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.

Vico’s project, however, really took off when he confronted the challenge of modern scepticism, specifically the political scepticism of Machiavelli, Hobbes (above all), Spinoza, Locke and Bayle. On Lilla’s account, Descartes served as the foil for Vico’s fundamental metaphysical convictions: but it was the political sceptics who showed him where his constructive contribution should lie. He chose to build first in an idiom where the ravages of scepticism were particularly evident, that of jurisprudence; the result was the work known as Universal Right (1720-22). Vico disputed both the sceptics’ theology – their denial of Providence and adherence to materialism – and their politics: their denial of natural sociability and natural right, for which they substituted the principles of fear and force. Vico’s response was not, however, one of dogmatic rejection. He was undeniably fascinated by the Epicurean account of man’s beast-like natural state, and appreciated the force of corporeal desires (utilitates). But he believed that through conatus men also naturally ‘commiserate’ with one another’s emotions, and that this makes possible sociability and a shared sense of justice. Utilitas could therefore be harmonised with ius, and as the range of rights gradually extended in line with the development of forms of authority, so the rights of individual nations would gradually be reconciled with the right of nature, forming one ius naturale gentium.

In the midst of drafting the Universal Right, however, Vico realised that jurisprudence was not the idiom in which to articulate his distinctive project. It was fatally flawed by the jurists’ anachronistic assumption that the first men must have possessed all the faculties of civilised men, and it gave Vico no opportunity to demonstrate (as opposed to assert) the constant presence of God in the world. Successfully to construct an alternative to the politics of the sceptics, he must create his own ‘New Science’, with the whole of human history as its subject. It was this enterprise which occupied Vico from the early 1720s until the publication of the final edition of the New Science and his death in 1744.

Vico characterised his new science as a ‘rational civil theology of Divine Providence’. Unlike many Vico scholars, Lilla tackles this unpromising formula head on. Vico’s historical science was rational, in that it explained how fallen man could still acquire knowledge of the world: the order of ideas in the past, he supposed, was a reliable guide to the order of events. It was civil, because Vico believed that he had identified in Rome the one nation whose history, as recorded in myth and law, exemplified the course of all history. And it was a theology of Providence in that it demonstrated man’s gradual recovery of his faculties, his reacquisition of the wisdom lost at the Fall. To attribute Providential significance to Roman history in this way necessarily set Vico against Augustine, to whom on other accounts he was keen to profess allegiance; as Lilla notes, however, Vico’s argument was squarely within the alternative Christian tradition of Eusebius, who had equated the pax Romana with the pax Christi as works of Providence.

It is a feature of Lilla’s interpretation that from an early stage Vico preferred the lessons of Rome to those of Greece. When he comes to the substance of Vico’s historical science, therefore, Lilla plays down his evident interest in Greek mythology, and in Homer in particular. The significance of the Greek myths was that they enabled Vico to correct the manifest anachronisms in Livy’s account of early Rome. Rewriting Livy, he traced the course (corso) of Roman history from its beginning in the three ‘principles’ of all nations – religion, marriage and burial – through the three ‘Ages’ of Gods, Heroes and Men. The result was a history told not in terms of forms of government, but as an account of the formation and rivalries of families and their dependents; a history which privileged the Romans’ respect for religion and the traditional authority of their law over the philosophic cultivation of virtue for its own sake.

In conclusion, Lilla underlines how much less attention Vico devoted to the history of man after Rome. The famous proposition of the final book of the New Science, that the corso of Roman history had been followed by a ricorso, a return to barbarism in the Middle Ages, was, Lilla points out, a late and underdeveloped addition to the structure of Vico’s historical theory, with uncertain implications. In so far as it suggests that human history is fated to follow cycles of development and decay, it renders Vico’s science much more determinist than it had hitherto appeared (or than Lilla’s interpretation, emphasising man’s Providentially-assisted recovery of pre-lapsarian wisdom, has led us to expect). It may therefore be preferable to regard the idea as a final prophetic warning to modern man, a plea for the preservation of religious authority against the corrosive effects of scepticism.

Lilla has written a substantial and scholarly book, even if he may have exaggerated the originality of his emphasis on the significance of Vico’s early work; it is possible to interpret the ‘rational civil theology of Divine Providence’ in terms much closer to the naturalistic than the theological. In the hope of attracting the ‘general reader’ Lilla has decided not to engage in scholarly controversy or provide the apparatus of scholarship. But the intellectual and literary chemistry which makes a work generally accessible is more complex than this. If it is missing from Lilla’s book it is rather because he does not quite catch the exuberance, the intellectual ingenuity, with which Vico wrote about those subjects which, he came to see, really interested him, and which his chosen antagonists had neglected or despised – mythology, epic poetry and early Roman history.

