Origin myths from the cultural historical archive of the anthropocene: vico, Burnet and the time of the deluge

Vico, Burnet and the time of


the deluge

John 0demark

Introduction: Reconciling Vico’s divide

In the seminal article ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty observes that the Anthropocene calls for a new compact between the genres of natural and cultural history, and their vastly divergent timescales (Chakrabarty 2009). A new historiography, able to cope with the pressing challenges of the Anthropocene, must bridge the gap between natural and cultural history. This is because the reality of the Anthropocene has itself already erased the nature-culture divide; there can be no separation of natural and cultural history if humanity is the ‘cultural’ cause of global warming and species extinction frequently associated with the Anthropocene as the ‘human epoch’ (Chakrabarty 2009).

In what he calls a ‘thumbnail sketch’ of early modern developments in historiography, Chakrabarty traces the nature-culture divide back to the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668—1744), who published his new science of history in three versions from 1725 to 1744. Vico’s division, and the concomitant disregard of natural history, ‘was to become a part of the historian’s common sense in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’, Chakrabarty adds (2009, 201). He cites Vico’s use of the so-called verum- factum principle as the epistemic formula behind the nature-culture divide in historiography. In Chakrabarty’s wording, this epistemological principle comprised the idea that we, humans, could have proper knowledge of only civil and political institution because we made them, while nature remains God’s work and ultimately inscrutable to man (Chakrabarty 2009, 201). Apparently, ‘nature’ is here excluded from a historiography solely concerned with human creations (like ‘civil and political institutions’) - what we, the intellectual heirs of Vico’s distinction, would call culture. ‘Vico scholars have sometimes protested that Vico did not make such a drastic separation but even they admit that such a reading is widespread’, Chakrabarty contends (Chakrabarty 2009, 202).

My aim in this chapter is not primarily to protest Chakrabarty’s historiographical origin myth but rather to fill out his thumbnail sketch with more textual and historical detail, focussing upon the complexity of the divisions and contractions between natural and cultural history. My inquiry will show that Vico reworks evidence from the historic! naturalis, historic! sacra and the historic! civilis. In doing this, he aims to separate the Christian logos from fables and myths. This work takes the form of a complex art of boundary maintenance between natural and cultural kinds of history. Thus, traffic between various genres of natural and cultural history persists, even in the supposed author of the modern distinction in the philosophy of historiography. If, as Chakrabarty asserts, the Anthropocene calls for a new compact between natural and cultural history, a detailed account of how ‘we got there’ in the past can perhaps also point forward to a new mode of convergence between these genres."

Modernity theory and Whig historiography have customarily identified the emergence of modern schemes, such as the nature-culture divide, in an early modernity defined as a harbinger of mature modernity. Historian of science Lorraine Daston has pointed out the persistence of an early modern origin myth telling the - paradoxical — tale of the simultaneous rise and fall of nature. If nature falls from semantic grace, loses its soul by becoming a disenchanted domain of meaningless causes between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, it will also ascend as the objective arbiter of all and everything, i.e. a new kind of authority with scientific but also social application (Daston 1998). ‘Even those who’, Daston adds, ‘like Bruno Latour, loudly assert “we have never been modern” take this seventeenth-century moment to be seminal of our characteristic brand of unmodernity’ (Daston 1998, 149).

In contrast, salient trends in cultural history and the history and philosophy of science have questioned such tales of origin and construed the early modern past as a ‘foreign country’, and thus (at least metaphorically) irrelevant to the present knowledge landscape. This has often been accomplished by applying some version of a concept of bounded cultures that construed past periods as instances of different ‘epistemes’, ‘paradigms’, or ‘styles of reasoning’. The historiographical commitment to the cultural difference of the past (encapsulated by the slogan ‘the past is a foreign country’) requires the identification of an object in the past that differs from the present in a manner analogous to how contemporary cultures differ spatially. Cultural historian Peter Burke has described such a commitment to difference in terms of translation:

Consider the following recurrent problems in cultural history [...]. How is it possible to be able to translate every word in a text from an alien (or even half-alien) culture, yet to have difficulty in understanding the text? Because - so one is able to say if one adopts this approach to the past - there is a difference in mentality, in other words different assumptions, different perceptions, and a different ‘logic’ — at least in the philosophically loose sense of different criteria for justifying assertions — reason, authority, experience and so on.

(Burke 1997, 165)

It is in cases of such mistranslation, Burke asserts, that we have to account for cultural difference (0demark and Engebretsen 2018).

