Poetic Truth according to Vico

Giambattista Vico’s rather eccentric theory of Graeco-Roman history helped me see that some truths simply can’t be expressed adequately in “plain words.” For this, we need poetry, which provides concrete analogies for ineffable realities

I MAY BE THE ONLY PERSON ever to have a car crash because of Giambattista Vico. This is largely because he has been dead since anno Domini 1744, but also because not too many people (I guess) meditate on his theory of poetic language while navigating rush-hour freeway traffic.

Vico’s Theory of Poetic Language

Perhaps not everyone would be carried away by the beauty of his theory as I was. And most (probably including you) have never heard of Vico or his theory, so let me explain: his ideas about the origin of poetic language make up a sizeable portion of his oddly wonderful work, La Scienza Nuova or The New Science (the term means “knowledge,” not “science” in the modern sense), which outlines his theory of how “gentile” (i.e., Graeco-Roman) history transpired. One caveat, however: it’s been quite a few years since I first read Vico, and almost that many since his poetic theory literally drove me to distraction, so it’s entirely possible that my recollection and application of Vico’s ideas is, ahem, idiosyncratic and my current memory of them imperfect. Nonetheless, here in a nutshell, wrenched from its proper context in Vico’s theory of Graeco-Roman history, is my take-away of his explanation of the origin of poetic language:

An imaginative, but inadequate, expression of God

Ancient poets were trying to express, in human language, truths for which ordinary language is utterly inadequate. Many of these truths could be called “theological”—i.e., truths about invisible realities, the supernatural, God (or gods). Now, in those primitive times when language itself was still new and unrefined, mankind did not yet possess words to express the ineffable, the supernatural, but human language did possess plenty of terms for indicating and describing natural, visible phenomena (rocks, birds, trees, bolts of lightning). Therefore, since human language was inadequate for the task of explaining divinity, the poet was forced to express himself by means of metaphor (or analogy), substituting something natural (which language could express) for the supernatural thing the poet desired to communicate. The power of Zeus/Jove, for instance, is not a lightning bolt, but a lightning bolt is a a familiar, natural phenomenon (for which human language has a word) which has important similarities to the power of a god (for which language has no adequate term). In this way, the sensations aroused by the experience of witnessing a lightning bolt strike became associated with the awesome power of immortal divinity and lightning bolts became associated with the chief of the Greek gods, Zeus: his power is like a lightning bolt.

When I first read Vico’s theory of poetic language, this is the one thing that struck me most deeply–the essential truth he hits upon: poetry is, of its nature, analogical or, if you prefer, metaphorical. “Poetic language” means, before anything else, figurative language; “poetic truth” is a truth which cannot be expressed in ordinary, expository language—the poet must cast about for a metaphor that seems to grasp the essence of the truth he wishes to express. Once you have grasped this essential truth, you will recognize that a lot of what calls itself “poetry” in our day is anything but. This pseudo-poetry may possess rhythm, rhyme, and other features or techniques that we associate with “poems,” but if it is not trying to express truth analogically through concrete verbal images, it is not “poetry,” strictly speaking.

I’m skipping over a lot here, but this will do for my purpose, which is to explain the value of “poetry”–and, as I’ve explained before, by “poetry” I mean what most people call “literature.” Poetry/literature’s purpose is to communicate truth, and its method is to do so metaphorically (by means of analogy), because that is the most adequate way to do it. I’ve had students (future engineers, accountants, and fry cooks) who complain that it is much easier just to say things in plain words, but the poet (or the lover of literature) knows that, while “plain words” are fine for expressing mere facts, they are often inadequate for expressing truth.

God the Poet

IT’S IMPORTANT TO POINT OUT that the theory of history and language that Vico elaborates in La Scienza Nuova refers specifically and exclusively to what he called the “Gentile” (pagan, Graeco-Roman) world, NOT to Judaeo-Christian history. The Christian should recognize that in Judaeo-Christian history, God did not need poets to describe or explain Him, because He did that Himself. In other words, Divine Revelation does adequately what the mytho-poetic tradition of the pagans did inadequately.

Jesus Christ, the Divine Word, is God’s perfect self-expression.

God’s perfect self-expression is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, true Man and true God. Christ is the Logos, the Divine Word that is God’s perfect self-expression. By uttering this perfect expression of Himself, God Himself to be a poet—the one and only perfect Poet who creates the perfect analogy between man and Himself. That is, unlike great Greek poets such as Hesiod and Homer, who created inadequate analogies that Plato later condemned as misleading and lying, God provides us adequate analogies to give us glimpses of His true nature. But as every Christian mystic who ever lived has known, although what God has revealed is true and sufficient, it is not the whole truth. That’s not because His language is inadequate (His “language,” after all, is the Divine Word Himself), but because our capacity for grasping the fullness of truth is limited. To do that, we must wait until “we shall see Him as He is, for we shall be like Him.”

I’ve got more to say on this subject, but for now I’ll just let you chew on that. You might want to think about this idea that poetry expresses truth that is greater than the apparent meaning of its words. Are there poems, or other works of fiction, that you have read which have given you new insight into some truth about the human condition—something which, upon reflection, you recognized to have “opened your eyes” in some respect? If so, please leave a comment and let us know what it was, and what it illuminated for you.

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