It is here that Joseph Mali seems to promise much, with a book devoted to Vico’s study of mythology. Instead of reading him for intimations of modern concerns, Mali proposes to establish what Vico ‘actually argued for, and thereby to argue for him’. After this it is disconcerting to be told that what Vico actually argued for is best caught by a phrase, ‘the rehabilitation of myth’, coined by a modern scholar, J.-P. Vernant, and that the argument is to be demonstrated as a series of ‘revisions’ of then prevalent ideas of science, civilisation, mythology and history, because Vico was ‘a revisionist in all but name’.

Like Lilla, Mali takes Vico’s Catholicism seriously. There is no suggestion that the Classical myths predated the Biblical story: Vico was clear that they were all elaborated after the Fall, and the catastrophes of the Tower of Babel and the Deluge. But he did believe that the way the Classical myths were constructed, as he came to understand it, was also valid for the elaboration of sacred history. Divination, the human response to God, was the necessary complement to Revelation, which flowed from God to men: the study of Classical myth therefore had a contribution to make to Christian wisdom.

Vico’s estimate of that contribution, Mali argues, was radically innovative. He rejected the theory of his greatest predecessor in the field, Francis Bacon, that ancient myths were the repositories of a hidden, sophisticated wisdom. On the contrary, their value lay in revealing the very different, quite unsophisticated ways in which the first men understood their world. Their wisdom, Vico proclaimed, was poetic rather than philosophical; in the poetic story-telling of the myths they constructed a ‘true narration’ (vera narratio) of their relations with nature and with each other. Moreover it was a communal wisdom, expressing the senso commune of a people as a whole. Vico illustrated this with his own interpretations of specific myths throughout the long second book of the New Science; but the climax of his argument came in Book III, the ‘Discovery of the True Homer’, where he advanced the remarkable suggestion that Homer was not a real person at all, but the Greek people, and that his poems were the expression of their customary wisdom in youth (the Iliad) and in old age (the Odyssey).

These were wonderful insights, and it is therefore all the more frustrating that Mali fails either to convey or to explain them with any consistency. One looks in vain for accounts of Vico’s interpretations of specific myths: surprisingly for someone to whom positivism is the antithesis of everything Vichian, Mali simply dismisses them as ‘erroneous’. Concentrating exclusively on Vico’s achievement as a theorist, Mali compares his ideas with those of other early commentators on mythology, from the ancients to the 18th century, while at the same time connecting them to the theories of modern anthropologists and social philosophers.

Neither procedure is well defined or clearly pursued. Mali is careless historically: names are jumbled (Giambattista rather than Celestino Galiani, Blackmore for Blackwell), and chronology is slighted (on one occasion he seems to suggest that Vico was aware of the ‘conjectural’ anthropo-histories of the Scottish Enlightenment). The purpose of drawing modern connections is never really made clear. The great names from late 20th-century mythological studies – Levi-Strauss, Geertz, Winch, Gadamer, Ricoeur and many others – drop freely enough onto the page, often accompanied by the ipsissima verba; and the book ends by hailing Alasdair MacIntyre as Vico’s likeliest modern heir, assisted by Joyce, with a final helping hand from Edward Said. But Mali does not stay long enough with any of these to enable their ideas to assist in the systematic reconstruction of Vico’s own theory; nor is there a serious, sustained attempt to characterise his intellectual legacy.

The one connecting thread is Mali’s claim that Vico (like MacIntyre) ranged himself against the Enlightenment. Lilla’s book is much less dependent on the same claim: his account of the evolution of Vico’s thought could well stand without it. Nevertheless it is a claim which Lilla, too, feels justified in making, as the first stage in a projected reconsideration of the legacy of the Counter-Enlightenment. ‘The Enlightenment’ which both authors have in mind appears as the more or less immediate successor to the Renaissance, with Bacon and Descartes as its midwives. It then continues, by way of Newton, Locke and (for some purposes) Hume, to the French Philosophes, reaching its end, if not its climax, in Kant. It is overwhelmingly a secular phenomenon, whose protagonists (at the least) attach little positive value to religion. In short it is the Enlightenment of traditional Ideengeschichte, as rendered in the classic works of Koyré, Becker and Cassirer.