My aim, then, is to fill out Chakrabarty’s ‘thumbnail sketch’ qua origin myth, by shifting to another historiographical scale — to a textual and inter- textual microhistory rather than the grand scale of modernity theory and its myths of new, cosmological demarcations. I will assume that Vico is not (only) the founder of a new paradigm in which we still live at our peril, and from which there is no escape, but that he (also) represents a certain cultural otherness, in Burke’s phrasing, ‘different criteria for justifying assertions — reason, authority, experience and so on’. This, moreover, involves construing him as a part of a domain he himself‘invented’: namely, culture as collective human difference (0demark 2011). Consequently, I will also re-examine the epochal divide attributed to Vico attentive to what I will call here the textual micro- history behind the distinction. This implies being attentive to the following:

  • 1 Vico’s actor concepts and language games in the manner of cultural and intellectual historians such as Peter Burke (2007), Quentin Skinner (2002) and G. E. R. Lloyd (1990; 2004) — and what I, referencing the philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers, will call his ‘matter of concern (Stengers 2011). With this last term, the explanandum of the Scienza nuova, the phenomenon Vico seeks to explain, is also related to a cultural and existential concern beyond ‘mere’ scientific problem-solving.
  • 2 The textual and poetic organisation of the arguments, the text-building (Becker 1995) and the ‘workness’ of the texts under construction (LaCa- pra 1984), both across Vico’s texts, following the textual history of some of his key concerns, and in the section of the Scienza nuova of 1725 where he deals with Thomas Burnet.

I shall follow two convergent lines of inquiry. First, I will examine the notions of fable, fabulous history and periodisation in Vico. Now, ‘fable’ and its cognate ‘myth’ share an ambivalent semantic space; both terms refer to concrete narratives as well as superstition and epistemological errors - the opposite of the religious or scientific logos.3 Second, I will close-read a section of the First New Science (1725) where Vico briefly tackles Thomas Burnet’s Telluris Theoria Sacra. Burnet was an English theologian who investigated what he saw as the sacred history of the Earth, a theocentric project that has made him a villain in the history of geology (Gould 1987, 4). Both Vico and Burnet set out to defend Christian chronology against the ‘deep time’ chronologies explored in what we would call natural (emergent geology) and cultural history (accounts of Chinese and Egyptian chronologies). Hence, guarding sacred history and Biblical chronology against what historian of science Paolo Rossi called the ‘dark abyss of time’ is a matter of concern in both emergent geology and cultural history (Rossi 1984).

Several commentators have linked the textual meeting between Burnet and Vico to the Neapolitan philosopher’s disdain for natural history. Rossi cites the Vico scholar Pietro Piovani on how Vico developed a ‘philosophy without nature’ and a ‘philosophy of culture [...] as the heir of a defunct philosophy of nature’ (Rossi 1984, 105). But what genres of natural history did Vico distance himself from? Was there one clear break with one kind of natural history, or a variety of relations between natural and cultural forms of history?

A fable within a fable: Vico’s origin myth and Chakrabarty’s

There is a certain recursiveness in using Vico and his distinction to mark the entrance to an epoch in the history of historiography governed by the separation of natural from cultural history. Vico himself was obsessed with origin myths and historical beginnings, and it is a conventional gesture in the history of the human sciences to plot Vico as a ‘beginning’ (Said 1997).4 Vico himself, moreover, was deeply concerned with how historians should account for the first periods of human history, what he — in the tradition of Roman historian Varro — called ‘obscure’ and ‘fabulous’ history (e.g. Rossi 1984, 158). Vico was adamant that the first task of his new science was finding a method that actually could explain fables, and thus harness them as sources to a ‘pre-history’ that lacked written sources (Vico 2000, 329).

Modern historiography and its philosophy are passionately concerned with temporality. This fascination conceals the fact that (apparently) temporal categories such as periods and epochs are also spatial enclosures, where the flow of time is regulated by external boundaries. Within these boundaries, certain manners of thinking, acting, and narrating are supposed to be paradigmatic, i.e. both ‘govern’ and be ‘instances’ of the forms of thinking, narrating and acting considered possible in a particular historical enclosure or period.

Moreover, periodisation is consequently inherently chronotopic: it is dependent upon a spatial framework that furnishes the narrative background against which exemplary tales can illustrate what might be typical of a period, age or culture (Bakhtin 1981, 198; Puckett 2016, 157). Within this spatial enclosure objects can be ‘timed’ or given historical ‘value’ as a part of a paradigm or more comprehensive pattern that can be exemplified by concrete instances such as Vico’s division — and tales about its more or less toxic afterlife as the ‘rule’ of modernity. Regularly these new rules are represented in macro-historical tales about modernity and secularisation as a new ‘constitution’ that separates nature from culture and restricts the action sphere of God to the heart of the individual. A case in point is the doyen of science and technology studies, Bruno Latour. For Latour, the modern is based upon not only a separation of nature and culture but also the continuous processes of translation or mediations that link nature with society, which in turn are balanced by processes of purification that restore the divide (Latour 1994; Bauman and Briggs 2003).

A similar logic of periodisation is worked out in relation to the narrative and epistemological category ‘fable’ in another article by Chakrabarty called ‘Humanities in the Anthropocene: The Crisis of an Enduring Kantian Fable’ (2016). As we know, Chakrabarty maintains that the core task of a new historiography is to bridge a divide in historiography originating in Vico’s new science. In ‘Humanities in the Anthropocene’, Kant (not Vico) becomes the emblem of a certain cultural modernity that is both one of the causes of the Anthropocene and an epistemic organisation that must be reconfigured to survive in this new, geocultural epoch. ‘We need’, Chakrabarty maintains, to overcome the Kantian fable by finding ‘other perspectives’ and inventing new ‘stories’ that go beyond ‘any anthropocentric perspective’ (Chakrabarty 2016). This is because the fable in question restricts morality and compassion to humans by dividing the human into two separate domains, the biological body and the cultural soul.

