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notes on giambattista vico

“In the course of his reading Vico encountered his first master, the Greek philosopher Plato. A critical spirit quickly intervened, and he turned to Tacitus, a Roman historian, and to Machiavelli, an Italian statesman and political philosopher, who portrayed men not as they should be but as they unfortunately are. Thus, contrasts soon became an important element in his thought: between nature and spirit; between the body, as “this sombre prison,” and the soul; between the high aspirations of the imprisoned soul and the fall that awaits it when it yields to the desires of the senses…

It is probable…that the Cardinal was alarmed by certain of Vico’s propositions, which were bold for that period, such as the notion that human society went through a “bestial” stage and that it is possible for society to revert to this primitive barbarism in which men possess only an obscure form of reason.

He described human societies as passing through stages of growth and decay. The first is a “bestial” condition, from which emerges “the age of the gods,” in which man is ruled by fear of the supernatural. “The age of heroes” is the consequence of alliances formed by family leaders to protect against internal dissent and external attack; in this stage, society is rigidly divided into patricians and plebeians. “The age of men” follows, as the result of class conflict in which the plebeians achieve equal rights, but this stage encounters the problems of corruption, dissolution, and a possible reversion to primitive barbarism. Vico affirmed that Providence must right the course of history so that humanity is not engulfed in successive cataclysms.

A second basic notion of Vico is that man has a mixed nature: he remains closer to the beast than to the angel. For Vico the second stage of barbarism, which closes the age of men, arises from an excess of reflection or from the predominance of technology. This stage heralds an imminent new beginning of history. The fundamental perversity of the second stage of barbarism makes it, in fact, more dangerous than the first, which in its excess of strength contains noble impulses that need only to be brought under control. Man becomes a coward, an unbeliever, and an informer, hiding his evil intentions behind “flattery and hypocritical wheedling.” Families live huddled together in tentacled cities, veritable “deserts of souls.” These degenerate peoples do not hesitate to rush into the worst of slaveries to find shelter and protection. Money becomes the only value. This dissolution from the age of men to the bestial state exposes humanity to a fate far worse than arrests or regressions of civilizations. Vico hoped to serve warning to men of the evils that could overtake them if they became worshippers of a materialist ideology or the servants of a science uninformed by conscience.”

(excerpts from Encyclopedia Britannica, 1, 2)

“Vico describes how he came to “meditate a principle of the natural law, which should be apt for the explanation of the origins of Roman law and every other gentile civil law in respect of history” (Vita, 119) and how he discovered that “an ideal eternal law…should be observed in a universal city after the idea or design of providence” (Vita, 122). According to Vico’s own account, his studies culminated in a distinction between ideas and languages. The first, he says, “discovers new historical principles of geography and chronology, the two ideas of history, and thence the principles of universal history lacking hitherto” (Vita, 167), while the latter “discovers new principles of poetry, both of song and verse, and shows that both it and they sprang up by the same natural necessity in all the first nations” (Vita, 168). Taken together, these form the central doctrine of The New Science, namely, that there is a “philosophy and philology of the human race” which produces “an ideal eternal history based on the idea of…providence…[and] traversed in time by all the particular histories of the nations, each with its rise, development, acme, decline and fall” (Vita, 169).

Accomplishing this task involves tracing human society back to its origins in order to reveal a common human nature and a genetic, universal pattern through which all nations run. Vico sees this common nature reflected in language, conceived as a store-house of customs, in which the wisdom of successive ages accumulates and is presupposed in the form of a sensus communis or “mental dictionary” by subsequent generations. Vico defines this common sense as “judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire people, and entire nation, or the entire human race” (Element XII, §145, pp.63-4). It is also available to the philosopher who, by deciphering and thus recovering its content, can discover an “ideal eternal history traversed in time by the histories of all nations” (Proposition XLII, §114, p.57).

Institutions arise first from the immediacy of sense-experience, pure feeling, curiosity, wonder, fear, superstition, and the child-like capacity of human beings to imitate and anthropomorphize the world around them. Since “in the world’s childhood men were by nature sublime poets” (Element XXXVII, §187, p.71), Vico reasons, nations must be “poetic in their beginnings” (Element XLIV, §200, p.73), so that their origin and course can be discovered by recreating or remembering the “poetic” or “metaphysical truth” which underlies them (Element XLVII, §205, p.74). This is manifest primarily in fable, myth, the structure of early languages, and the formations of polytheistic religion. The belief systems of early societies are thus characterized by “poetic metaphysics” which “seeks its proofs not in the external world but within the modifications of the mind of him who meditates it” (”Poetic Wisdom,” §374, p.116), and “poetic logic,” through which the creations of this metaphysics are signified. Metaphysics of this sort is “not rational and abstract like that of learned men now,” Vico emphasizes, “but felt and imagined [by men] without power of ratiocination…This metaphysics was their poetry, a faculty born with them…born of their ignorance of causes, for ignorance, the mother of wonder, made everything wonderful to men who were ignorant of everything” (”Poetic Wisdom,” §375, p.116). Incapable of forming “intelligible class concepts of things”-a feature of human mind realized only in the age of men-people “had a natural need to create poetic characters; that is, imaginative class concepts or universals, to which, as to certain models or ideal portraits, to reduce all the particular species which resembled them” (Element XLIX, §209, p.74).

“Poetic morals” have their source in piety and shame (”Poetic Wisdom,” §502, p.170), he argues, while “poetic economy” arises from the feral equality of human beings and the family relationships into which they were forced by need (”Poetic Wisdom,” §523, p.180). Similarly, “poetic cosmography” grows from the seeing “the world as composed of gods of the sky, of the underworld…and gods intermediate between earth and sky” (”Poetic Wisdom,” §710, p.269), “poetic astronomy” from raising the gods “to the planets and [assigning] the heroes to the constellations” (”Poetic Wisdom,” §728, p.277), “poetic chronology” out of the cycles of harvest and the seasons (”Poetic Wisdom,” §732, p.279), and “poetic geography” from naming the natural world through “the semblances of things known or near at hand” (”Poetic Wisdom,” §741, p.285). As the faculty of reason develops and grows, however, the power of imagination from which the earliest forms of human society grew weakens and gives way finally to the power of reflection; the cognitive powers of human beings gain ascendance over their creative capacity, and reason replaces poetry as the primary way of understanding the world.”

(excerpts from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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