Saturday, 15 February 2014

Giambattista Vico in 15 Epigrams

We want to tackle the great thinkers and innovators head on. Voltaire, Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka, Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fernando Pessoa, Noam Chomsky,  – we read their books alone, dawdle in their thoughts unsupervised, refusing all mediators and scorning interpretations alien to our consciousness, from those smaller thinkers who circle the great thinkers like cleaner fish around a shark Us and them, in a melding of minds. But things not always work like that. Some genius minds are so portentous, so clogged, so muddy we need someone to explain what’s so great about them. Some of the great thinkers’ minds, like burning stars, shine too strong a light for man to gaze at it directly. And this leaves us in a conundrum: either we keep staring at it and grow blind, or we turn our look away and remain forever in ignorance. It is on these occasions that we require the smaller thinkers, critics, scholars, essayists, peddlers of secondary literature. And like the cleaner fish, they feed on the great thinkers but also keep them clean and healthy, because quite a lot of them have accumulated a bit of ectoparasites and dead skin over the eons.

Take Giambattista Vico, for instance. Influenced Jules Michelet, Benedetto Croce and James Joyce, all effusive admirers of this Italian thinker. No doubt there’s something tremendous, even life-changing in the new science he invented sometime in the 18th century, extensively detailed in a book conveniently titled The New science. But I’ll be damned if I made head or tail of what he was going on about. Amidst the countless references to a universal diluvium, the long Latin sentences in italics, and the abstruse name-dropping of Greco-Roman myths and personalities from Antiquity, coupled with a tortuous, not to say bland, prose, I had no luck trudging through this shifty quagmire in my desperate quest for understanding just what this new science is supposed to be.

As we all know, I’m currently reading ten books after a public voting. My first book for this project was Giambattista Vico’s The New Science. This was my first major failure of the year. It’s not so much that it’s a bad book. I’ve stopped reading books this year because of how bad they were. Baltasar Lopes’ Chiquinho was one of them; José Luandino Vieira’s Nós, os de Makulusu was another. But those were just bad. There’s nothing wrong with stopping to read bad books, especially when I (officially) have 130 books at home to read, and when just yesterday I bought three books by Oliveira Martins, which I’m sure will be terrific reads. No, The New Science transcends badness. The book’s problem is really its aura of cognitive opaqueness: I understood the adverbs, just barely. I honestly could not grasp the meaning of the words as they were articulated in front of my eyes. And perhaps that’d be alright if I were reading Samuel Beckett’s short-story “Ping.” But 800 pages of it? No. There’s only so much goodwill I can muster for unreadable books, and I’m saving all of it for Codex Seraphinianus.

But I do not wish to defraud readers of their expectations, who no doubt spent a fortnight fraught with insomniac anxiety regarding the contents of one of the list’s most voted books. So I’ll turn to one of my favourite cleaner fish, Isaiah Berlin, and his magnificent essay on Vico contained in The Power of Ideas. My favourite historian of ideas is very generous to Vico; in this essay about his life and ideas, Berlin provides an excellent and readable introduction to a man he calls “one of the most audacious innovators of the history of human thought.” That’s pretty grand. Does the praise live up to the hyperbole? From my befuddled readings, no, but Berlin’s essay makes a good case for it, and you should take his word for it on these matters. He’s not avaricious in listing the Italian thinker’s many feats:

He advanced important and bold ideas about the nature of men and human society; he attacked then-ruling notions about the nature of knowledge, having revealed, or at least identified, one of its decisive regions, till then unexplored; he virtually invented the idea of culture; his theory of mathematics had to wait for our century to be recognized as revolutionary; he anticipated the aesthetics of the Romantics and the historicists, operating something of a transformation in this discipline; he was virtually the inventor of anthropology and comparative philology, and consequently inaugurated the new approach to history and social sciences; his conceptions of language, of myth, of Law, of symbolism and the relationships between social evolution and cultural evolution encompassed genial intuitions; he was the first the delineate the famous distinction between natural sciences and the Humanities studies, which from that point on would constitute a decisive question.