Chakrabarty refrains from accounting for the methodological assumptions underlying the idea that ‘the separation of the moral life of humans from their animal life in post-Enlightenment narratives’ is ‘best studied’ by turning to an exemplary tale. In a footnote, however, he cites political philosopher Bonnie Honig. Her manner of relating the narrative genre to the foundation and preservation offorms of life provides a key to the methodology:

[T]he stories fables tell about the founding of a form of life invariably serve as a powerful illustration of the now more subtle and sedimented but no less active processes and practices that constitute and maintain our present, daily.

(in Chakrabarty 2016, 396, n. 38, my emphasis)

Fables thus recount the aetiology of cultural forms of life; they tell stories (in the plural) about the ‘founding of a form of life’ (in the singular) and ‘illustrate’ present everyday life by revealing the hidden foundation of ‘our present’. Hence, ‘fable’ depicts both the origin of a particular cultural order or period and the main rules, processes, and narrative forces upholding it — such as Vico’s division in the myth of modern historiography and how it, in a haunting way, ‘constitute[s] and maintain[s]’ our historiography.

Chakrabarty and Honig’s exposition of the relation between narrative and culture, fable, and form of life, represents a particular manner of construing fable or myth. Drawing upon Andrew Von Hendy’s history of myth as a scholarly category, we could align it with what he calls a folklorist construal of myth (that later slipped into social anthropology; Von Hendy 2002). This views myth as both a point of access to a form of life and expressive of the rules upholding and serving as the charter for a local form of life, i.e. the ‘subtle and sedimented but no less active processes and practices that constitute and maintain our present, daily’. As we shall see, this way of construing fable or myth as the ‘key’ to a particular, local culture or a period in time, is in play in Vico’s own negotiations with natural history.

Chakrabarty does not elaborate upon the exemplary status of the Kantian fable in relation to the epistemological exemplarity associated with Vico. Indeed, in ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, it is Vico’s division ofhistory into natural and cultural parts that serves as the origin myth or fable, and the persistent paradigm of ‘modern’ thought on cultural and natural time. As stated, my aim is to complicate the fable of origin of Vico’s division by shifting to another historiographical scale, to a textual and cultural microhistory. Hence, 1 will zoom in and slow down the tale of a cultural origin associated with Vico in the historiography of historiography. In particular, 1 will examine how Vico’s concern with fables can be related to a complex art of generic boundary maintenance - between various forms of historia.

Verum-factum and authored nature

We observed that Chakrabarty linked the verum-factum principle with the invention of something similar to ‘culture’ as the true, epistemic domain of history. Accordingly, the task of a historiography able to cope with the dire challenges of the Anthropocene is to bridge a divide in historiography originating in Vico’s new science — that is the fable still illuminating our present historiographical practices. Chakrabarty cites two philosophers of history, R. G. Collingwood and Benedetto Croce, as promulgators of Vico’s divide — and in particular, of the idea that historiography should restrict itself to the kind of beings with an interior that the historian can access. If intentional, conscious actors cannot be identified as the authors behind meaningful events, such events and actors must be left out of history; ‘[T|he events of nature are mere events, not the acts of agents whose thought the scientist endeavors to trace’ (2009, 202—203, my emphasis). Hence, there are two kinds of event: what we can call authored events that can be traced back to an intention and unintended events without any semantic value at all.

Vico had begun to spell out the historiographical implications of the verum-factum principle in the Diritto Universale (1719). Most famously, however, he used it in the Scienza nuova of 1725 and 1730/17447 to separate what first appears to be human from natural history:

But in the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity, so remote from ourselves, there shines the eternal and never failing light of a truth beyond all question: that the world of civil society [mondo civile] has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind. Whoever reflects on this cannot but marvel that the philosophers should have bent all their energies to the study of the world of nature, which, since God made it, He alone knows; and that they should have neglected the study of the world of nations, or civil world, which, since men made it, men could come to know.

(Vico 1744, §331; cf. 1725, §40)

As Chakrabarty implies, it appears that ‘the world of nature’ is excluded from a historiography now solely concerned with human constructions; objects belonging to the category ‘culture’ - or, in Vico’s own vocabulary, il mondo civile. According to the constructivist criteria applied in the Scienza nuova, knowledge of nature is beyond the epistemic powers of humans because ‘we’ do not make it. Inversely, ‘we’ can enter and study the minds of other men, the thought behind their actions, through our participation in a common human mind (‘the modifications of our own human mind’). Thus, a modern distinction between the fields of the natural and the human sciences — and the criteria for separating them — appears to be made here.

This, however, erases God from the etiological tale of the history of ‘the moderns’ and their historiography. In Vico’s scheme, there are two intentional agents, God and man, who construct, know, and cause events. Both the natural and the civil world, then, are ultimately regarded as meaningful phenomena - ‘authored’ by intentional beings. Consequently, nature is not per se devoid of inferiority and intentionality, but human cognition has no natural means for attaining knowledge about these aspects of natural phenomena.

