Proclus, Vico and the Myth of Self-Interest

| John William Waterhouse - Echo and Narcissus, 1903. |

It is a staple of liberal moral psychology, stemming from the ahistorical anthropological assumption of the individual preceding social formation, that man’s nature is an inherently self-interested one. Typically, the liberal arguments for the creation of social orders first presuppose some version of self-interest as an explanatory efficient cause. The various flavours of liberalism may qualify self-interest differently yet the core claim of the moral agent being principally motivated by that which is of most use to him holds true through most formulations.

Giambattista Vico’s argument against such a view of self-interested man begins from the quintessentially Aristotelian claim that the social order precedes man. Man, as seen from the liberal view, may ceaselessly act for what he takes to be personal particular ends, but said ends are ultimately are contingent upon the various institutional roles he occupies. When he is a father he identifies his interests with those of his kin; when he is a citizen he identifies them with those of his city; and when a national, with those of his nation.1 In each stage of social complexity, something new is disclosed about a given moral agent which makes what his interests are, intelligible. A man’s intentions fundamentally rest upon the social institutions which give his life meaning. Strip him of these and you lose the agent whose good you are inquiring into. So naturally, the verdict to be concluded upon regarding self-interest-itself is that it is a meaningless concept because there is no man, and has never been any man, that existed and developed outside of social orders or authorities of any kind.

If one is to identify pleasure with self-interest then, one must ask what kind of socialisation such a man has had to conclude that such a good is his primary good. Indeed if it is this masturbatory self-pleasure, this is the closest we get to pure self-interest, but such disposition in man can only come about after he is made to define himself against his social institutions, or is otherwise lead into such a life that deracinates him of his connection to the shared good of which his institutions allow him participation in. Historically, this process of individualisation is a product of political centralisation2, so we must also conclude that pleasure as self-interest is also artificial. One may indeed argue that in all such circumstances man desires principally his own welfare, but what it is that constitutes his own welfare is disciplined by his social order.

The fundamental question self-interest seeks to answer after all is, “why this good and not another?” Even if we were to posit man as this inherently hedonistic, desiring machine, he must still make that evaluative judgement between the various goods he may choose to enjoy. If he is intimately connected to his social institutions, he will use the role he plays in them as a chief factor in making such an evaluation. If he is disconnected, atomised, he will look elsewhere to other authorities, often nowadays without even identifying such agents as authorities, that will discipline him into desiring other goods. Such is the fate of the wage-slave who finds no fulfilment because he exhausts himself in a role that hardly serves as a true vocation. Naturally, he turns into a hollowed consumer. Yet even his existence as a consumer, as we see with consumers generally, ends up constructing new identities and loyalties which unifies him, and others like him, to corporate authorities. 

Let us now consider the nature of the Good from Proclus. He argues that it belongs as a primary quality of God, the primal Good, to conserve all that exists. Likewise, if that which conserves – holds together the being of a multiplicity of things – is unity, then goodness, wherever present, makes the participant one, and holds its being together in virtue of this unification. Every good tends to unify what participates in it, and all unification is good in some manner.3

This gives us a very interesting manner in which to continue talking of social institutions and the human identification of goods. As we see from Vico above, it is this unification of the moral agent with the institution he is defined by that inebriates him with identification of goods which he sees as in his interest, but this can go much further than the individual. This ontological subordination of agent-to-institution is inherently good, as abused as it might otherwise be under advanced capitalist modernity and democracy, because it subsumes the individual good within the shared good. 

Yet the logic of political and economic liberalism is always to lead away from unity and appeal to this mythic individualised self-interest, even if its success is predicated upon a more fundamental unity of which it exists in spite of. After all, it is the competitive logic of the market and of the electoral struggle – the institutional conflict between entities – not the cooperative logic of the unified social order that seeks internal goods which underlies both capitalism and democracy. 

Unity allows for the development of grand projects; whether they be intellectual, artistic or political, they all depend on this homonoia to function. Insofar as it is unified, it is thus good, because it allows for such projects to flourish in an unfrustrated manner towards the interior goods of their respective practices. 

Thus we can conclude in a Proclean fashion, as Vico himself does, that there is an inherently divine quality to the unity that allows for the flourishing of such shared projects. Vico identifies this divine quality with Providence itself. Unable to attain all the goods he wishes, man is constrained to pursue that which he is due, which is just. Any new set of institutional arrangements must always involve some manner of underlying agreement about the practices they make possible and the determinate content of this depends upon the inherited institutions of the historic social order. This regulating force of human justice, as Vico magnanimously declares; is divine justice which is administered by Providence to preserve social orders.4 That is how intrinsic authority is to human nature, which is to say, it is more fundamental than human nature itself. It is not for no reason that authors of the Gospels write that everyone is to be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established (Rom. 13) and that the faithful are implored to give all men their due, to; 

1 Peter 2:17 | Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.4


[1] Pompa, Leon., Vico – A Study of the ‘New Science’. Syndics of Cambridge University Press, London. 1975, 21-27.

