History Man

John Robertson

  • G.B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern by Mark Lilla
    Harvard, 225 pp, £29.95, April 1993, ISBN 0 674 33962 2
  • The Rehabilitation of Myth: Vico’s ‘New Science’ by Joseph Mali
    Cambridge, 275 pp, £35.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 521 41952 2

The current fascination with Vico in the English-speaking world owes almost everything to the attention he has received from Isaiah Berlin. Before Berlin, Vico was the obscure Neapolitan philosopher who had been ‘discovered’ a hundred years after his death by Michelet and the Romantics, and was subsequently made much of by Italian philosophers understandably anxious to demonstrate the continuing originality of their national culture in the long interval since the Renaissance. Since 1960, however, a series of essays by Berlin has expounded Vico’s leading ideas and displayed their significance in terms which have made him much more readily accessible to philosophers, political theorists and intellectual historians, and which have persuaded a wider public of his centrality to Western culture.

Berlin’s efforts have been seconded by the existence of a respected (and still intermittently available) translation of the third and final edition of Vico’s master work, the New Science (1744), by T.G. Bergin and M.H. Fisch, and another of selections from this and earlier writings by Leon Pompa. There has also been a steady flow of interpretations, much of it organised by the Institute for Vico Studies in New York. But the framework in which Vico is understood remains largely that of Berlin’s making, Accepting the received picture of the Neapolitan’s isolation (one painted assiduously by Vico himself), Berlin did not seek to dispel the impression that Vico was a genius ‘born out of his time’. What he suggested, however, was that Vico’s closest intellectual affinities lay with the later 18th-century philosophers of the Counter-Enlightenment, with the Germans Hamann, Jacobi and Herder and with Joseph de Maistre. Virtually alone and entirely unrecognised, Vico had participated in the subversion of some of the most cherished convictions of the Enlightenment even before they had been fully worked out.

Thirty years on, the strength of Berlin’s interpretation continues to be evident in the new books by Mark Lilla and Joseph Mali, both of which range Vico against the Enlightenment. Both writers are, however, aware of recent Italian scholarship on Vico, which has in the same period taken a more specifically historical direction. They differ from Berlin over specific points of interpretation, giving more weight to Vico’s religious commitment and taking his concept of Providence more seriously. Lilla also explicitly challenges Berlin’s contention that Vico was a prophet of pluralism. Nevertheless, both reiterate the claim that his historic significance lay in his hostility to the philosophy and values of the Enlightenment – and hence in his antagonism to the intellectual culture of ‘modernity’ as we know it. If it is now clear that the Enlightenment and ‘modernity’ have failed to deliver on their promises – as both Lilla and Mali suppose – then Vico should continue to have something valuable to say in a Post-Enlightenment, Post-Modern world.

The substance of Lilla’s book is devoted to a close textual analysis of the development of Vico’s thinking, from his earliest works to the final New Science. In contrast to the majority of Vico scholars, who concentrate on the New Science in its final form, Lilla argues for an organic view of his intellectual career, one that captures the persistence of his most fundamental assumptions and concerns.

Lilla begins with the metaphysical and theological concerns evident in Vico’s early writings: the Orations he delivered between 1699 and 1710 as a Professor of Rhetoric, On Method (1709), where he engaged with Bacon and Descartes, and the Metaphysics (1710) (Book One of On the Ancient Wisdom of the Italians). As Vico was to reiterate in his Autobiography, the starting-point of any study of man must always be the Fall, understood not only as a descent into sin, but as a corruption of the faculties, by which men had been reduced from sapientes to stulti, and condemned to imperfection. It followed that there must be a clear distinction between the Divine, the realm of the true (verum), and the human, where there could be no more than certainty (certum). Because God had made the realm of the true (the verum-factum principle is theological not epistemological), he alone could know the truth: humans were condemned to live in the probable, prudential world of the ‘certain’.

There were, Vico conceded, spheres of knowledge in which humans could approach the truth by mimicry of divine attributes, geometry being the sphere in which they might come closest. But this was their limit: they could not understand the truth of nature, or themselves. The chasm between the two realms could be bridged by God alone, and he did so through conatus. This late scholastic term, which roughly translates as ‘endeavour’, had been used by Hobbes in a mechanical sense; Vico reappropriated it for metaphysics.

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