Vico’s distinction thus assumes an authored cosmos filled with signs. We are accordingly rather far from a secular anthropocentrism as this, for instance, is expressed in Max Weber’s definition of culture as ‘a finite segment of the meaningless infinity of the world process, a segment on which human beings confer meaning and significance’ (Weber 1969, 81, my emphasis; cf. 0demark 2011). Here, the opposition between meaning and non-meaning is a homologue to the culture-nature opposition, and thus prescribes two different scholarly approaches to the world: a hermeneutic quest for meaning in the human sciences and a quest for causes in the natural sciences. In Vico, however, nature is not inherently meaningless; it is also an authored product of an intentional agent, but its events, and the author behind them, are sublimely beyond natural human cognition (human cognition not assisted by divine revelation). In the Scienza nuova, both the natural and the civil world are, in the last instance, also authored and signifying phenomena. The fact that the Universal Flood is the universal, chronological yardstick in all the different versions of the Scienza nuova demonstrates this.

Fables in natural history

We shall return to this consideration and the religious normativity governing Vico’s definition of the subject matter below in the context of his quarrel with Burnet and the issue of the dating of the deluge. First, however, we need to explore the genealogy of Vico’s version of the verum-factum. This will take us back to what Vico regarded as the primary concern of universal history, fables, and myths, i.e. to the culturally different construal of fable from which Chakrabarty constructs his own fable.

Vico’s first version of the verum-factum principle occurs in On the Ancient Wisdom of the Italians (1710)/’ In his autobiography,7 Vico retrospectively scrutinises his own intentions behind the search for ‘ancient wisdom’. In this reflection, Francis Bacon’s The Wisdom of the Ancients is both a model and a contrast. When writing about the wisdom of the ancient Italians, Vico still considered it possible that the fables and myths of ancient nations were vehicles of wisdom and a true insight into nature. Curiously, this is an option even Bacon himself appears to be entertaining in the much-commented introduction to the Wisdom of the Ancients. ‘I do certainly for my part’, Bacon says,

[Ijncline to this Opinion that beneath no small number of the fables of the ancient poets there lay from the very beginning a mystery and an allegory. It may be that my reverence for the primitive time [prisci seculi] carries me too far, but the truth is that in some of these fables, as well as in the very frame and texture of the story as in the propriety of the names by which the persons that figure in it are distinguished, I find a conformity and connexion with the thing signified, so close and so evident, that one cannot help believing such a signification to have been designed and meditated from the first.

(English cited from Garner 1970, 268—269;

Latin from Bacon 1829, 272 and 276)

Hence, Bacon observes an intentional construction of ‘conformity’ between the mythical signifier and the signified. This ‘connection’, moreover, appears to be a mysterious or allegorical way of evoking nature itself. In fact, Bacon explicitly ponders whether ancient fables and myths are a source of insight into the ‘nature of things’ (res ipsas) or the ‘culture’ of a particular period of time (antiquitatcm):

Upon the whole I conclude with this: the wisdom of the primitive ages [sapientia prisci seculi] was either great or lucky [aut magna aut felix fuit); great, if they knew what they were doing and invented the figure to shadow out the meaning; lucky, if without meaning it or intending it they fell upon matter which gives occasion to such worthy contemplations. My own pains, if there be any help in them, I shall think well bestowed either way: I shall be throwing light either upon antiquity or upon nature itself [Aut enim antiquitatem illustrabi- mus, aut res ipsas].

(English cited from Garner 1970, 268—269;

Latin from Bacon 1829, 272 and 276).

Vico sharply opposed the view that ‘ancient fables’ could ‘be throwing light upon nature itself’, for him fables are clearly a source to antiquity, that is, to a particular historical period and its culture, not to universal nature. Thus, at best, the ‘wisdom of the ancients’ was an expression of pre-reflective agents who ‘without meaning it or intending [...] fell upon matter which gives occasion to such worthy contemplations’.

This reorientation away from the possibility that Bacon still entertains, that fables are a source of‘nature itself’, further informs Vico’s quest for a natural

language — a favella naturale — in the later Scienza nuova. Here fables, myths, and hieroglyphs are not only delegated to culture and away from Bacon’s nature but are attributed to the primitive beginnings of culture and language, i.e. to a particular time and place, and the natural connection between signs and things is of the most elementary kind:

Mutes make themselves understood by gestures or objects that have natural relation [naturali rapporti] with the ideas they wish to signify. This axiom is the principle of the hieroglyphs by which all nations spoke in the time of their first barbarism. It is also the principle of the natural speech which Plato [...] guessed to have been spoken in the world at one time. [...] This natural speech [favella naturale] was succeeded by the poetic locution of images, similes, comparisons, and natural properties.

(1744, §225-227)

The collocation of fable and hieroglyph, which Vico here construed as a first, natural language, was an early modern commonplace.8 The collocation also played a crucial role in early modern natural history. In the wording of William B. Asworth Jr. - the historian who coined the seminal term ‘the emblematic worldview’ to sum up this paradigm of natural history - ‘the Aesopic corpus became an important source’ for natural history: ‘No student of the peacock would want to ignore the fable of Juno and the peacock’ (Asworth 2003, 138). This was because the fable also reflected generic human morals shared with animal species (as the Aesopic corpus, and animal fables as a genre still do): ‘the peacock complains that he does not have a voice like the nightingale, because there is a moral here for those who are not content with their station in life’ (Asworth 2003, 138). Accordingly, nature should be studied together with (cultural) expressions such as fables and hieroglyphs, which also offer real insight into nature, and form a visual language in which ‘animals were living characters in the language of the Creator’ (Asworth 2003, 137). Using Bacon’s phrasing, we could say that fables and hieroglyphs showed a ‘conformity and connexion with the thing signified’, not the distorted and regional worldview of particular culture but the universal truth about nature.

