
very clearly
from it itself"
(TPT 8; Op 9).47 Interpreting Scripture
wholly
"from itself" is
necessary
"so that we do not confound the true
meaning
[of
the
text]
with the truth of
things"
(TPT 101; Op. 100).
This
implies putting
aside the belief that the Bible is "in
every passage
true and
divine,"
that
is,
abandoning
all "human fictions."48
Spinoza
claims that his method has two
important advantages.
It
avoids,
on the
one
hand,
the
"theological prejudices"
of those who read the Bible in the
light
of faith
and,
on the other
hand,
the
philosophical prejudices
of those
who read it in the
light
of reason. Both kinds of readers
inevitably
dis-
tort the Bible's "literal"
meaning by forcing
it to fit beliefs
they
hold in
advance to be true. For in order to know whether
any passage
in the
Bible is true one must first know what that
passage
means,
and in order
to know this one must not assume that the
passage (or
the Bible as a
whole)
is true.
Only
"doubt" will lead to
clarity
and
certainty-only
an
"agnostic" can understand the Bible. In short, in order to understand the
Bible one must assume that it is not a divine book but a human book.
Spinoza,
then,
substitutes a new
anthropocentric perspective
on
Scrip-
ture for the traditional theocentric
one,
just
as Vico substitutes a new
anthropocentric
view of human
history
for the traditional theocentric
one. In both
cases,
the master
key
is a
philosophical-scientific-i.e.,
non-
religious-understanding
of man's
original
nature.
Spinoza says
that to
understand the Biblical text one must know the intentions of the Biblical
authors
(TPT 99; Op. 98).
This involves historical
knowledge
about
how the text came to be
written,
when it was
written,
under what circum-
stances,
by
whom,
the mind and
temperament
of the writer and
proph-
ets,
etc.
(TPT 101ff.; Op.
99ff.).
The
"history
of
Scripture" provides
the
basis for the correct
interpretation
of
Scripture
and
proceeds
in the same
way
as the
"history
of nature"
provides
the basis for the correct under-
standing
of nature. For
just
as the true
understanding
of nature shows
that nature is not the creation of a transcendent
God,
so the true inter-
pretation
of
Scripture
shows that
Scripture
is not the revealed word of
God. And
just
as the
history
of
Scripture begins
with the most universal
principles
and
proceeds
to less
general
or
particular
truths,
so the science
of nature
begins
with universal statements or "first notions" about the
infinite whole of Nature or Substance and descends to less
general
truths
about the finite
parts
of the whole. The
philosophical
method of the
Ethics
provides
the
paradigm
for the historical method of the
Theological-
Political Treatise.
Historical
knowledge
is relevant to
Scripture
because
Scripture
is an
expression
of
"faith,"
which is based on
"history
and
language"
(TPT
189; Op. 179). By
contrast,
historical
knowledge
is
wholly
irrelevant to
47
This is the
equivalent
of Vico's rule:
"So,
for the
purposes
of this
inquiry,
we must reckon as if there were no books in the world"
(NS 330), i.e.,
assume
initially
that no
book, including
the
Bible,
has
any authority.
48 Cf. the later reference to
Spinoza's escaping "theological prejudices" (TPT
99, Op.
98).
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VICO AND SPINOZA 67
philosophy.49
The truth of
philosophical
doctrines
presupposes
not his-
torical facts but clear and distinct ideas. In
addition,
while historical
knowledge
is
necessary
to understand obscure books like the
Bible,
it is
wholly
irrelevant for
understanding
clear
books,
which are based on rea-
son rather than
imagination.
But while
Spinoza emphatically
denies that
historical
knowledge
is
necessary
for either
understanding
or
judging
scientific or
philosophical
books,
Vico asserts that historical
knowledge
is essential for
understanding
and
judging
all books. For he seeks to show
that the universal truths of
philosophy
must be made certain
by
the
par-
ticular facts of
philology
and
(conversely)
that these
particular
facts
must be made true
by
the universal
principles
of
philosophy.
The union
of
history, philology,
and
philosophy
constitutes the "new science" of
man and human
things. Spinoza,
however,
uses
history
neither to
certify
the truths of
philosophy
nor those of faith.
Rather,
he uses
history
first
for
interpreting
faith and then for
undermining
it. For the three elements
of a
history
of
Scripture
which
Spinoza lays
down are
necessary
condi-
tions for
understanding Scripture. By elaborating
the "difficulties" and
"imperfections"
of
achieving
an
adequate history
of
Scripture
he shows
that these conditions cannot be fulfilled. Thus
Spinoza repeatedly empha-
sizes that his
method, although
"the
only
true
one,"
"does not suffice to
explain everything
in the
Bible";
"the true
meaning
of
Scripture
is in
many places inexplicable";
"no
possible
method could solve all of them"
(TPT 108; Op. 106-07).
The
imperfections
indicated
by Spinoza's
method are thus
ultimately
the
imperfections
of
Scripture
itself.
