1902 Encyclopedia > Giovan Battista Vico ( Giambattista Vico)

Giovan Battista Vico
(also known as: Giambattista Vico
Italian philosopher of history
(1688-1744)




GIOVAN BATTISTA VICO, (1668-1744), Italian jurist and philosopher, was the son of Antonio Vico, a small bookseller, and was born at Naples on 23rd June 1668. At the age of seven he had a serious fall and severely injured his head, which produced in him " the melancholy and sour temper suited to men of talent." Afterwards he applied himself to the study of scholastic philosophy. At an early age he entered the university, and made such rapid progress, especially in jurisprudence, that he is said to have won a suit for his father at the age of sixteen. Nevertheless he preferred the study of history, literature, juridical science, and philosophy. Being appointed teacher of jurisprudence to the nephews of the bishop of Ischia, G. B. Bocca, he accompanied them to the castle of Vatolla, near Cilento, in the province of Salerno. There he passed nine studious years, chiefly devoted to classical reading, Plato and Tacitus being his favourite authors, because "the former described the ideal man and the latter man as he really is." On his return to Naples he found Car-tesianism in the ascendant, and this he disliked. Belong-ing to no particular school or literary sect, he languished in neglect and obscurity, until in 1697 he gained the pro-fessorship of rhetoric at the university, wdth a scanty stipend of 100 ducats. On this he supported not only himself but his rapidly increasing family; for he had married a poor and illiterate girl, who was only able to put her mark to the nuptial contract. Meanwhile his own studies were pursued with untiring zeal, and he began to write and publish his works. Two modern authors exercised a weighty influence on his mind—Francis Bacon and Grotius. He was no follower of their ideas, indeed often opposed to them; but he derived from Bacon an increasing stimulus towards the investigation of certain great problems of history and philosophy, while Grotius proved valuable in his study of philosophic jurisprudence. In 1708 he published his Be ratione studiorum, in 1710 Be antiquissima Italoruin sapientia, in 1720 De universi juris uno principio et fine uno, and in 1721 De constantia jurisprudents. On the strength of these works he offered himself as a candidate for the university chair of jurisprudence then vacant, with a yearly stipend of 600 ducats. But he was rejected by the examiners, although all his competitors have remained unknown to fame. Without any sense of discouragement, he returned to his favourite studies, and in 1725 published the first edition of the work that forms the basis of his renown, Principii d'una Scienza Nuova. In 1730 he produced a second edition of the Scienza Nuova, so much altered in style and with so many substantial additions that it was practically a new work. In 1735 Charles III. of Naples marked his recog-nition of Vico's merits by appointing him historiographer-royal, with a yearly stipend of 100 ducats. But the philosopher derived little enjoyment from his new post. Attacked by a cruel malady, mind and memory failed. But during frequent intervals of lucidity he resumed his pen and made new corrections in his great work, of which a third edition appeared in 1744, prefaced by a letter of dedication to Cardinal Trojano Acquaviva. Vico expired on 20th January of the same year. Fate seemed bent on persecuting him to the last. A fierce quarrel arose over his burial between the brotherhood of St Stephen, to .which he had belonged, and the university professors, who desired to escort his corpse to the grave. Finally the canons of the cathedral, together with the professors, buried the body in the church of the Gerolimini.

Vico has been generally described as a solitary soul, out of har-mony with the spirit of his time and often directly opposed to it. In fact, though living during the later years of the 17th and the early part of the 18th century, when Locke had already given to the world the germs of the ideas afterwards develcped in the philosophy of the Encyclopaedists, he followed an entirely opposite line of thought. The writer who was the first to declare that great men are the representatives and personifications of their times would thus seem to have been the living contradiction of his own theory. Nevertheless a closer inquiry into the social conditions of Vico's time, and of the studies then flourishing, shows him to have been thoroughly in touch with them.