The constellation of fables and hieroglyphs as a source to universal wisdom and the nature of nature ‘itself’ had also been theorised by authors such as the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher even after Bacon’s time (Marrone 2002).9 Kircher, one of the most influential intellectuals in the seventeenth century, even regarded ‘the science of divinity and of nature’ encoded in fables and hieroglyphs as a prefiguration of the trinity. We note that there is nothing provincial about Egyptian ‘culture’ here; on the contrary, their signs provide access to universal nature:

The Egyptians in fact were the first peoples to celebrate the deeds of gods and the veil of fables, for which reason I dare to assert that the hieroglyphic wisdom of the Egyptians was nothing but the science of divinity and of nature, presented under various fables and allegorical fictions of animals and of other natural things, so that one can say that nothing comes closer to hieroglyphics than the creation of fables and moral tales.

(cited in Cantelli 1976, 60, my emphasis)

Vico, then, strongly opposed the view that fables and hieroglyphs could serve as sources to knowledge about nature (cf. 1744, §605 on Kircher). In this sense, it is true that Vico leaves natural history, but the natural history left behind is also a particular kind of natural history, namely the one that we (applying Asworth’s shorthand) can associate with the emblematic worldview. Vico actually continues working with elements or ‘symbolic forms’ taken from this ‘worldview’ - namely, ‘the hieroglyphs by which all nations spoke in the time of their first barbarism’ (1744, §226) We will see this, and how Vico navigates between various subgenres of natural history, in the polemic with Burnet.

Converging natural and cultural history

As noted, the verum-factum principle maintains that ‘we, humans, could have proper knowledge of only civil and political institution because we made them, while nature remains God’s work and ultimately inscrutable to man’ (cf. Chakrabarty 2009). In this rendition, a third genre of historiography is actually implicit, for in addition to the binary distinction between nature and culture, we have sacred history, the story of God’s creation. Vico’s epis- temic distinction could thus be seen as an articulation of a tripartite system of historiographical genres — historia naturalis, historia civilis and historia sacra — which he uses in several places when dealing with the deluge. Actually, Vico repeatedly cross-references his evidence from these separate genres of history at the most decisive turning points in his new narrative about the origin of human ‘culture’. From the Diritto universale on, Vico consistently begins with the first natural speech and the First fables — seen as rude and primitive phenomena — and the construction of sub-human bestioni.

The rebuttal of Burnet occurs in a section of the Scienza nuova of 1725 where Vico describes what he calls ‘a new critical art’ able to make ‘obscure’ and ‘fabulous history’ readable (Vico 1725, §93). Again, then, Vico’s concern is the reading of fables — and the fable is construed (circularly) as a system of signs and thinking characterising a specific period of time and the phenomena that explains the period in question. Like the story about the nature-culture distinction as the root and determining logic of modernity, it serves both as the identifying trait of the period and its explanation.

Vico works out what he calls his ‘new art of reading’ early history in five steps. The first is the presentation of testimony claimed to be synchronous with the time when the gentile nations were born (§94-95). The ‘uniformity’ of ‘fabulous traditions’ [tradizioni J'avolose] from various peoples shows that the traditions originated simultaneously with the gentile nations as an expression of a natural law. The ‘nefarious’, ‘lascivious’ and ‘filthy’ character of these ‘fabulous traditions’, however, also sharply separates what Vico calls ‘the origins of sacred [storia sacra] and profane history [storia prqfana]’ (Vico 1725, §94—95). If a distinction between nature and culture, or between natural and cultural history, is crafted in Vico, it is clearly secondary to the religious distinction between true and false religion.

The second step confirms the impression of a theological dominance: it involves what Vico calls ‘certain kinds of medals [certa spezie di medaglie]’ belonging to the first peoples, with which the Universal Flood is demonstrated (Vico 1725, §96—99). The medals in question are actually the ‘fabulous traditions’ that Vico assumes are characteristic of the first phases of gentile history, i.e. the ‘gestures or objects that have natural relation with the ideas they wish to signify’, which, as we saw above, ‘is the principle of the hieroglyphs by which all nations spoke in the time of their first barbarism’ (cf. citation above). The second step, moreover, is also the immediate context of what Vico referred to as the ‘dissolution’ of Burnet’s history of the Earth. Vico’s theories of fables, then, will be mobilised against the Telluris Theoria Sacra - and thus also to do polemical work in natural history.

The third step concerns ‘the physical demonstration of the giant’. This proves that the figure of the giant is the origin of‘profane history’, ‘and that profane history is in continuity with sacred history’, which in the last instance explains the nature of the giants (Vico 1725, §100—103). As Rossi maintains, the distinction between the giants (whom Vico, in line with the tradition, saw as inherently related to the deluge) and the Hebrew was biocultural; the ‘entire original race’ was ‘divided into two species’, one of giants and the other of men of normal stature (Rossi 1984, 177).

