Vico Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Vico viewed the state as emerging from primitive origins rather than reasoned philosophical argument, and his “new science” developed this thesis in analyses of both ideas and language.

Summary of Event

Giambattista Vico’s Principi di scienza nuova intorno alla natura delle nazioni per la quale si ritruovano i principi di altro sistema del diritto naturale delle genti (1725, revised edition 1730; revised and enlarged as Principi di scienza nuova d’intorno alla comune natura delle nazioni, 1744; commonly known as Scienza nuova; The New Science, 1948) went through several revised editions. Collectively referred to as The New Science, they are sometimes now also called The First New Science (1725), The Second New Science (1730 and 1744), and The Third New Science (1744). By “new science,” Vico refers to a form of political historiography. Historiography [kw]Vico Publishes The New Science (Oct., 1725) [kw]Science, Vico Publishes The New (Oct., 1725) [kw]New Science, Vico Publishes The (Oct., 1725) [kw]Publishes The New Science, Vico (Oct., 1725) New Science, The (Vico) [g]Italy;Oct., 1725: Vico Publishes The New Science[0670] [c]Philosophy;Oct., 1725: Vico Publishes The New Science[0670] [c]Literature;Oct., 1725: Vico Publishes The New Science[0670] Vico, Giambattista

Vico’s The New Science is a study of the principles by which “the natural law Natural law of the nations” evolved via the nations’ common customs from a “divine era” through a “heroic era” to a “human era.” He divides this study into five major parts; book 1, justifying his form of analysis; book 2, “The Principles of This Science Concerning Ideas”; book 3, “The Principles of This Science Concerning Language”; the brief book 4, “The Ground of the Proofs That Establish This Science”; and book 5, which explains the simultaneous formation of a philosophy of history Philosophy;of history[history] and a universal history of nations, History;of nations[nations] a crucial aspect of Vico’s theory.

Vico saw in history a pattern of development through three phases common to all nations. This pattern exists, Vico asserted, because a beneficent Providence oversees humanity and fosters in people a common sense that enables them to seek justice through their free will. Vico used as one template of the universal pattern of history the evolution of ancient Egyptian society, which the Egyptians themselves understood to be divided into ages of gods, heroes, and men. Vico insisted that “the principles of this world must be discovered within the nature of our human mind and through the force of our understanding, by means of a metaphysics of the human mind”; he was convinced, moreover, that philosophical visions are always expressions of their historical context.

The first phase of the historical development of nations, according to Vico, was a primitive era Divine era marked by barbarous people whose ignorance led them to fear divine forces in the natural world. In this religious period, the first peoples “ramified” into clans tied by blood, each with its own language. The spiritual shame that men felt copulating under the open sky prompted them to drag their women into caves, leading eventually to the institution of marriage.

Vico maintains that the “unity of God” is proven by the idea of one universal God that grew over time out of the gods of the individual nations, but he is careful not to identify this universal God with Christianity, since his universal law is meant to apply to non-Christian nations as well as Christian ones. He says that “the people of God divided the world into Hebrews and gentiles,” but Vico leaves the historical process vague. The third great feature of the first phase of development, along with a belief in the divine and the establishment of marriage, was burial of the dead and cultivation of the nearby fields as property to be defended against thieves.

The second, heroic phase of national development Heroic era entailed a division of a region’s populace into noble aristocrats (the “intelligent”) and the “base” commoners (those of “feeble mind”). The aristocrats displayed the “civil arts,” defined by Vico as self-consciousness, chastity in marriage, and piety toward the dead. Industrious cultivation of their fields produced the riches of the people, whose strength enabled them to defend their possessions. Their generosity and sense of justice emerged in their concern for the unfortunate. In Greek fables, Vico found “ample evidence” of the origin of nobility, and Roman history provided rich materials for studying the nature of republics. The heroic law of the Romans, whose dominance lasted for 419 years, was for Vico the source of Rome’s greatness, and this law in turn derived from the Laws of the Twelve Tables formed by the heroic peoples of Latium.

The final phase Human era of historical development in the evolution of nations arose when people realized their equal right to the “utilities.” This phase was marked, most notably, by the revelation of the Ten Commandments, “which contain the idea of a universal and eternal justice based upon that of human nature at its most enlightened. . . .” With the growth of popular liberty came monarchical government, “the kind of government that best conforms with the nature of [fully] developed human values.”