Owing to the historical past of Naples, and its social and economic condition at the end of the 17th century, the only study that really flourished there was that of law ; and this soon penetrated from the courts to the university, and was raised to the level of a science. A great school of jurisprudence was thus formed, including many men of vast learning and great ability, .although little known to fame. This school stood apart, as it were, from the rest of the world ; the works of its representatives were inelegant, and often indeed exaggeratedly legal and scholastic in style. Accordingly they attracted little notice in upper Italy and were totally ignored beyond the Alps. But, while outside Naples scarcely anything was known of Marcello Marciano the younger, Domenico Aulisio, Duke Gaetano Argento, Niccolo Capasso, and many others, there were three men who rose to great eminence and attained to an honour-able rank in general literature both in Italy and abroad. By an exposition of the political history of the kingdom, based on a study of its laws and institutions and of the legal conflicts between the state and the court of Rome, Pietro Giannone was the first initiator of what has been since known as civil history. Giovan Vincenzo Gravina, the patron and preceptor of Metastasio, and also noted as a literary critic, wrote a history of Roman law, specially distin-guished for its accuracy and elegance. While Gravina studied the successive and varying forms of Roman law and sought to give them an historical explanation, Vico raised the problem to a higher plane, by tracing the origin of law in the human mind and ex-plaining the historical changes of the one by those of the other. Thus he made the original discovery of certain ideas which consti-tute the modern historic method, or rather the psychologico-historic method. This problem he p'roceeded to develop in various works, until in his Scienza Nuova he arrived at a more complete solution, which may be formulated as follows. If the principle of justice and law be one, eternal, and immutable, why should there be so many different codes of legislation ? These differences are not caused by difference of nationality only, but are to be noted in the history of the same people. Th , clearest, most precise, and most constant conception of law was undoubtedly that of the Romans ; nevertheless Roman jurisprudence underwent so many transforma-tions as apparently to constitute almost different codes. How was so strange a fact to be explained ? This question is touched upon in his Orations or Inaugural Addresses (Orazioni o l'rolusioni) and in his Minor Works (Seritti Minori). Finally he applied himself to its solution in his Universal Law (Diritto Universale), which is divided into two books. The first of these, De lino et universi _juris principio etfine uno, was subdivided into two parts ; so like-wise was the second, with the respective titles of De constantia pMlologix and De constantia jurisprudentis.





The following is the general idea derived from these researches. Vico held God to be the ruler of the world of nations, but ruling, not as the providence of the Middle Ages by means of continued miracles, but as He rules nature, by means of natural laws. If, therefore, the physicist seeks to discover the laws of nature by study of natural phenomena, so the philosopher must seek the laws of historical change by the investigation of human events and of the human mind. According to Vico, law emanates from the con-science of mankind, in whom God has infused a sentiment of justice, and is therefore in close and continual relation with the human mind, and participates in its changes. This sentiment of justice is at first confused, uncertain, and almost instinctive, is, as it were, a divine and religious inspiration instilled by heaven into the primitive tribes of the earth. It is an unconscious, universal sen-timent, not the personal, conscious, and rational sentiment of the superior few. Hence the law to which it gives birth is enwrapped in religious forms which are likewise visible and palpable, inas-much as primitive man is incapable of abstract, philosophical ideas. This law is not the individual work of any philosophical legislator, for no man was, or could be, a philosopher at that time. It is first displayed in the shape of natural and necessary usages conse-crated by religion. The names of leading legislators, which we so often find recorded in the history of primitive peoples, are symbols and myths, merely serving to mark an historic period or epoch by some definite and personal denomination. For nations, or rather tribes, were then distinguished by personal names only. The first obscure and confused conception of law gradually becomes clearer and better defined. Its visible and religious forms then give way to abstract formulae., which in their turn are slowly replaced by the rational manifestation of the philosophic principles of law that gains the victory in the final stage of development, designated by Vico as that of civil and human law. This is the period of indi-vidual and philosophic legislators. Thus Roman law has passed through three great periods,—the divine, the heroic, and the human, _—which are likewise the three chief periods of the history of Rome, with which it is intimately and intrinsically connected. Never-theless, on careful examination of these three successive stages, it will easily be seen that, in spite of the apparent difference between them, all have a common foundation, source, and purpose. The human and civil philosophic law of the third period is assuredly very different in form from the primitive law ; out in substance it is merely the abstract, scientific, and philosophic manifestation of the same sentiment of justice and the same principles which were vaguely felt in primitive times. Hence one development of law may be easily translated into another. Thus in the varied mani-festations of law Vico was able to discover a single and enduring principle (De universi juris uno principio et fine uno). On these grounds it has been sought to establish a close relation between Vico and Grotius. The latter clearly distinguished between a posi-tive law differing in different nations and a natural law based on a general and unchanging principle of human nature, and therefore obligatory upon all. But Vico was opposed to Grotius, especially as regards his conception of the origin of society, and therefore of law. Grotius holds that its origin was not divine, but human, and neither collective, spontaneous, nor xinconscious, but personal, rational, and conscious. He believed moreover that natural law and positive law moved on almost constant and immutable parallel lines. But Vico maintained that the one was continually progressing towards the other, positive law showing an increasing tendency to draw nearer to natural and rational law. Hence the conception that law is of necessity a spontaneous birth, not the creation of any individual legislator ; and hence the idea that it necessarily proceeds by a natural and logical process of evolution constituting its history. Vico may have derived from Grotius the idea of natural law ; but his discovery of the historic evolution of law was first suggested to him by his study of Roman law. He saw that the his-tory of Roman jurisprudence was a continuous progress of the narrow, rigorous, primitive, and almost iron law of the XII. Tables towards the witter, more general, and more humane jus gentium. Having once derived this conception from Roman history, he was easily and indeed necessarily carried on to the next,—that the posi-tive law of all nations, throughout history, is a continual advance, keeping pace with the progress of civilization, towards the philosophic and natural law founded on the principles of human nature and human reason.
As already stated, the Scienza Nuova appeared in three different editions. The divergences between the second and third are of too little moment to be recorded here. But the first and second edi-tions are almost distinct works. In the former the author sets forth the analytical process by which the laws he discovered were deduced from facts. In the second he not only enlarges his matter and gives multiplied applications of his ideas, but also follows the synthetic method, first expounding the laws he had discovered and then proving them by the facts to which they are applied. In this edition the fragmentary and jerky arrangement, the intricate style, and a peculiar and often purely conventional terminology seri-ously checked the diffusion of the work, which accordingly was little studied in Italy and remained almost unknown to the rest of Europe. Its fundamental idea consists in that which Vico, in his peculiar ter-minology, styles "poetical wisdom" (sapienzapoetica) and "occult wisdom " (sapienza riposta), and in the historical process by which the one is merged in the other. He frequently declares that this discovery was the result of the literary labours of his whole life.

