Overweening Generalist

Monday, September 10, 2012

OG as Promiscuous Neurotheologist Part One: Vico

O! Sing to me, Gods and Goddesses of sex, ecstasy, enlightened hedonism and equanimity! Breathe into me some...god-stuff! Only via the auspices of the Goddess of Cosmic Laughter can I see these Things through, which, aye, like all things and kidney stones, shall pass in the fullness of Space/Time. And if you're gonna go on being a bitch, I guess I'll just have to wait. Sheesh! Goddesses can be so temperamental!

Aye, but still: Sing to me?

                                     Erin C. Perry's image of Aphrodite. I think I saw that 
                                        outfit when I browsed Naughty Lingerie one day. 
                                     What does it say about our paideuma that we in
                                     the West have no female love goddess that competes for 
                                     the attentions of Yahweh? (Or do we?)

Origins of Religion: Giambattista Vico (1668-1744)
In his Autobiography (one of the first true modern ones), Vico writes of his Newtonian breakthroughs in what today we'd call the "social sciences":

"He discovers new historical principles of philosophy, and first of all a metaphysics of the human race. That is to say, a natural theology of all nations by which each people naturally created by itself its own gods through a certain natural instinct that man has for divinity. Fear of these gods led the first founders of nations to unite themselves with certain women in a lifelong companionship. This was the first human form of marriage. Thus he discovers the identity of the grand principle of gentile theology with that of the poetry of the theological poets, who were the world's first poets of all gentile humanity." (167-168)

A "natural instinct that man has for divinity." We will soon see that this is still a hotly contested topic in evolutionary psychology and cognitive science.

Okay, also note that Vico brackets off the Jews, who he considered to be the one tribe truly under a special dispensation from Gee Oh Dee. Over the years, in my reading of Vico, I think this is just a convenient way to seem like a Bible believer: he thought he'd perhaps score points with the Inquisition everywhere. But if you read Vico - just check out the Autobiography - you see he was influenced by Lucretius, whose hero was Epicurus. This is a stark fact that I find hard to square with most scholars' reading of Vico, and certainly a NeoCon like Mark Lilla doesn't see it this way. (But of course!) Vico knew of the persecution of heretics. Some of them had been his friends. Bracketing off the Jews made his sly act of writing as if he was a devout Roman Catholic, while a deeper and more nuanced reading shows him to be the first modern Anthropologist, and perhaps the inventor of the sociology of knowledge, which shows that people will tend to have certain political and other ideas based on the time, place, and social stratus in which they were born and raised and educated, and that what people believe is knowledge anywhere and anytime should be taken seriously, however much most other scholars would scoff. That which we do not consider "rational" can, when studied closely, reveal much about humankind. (And possibly suggest ways to avert socio-political dead ends?)

At present, I surmise that Vico's bracketing of the Jews was a move that made his work simpler: he had even bigger fish to fry; accounting for the Jews in his grand schema would only create more work for him. Hence: why not grant them their special one-to-one relationship with the Big Guy, and concentrate  on more interesting things? Like how class warfare is always being fought by the Owners against the Workers?

                                    Here's a vision of Zeus, a thunder-sky-father god. Note 
                                    how important it usually is for Angry Daddy to be ripped.
                                   Zeus here is so godly he seems to have an 8-pack, and he's 
                                   ready to run for Mr. Olympia yet again. And who would DARE
                                   vote against him? (Pssst: word on the street is this dude was
                                   into bestiality, which I can neither confirm, nor is it up to
                                   mortal me to deny.)

For Vico, "gods" first spoke through us as we began to try to interpret the entrails of animals and other acts of "divination;" very slowly we began to think in metaphors. Then most of language was based in metaphors, and we had learned to mostly think in language-constructs, or metaphors. The metaphor, in some sense, was a hypnotizing symbol for Objective Reality, but words can only be signs at the most...And language has always been used as Class Warfare by the landowners and the rich and the aristocratic, against everyone else. Vico argues that there's always been a dialectic: the intermarried Owners versus Everyone Else. The proles eventually gain more and more rights, things become more and more secular...then the local civilization, anywhere in History, falls apart, and then the Whole Thing starts up again. It's an idea - the cyclical model of history - that had been used before (Vico was influenced by people like Varro here), and it's been used again, most notoriously by James Joyce. It seems a poetic conception foremost to me, and in the case of Vico, it also provided a bulwark against persecution: he's really some stupendously weirdo thinker who's still totally brilliant. The Authorities probably didn't know what to make of him. He got away with it. (But he paid for it too: his grand masterwerk was neglected while he lived - though he worked the "social media" of 1725-1740 Naples/Europe as best he could - and it drove him over the edge, and he died soon after.)