Again, notions of nature and physics appear to be involved in the establishment of this new set of evidence concerning the giant and the beginning of gentile history. ‘[Pjroofs can be provided by demonstrations taken from physics, as in the following proof concerning the nature of the first nations’ (Vico 1725, §100). Hence, historia naturalis and historia sacra are seamlessly woven together here. Moreover, ‘nature’ also occurs in another sense in this last citation. This is because the ‘physical nature’ of the giant is also mobilised to say something about the ‘nature of the first nations [delle natura delle prime nazioni]’ (Vico 1725, §100). Thus, from the physicality of the giant, Vico - apparently without any need for translation or mediation between nature and culture — moves to another object: namely, the nature of the ‘cultural’ subject matter of the Scienza nuova - the nature of the nations and the natural law of the nations.10

Daston has claimed that it is here, in the discourse on natural law, that ‘nature’ was first stripped of its relation to a theocentric semiotic: ‘Here, and here alone, nature was largely emancipated from God’ (Daston 1998, 167, my emphasis). It is therefore curious that Vico, as a cultural hero of the modern human sciences and historiography, does not take part in such secularising but instead struggles to realign the natural law of human society with the cure and care of providence. For Vico, it was the sign of providence that brought wild men back into society after the flood.

Demonstrating the deluge

Let us return to the second step and the ‘medals belonging to the first peoples, with which the Universal Flood is demonstrated’ (Vico 1725, §96—99). These monuments speak to a specific subject matter; they are evidence of a particular theme that Vico treasured, namely the common customs of the primi popoli, the human common senses from which natural law was reborn after the deluge. We need to read the long passage within which Vico debunks Burnet:

And as public medals are the best ascertained documents of certain history, so, for fabulous and obscure history, a few surviving marble remains must take their place as the public medals of the first peoples and as proof of their common customs, of which the following is the most important. A poverty of words of settled meaning lead all the first people to express themselves by means of objects. At first these must been [sic] [natural] solid objects but later they were carved or painted objects, as Olaus Magnus stated in his account of the Scythians and Diodorus Siculus in the writing he left about the Ethiopians. We certainly have the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, which are depicted on their pyramids, but other fragments from antiquity, with characters of carved objects of the same sort as magical characters of the Chaldeans must first have been, are everywhere to be found. The Chinese also, who vainly vaunt an origin of enormous antiquity, write in hieroglyphics, which goes to show that they originated no more than four thousand years ago. This is confirmed by the fact that, because they remained closed to foreign nations until a few centuries ago, they have only some three hundred articulate words with which, by articulating them in various ways, to express themselves. [...]

This poverty of articulate words in the first [gentile] nations, which was common throughout the universe, proves anew that the Universal Flood occurred before them. And with this demonstration we provide also a true dissolution of the capricious dissolution of the earth dreamt up by Thomas Burnet [La quale dimostrazione veramente resolve la capricciosa risoluzione della terra immaginata da Tomasso Burnet], a fantasy that originated first with van Helmot, from which it then passed into Descartes’ Physics. According to this account, the Flood dissolved the Earth in the south more than in the north, hence the north retained more air in its bowels and, being more buoyant, remained on a higher plane than the south, which then sank into the ocean, causing the earth to decline somewhat from a parallel plane to that of the sun. [But our thesis enables us to refute this] because [had there not been a poverty of articulate words among the gentile nations after the Flood], Idanthyrsus, the king of Schytia, would not have replied in hieroglyphics when Darius the

Great sent his men to declare war on him.

(Vico 1725, §96-98)

The ‘surviving marble remains’ from fabulous and obscure history about the ‘poverty of words’ is primarily inserted in the Scienza nuova in an attempt to answer the question about why the study of myth and fable has been unfruitful - until Vico. This ‘marble foundation’ is then reiterated in almost identical terms towards the end of the paragraph (‘poverty of articulate words’) - now to refute ‘the capricious dissolution of the earth dreamt up by Tomasso Burnet’.

This ‘dreamt up’ Earth was originally pure, a Platonic original of a ‘fallen’ copy. It had a smooth surface, and what Burnet called the ‘wild, vast, indigested heaps of Stones and Earth’ that had broken through the Earth’s crust after the deluge served as a geological reminder of the sins of men (quoted in Cohen 1996, 49). The deluge even forced the Earth into its present position in space. The asymmetrical distribution of landmasses, water and air after the flood caused the displacement of Earth’s axis (Rossi 1984, 107; Cohen 1996, 35—36). Because of this, the Earth tilted to its present angle of approximately twenty degrees (Gould 1987, 35—36). In this geo-theological framework, Eden was located on a perfect Earth, while the ‘heaps of stones and earth’ were signs — performed a semiotic function - inside the framework of salvation history, or sacred history, as also indicated by Burnet’s title (Gould 1987, 32). Hence, like Vico’s giants, natural bodies and physical formations were also semiotic entities, signs of the historia sacra that scholars should indeed ‘endeavour to trace’ as authored messages.