On the one
hand,
Spinoza
asserts that
Scripture
contains no
specula-
tive doctrines about the nature of God but teaches
only practical precepts.
On the other
hand,
he
argues
that
just
and charitable actions are com-
manded
by
God as a
lawgiver
and that this
conception
of the nature of
God is
contrary
to reason
(cf.
TPT
248; Op. 231). Thus,
Scripture
both
does and does not have a
speculative teaching
about God
(cf.
TPT
77,
104 with
89;
92 with
91, 102; Op. 77,102-3
with
89;
91 with
90,101-
2).50 Also,
Spinoza says
that
Scripture
contains a
single
consistent moral
teaching
and that it does not. For he
says
that the moral
teaching
of the
Old Testament is
incompatible
with that of the New Testament and that
of the New Testament is
incompatible
with itself. Justice in the Old Test-
ament means an
eye
for an
eye
and hate
your
enemies
(sc.
all non-He-
brews),
whereas
justice
in the New Testament means turn the other
cheek and love one's enemies
(TPT 105,250; Op.
103-4,
233).51
The
49"The truth of
histories,
whatever
they may be,
has
nothing
to do with the
divine
law,"
which is "to love God as the
highest good" (TPT 60; Op. 60-61).
50 On the
question
of
Spinoza's
contradictions and manner of
writing,
cf. Leo
Strauss,
"How to
Study Spinoza's Theological-Political
Treatise," in Persecution
and the Art
of Writing (Glencoe, Ill., 1952), 170ff. and Elmer E.
Powell, Spinoza
and
Religion (Boston, 1941),
61-65.
51
Spinoza
refers to Matthew
X:43,
where the old and new
teachings
are con-
trasted
by
Christ (TPT 250; Op. 233).
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68 JAMES C. MORRISON
New Testament is inconsistent
regarding
the relative
importance
of faith
and
works,
for Paul teaches that salvation
depends
on faith
alone,
and
James teaches that works are
necessary
for salvation
(TPT 163; Op.
157).
According
to
Spinoza's
method,
when
Scripture
is inconsistent
one should
suspend judgment
and assume that it teaches
nothing
(TPT
102; Op. 101). If, then,
the basic
teaching
of
Scripture
reduces to the
practical precept
of
justice
and
charity,
and since
Scripture
teaches con-
tradictory things regarding
them,
it must be concluded that
Scripture
teaches
simpy nothing. Spinoza's
method thus
ultimately proves,
and was
intended to
prove,
that
Scripture
is
unintelligible.
The more one "under-
stands"
Scripture,
the more one understands that it cannot be under-
stood.52
Spinoza's history
of
Scripture
shows that it is
only
confused and
inconsistent
opinion produced by
the
imagination.
True
knowledge
about
man and nature is found
by
reason,
which transcends the
imagination.53
Vico's
history
of
Scripture,
however,
like his
history
of other obscure
books,
reveals that the Bible is
imaginative-mythical opinion hiding philo-
sophical-historical
truths about man. This difference
regarding
the inner
truth of the Bible reflects another difference
regarding
the
cognitive
status of historical
knowledge generally.
For
Vico,
historical
knowledge
about the
products
of the human mind is the
only possible knowledge
for
man. For
Spinoza,
however,
the
highest
form of
knowledge
attainable
by
man is intellectual
knowledge
of the laws of nature. As for historical
knowledge,
he
says simply
that "men narrate in their chronicles and his-
tories their own
opinions
rather than the deeds themselves"
(TPT 92; Op.
92).
Whereas
Spinoza
uses
history
to refute
religious
faith in order to
prepare
the
way
for the free use of
philosophical reason,
Vico uses his-
tory
to
ground philosophical
reason in order to
prepare
the
way
for its
union with
history ("philology"). Spinoza's critique
of revealed
religion
seeks to eliminate the
"prejudices"
which stand in the
way
of a
complete
understanding and-acceptance
of his Ethics: it is a
"prolegomena"
to the
metaphysics
of nature. Vico's
critique
of
religion
is a
corollary
of his
New Science: it is a "theorem" of the
philosophy
of
history
or "meta-
physics
of the human mind." Where
Spinoza completes
the foundation of
modern rationalistic
naturalism,
Vico
lays
the foundation of modern
secular historicism.
University
of Toronto.
52This
explains
the
apparently paradoxical
remark made
by Spinoza
to
van
Blyenbergh:
"I
openly
and
unambiguously
confess that I do not understand
Scripture although
I have
spent
several
years
in the
study
of it .. ."
Epistola XXI,
Spinoza Opera, op. cit., IV,
126.
53
Cf. the identification of
imagination
with
opinion
and their
opposition
to
reason and intuition in the
Ethics,
Part
II, Prop. XL,
Note II.
According
to
Powell,
"for
Spinoza,
who thinks he has a
very
definite
knowledge
of
reality,
theological conceptions
are neither
approximations
to the truth nor
symbols
of
it,
but the
utterly
mistaken
products
of the
'imagination.'" Op. cit.,
288.
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