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GIOVANNI BATTISTA VICO (1668-1744)

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Originally appearing in Volume V28, Page 25 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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GIOVANNI BATTISTA VICO (1668-1744), Italian jurist and philosopher, was born at Naples on the 23rd of June 1668. At the university he made rapid progress, especially in jurisprudence, though preferring the study of history, literature, juridical science and philosophy. Being appointed tutor to the nephews of the bishop of Ischia, G. B. Rocca, he accompanied them to the castle of Vatolla, near Cilento, in the province of Salerno. There he passed nine studious years, chiefly de-voted 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 himself out of touch with the prevailing Cartesianism, and lived quietly until in 1697 he gained the professorship of rhetoric at the university, with a scanty stipend of too scudi. On this he supported a growing family and gave himself to untiring study. Two authors exercised a weighty influence on his mind—Francis Bacon and Grotius. He was no follower of their ideas, indeed often opposed tc 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 5708 he published his De ratione studiorum, in 1710 De antiquissima Italorum sapientia, in 1720 De universi juris uno principio et fine uno, and in 1721 De constantia jurisprudentis. On the strength of these works he offered himself as a candidate for the university chair of jurisprudence, but as he had no personal or family influence was not elected. With calm courage he returned to his poverty and 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 recognition of Vico's merits byappointing him historiographer-royal, with a yearly stipend of too ducats. Soon after his mind began to give way, but during frequent intervals of lucidity he made new corrections in his great work, of which a third edition appeard in 1744, prefaced by a letter of dedication to Cardinal Trojano Acquaviva. He died on the loth of 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 harmony with the spirit of his time and often directly opposed to it. Yet 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 outside their immediate surroundings. Three men, however, obtained a wider recognition. By his 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 initiator of what has been since known as civil history. Giovan Vincenzo Gravina wrote a history of Roman law, specially distinguished for its accuracy and elegance. Vico raised the problem to a higher plane, by tracing the origin of law in the human mind and explaining the historical changes of the one by those of the other. Thus he made the original discovery of certain ideas which constitute the modern psychologico-historic method. This problem he proceeded 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, even in that of the Romans. This problem is touched upon in his Orations or Inaugural Addresses (Orazioni o Prolusioni) and in his Minor Works (Scritti 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 uno et universi lures principio et fine uno, was subdivided into two parts; so like wise was the second, with the respective titles of De constantia philologiae 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 conscience 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 sentiment, 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, inasmuch 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 consecrated 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 con-fused 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 individual and philosophic legislators. Thus Roman law has passed through three great periods—the divine, the heroic and the human—which are like-wise the three chief periods of the history of Rome, with which it is intimately and intrinsically connected. Nevertheless, 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; but 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 manifestations 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 positive 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 unconscious, 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 history of Roman jurisprudence was a continuous progress of the narrow, rigorous, primitive and almost iron law of the XII. Tables towards the wider, 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 positive 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 third may be disregarded; but the first and second editions 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 seriously 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 terminology, styles " poetical wisdom " (sapienza poetica) 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 conceptions, 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. Providence 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 all 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 spontaneous 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, occultwisdom. The continual, slow and laborious progress from the one to the other is that which really constitutes history, and man be-comes civilized by rendering himself the conscious and independent possessor of all that in poetical wisdom remained impersonal, unconscious, that 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 Discovery 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 Vico 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 spontaneous product of ancient Roman customs, and many other similar theories were discovered by Vieo, and expounded with his usual originality, though not always without blunders and exaggerations. 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 transition 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 creation 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 aristocratic. 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, declines into barbarism, and, again emerging from it, re-traces 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 erely 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 Scienaa 'nuova into a bed of Procrustes, to which the history of all nations has to be fitted by force. And wherever Vico's historical know-ledge 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 progressive 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. There-fore, although the Scienza nuova cannot be said absolutely to deny the law of progress, it must be allowed that Vico not only failed to solve the problem but even shrank from attacking it. Vico founded no school, and though during his lifetime and for a while after his death he had many admirers both in Naples and the northern cities, his fame and name were soon obscured, especially as the Kantian system dominated the world of thought. At the beginning of the 19th century, however, some Neapolitan exiles at Milan called attention to the merits of their great countryman, and his reinstatement was completed by Michelet, who in 1827 translated the Scienza nuova and other works with a laudatory introduction. Vico's writings suffer through their author's not having followed 'a regular course of studies, and his style is very involved. He was a deeply religious man, but his exemption of Jewish origins from the canons of historical inquiry which he elsewhere applied was probably due to the conditions of his age, which preceded the dawn of Semitic investigation and regarded the Old Testament' and the Hebrew religion as sui generis. For Vito's personal history see his autobiography, written at the request of the Conte di Porcia, and his letters; also Cantoni, G. B. Vico, Studii Critici e Comparativi (Turin, 1867); R. Flint, Vico (Edinburgh and London, 1884). For editions of Vico's own works, see Opere, ed. Giuseppe Ferrari, with introductory essay, " La Mente de Vico " (6 vols., Milan, 1834—35), and Michelet, CEuvres Choisies de Vico (2 vols., Paris, 1835). A full list is given in B. Croce, Bibliografia Vichiana (Naples, 1904). See also O. Klemm, G. B. Vico als Geschichtsphilosoph and Volkerpsycholog (Leipzig. 1906); M. H. Rafferty in Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation, New Series, xvii., xx.
End of Article: GIOVANNI BATTISTA VICO (1668-1744)
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You can find online works and a lot of writings about Vico (mostly in Italian but some in English as well) on the "Portale Vico", by the Italian National Council of Research: http://www.giambattistavico.it/
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