[2] For a detailed exploration of the relationship between political centralisation and individualism, see C.A. Bond – Nemesis and Larry Siedentop – Inventing the Individual.

[3] Proclus and Dodds, E., The Elements Of Theology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004, Prop. 13, 15.

[4] Vico, G. and Bergin, The New Science Of Giambattista Vico. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1948, 341, 90.

[5] I always either quote from the Knox Translation Bible or Douay-Rheims. Sometimes a mix but the above is purely Douay-Rheims.

Nomosthetes and Ordinary Language

| Cesare Maccari - Cicero Denounces Catiline, 1889. |

Language’s core function is to represent. A representation requires both a referent and an agent presented with the referent to produce the representation. The first linguistic sign, the ostensive, was performed in presence of its referent.1 Linguistic acts generally are assemblages of sorts, that if we continue following through, lead us to something of an infinite regress which ends up being circular on the macro level. i.e This word’s meaning can only be explained with reference to these words, whose meaning can only be explained with reference to these words, whose meaning can only be explained with reference to these words… ad infinitum. So what breaks through language, being constituted by this regress, is to consider the given agent which constructs and/or presents the linguistic construct.

The Medievals also knew this – Meister Eckhart wrote that no communicative construct or apprehension of an external referent represents or signifies itself. It always points to something else, of which it is a symbol. And since man has no ideas, except those abstracted from external things, he cannot “be blessed by mere idea”.2

A given communicative act is only intelligible with regard to the intention of the agent who makes said act. If you were alone in a forest and the sound of the rustling leaves started sounding like English words, perhaps even an intelligible phrase, say, “When the ruler’s seat is insecure, the great ministers revolt and the smaller ones pilfer.”3 Unless we were to associate agency to the leaves and the breeze which would posit that they have intellectual capacities, regardless of this audible construct corresponding to being a fragment of ancient Chinese wisdom from the Lî Yun, it would be meaningless. 

It would just so happen coincidentally to sound like the Lî Yun, unless the leaves and breeze were somehow not just alive but intelligent. Language, communicative acts, words themselves, are only intelligible with reference to the intentional agent who presents them to us, otherwise, we must construct our own meaning through interpretation, from words/phrases/ideas, of which we have inherited from other intentional agents. To consider this more socially speaking, in any scene of intentional agents, there will always be one who is the most “influential” at any given point in time – influence being constituted by having dominant representations over other rival representation presented by other intentional agents.

Because, out of all groups, there will be one whose representations are the most dominant. And within that group there will be an agent who is the most “influential” – the de facto Sovereign; herein lies the essential stupidity of libertarianism and its understanding of politics which fails to see authority as anything beyond mere coercive power. Power, at least as it is politically constituted, is rather the ability to direct attention to a given object – linguistic acts are its techne (tactics/tools/craft) through which it does this.

To illustrate; obviously, it is not the king’s coercive power over his military that keeps them inline but that loyalty is conferred, maintained and communicated through some set of representations. Whether this be payment for their services, mythology that holds them in awe or a complex ideological superstructure, all of this must be mediated through linguistic representation from King to military in some fashion. As a good friend of mine Alexander Iulianus remarked the other day, if you stick to your own definitions of language and simply assume that everyone else will operate on the same definitions, you will never know what they are truly saying. I think he hits the nail on the head. God, afterall, only becomes God when creation says “God”, or otherwise ho Theos, Deus, The Good, YHWH, Guđán, 천주, 上帝, He Who Is, and so on and so forth.

Take this in tandem with say Derrida’s understanding of language, specifically writing, that a signifier that can be made radically detached from what it signifies, moulded and “played with” – misconstrued even purposely so to rupture some totality4 – unlike speech which becomes unintelligible without its agent, writing can be retroactively reinterpreted by whatever dominant agent exists to do so, whether or not they be the original speaker. You can reinterpret a written signifier but reinterpreting a spoken signifier always traces back to a present intentionality. With writing, the agent that anchors meaning through intention is absent. 

By enregistering speech, inscription has as its essential objective, and indeed takes this fatal risk, the emancipation of meaning – as concerns any actual field of perception – from the natural predicament in which everything refers to the disposition of a contingent situation. This is why writing will never be simple “voice-painting*.5

*“Voice painting” is a reference to Voltaire’s rather naive understanding of writing.

