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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

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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 indefinite nature of the human mind, wherever it is lost in ignorance, man makes himself the measure of all things. It is another property of the human mind that whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand. When men are ignorant of the natural causes producing things, they attribute their own nature to them.

When, on the basis of such axioms, Vico turned to study the myths and legends of the past and with their help to reconstruct the prehistory of the race, the results were hardly in agreement with the assumptions of the eighteenth century drawing room. It was the fashion to think of primitive humans as tender, rational creatures, who spontaneously worshiped the god of nature and knew none of the prejudices or vices of artificial civilizations. Moreover, people took it for granted that Homer was a cultivated philosopher and gentleman, well suited to be a tutor of their youth—except they could not understand why he attributed such scandalous behavior to his heroes and his gods. In Vico’s opinion, however, Homer was sublime as a poet by virtue of the fact that he was no philosopher, but a poet with a childlike mind, the product of a childlike age. We must read Homer with this in view and make allowances when we use his material in any attempt to understand his times. Similarly, his gods and heroes must not be judged by our moral standards. They echo the memories of an age when reason and morality had scarcely begun to tame the savage spirit or soften the features of the gods people feared.

The Development of Civilization

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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 couples, they initiated a series of consequences that they could never have anticipated. In a word, they created morality, the second great principle of civilization, and by bringing their passions one by one under control, they liberated their higher capacities, notably reason.

The third principle of civilization recognized by Vico is witnessed by the universal practice among early people of burying their dead. Occasioned at first by the offensiveness of decaying corpses, it came to be the basis of belief in the immortality of the soul.

In opposition to the orthodox views of his day, Vico held that civilization originated independently in many different lands—a principle that had importance for the study of etymology, to which he gave so much attention. Because each language had a separate origin, it was useless to try to find common roots. On the other hand, different languages could be expected to show parallel developments. For example, because law originally came from God, the Greeks, who called God Dios, called divine things diaïon and law dikaion. Correspondingly, the Romans called God Jove and law jus, which is a contraction of jous.

It was a general principle with Vico that because of the unity of human nature, all cultures must pass through identical stages, namely, the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of humans. He found the existence of these stages attested not merely in mythology and epic poetry but also in the history of religion, in compilations of laws, and, above all, in etymologies. Following these three ages, there are three kinds of natures characteristic of humans, three kinds of customs, three kinds of laws, commonwealths, religions, and so forth. Thus, in the first age human nature was fierce and cruel, in the second noble and proud, in the third benign and reasonable. Again, customs of the first age were tinged with religion, those of the second with punctilio (for example, Achilles), those of the third with civic responsibility.

Vico’s Science

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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

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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 an absolute monarchy. Voltaire did also. However, the development described so far was, in Vico’s view, only half a cycle. A nation might flourish for some time under a prince, as did Imperial Rome; but the fate of Rome serves notice that the irresponsibility of civilized people in an “age of reason” may pass all bounds and bring about the destruction of everything that had been built up through the centuries. This was, in Vico’s opinion, the eternal law of history. He saw civilization as a fragile achievement that divine providence frames out of violence, greed, and pride; but when the zenith has been passed, it is destroyed by these same forces, not by alien influences and external barbarians. A new “barbarism of reflection” turns civilized people into worse than beasts. Reason disintegrates into skepticism: “Learned fools fall to calumniating the truth.” Civic loyalties forgotten, the restraints of morality are turned into jests. People throng together in cities and jostle each other at public festivals, but they live in deep solitude of spirit: Under soft words and polite embraces, they plot against one another’s lives. Their factions grow into civil wars that decimate the land and let their cities return to forests. Those who survive are reduced again to “the barbarism of sense,” until they learn once more the things necessary for life:Thus providence brings back among them the piety, faith, and truth which are the natural foundation of justice as well as the graces and beauties of the eternal order of God.

Vico gained only a limited fame in his own time. The curious manner in which many twentieth century points of view are anticipated in his work has, however, brought him belated recognition. Pragmatists can see their doctrine of knowledge in his contention that we know only what our minds contrive. Humanists find much wisdom in his account of civilization. Persons concerned with history as a science admire the way in which he combined hypothesis and investigation, and those whose interest is in plotting the cycles of cultures find fruitful suggestions in his work. James Joyce did much to popularize his name among students of literature. Inevitably, his account of the early giants creating their gods and fleeing in shame to caves has caught the attention of some existentialists.


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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 theses.

Burke, Peter. Vico. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. A concise treatment of Vico’s intellectual development, his main work, and his influence. Indexed, with a helpful list for further reading.

Caponigri, A. Robert. Time and Idea: The Theory of History in Giambattista Vico. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953. An excellent exposition of the main Vician themes of ideal eternal history, or ricorso, and the natural law. Densely packed and well indexed.

Croce, Benedetto. The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Translated by R. G. Collingwood. London: Howard Latimer, 1913. This now-classic commentary on the totality of Vico’s thought may be too complex to serve introductory students, but it is a solid and reliable secondary source for issues not covered in more general literature. Well indexed.

Goetsch, James R. Vico’s Axioms: The Geometry of the Human World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. A discourse on Vico’s philosophy.

Lilla, Mark. G. B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. A detailed and comprehensive introduction to Vico that emphasizes many of his neglected early writings, which provide the basis for reinterpretation of The New Science as an antimodern work.

Mazzotta, Giuseppe. The New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. A good treatment of Vico’s thoughts. Includes a bibliography and index.

Pompa, Leon. Vico: A Study of “The New Science.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A very close analysis of Vico’s text is offered here; this work is laced with quotations and helpful interpretations of passages in their context. Indexed, with a short bibliography.

Tagliacozzo, Giorgio, ed. Vico and Contemporary Thought. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979. This collection of essays is an excellent example of many such works now available that mark a resurgence of interest in Vico’s thought. These essays focus on the relevance of Vician insights to urgent twentieth century practical and philosophical concerns. Well indexed; contributors come from a wide range of disciplines.

Verene, Donald Phillip. The New Art of Autobiography: An Essay on the Life of Giambattista Vico Written by Himself. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. The first full-length commentary on and interpretation of Vico’s autobiography. Provides a biography of Vico and addresses his autobiography as both a literary and philosophical work.

Verene, Donald Phillip, ed. Vico and Joyce. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. Essays discuss Vician themes not only in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake but also in Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Accessible to beginning students of Joyce’s literature and Vico’s thought. Well indexed; contributors come from many disciplines.