Literary Criticism of Giambattista Vico

The Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) expressed in his writings a historical view of the progress of human thought, language, and culture that anticipates the evolutionary perspectives of Hegel, Marx, and others. His major work was his Scienza Nuova (New Science), first published in 1725, with subsequent editions in 1730 and 1744. Like his more famous successors, he views human nature not as timeless and unchanging but as produced by specific social, religious, and economic circumstances.

Born in Naples, Vico was educated in rhetoric and medieval philosophy, and had a wide range of interests, extending from philology and poetry to sociology, theology, and law. In his early life he was affiliated with a group of radical intellectuals who reacted against the central tenets of medieval philosophy and whose vision expressed the rationalist and empiricist values of the Enlightenment, being based on the works of such people as Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), Francis Bacon, and Descartes. After he became professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples, Vico joined another group of thinkers, the Palatine Academy, which was also committed to Enlightenment and the liberation of philosophy and science from theology. Vico made a number of speeches on humanistic education. His historical poetics have influenced such thinkers as Edward Said and Harold Bloom.

gbvicoVico explains that the purpose of his New Science is to study “the common nature of nations in the light of divine providence.”1 He points out that the “world of civil society” – which encompasses human social, political, and legal institutions – “has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind” (NS, para. 331, p. 96). His point is that philosophers have devoted their energies to studying nature which, having been made by God, is knowable only by him. In doing this, they have neglected to study the civil world, which we can know about since we created it. However, like Hegel, he rejects the notion, advanced for example by Stoics and Epicureans, that human history is a random or blind series of events. Rather, it has been ordered by divine providence. Hence the “new science” must be “a rational civil theology of divine providence,” demonstrating in its analysis of human institutions “what providence has wrought in history.” Indeed, true “wisdom . . . should teach the knowledge of divine institutions in order to conduct human institutions to the highest good” (NS, para. 364, p. 110). This science, therefore, describes “an ideal eternal history traversed in time by the history of every nation” (NS, para. 349, p. 104). Equally, however, Vico’s “science” will be “a history of the ideas, the customs, and the deeds of mankind,” from which he will attempt to derive “the principles of the history of human nature” (NS, para. 368, p. 112). Like Hegel’s historical scheme, then, and perhaps equally reflective of the Enlightenment ideals imbibed by both writers, Vico’s vision of historical progress allows for a mutual accommodation or equivalence of divine and human agency. Those Enlightenment ideals – pertaining to the primacy of reason, science, and human free will – had begun to undermine notions of history as simply the unilateral unfolding of divine providence. Vico’s thought reflects his affiliation with the early stages of Enlightenment thinking: providence and human agency are brought into an uneasy equivalence; human agency is now admitted into the scheme, making for a precarious balance between human and divine operations. After Hegel, this balance will become permanently upset in favor of human directiveness and natural causality (as divested of its divine expressiveness).

In a strikingly new fashion, Vico’s insights into poetry form an integral part of his attempt to explain the origins and development of human society. He takes his threefold division of history from the Egyptians: the age of gods, of heroes, and of men. Each of these periods, he says, had its own language, civil society, and form of government. The age of gods represents a time when people lived directly under “divine governments,” and followed the commandments given by prophecies and oracles. The language spoken by this community was “a mute language of signs and physical objects” which had a “natural” connection to the ideas they expressed. Vico calls this a “hieroglyphic” or “sacred” language. The age of heroes refers to “aristocratic commonwealths” in which the “heroes,” or those of superior nature, rule over the common people. The “heroic language” used here was a “symbolic” language comprised of “similitudes, comparisons, images, metaphors, and natural descriptions.” This system in turn gave way to the age of men, in “which all men recognized themselves as equal in human nature,” and established two forms of “human government,” first popular commonwealths and then monarchies. The language used here was “epistolary” or “vulgar,” serving the everyday requirements of life. It was agreed upon by convention, a language of which the common people were “absolute lords”; hence the common people had wrested control of the language and the laws from the nobles (NS, para. 31–32, p. 20).