Rossi maintains that ‘Vico accurately grasped the rigidly mechanistic nature of Burnet’s doctrine and, at the same time, refused the image of a Flood that had occurred in very remote times’ (Rossi 1984, 107). Hence, Rossi infers that the issue of the historiographical timing of the flood is the most significant for Vico. There is a local context for Vico’s use of his own theory of fables and primitive language against Burnet. Vico’s scholarly compatriot in Naples, Domenico d’Aulisio - a lecturer in law and, according to Vico, ‘a man of universal knowledge’ (Vico 1744) — had already condemned Burnet for being a Cartesian, and for promoting ideas about how ‘the world had been formed by mere mechanical causes, without divine creation and intervention (Rappaport 1997, 148; cf. Rossi 1984, 73—75). In d’Aulisio’s own wording, the atheistic inference to be made from the Telluris Theoria was that ‘the laws of motion have mechanistically produced the world out of matter, and what is in the world has thus arisen without architect’ (d’Aulisio in Rossi 1984, 74). In terms of the verum-factum, there would be no divine making and truth to oppose to human making and truth, and nature would be un-authored and ‘meaningless’, as in Weber’s definition of a secular notion of‘culture’.

The ‘threat’ to the temporal or chronological ideas that Vico saw as sustaining sacred history came as much from culture and proto-cultural inquiry of past and present ‘others’ as from burgeoning ‘natural science’. Moreover, salient scholarly protocols or paradigms for discovery of evidence and its description - ‘best practice’ - were shared between disciplines, which we (with hindsight) could distribute according to the modern division.

Stones and antiquarian protocols

The problem Vico sets out to solve in the new critical art is the lack of evidence for the periods before ‘certain history’. Vico takes public medals, the best evidence there is for certain history, as his point of departure; there ‘must’ be some ‘traces or vestiges’ (vestigi) that can take the place of these public medals and thus furnish similarly good evidence for the fabulous and obscure ages of history. Hence, we get the following analogy:

  • 1 ‘Just as’ [E siccome] public medals are the most certain [piu accertati] documents of‘certain history’,
  • 2 so |лш] there must be some kind of evidence that can fill the same place for — fabulous and obscure history.

The lack of public medals and other kinds of evidence — indeed, the very lack that actually makes certain periods of historical time ‘obscure’ and ‘fabulous’ — can, Vico asserts, be supplemented with some ‘vestiges remaining in marble’. Evidence for the obscure and fabulous ages should consequently share some of the material properties of monuments and public medals — should be heavy and durable like stones.

Vico asserts that the ‘most grave’ [gravissima] of the evidence that substitutes for the ‘public medals’ of‘certain history’ is that ‘the first peoples spoke with things’. Hence, natural objects were hybrids of res and verba, a primordial and natural favella [favelle articulate] before the objects were emptied of matter and became formal representations of things/bodies (in paintings and engravings). Next, this history of signs is turned against the historiographical conceptions of ‘foreign cultures’, like ‘the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians’. Vico then adds information from ethnographic accounts of the present to his authorities on ancient ‘others’:

The Chinese also, who vainly vaunt an origin of enormous antiquity, write in hieroglyphics, which goes to show that they originated no more than four thousand years ago. This is confirmed by the fact that, because they remained closed to foreign nations until a few centuries ago, they have only some three hundred articulate words with which, by articulating them in various ways, to express themselves. This demonstrates both the length of time and the great difficulty that nations had to endure before they could furnish themselves with articulate languages [...]. Meanwhile, in our most recent times, travellers have observed that the Americans write in hieroglyphics. This poverty of articulate words in the first [gentile] nations, which was common throughout the universe, proves anew that the Universal Flood occurred before them.

(Vico 1725, §97-98)

The aim is clearly to disclaim the chronology of the Chinese (in the present) and the Egyptians (in the past), to cut them down to the correct (temporal) size by associating them with the primitives of the New World - a size measured with the temporal framework of Biblical history as the yardstick. The geological errors of Burnet can be tackled with the same intellectual means as the ‘chronological delusions’ of the gentile nations, the accuracy of which had been discussed for a long time in Europe (Rossi 1984). Moreover, the inscription of both past and present others in the same category, as nations founded upon fables, demonstrates that these others have not attained the status of ‘autonomous’ cultures but are condemned with reference to religious criteria.

If Vico employs the rhetoric of novelty, his quest for new kinds of evidence takes him into a conceptual and scientific territory already cultivated by an- tiquarianism. Here the ‘public medals’ already played a privileged epistemic role. In the seminal ‘Ancient History and the Antiquarian’, the historian of historiography Arnaldo Momigliano relates Vico to the division of history into two distinct genres, history and antiquarianism.

Very conversant with the linguistic, theological and juridical learning of his age, he was practically untouched by the methods of Spanheim, Ma- billon, and Montfaucon. He admired Mabillon, and refers at least once to Montfaucon, but did not assimilate their exact scholarship. He was isolated in his times partly because he was a greater thinker, but partly also because he was a worse scholar than his contemporaries. The antiquarian movement of the eighteenth century passed him by.

