Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Vico and the Descending Age of Heroes

I was reading about the political philosopher Vico earlier tonight. He had a fascinating theory about the ages of civilization; namely that we have three ages: The Divine (in which authority is derived from God), the Age of Heroes (in which the living embodiment of idealized figures have the authority), and the Age of Man (in which the citizens as a whole possess authority). You don't cycle through these stages, but instead societies rise and fall. Really, instead of the three stages that are commonly referred to, there are six: The Divine Age*, Divine Ascending, Heroes** Ascending, The Age of Man Ascending, The Age of Man Descending, and Heroes Descending.

I'm reasonably sure we're in the Age of Heroes (and obviously there are cultural remnants left from previous cycles, so you'll find evidence of the Ages of Man and the Age of Divine throughout our culture). Moreover, I'm fairly sure we're descending into the Age of Heroes, if we're not already there.

Anyway, if you want to read the passage I'm talking about, here it is.

This New Science or metaphysic, studying the common nature of nations in the light of divine providence, discovers the origins of divine and human institutions among the gentile nations, and thereby establishes a system of he natural law of the gentes, which proceeds with the greatest equality and constancy through the three ages which the Egyptians handed down to us as the three periods through which the world has passed up to their time. These are (1) The age of the gods, in which the gentiles believed they lived under divine governments, and everything was commanded them by auspices and oracles, which are the oldest institutions in profane history. (2) The age of the heroes, in which they reigned everywhere in aristocratic commonwealths, on account of a certain superiority of nature which they held themselves to have over the plebs. (3) The age of men, in which all men recognized themselves as equal in human nature, and therefore there were established first the popular commonwealths and then the monarchies, both of which are forms of human government.

Here are some of my questions, and I'd love to read your theories, because I have no idea what the answers are: how long do these ages last? Can technology shorten the lifespan of an age? Can technology prolongue it? What happens when competing cultures operating at different points on the wave collide? Our enemies, the Islamofascists, are clearly living in the Divine Age, doing what God (in the form of their mullahs and clerics) tells them to do. Are we in the Age of Heroes, or are we in the Age of Man?

I think the rise of democratic societies really started about 233 years ago (okay, to be honest, you could go back to the late 1600's in Europe), and was clearly ascending up until radio, television, and movies came along. Politicians are not "of the people" anymore. They are meant to be (though they generally fail to be)idealized representatives of the people. Look at the cult of the celebrity that has grown (and exploded with the growth of television channels and, more recently, websites) in our society. My vote, no matter how depressing it may be, is that we're in an Age of Descending Heroes. I know that we still exist in the framework of the Age of Man, but I'm not so sure that Authority lies there anymore.
Where do you think we are?

*Divine doesn't necessarily mean that the society is more pious or "good". It merely means that the authority in society is either held in god-like status or gets its authority through Divine dispensation.

**Heroes doesn't necessarily mean that society is full of doers of good deeds. Instead, it means that the larger than life characters who become known throughout society are granted authority, explicit or implicit, in crafting laws or shaping social mores.

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