One of the foundations of Vico’s views of poetic language is his assertion, as against previous philologists, that letters and language were born together and developed together through the three historical periods. Indeed, in the first period, the first gentile peoples (by which Vico means pre-Christian peoples) “were poets who spoke in poetic characters.” Contrary to our notions of poetry as requiring a heightened command of language, Vico sees the origin of poetry in a “poverty of language” and in the need to “to explain and be understood.” The first people, he says, had “vigorous imaginations” and “great passions” but “the feeblest reasoning powers.” Hence they used “poetic characters” such as images of animate substances, gods, and heroes. Vico calls these poetic characters “imaginative genera,” which were effectively fables or myths used to explain the world (NS, para. 34, p. 21). Hence the first science to be learned, says Vico, should be mythology or the interpretation of fables (NS, para. 51, p. 33). The next, heroic, period used “heroic” speech, which was symbolic. In the third period, there was a progression from heroic verses to iambics, after which the language “finally settled into prose” (NS, para. 34, p. 22). These languages, says Vico, provide a “mental dictionary” which we need in order to understand all other languages: “Such a lexicon is necessary for learning the language spoken by the ideal eternal history traversed in time by the histories of all nations” (NS, para. 35, p. 23).

Wisdom itself changed its shape, says Vico, as history progressed. Among the first peoples, wisdom “began with the Muse” and the first sages were “theological poets” who practiced the “science of divining” (NS, para. 361–364, pp. 109–110). Such was the “vulgar wisdom of all nations” which consisted in “contemplating God under the attribute of his providence” (NS, para. 365, p. 111). Human institutions were regulated by “sensible signs believed to be divine counsels.” Wisdom was then expanded to include “useful counsels given to mankind” and the effective ordering of commonwealths. Hence this poetic theology was also a “civil theology” (NS, para. 366, p. 111). After this period of “poetic theology” came the era of metaphysics or “natural theology.” In this second period, wisdom consisted of a “knowledge of man’s mind in God” and the recognition of God as “the source of all truth” and as “the regulator of all good” (NS, para. 365, p. 111). The metaphysics of this period moved beyond the senses and demonstrated providence by the use of reason (NS, para. 366, pp. 111–112). The final period was that of Christian theology, which comprehended the wisdom of the earlier periods and added “the science of eternal things revealed by God,” a science which furnished knowledge “of the true good and true evil” (NS, para. 365, p. 111). Hence Christian theology was “a mixture of civil and natural with the loftiest revealed theology; all three united in the contemplation of divine providence” (NS, para. 366, p. 111). Vico also sees this progression of wisdom or knowledge as moving from the senses (the province of poetry) through reason (the sphere of philosophy) to revelation. Vico here is effectively historicizing Aristotle’s dictum that what is in the human intellect is first received through the senses (NS, para. 363, p. 110; De Anima, 432a7f ). As with Hegel, each stage of Vico’s historical scheme does not simply leave earlier stages behind but incorporates their crucial elements even as it transcends them. Hence the Christian era incorporates both sense and reason even as it moves on to the higher plane of revelation. What is obviously different about Hegel’s scheme, perhaps reflecting the historical points at which these two thinkers intersect with Enlightenment thought (Vico situated in the earlier stages and Hegel positioned subsequent to Enlightenment), is that human thought progresses through religion to its ultimate goal in philosophy.

What is interesting in Vico’s system is that poetry, a mode of knowing the world through the senses, was the first form of metaphysics, and that the forms of this poetic metaphysics are retained somewhat in the later, rational and revealed metaphysics. The metaphysics of the first period, says Vico, was “not rational and abstract like that of learned men now, but felt and imagined . . . This metaphysics was their poetry” (NS, para. 375, p. 116). The poets of this period created things “according to their own ideas . . . by virtue of a wholly corporeal imagination,” in other words, an imagination wholly grounded on sense rather than reason and therefore, according to Vico, possessing sublimity. At this time, the work of poetry was threefold: “to invent sublime fables suited to the popular understanding”; to possess the poet; and “to teach the vulgar to act virtuously” (NS, para. 376, p. 117). In this way, says Vico, the first theological poets “created the first divine fable, . . . that of Jove, king and father of men and gods” (NS, para. 379, p. 118). They believed that Jove commanded by sensible signs, that “such signs were real words, and that nature was the language of Jove.” The science of this language was divination, the science of the language of the gods (NS, para. 379, p. 119). It was fear or terror of the present, says Vico, which made people create gods and the science of divination (NS, para. 382, p. 120). It was in this very fear that poetry had its origins, the fear that gave rise to both religion and the divinatory language of religion. The “proper material” of poetry is “the credible impossibility,” which expresses the impossibility of attributing animation and agency to inanimate objects such as the sun and sky. Hence it was the poets, according to Vico, who founded religions among the earliest people (NS, para. 383, p. 120). Vico stresses that, in attributing the origins of poetry to a deficiency of reasoning power, he is upsetting all previous theories of the genesis of poetry given by Plato, Aristotle, and Italian Renaissance thinkers.