Subsequently, we do have to conclude upon a fundamental fluidity to human language but also that it is only fluid insofar as it is not anchored by human agents. Its anchorage to intentional agents also follows in an implicitly hierarchical fashion, to Derrida’s horror – hence why he considers writing less “totalitarian” than speech, given writing’s ability to be played with. Surely to Derrida, Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics was nothing short of Fascism. There’s no real way for an audience to “play” with the speech of a speaker. There is no possibility for forcing absence through rupturing structure because unlike speech, writing can persist without the continuous effort of its writer. It can be written on the page, passed around in different contexts, reinterpreted regardless of accuracy or what have you.

This is not to say that choices about the use of words are themselves entirely fluid and arbitrary; humans always deliberate towards some end, and in light of that agent-cause, the scope of uses and also interpretations of a given word naturally narrows.

So, a given word is really made fundamentally intelligible by virtue of the principal-agent who leads “linguistic frame”, that is to say, has the most influence over the word’s use and application and disciplines the social scene to use it as such, towards his chosen end/deliberated purpose. With writing, this applies to whoever deliberates the dominant interpretation, and so it seems as though that Derrida’s attempt to play and fondle with writing to escape Caesar, to suspend and exit structure, utterly fails.

In this sense, you cannot actually appeal to “ordinary uses of language” for the basis of meaning. Human language is a structure meant to represent something, it is not the referent it represents. To treat language as such is quite a gross absolutisation of it. Hence why something like biblical/scriptural literalism is contrary to the religion itself – you end up deracinating the meaning of the text in thinking that its representation can be the same as its referent. E.g. Christ speaking the actual words of the Sermon on the Mount is not the same as the written Sermon on the Mount in either the Greek Septuagint, or in whatever version one might read — writing loses the illocutionary force that speech has, hence “deracination”.

Marcus Cunningham has a fantastic article on illocution and scriptural interpretation here.

Consider again what I paraphrased Eckhart saying above. Analogously to that argument, this means that no interpretation interprets itself – hence the absurdity of sola scriptura. All signs and interpretations point to something else, and so the only way to fix them to the spot is through power itself. Hence the practical necessity of a centralised authority like the Church and its Priesthood. Do people reappropriate words/ideas/phrases for new purposes, sometimes malicious purposes? 100% they do. What is the appropriate countermeasure to this? Well, it sure isn’t appealing to a supposed normality of language which does not really exist as most people tend to do, especially the no-frills brand of western conservatism does.

To conclude, let us consider Plato’s argument from Cratylus on the nature of names, the unification of form and meaning, precisely what Derrida designates as structure6, which runs almost entirely parallel to what I have just said now;

Socrates: Don’t we instruct each other, that is to say, divide things according to their natures?

Hermogenes: Certainly

Socrates: So just as a shuttle is a tool for dividing warp and wood, a name is a tool for giving instruction, that is to say, for diving being.

Hermogenes: Yes.

Socrates: Is not a shuttle a weaver’s tool?

Hermogenes: Of course.

Socrates: So a weaver will use shuttles well; and to use a shuttle well is to use it as a weaver does. By the same token, an instructor will use names well; and to use a name well is to use it as an instructor does.

Hermogenes: Yes.

Socrates: Is everyone a carpenter or only those who possess the craft of carpentry?

Hermogenes: Only those who possess the craft.

Socrates: Good. So whose product does an instructor use when he uses a name?

Hermogenes: I do not know.

Socrates: Can you at least tell me this? Who or what provides us with the names we use?

Hermogenes: I don’t know that either.

Socrates: Don’t you think that rules* provide us with them?

Hermogenes: I suppose they do.

Socrates: So, when an instructor uses a name, he’s using the product of a rule setter.

Hermogenes: I believe he is.

Socrates: Do you think that every man is a rule-setter or only the one who possesses the craft?

Hermogenes: Only the one who possesses the craft.

Socrates: It follows that it isn’t every man who can give names, Hermogenes, but only a name-maker, and he, it seems is a rule-setter – the king of craftsman most rarely found among human beings.

Hermogenes: I suppose so.7

*The greek here is ‘ho nomos’. 

Names are a function of the law-giver in relation to real natures/referents which are fixed by form. Form has normality as Plato would argue, sure, but its signifiers don’t have normality by any necessity – the name is not itself identical to the form, and hence why Plato considers names to be more immediately a function of the “nomothetes” – the lawgiver, i.e. authority. 


[1] Gans, Eric. The Origin of Language. Spuyten Duyvil, New York City, 2019, 38.

[2] Kurak, M. The Epistemology of Illumination in Meister Eckhart. Philosophy and Theology, 13(2), 2001, pp.275-286.

[3]  Max F. Muller. Sacred Books of the East. London: Routledge, 2004, Li Ki, Lî Yun, 2.11.

[4] Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. London and New York: Routledge, 2001, Force and Signification. 86-87.

[5] ibid., 13.

[6] ibid., 4.

[7] Plato and Cooper, J. Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009, Cratylus 388b – 389a.