Vico was the first thinker who asked, Why have we a science of nature, but no science of history ? Because our glance can easily be turned outwards and survey the exterior world ; but it is far harder to turn the mind's eye inwards and contemplate the world of the spirit. All our errors in explaining the origin of human society arise from our obstinacy in believing that primitive man was entirely similar to ourselves, who are civilized, i.e., developed by the results of a lengthy process of anterior historic evolution. We must learn to issue from ourselves, transport ourselves back to other times, and become children again in order to comprehend the infancy of the human race. As in children, imagination and the senses prevailed in those men of the past. They had no abstract ideas; in their minds all was concrete, visible, and tangible. All the phenomena, forces, and laws of nature, together with mental con-ceptions, were alike personified. To suppose that all mythical stories are fables invented by the philosophers is to write history backwards and confound the instinctive, impersonal, poetic wisdom of the earliest times with the civilized, rational, and abstract occult wisdom of our own day. But how can we explain the formation of this poetic wisdom, which, albeit the work of ignorant men, has so deep and intrinsic a philosophic value ? The only possible reply is that already given when treating of the origin of law. Provi-dence has instilled into the heart of man a sentiment of justice and goodness, of beauty, and of truth, that is manifested differently at different times. The ideal truth within us, constituting the inner life that is studied by philosophers, becomes transmuted by the facts of history into assured reality. For Vico psychology and history were the two poles of the new world he discovered. After having extolled the work of God and proclaimed Him the source of alt knowledge, he adds that a great truth is continually flashed on us and proved to us by history, namely, "that this world of nations is the work of man, and its explanation therefore only to be found in the mind of man." Thus poetical wisdom, appearing as a spontane-ous emanation of the human conscience, is almost the product of divine inspiration. From this, by the aid of civilization, reason, and philosophy, there is gradually developed the civil, occult wisdom. The continual, slow, and laborious progress from the one to the other is that which really constitutes history, and man becomes civilized by rendering himself the conscious and independent possessor of all that in poetical wisdom remained impersonal, un-conscious, came as it were from without by divine afflatus.





Vico gives many applications of this fundamental idea. The religion of primitive peoples is no less mythical than their history, since they could only conceive of it by means of myths. On these lines he interprets the whole history of primitive Rome. One book of the second edition of the Scienza Nuova is devoted to " The Dis-covery of the True Homer." Why all the cities of Greece dispute the honour of being his birthplace is because the Iliad and the Odyssey are not the work of one, but of many popular poets, and a true creation of the Greek people which is in every city of Greece.