Indeed, the first poets, says Vico, spoke a language which, far from according with the actual nature of things, “was a fantastic speech making use of physical substances endowed with life and most of them imagined to be divine” (NS, para. 401, pp. 127– 128). By means of divinities they explained everything connected with “the sky, the earth, and the sea.” Our own modern era, Vico suggests, uses personifications to understand spiritual entities: we make human images of them. But the first poets, not having our power of abstraction, attributed senses and passions to inanimate objects (NS, para. 402, p. 128). All the tropes, says Vico, are reducible to four basic tropes: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (NS, para. 409, p. 131). These basic tropes are the forms taken by the “poetic logic” of the first peoples and they still underlie our basic apprehension of the world. The most “necessary and frequent” trope is metaphor, which “gives sense and passion to insensate things.” Hence metaphor was a means of attributing human capacities to inanimate entities, of commensurating elements of the outside world with our own human capacities, and thereby making narratives or fables of those elements. Hence “every metaphor . . . is a fable in brief.” Significantly, and anticipating some modern theories, Vico attributes to metaphor a seminal function in the creation of philosophy. The metaphors expressing analogies  between the external world and the operation of our minds “must date from times when philosophies were taking shape.” Hence these tropes lie at the foundation of human thinking in both arts and sciences (NS, para. 404–405, p. 129). Vico notes the numerous expressions in all languages that attempt to humanize elements of the outside world: we speak of the “brow or shoulder of a hill,” of “a beard of wheat”; we say that the “sea smiles” or that the “wind whistles.” Vico takes such endeavors, embodied in all languages, as an index of the ignorance of the first peoples: “man in his ignorance makes himself the rule of the universe . . . he has made of himself an entire world.” Vico suggests that as our reasoning powers progress, we venture beyond our human constitution into the nature of things themselves, rather than imposing our own human image on the world around us. Vico raises some extremely complex issues here: the role of subjectivity in creating the external world; the nature of human understanding and the temptation to reduce everything outside of us to the mold of our own mental operations; and the poetic, metaphorical basis of our engagement with the world. His scheme here is very different from that of Hegel who, influenced by Kant, saw human knowledge progressing in the degree to which it recognized its own operations in the construction of the external world. Vico seems to suggest that intellectual progress is made as we remove subjective elements from our account of the world.

Because they did not have the capacity to abstract qualities from a given entity, the first poets, says Vico, also used metonymy and synecdoche, both of which helped them to name things on the basis of the “most particular and the most sensible ideas” (NS, para. 406, p. 130). However, irony – which is “fashioned of falsehood . . . which wears the mask of truth” – could not have begun until the “period of reflection.” The first poets had the “simplicity of children” and were “truthful by nature”; hence the first fables must have been “true narrations” (NS, para. 408, p. 131). Implicit in Vico’s remarks is the idea that irony can arise only in a more refined civilization where people can distance themselves from their own thought and language. These four tropes, says Vico, were “necessary modes of expression of all the first poetic nations.” With further development of the human mind, these tropes became “figurative,” since words were invented which could signify “abstract forms or genera” (NS, para. 409, p. 131). What Vico appears to mean here is that, in their initial use among primitive peoples, the four basic tropes represented the only engagement with the world: this engagement had no underlying literal basis. As the human mind developed, a more rational, scientific, and literal expression of our relationship with the world was established and the tropes were reduced to a figurative status, articulated in relation to this literal level. They remained, however, as integrally related to the literal and endured as its foundation. Thus, Vico attributes two important historical functions to poetry, or what he calls “poetic wisdom”: on it was founded the religious and civil institutions of the first peoples; and it provided the embryonic basis for all further learning.


1. The New Science of Giambattista Vico, revised translation of third edition, Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 1968), para. 31, p. 20. Hereafter cited as NS.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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