Like many an eighteenth century scholar, Giambattista Vico was in agreement with literary figure Alexander Pope’s slogan, “The proper study of mankind is man.” However, whereas the typical representative of the Enlightenment thought that the way to study humanity was to apply the principles of Newtonian mechanics—for example, David Hartley’s Observations on Man (1749); Julien Offroy de La Mettrie’s L’Homme-machine (1747; Man a Machine, 1750; also known as L’Homme Machine: A Study in the Origins of an Idea, 1960)—Vico maintained that the only way to know humanity is in terms of humanity’s creations—language, history, law, religion—in short, through the study of civilization.

Vico professed to be carrying on the work of the French philosopher René Descartes, and he took sharp issue with both the Cartesians and the Newtonians for supposing that nature is properly understandable by humans. Is it not true, he asked, that we can know only what we make? Then only God can understand nature, because it is his creation. Humans, on the other hand, can understand civilization because they have made it. This was Vico’s Archimedean point, a truth beyond all question: “that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modification of our own human mind.”

Vico professed, at the same time, to be an adherent of the method of Sir Francis Bacon; he claimed that he was merely carrying over into the study of civil affairs the method Bacon had applied to the study of nature. What he seems to have borrowed from Bacon, however, is not the inductive principle that most people associate with the English thinker, but the practice of turning to sensible evidence to verify one’s theories. Vico explained that his science consisted of two parts, reasoning and investigation. The former, which he called “philosophy,” had to do with the development of theories on the basis of axioms, definitions, and postulates. The latter, which he called “philology,” was the empirical study of language, history, and literature. He maintained that because these latter studies are founded on memory and imagination and are mixed with emotion, they do not give us the truth; but when they are consulted by an intelligent investigator, who has a theory to test, they are of paramount importance and make possible a science of humanity.

The Role of the New Science

Vico’s central thesis was that modern civilized humanity came into existence through a process that is intelligible in terms of certain tendencies inherent in the human constitution. He conceived that initially people roamed the forest like wild beasts, giving no evidence of reason or compassion or any of the traits that have come to distinguish them. Only gradually did people modify their passions and discipline their powers, learning reverence and devising the institutions and inventions with which they have subjugated the earth. Vico did not regard the process as accidental in any sense: It was all part of God’s design. However, the elements that divine providence made use of were, in his opinion, simple and understandable, and finding them was the aim of the “new science.” He emphasized the role of providence in history, in order to guard against the belief in fate and chance of the Stoics and Epicureans. In his view, however, providence was a rational principle immanent in the world, rather than a mysterious will transcendent over it.

The New Science opens with a long list of axioms and corollaries, which should be studied carefully before one reads the rest of the book. They purport to give the fundamental traits of human nature that provide the dynamism for cultural evolution, together with the traits that determine the habits of poets and chroniclers, whose creations must serve the scientist as sources. For example:Because of the...

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The Development of Civilization

Ransacking the myths of pagan peoples and fitting what he found into the biblical tradition, Vico constructed the following account. First, there seemed among all peoples to be a recollection of the Deluge; second, all traditions mentioned a time when the world was dominated by giants. Vico argued that God took the children of Shem to be the people of the Promise and conducted their development along supernatural lines that science was not designed to explain. However, the descendants of Ham and Japheth were permitted to wander abroad, unattended by divine grace, and to develop the civilization that was Vico’s concern. They became a gigantic folk, said Vico, from the fact that after their mothers had weaned them, they left them to draw their nourishment from the earth. They became fierce and wild, cohabitating like beasts and fighting for their food. So it continued until climatic changes, which followed the drying out of the earth, brought thunderstorms into being. The lightning and roar of thunder astonished these savages, causing them to lift their eyes to heaven; and the fear that was in their hearts caused them to invent the first gods. Thus, according to Vico, religion came into being—the first step toward civilization.

The fear of the gods made humans take a look at themselves and made them ashamed of some of the things they did, particularly concerning matters of sex. When people stopped cohabitating like animals and instead entered caves as...

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Vico’s Science

It was Vico’s ambition to develop his science along seven different branches. First, he proposed to make it a “rational civil theology of divine providence.” He was not alone, in the eighteenth century, in marveling at the “divine legislative mind” that fashions private vices into public virtues:Out of ferocity, avarice and ambition, the three vices that run through the human race, it creates the military, merchant, and governing classes and thus the strength, riches and wisdom of commonwealths. Out of these three great vices, which could certainly destroy all mankind on the face of the earth, it makes civil happiness.

Second, his science was to be a “philosophy of authority.” In place of the usual speculation about social origins, contracts, the beginnings of property, and so forth, it offered a framework within which to trace the development of sovereignty and right—from the time when authority first sprang from the will of the gods, through the age when it was lodged with princes whose might obligated those who came to them for asylum, to the time when free people concluded by means of reason that authority resides in laws of nature.

Third, it was to be a “history of human ideas.” Poetry, for Vico, was the wisdom of the heroic age, when people thought in images and confused fancies with memories. It was, however, the beginning of “the knowledge of good and evil,” and all the ideas that speculative science was later to bring to refinement were present there in the rough.

The remaining four branches of the new science led to a speculative reconstruction of world history, including such matters as the span of time required for each period, the courses the nations run, the common elements of law and custom among the peoples, and, finally, the principles of universal history.

The Evolution of Civil Societies

Because Vico came to his investigations through the study of jurisprudence, he developed the implications of the new science more completely in that direction and in the field of political thought than in most others. He maintained that civil societies evolve through three stages. All begin as aristocracies, which come into being because of the tendency of the weak to seek asylum at the altars of the strong. The peace and prosperity that result from this arrangement gradually strengthen the productive classes, who demand guarantees from their superiors. In time, a republic of free people, governed by law, replaces the aristocracy. However, wealth and leisure breed effeminacy and greed. Citizens grow careless, and lawlessness prevails. Deliverance comes when a strong prince establishes order and takes authority into his hands. In Vico’s words,Since in the free commonwealths all look out for their own private interests, into the service of which they press their public arms at the risk of ruin to their nations, to preserve the latter from destruction a single man must arise, as Augustus did at Rome, and take all public concerns into his own hands, leaving his subjects free to look after their private affairs. . . . Thus are the peoples saved when they would otherwise rush to their own destruction.

Vico regarded aristocracies and republics as unstable and maintained that states normally “come to rest under monarchies.”

In the century of Frederick the Great, it was nothing unusual for an enlightened thinker to argue in favor of...

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Additional Reading

Adams, H. P. The Life and Writings of Giambattista Vico. London: Allen and Unwin, 1935. This biography is one of the few that attempt to integrate Vico’s life and his thought. It is amusing and elegant, and includes translations of some of Vico’s poems. Indexed.

Berlin, Isaiah. Vico and Herder. New York: Viking, 1976. A revised and expanded version of Berlin’s influential assessment of Vico’s philosophical ideas. Part 1 treats his “General Theory,” part 2 “Vico’s Theory of Knowledge and Its Sources.” Berlin’s introduction conveniently outlines several of Vico’s key...

(The entire section is 534 words.)