And because the primitive peoples are unconscious and self-ignorant Homer is represented as being blind. In all parts of history in which he was best versed Vieo pursues a stricter and more scientific method, and arrives at safer conclusions. This is the case in Roman history, especially in such portions as related to the history of law. Here he sometimes attains, even in details, to divinations of the truth afterwards confirmed by new documents and later research. The aristocratic origin of Rome, the struggle between the patricians and the plebeians, the laws of the XII. Tables, not, as tradition would have it, imported from Greece (but the natural and spon-taneous product of ancient Roman customs), and many other similar theories were discovered by Vico, and expounded with his usual originality, though not always without his usual blunders and ex-aggerations.
Vico may be said to base his considerations on the history of two nations. The greater part of his ideas on poetical wisdom were derived from Greece. Nearly all the rest, more especially the trans-ition from poetical to occult wisdom, was derived from Rome. Having once formulated his idea, he made it more general in order to apply it to the history of all nations. From the savage state, through the terror that gives birth to religions, through the crea-tion of families by marriage, through burial rites and piety towards the dead, men approach civilization with the aid of poetic wisdom, and pass through three periods,—the divine, heroic, and human,— in which they have three forms of government, language, literature, jurisprudence, and civilization. The primary government is aristo-cratic. Patrician tyranny rouses the populace to revolt, and then democratic equality is established under a republic. Democratic excesses cause the rise of an empire, which, becoming corrupt, de-clines into barbarism, and, again emerging from it, retraces the same course. This is the law of cycles, constituting that which is designated by Vico as the ' ' eternal ideal history, or rather course of humanity, invariably followed by all nations." It must not be held to imply that one nation imitates the course pursued by another, nor that the points of resemblance between them are transmitted by tradition from one to the other, but merely that all are subject to one law, inasmuch as this is based on the human nature common to all alike. Thus, while on the one hand the various cycles traced and retraced by all nations are similar and yet independent, on the other hand, being actually derived from Roman history, they become converted in the Scienza Nuova into a bed of Procrustes, to which the history of all nations has to be fitted by force. And wherever Vico's historical knowledge failed he was led into increased error by this artificial and arbitrary effort.

It has been justly observed by many that this continuous cyclical movement entirely excludes the progress of humanity towards a better future. It has been replied that these cycles are similar without being identical, and that, if one might differ from another, the idea of progress was not necessarily excluded by the law of cycles. Vico undoubtedly considered the poetic wisdom of the Middle Ages to be different from that of the Greeks and Romans, and Christianity to be very superior to the pagan religion. But he never investigated the question whether, since there is a law of progress-ive evolution in the history of different nations, separately examined, there may not likewise be another law ruling the general history of these nations, every one of which must have represented a new period, as it were, in the history of humanity at large. Therefore, although the Scienza Nuova cannot be said absolutely to deny the law of progress, it must be allowed that Vico not only failed to 6olve the problem but even shrank from attacking it.

He had no followers or admirers even in Naples, where the ideas of Tanucci, Filangieri, Genovesi, and Galiani prevailed, men who sometimes appear to be more French than Italian. When at last, with the German reaction initiated by Kant against the sense philosophy of the French, an entirely new philosophy arose, and many ideas started by Vico were revived on a more rigorous method, supported by more accurate research and with a wider and firmer grasp of knowledge, the name of the Neapolitan philosopher was forgotten, and no one recognized how much was owed to him. Nevertheless it may be asserted that between the close of the 17th and the early part of the 18th century, when the thought of the world was bent in a totally different direction, Vico was the first to discern and proclaim the course by which, in the present age, historical, moral, and political science was destined to make such great and assured progress.

See Cantorii, G. B. Vico, Stvdii Critici c Comparalivi (Turin, 1867) ; Flint, Vico (Edinburgh and London, 18S4). For editions of Vico's own works, see Opere, ed. Giuseppe Ferrari (Milan, 1834-35, 6 vols.), and Michelet, Œuvres Choisies de Vico (Paris, 1835, 2 vols.). Mamiani, Rosmini, Gioberti, and many other Italian philosophers have treated at length of Vico in their works. The most detailed account of him is Ferrari's essay, "La Mente de Vico," prefacing his edition of the Opere. (P. V.)




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