The problem is that this understanding of the Enlightenment has been all but abandoned by historians. It has been discredited for the simple, unassailable reason that research since the war, in French, Italian and German as well as in English, has demonstrated its inadequacy in the face of mounting evidence for the complexity and diversity of intellectual activity across Europe over the late 17th and 18th centuries. A particular effect of this research has been to illuminate the interrelation of religious and intellectual currents, the varieties of orthodoxy as well as heterodoxy, and the intense if eccentric religious commitments of several philosophers once numbered without question among the secular. What had gone by the late 17th century was philosophers’ willingness to countenance religious war: there was a general resolve never to re-open the last and most international of these, the Thirty Years’ War. But this alone did not make a secular age. There was a little more open discussion of atheism, but the freest discussions were among orthodox French Catholics, competing to strengthen their counter-arguments. As the debates among students of Spinoza, or Bayle, or Vico’s Neapolitan contemporary Giannone have demonstrated, the line between genuine heterodoxy and implicit irreligion is hard to draw. Even David Hume, sharpest and most sophisticated of unbelievers, is being shown to have refined his objections in the context of a variety of religious cultures, French Catholic, Huguenot, Reformed Dutch, Irish as well as Scots Presbyterian, and with a nice awareness of the complexities of each.

Faced with such diversity, a growing number of historians have begun to question whether there ever was such a thing as ‘The Enlightenment’. Would it not be more illuminating, they ask, to deconstruct it into a series of ‘Enlightenments’, each identified by whichever characteristic best serves to distinguish it from others? We can have conservative Enlightenments to set off against radical ones, and acknowledge the existence of both confessional and national Enlightenments. Such deconstructive zeal is excessive, however: it denies the cosmopolitanism which gave so many men and women of letters the sense of belonging to a common cause, and encouraged them to exploit new developments in commercial publishing, the better to promote reform in their own societies. It also overlooks the extent to which political economy crossed national, confessional and political frontiers, making it possible to articulate a commitment to material betterment without directly challenging religious fundamentals. But even if the historical existence of a single European Enlightenment is sustained, there is no going back to the old, predominantly philosophical, understanding of it.

What is needed now is a recognition of the distinctiveness of the late 17th and early 18th-century period in which men of letters selfconsciously sought to form an international République des Lettres, but did not yet see themselves as a movement for ‘enlightenment’. To distinguish the period of the République des Lettres from that of the Enlightenment is not to deny an overlap. The Enlightenment began earlier in some places than in others; those prominent at its outset, such as Montesquieu, Hume or Antonio Genovesi, had necessarily acquired their early intellectual formation in the world of the République des Lettres. But it is no longer meaningful to use the term ‘Enlightenment’ to cover the entire period from 1648-1800. Equally it should be impossible to speak of a single philosophical ideology of the Enlightenment, to characterise it simply in terms of a commitment to ‘reason’ or ‘science’ or ‘criticism’ (or ‘critical-rational scientism’, in Mali’s rebarbative phrase). Even confined to a more specific period, the Enlightenment’s cosmopolitanism was not inconsistent with a spectrum of philosophical, religious and political positions, allowing room for both conflict within and overlap beyond its limits.

Given this richer, more sophisticated historical understanding of Vico’s time, it should be possible to obtain a more precise grasp of his distinctive achievement. Not only did he live firmly within the period of the République des Lettres, he was part of a vigorous intellectual community in Naples whose leaders were anxious to be admitted to its membership; if Vico himself came to feel slighted by the outside world, it was from this République that he seemed excluded, not from an Enlightenment of whose emergence he can only have had the merest inkling. In this setting, Lilla’s suggestion that scepticism was the spur to Vico’s intellectual creativity has a great deal of plausibility: contextual awareness might well here reinforce textual reinterpretation. But the same setting makes it much too simple to suggest that Vico pitted ‘religion’ against scepticism: in Naples as elsewhere in the decades around 1700 this only begs the question of the exact nature of his religion. Lilla and Mali admit that Vico’s Catholicism was in some degree unorthodox: it is not unreasonable to investigate just how close to the line of irreligion Vico was prepared to approach.

At the same time, to view Vico as a member – even a self-consciously embattled member – of the République des Lettres carries no automatic implication of hostility to the Enlightenment. Several of the ideas he developed in his attempt to rebut the sceptical account of natural man as merely self-interested were (in slightly different forms) commonplaces of Enlightenment jurisprudence. Vico’s work may not have been known outside Italy, but in Naples a number of his leading ideas were later taken up by avowed partisans of the Enlightenment, including Genovesi and Mario Pagano, who combined them with ideas they had gleaned from the French and the Scots.

To insist that Vico should be understood against a much richer historical context is not to diminish his achievement or deny him originality. But it is time to dispense, once and for all, with the historical solecism that he was ‘born out of his time’. To proceed on this assumption is to do no justice either to Vico or to his contemporaries.