Vico asserts that human language also evolved through three phases that paralleled the three phases of government. A language of hieroglyphics or sacred characters, “a language of the gods,” Languages;of the gods was followed by a language of “symbols or emblems,” Languages;of symbols or emblems evidence for which Vico finds in the heroic language of arms. The last phase was an “epistolary language” Languages;epistolary with a fixed vocabulary of words for everyday use. In the earliest phase, dominated by poetry, human qualities were attributed to inanimate nature, and “things” ultimately were treated as “intelligent substances”: “This is the supreme, divine artifice of the poetic faculty, through which, in a God-like manner, from our own idea we give being to things that lack it.”

In expounding his new science, Vico dismissed other philosophies that disagreed with his. Stoicism, for instance, was rejected because of the “iron severity” of its fatalism, and Epicureanism was rejected because of its vision of blind chance and its belief that the soul died with the body. Plato’s fault, he said, lay in the common error of attributing to barbaric people the capacity for “exalted, divine and recondite knowledge,” thereby forgetting that Providence governs the nations through humanity’s common needs. Among the philosophers of his own time, Vico believed that Hugo Grotius, John Selden, and Samuel von Pufendorf failed to grasp that fear of a god originating in their own imaginations was what caused primitive peoples to evolve out of a state of nature.

Significance

In the late eighteenth century, Vico’s theory that human society had feral origins was sharply attacked by the Dominican G. F. Finetti on the grounds that it was a Lucretian, not Christian, theory and threatened Catholic theology. In what became a notorious controversy, Vico was defended by the Neapolitan Emanuele Duni, professor of jurisprudence at the University of Rome. By the nineteenth century, Vico’s ideas were generally disseminated throughout Europe, and The New Science became the bible of the nationalist leaders of the Italian Risorgimento (unification). Benedetto Croce’s study of Vico’s thought in 1911 prompted the German philosopher Wilhelm Windelband to add a long note on Vico in his history of philosophy.

The most powerful stimulus to Vico’s reputation came in 1824, when the French historian Jules Michelet read The New Science and was seized, as he reported, with “an incredible intoxication with his great historical principle.” In 1827, Michelet published an abridged translation of The New Science, Principes de la philosophie de l’histoire, Principes de la philosophie de l’histoire (Michelet) as well as a sketch of Vico’s life and work in the Biographie universelle (universal biography). Among English intellectuals, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was Vico’s most enthusiastic reader, followed by the historian Thomas Arnold and the philosopher John Stuart Mill. The Irish writer James Joyce read Vico around 1905, and he inserted numerous whimsical allusions to him in his works, especially Finnegans Wake (1939). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels probably incorporated some of Vico’s thought into their own theory of historical materialism. In the introduction to their translation of Vico’s Vita di Giambattista Vico scritta da sé medesimo (wr. 1725-1728, 1731, pb. 1818; The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico, Autobiography of Giambattista Vico, The (Vico) 1944), Max Harold Fisch and Thomas Goddard Bergin observe that it is “no accident . . . that Vico enjoys high repute in present-day Russia as the progenitor of the theory of the class struggle.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bedani, Gino. Vico Revisited. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Discusses the sources of Vico’s philosophy of jurisprudence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mali, Joseph. The Rehabilitation of Myth: Vico’s “New Science.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Examines the value of myth for Vico and his treatment of it in The New Science.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mooney, Michael. Vico in the Tradition of Rhetoric. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. Influence of humanist scholars on Vico.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pompa, Leon. Vico: A Study of the New Science. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A comprehensive study by a leading Vico scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaeffer, John D. Sensus Communis: Vico, Rhetoric, and the Limits of Relativism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. Vico’s understanding of the significance of common sense.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stone, Harold Samuel. Vico’s Cultural History: The Production and Transmission of Ideas in Naples, 1685-1750. New York: Brill, 1997. Vico’s intellectual milieu.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tagliacozzo, Giorgio, and Hayden White, eds. Giambattista Vico: An International Symposium. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969. Includes Enrico De Mas’s essay on “Vico’s Four Authors” (Bacon, Tacitus, Plato, and Grotius).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vico, Giambattista. The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico. Translated by Max Harold Frisch and Thomas Goddard Bergin. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1944. Supplements the autobiography with an informative introduction of 107 pages, including “Vico’s Reputation and Influence,” detailed notes, and a chronology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The First New Science. Edited and translated by Leon Pompa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. The first complete English translation of the 1725 text, with an introduction, chronology, bibliography, and glossary.

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