Gods and goddesses in every country, every religion, came out of the sky and ground (metaphorically) and spoke to humans in poetic ways, via the first poets, who, funny enough, spoke in terms of Laws in such a way that seemed to favor the Landlords overwhelmingly. At one point in his magnum opus The New Science, he says that, initially, the Law was a "severe form of poetry."

Those who follow the latest neurobiological ideas about how language is instantiated in neural clusters in our brains, which we picked up via experience and repeated hearings, will find in Vico an 18th century Neapolitan weirdo-genius (my favorite types!) who prefigured it all. George Lakoff acknowledges as much in his The Political Mind when he writes, "A few philosophers (such as Vico, Nietzsche, and Cassirer) and literary critics (such as I.A. Richards) had noticed the existence of metaphorical thought, but none had figured out the scientific details of how it works." (252) Nietzsche was born in 1844, Cassirer in 1874, and Richards in 1893. Vico, again, was born in 1668.

So: the origin of gods and goddesses come from, first: the Ruling Classes, then the Workers have divinities speak through them. The local gods - especially the thunder/bird of prey/vengeful/Father God - will sometimes be used by the Ruling Classes as a political form of crowd control, but the Workers will come back with their own gods. (There's really an hellaciously lot of more from Vico, but no one likes it when I go on too long...)

Let us consider this a First Model for thinking about Neurotheology, based upon one Overweening Generalist's readings of the staggeringly brilliant and at times maddeningly opaque Vico.

If The Reader has a favorite origin model for religion, I wouldn't mind hearin' it.


Bobby Campbell said...

Great stuff! I <3 Vico.

I remember RAW interpreting Vico as suggesting fear of thunder & lightning as the secret origin of divinity.

Similarly, in one of his cantos commentaries, RAW recalls "from an early LSD trip: 'The ancients
didn't 'think' of the sea as a god --
they SAW it as a god!'"


That simple and kind of obvious insight still staggers me a bit when extrapolated.

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific post. Yesterday I read that great interview with Bob Wilson over at the Only Maybe blog about Joyce, etc. It made me feel very ignorant, but it got me thinking about Vico again. I have wave upon wave of books I feel I should read, but I found myself thinking I should ask you how to delve deeper into Vico. Perhaps I will check out the Autobiography. Do you have a translation you prefer?

When I think about origin of religion, I, like Bobby, think of Bob's interpretation of Vico: fear of thunder, etc.

michael said...

@Bobby Campbell: I love LOVE the idea of the sea as a god. Neptune as a neurogenetic program, a metaphor which is so vivid for some of us it's like the True Believer's vision of Jesus or Mary, or even Papa Tetragrammaton.

Those who are born in the dense jungle, and live their entire lives there, seem to see It as meta-Living Entity, too. Sombunall, acc. to the anthropologists I've read.

Indeed: via Joyce, RAW's reading of Vico and thunder: the initial fear of an ill-tempered Sky God Daddy.

The notion that a need for a - unspoken because unconscious - loving, nurturing, all-forgiving, anti-poverty and anti-war, sublimely empathic Goddess is an interesting idea to me. The pagans, ceremonial magickians, tantrics, and others can conjure Her, and do. It seems too many others are missing out, eh?

michael said...

@Eric: Sorry to have taken days to get back to you and Bobby...

The only version of Vico's Autobio that I've read is the Bergin and Fisch. I think it would most definitely help as prolegomena to New Science.

New Science - which I will always be reading - seems increasingly profound, crazy, and cosmically hilarious to me. Dig the baroque chaos of structure! With his axioms, he's in a long line of Great Books, starting around Euclid...but he makes a complete muddle of it, and lately I think of it as a covert critique of those rationalistic assumptions about what we can say about knowledge, but maybe Vico was trying his best and just got sidetracked A LOT?

One paragraph he's telling us about the latest from the New World and Bigfoot, then suddenly he's on and on about the evolution of symbolic systems and metaphorical thought. Then he's making mincemeat of now-forgotten competing intellectuals (which reminds me a little of Pound, RAW, even Chomsky).

I understand de Selby a bit better by reading Vico.

Another Guide to Vico that impressed me: a very slim volume by Peter Burke titled Vico.