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.

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

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

8 thoughts on “Proclus, Vico and the Myth of Self-Interest

  1. I think it is fair to point out that human interests are neither self centric nor group centric, rather intertwined.

    Also having philosophically minded theologists is a must, especially to respond to atheist philosophers who mainly dominate discussion. Take CosmicSkeptic’s take on Kalam for example as being circular. Maybe that can be future material?

    Im more sociological/economics minded, you might realize that from the post I talked to you about?

    1. Consider that unity has to be considered prior to the multiplicity because it metaphysically precedes it in matters of necessity [Proclus Elements of Theology Prop 1-6, specifically Prop 1:

      “For suppose a manifold in no way participating unity. Neither this manifold as a whole nor any of its several parts will be one; each part will itself be a manifold of parts, and so to infinity; and of this infinity of parts each, once more, will be infinitely manifold;
      for a manifold which in no way participates any unity, neither as a whole nor in respect of its parts severally, wili be infinite in every way and in respect of every part. For each part of the manifold take which you will-must be either one or not-one; and if not-one,
      then either many or nothing. But if each part be nothing, the whole is nothing; if many, it is made up of an infinity of infinites.

      This is impossible: for, on the one hand, nothing which is is made up of an infinity of infinites (since the infinite cannot be exceeded, yet the single part is exceeded by the sum); on the other hand, nothing can be made up of parts which are nothing. Every manifold, therefore, in some way participates unity.”]

      Group centric and individual centric considerations might be intertwined but because the interests of the self lose all meaning considered apart from all groups and classifications, group centric considerations are always more fundamental, even if they are, in their manifestations, interwined to a degree.

      I am not a fan of the Kalam cosmological argument either – Aquinas (pbuh) was right to treat arguments of God even in the case of the universe not having a cause in time and being eternal as the Greeks thought it was.

      W*ll**m L*n* Cr**g is a stinky modernist and Theistic Personalist, but yet perhaps that would make for good material for a future article.

      I’ll be sure to give you a comprehensive response when I finish reading Anthropomorphics, Vico (pbuh) and Proclus (pbuh) in my follow up post to the Contra-Libertarians series where you commented.

      Thanks again!

    1. Not worth bothering with in an extended format really – LARPagans have no intellectual substance, they construct their identity out of a hallucinatory performance. Contra Nietzsche, I would recommend Alasdair MacIntyre. Nietzsche didn’t understand the Greeks he so loved, he anachronistically projected his own 19th Century individualism upon them, yet the social orders of the sagas and homeric epics were hardly social orders of ‘self-assertion’. They were social orders of tightly woven social roles and ritual traditions. I’ll just quote MacIntyre for you;

      “Thus this type of heroic poetry [Homer, Icelandic Sagas, etc.,] represents a form of society about whose moral structure two central claims are made. The first is that structure embodies a conceptual scheme which has three central interrelated elements: a conception of what is required by the social role which each individual inhabits; a conception of excellence or virtues as those qualities which enable an individual to do what his or her role, requires; and a conception of the human condition as fragile and vulnerable to destiny and to death, such that to be virtuous is not to avoid vulnerability and death, but rather to accord them their due. None of these three elements are can be made intelligible without reference to the other two… heroic social structure is enacted epic narrative.”

      “The characters in the epics have…, no means of viewing the human and natural world except that provided by the conceptions which inform their world-view. But just for that reason, they have no doubt that reality is as they represent it to themselves. They present us with a view of the world for which they claim truth. The implicit epistemology of the heroic world is a thoroughgoing realism.”

      “It is indeed partially because the literature of heroic societies makes this claim that it so difficult to recognize Nietzsche’s later self-serving portrait of their aristocratic inhabitants. The poets of the Iliad and the saga writers were implicity claiming an objectivity for their own standpoint of a kind quite incompatible with a Nietzchean perspectivism. But if the poets and the saga writers fail to be proto-Nietzscheans, what about the characters whom they portray? Here again, it is clear that Nietzsche had to mythologize the distant part in order to sustain his vision.”

      ”What Nietzsche portrays is aristocratic self-assertion [emphasis of *self*]; what Homer and the sagas show are forms of assertion proper to and required by a certain role. The self becomes what it is in heroic societies only through its role; it is a social creation, not an individual one. Hence, when Nietzsche projects on to the archaic past his own nineteenth-century individualism, he reveals that what looked like an historical enquiry was actually an inventive literary construction. Nietzsche replaces the fictions of the Enlightenment individualism, of which he is so [rightly] contemptuous, which a set of individualist fictions of his own.”

      After Virtue, pp.149-150 *[my added comments]*

  2. You might wanna do a good take on atheists some time soon. Would you consider atheism to be another flavor of radical skepticism, mainly of the supernatural, and as such dealable in a similar way? Only objection I have with it is that form of theology practiced by Ghazali and Taymiyyah in favor of “cognitive theory” seems to undermine all of transcendental theology and maybe natural theology. A quasi fideism so to speak

    1. I have an article in the works right now of a very specific but prevalent flavour, or rather attitude, of atheism – that of the Euthyphro dilemna which I see as just a kind of Gnosticism without the self-awareness. I’m definitely 100% allergic to all forms of fideism, which themselves seem to collapse into atheism. I guess from a platonic perspective you could say that atheism is boneless fideism because there is still faith/pistis of sorts being employed necessarily for shared projects/trust and abstractions beyond the individual such “human rights”, “democracy”, “will of the people” given any kind of popular form of political consciousness. Unless the given atheist is a solipsist and/or a radical nihilist and/or an egoist in which case I would be less hesitant to say that they have moved beyond faith – but quick to follow up pointing out that they are probably antisocial.

      There is really no sociality without faith. Ok this was quite the tangent. Fideism bad, atheists boring to deal with but I will in time but probably not entirely directly as of yet.

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