MAIMONIDES AND VICO, OH YEA!

Giambattista Vico (b. 1668) seeks to advance against Maimonides (b. 1138)

MAIMONIDES:

You should not think that these great secrets are fully and completely known to anyone among us. They are not. But sometimes truth flashes out to us so that we think that it is day, and then matter and habit in their various forms conceal it so that we find ourselves again in an obscure night, almost as we were at first. We are like someone in a very dark night over whom lightning flashes time and time again. Among us there is one for whom the lightning flashes time and time again, so that he is always, as it were, in unceasing light. Thus night appears to him as day. That is the degree of the great one among the prophets, to whom it was said: But as for thee, stand thou here by Me, and of whom it was said: that the skin of his face sent forth beams, and so on. Among them there is one to whom the lightning flashes only once in the whole of his night; that is the rank of those of whom it is said: they prophesied, but they did so no more. There are others between whose lightning flashes there are greater or shorter intervals. Thereafter comes he who does not attain a degree in which his darkness is illumined by any lightning flash. It is illumined, however, by a polished body or something of that kind, stones or something else that give light in the darkness of the night. And even this small light that shines over us is not always there, but flashes and is hidden again, as if it were the flaming sword which turned every way. It is in accord with these states that the degrees of the perfect vary. As for those who never even once see a light, but grope about in their night, of them it is said: They know not, neither do they understand; They go about in darkness. The truth, in spite of the strength of its manifestation, is entirely hidden from them, as is said of them: And now men see not the light which is bright in the skies. They are the vulgar among people. There is then no occasion to mention them.

Know that whenever one of the perfect wishes to mention, either orally or in writing, something that he understands of these secrets, according to the degree of his perfection, he is unable to explain with complete clarity and coherence even the portion that he has apprehended, as he could do with the other sciences whose teaching is generally recognized. Rather there will befall him when teaching another that which he had undergone when learning himself. I mean to say that the subject matter will appear, flash, and then be hidden again, as though this were the nature of this subject matter, be there much or little of it. For this reason, all the Sages possessing knowledge of God the Lord, knowers of the truth, when they aimed at teaching something of this subject matter, spoke of it only in parables and riddles.

Do you not see the following fact? God, may His mention be exalted, wished us to be perfected and the state of our societies to be improved by His laws regarding actions. Now this can come about only after the adoption of intellectual beliefs, the first of which being His apprehension, may He be exalted, according to our capacity. This, in its turn, cannot come about except through divine science, and this divine science cannot become actual except after a study of natural science. This is so since natural science borders on divine science, and its study precedes that of divine science in time as has been made clear to whoever has engaged in speculation on these matters. Hence God, may He be exalted, caused his book to open with the Account of the Beginning, which, as we have made clear, is natural science. And because of the greatness and importance of the subject and because our capacity falls short of apprehending the greatest of subjects as it really is, we are told about those profound matters—which divine wisdom has deemed necessary to convey to us—in parables and riddles and in very obscure words.

 

VICO:

 

Now, before discussing poetic wisdom, it is necessary for us to see what wisdom in general is. Wisdom is the faculty which commands all the disciplines by which we acquire all the sciences and arts that make up humanity. Plato defines wisdom as “the perfecter of man.” Man, in his proper being as man, consists of mind and spirit, or, if we prefer, of intellect and will. It is the function of wisdom to fulfill both these parts in man, the second by way of the first, to the end that by a mind illuminated by knowledge of the highest institutions, the spirit may be led to choose the best. The highest institutions in this universe are those turned toward and conversant with God; the best are those which look to the good of all mankind. The former are called divine institutions, the latter human. True wisdom, then, should teach the knowledge of divine institutions in order to conduct human institutions to the highest good. We believe this was the plan upon which Marcus Terentius Varro, who earned the title “most learned of the Romans,” erected his great work, Divine and Human Institutions, of which the injustice of time has unhappily bereft us.

Wisdom among the gentiles began with the Muse, defined by Homer in a golden passage of the Odyssey as “knowledge of good and evil,” and later called divination. It was on the natural prohibition of this practice, as something naturally denied to man, that God founded the true religion of the Hebrews, from which our Christian religion arose.  The Muse must thus have been properly at first the science of divining by auspices, and this was the vulgar wisdom of all nations. It consisted in contemplating God under the attribute of his providence, so that from divinari his essence came to be called divinity. The theological poets, who certainly founded the humanity of Greece, were versed in this wisdom, and this explains why the Latins called the judicial astrologers “professors of wisdom.” Wisdom was later attributed to men renowned for useful counsels given to mankind, as in the case of the Seven Sages of Greece. The attribution was then extended to men who for the good of peoples and nations wisely ordered and governed commonwealths. Still later the word “wisdom” came to mean knowledge of natural divine things; that is, metaphysics, called for that reason divine science, which, seeking knowledge of man’s mind in God, and recognizing God as the source of truth, must recognize him as the regulator of all good. So that metaphysics must essentially work for the good of the human race, whose preservation depends on the universal belief in a provident divinity. It is perhaps for having demonstrated this providence that Plato deserved to be called divine.

Maimonides occupies a key place among the world’s thinkers; he takes for granted his sublime mission without forgetting that the reader’s ability to find access to what he calls the “secrets” is as important as the “secrets” themselves.  Maimonides transcends the secular v. religious debate; such is the delightful nature of his rhetoric, which often borders on poetry: “even this small light that shines over us is not always there, but flashes and is hidden again, as if it were the flaming sword which turned every way.” Vico here is more historical than poetic.

 

WINNER: MAIMONIDES

 

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