(Momigliano 1950, 305—306, my emphasis)

Vico, however, does not entirely disregard the protocols of antiquarianism, for he is at least using them to invest fables and hieroglyphs with a status similar to that of public medals. Naturalists also privileged this type of evidence. As historian of geology Rhoda Rappaport observes, ‘[t]hat naturalists so often assembled both human artifacts and fossils suggest that [...] the two kinds of specimen were mentally linked’ (Rappaport 1997, 85). In her study of how antiquarian protocols and mental space were largely shared between historians of the Earth and of men in early modern Europe, Rappaport further observes that so-called monuments and medals were seen as ‘especially unbiased sources’, and thus turned into privileged categories of evidence in both natural and cultural history (Rappaport 1997, 66, 68—69). Moreover, ‘the historian’s vocabulary permeated geological texts that refer to fossils as the earth’s monuments’ (Rappaport 1997, 94). When Vico turns to medals and monuments, then, he is also deploying a paradigm for thinking and constructing evidence in early modern antiquarianism and history - a paradigm that was shared across epistemic genres and even the histories of nature and culture.11


This chapter has examined an origin myth associated with Vico in ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’. This examination has demonstrated the persistence traffic between various genres of natural and cultural history, even in the supposed author of the modern distinction between these categories in the philosophy of historiography. Moreover, we have also seen that Vico’s view of the gentiles as nations founded upon fables demonstrates that these others have not attained the status of‘autonomous’ cultures in Vico. On the contrary, they are condemned with reference to the religious logos - as the later Vico (and Kant) will be with reference to the logos of climate science.

1 have re-examined the tale of Vico’s division by applying a textual microhistory that assumes that he not only is the founder of a new paradigm, our cultural origin, with which we must break to survive in the Anthropocene, but also represents a certain cultural otherness. Obviously, the Anthropocene was not an issue for Vico, although he, like Burnet, was fully aware that humans as a species were responsible for Earth’s destiny - in particular, the planet’s partial destruction by the deluge. At the very moment (Western) anthropocentrism is revealed as a lethal cosmological aberration that has made us forget our dependency on nature, humanity actually becomes a cosmological agent capable of both destroying and saving nature and the planet. If, as Chakra- barty asserts, this situation calls for a new relation between natural and cultural history, a detailed account of how ‘we got there’ in the past can perhaps also point forward to a new mode of convergence between these genres — as well as indicate the shifting historical relations between science and myth.


  • 1 This article was finished during a stay at the Centre for Advanced Study in Oslo (CAS). Thanks are due to Kyrre Kverndokk, Marit Ruge Bjasrke and Anne Eriksen for comments and careful reading.
  • 2 Ideally, this should also be related to Chakrabarty’s work on postcolonial historiography. I hope to return to this in a later article.
  • 3 In the Latin Middle Ages and Early Modern thought, ‘fable’ (from the Latin fabula translating the Greek mythos) served most of the conceptual functions of‘myth’, not least, the capacity to simultaneously reference error and ancient wisdom, ‘old wives’ tales’, and the cherished knowledge of ancient Greeks and Egyptians (Von Hendy 2002, 2—3).
  • 4 Vico has been seen as ‘the forerunner, the sage who grasped and expressed many truths of the future’ (Mali 1992, 1). He has, for instance, been called ‘the true father of the concept of culture’ (Berlin 2002), the ‘rehabilitator’ and discoverer of myth (Mali 1992), as well as a producer of a philosophy of images and signs that escaped Western, logocentric semiotics (Verene 1976; Trabant 2004). On this basis, a range of invention and discoveries of themes, topics and perspectives in the history of the human sciences are attributed to Vico’s new science.
  • 5 The so-called first (1725) and second Scienza nuova (1730 and 1744). As I quote from both the English translation and an Italian version in cases involving key terminology, citations give the year of original publication (1725, 1744, etc). Moreover, citations of the Scienza nuova of 1725 and 1744 indicate paragraphs.
  • 6 De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia Ex Linguae Latinae Originibus Eruenda.
  • 1 Vita di Giambattista Vico scritta da se medesimo.
  • 8 It had been naturalised by the practice of publishing Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica in the same volume as the fables of Aesop (Boas in Horapollo 1950).
  • 9 The hieroglyphic tradition also had a profound impact upon natural history. Cf. ‘The effect of the hieroglyphic revival on natural history was immediate and profound. Weasels, cranes, and lions became part of a visual language; they were symbols, but even more, they were Platonic ideas, whose meaning the mind could immediately perceive. Animals were living characters in the language of the Creator, and the naturalist who did not appreciate or understand this had failed to comprehend the pattern of the natural world’ (Asworth 2003, 137).
  • 10 Cf. the full title of the Scienza nuova of 1725: Principi di una scienza nuova/ Intorno all natura delle nazioni/Per la quale si rituovano / I principi di altro Sistema/Del diritto naturale dellegenti (1725, n.p. my emphasis).
  • 11 To distinguish history from fables and forgeries, it was important to identify categories of evidence that could resist the attacks upon historical knowledge that had been made by ‘pyrrhonists’ such as Bayle, La Mothe, Le Vayer, and Huet. By denying history any ‘certainty’ whatsoever, their attacks actually threatened to define all history as fabulous (Mora 1998, 53). To clear a safe space from which to defend history, ‘[c]oins — and monuments of all kinds - [...] remained pre-eminently important for the reassurance they could offer that the past recorded in books really had existed and was not a mere series of fictions wrangled over by partisan historians’ (Haskell 1993, 23). Thus, a certain type of material and visual evidence served as relics and repositories regarded as more certain than text.


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