Ah, so that’s what the book is about! I still don’t believe it, but I’ll give Berlin the benefit of the doubt. But in order to explain why his golden boy is not very famous in the history of ideas, and why he’s cyclically rediscovered only to fall into oblivion again, Berlin must concede me my many issues with the book. In fact, as if he had predicted that one day I’d write this blog post, Berlin, in a pre-emptive strike, gives Vico a nice dressing down:

The main reason for such a fate is probably the obscurity and the chaotic nature of his writings. His thought is a labyrinthine forest of pioneering ideas, of quotations and recondite allusions, of excursions and improvised divagations – the whole is rich, strange, confused, surprising, immensely suggestive, but unreadable. There are too many new ideas battling to open a path at the same time; Vico struggles to say too many things about too many things; ideas collide and reciprocally darken each other, and although all of that infuses a sort of turbulent vitality in everything he writes, it favours neither transparency nor elegance. The reader feels assaulted and is left stunned and exhausted; there’s not one idea conveniently illustrated, or developed and organized under a coherent form. His style is extremely ungrateful. Like Bizet said of Berlioz, Vico was a genius destitute of talent. But a great deal of what he has to say is of fundamental importance, besides original and convincing.

I’m not sure of that last sentence, but the rest is spot on. But shouldn’t his turgid style have found him a more loyal audience, especially in our time? Would Vico’s dense vagaries be out of place amongst the popular producers of gobbledygook from modern Continental philosophy? The similarities are immense: the discursive style of somebody writing to the flow of his ideas as they show up in his mind, without stopping to edit them into shape; the ability to use ten words to say absolutely nothing; vague syntactically sound fragments here and there; a propensity to make lots of claims without backing them up with anything concrete. It’s not fair that Vico be so unknown when Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida were academic super-stars. In the name of justice, they should be equally obscure. Vico, it must be said to his merit, never presumed, unlike Baudrillard, to have omniscient powers that let him know how members of ancient societies really thought about certain ideas. The downside of this is that reading Vico is not as funny as reading Baudrillard, because at no point does he go, “This is how Christians really thought about Christianity in the Middle Ages!” He knew it better than the people who lived back then and left actual accounts of their relationship with religion! He knew, he was a French philosopher damn it, you respect him you philistines! Yeah, Baudrillard is a special pleasure of mine.

But Vico once in a while digs out from his convoluted mind a nugget of meaning, usually in the form of epigrams, which is an art he should have tried exploring instead. So I leave you with fifteen good ones:

1 Man, due to the indefinite nature of the human mind, on falling into ignorance makes himself the rule of the universe.

2 Philosophy, to be useful to the human genre, must lift and rule man when he’s fallen and feeble, not destroy his nature or abandon him in his corruption.

3 Philosophy considers man such as he should be and, therefore, it can be of no use save to a very few, who wish to live in Plato’s republic and not to fall in Romulus’ rubble.

4 Legislation considers man just as he is, to make good uses of him for human society.

5 Things, out of their natural state, neither establish themselves nor last.

6 Uniform ideas, born in the bosom of whole nations, unknown amongst each other, must possess a common basis of truth.

7 It is necessary to exist in the nature of human things a mental language common to all the nations, which uniformly understands the substance of factual things in social human life, and explains it in its many different modifications and in the various different aspects which those things can present. (To Berlin’s roll of feats we can add that Vico pioneered Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar)

8 Fantasy is all the more robust the weaker reasoning is.

9 The most sublime work of poetry is to give insensate things meaning and passion, and it is characteristic of children to pick up inanimate things between their hands and, amusing themselves, speak to them as if they were living people.

10 Men are naturally led to conserve memories of the laws and orders that keep them within their societies.

11 The human mind is naturally led to delight itself with uniformity.

12 Men first feel without advertence, then advert with a perturbed and moved spirit, finally they reflect with a pure mind.

13 The nature of nations is first cruel; then severe; next benign; then delicate; finally dissolute.

14 Governments must be in conformity to the nature of the men being ruled.

15 The weak want laws; the powerful refuse them; ambitious men, to form followings, promote them; princes, to equalize the powerful with the weak, protect them.

Princes, that’s good. The next book is Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince.


  1. I have not read Vico.

    You make really good point; based upon your description he sounds very much like some of our current post modern writers. One indeed would expect him to be more popular these days.

    1. Brian, Vico is a thinker would not recommend to anyone. I think what he's written about can be found in modern, clearer thinkers whose ideas are, furthermore, up to date on knowledge and science. He's a classic, but I don't think that's enough for the bother.

  2. "Popular" is not the word I would use, but I think Vico is being read by the folks who can make use of him. Plus all the Joyceans - a knock against Vico for Miguel.

    You almost made me want to re-read Vico, but I am busy with other things, I guess, so you just made me look at it. Your edition is 800 pages? The Bergin and FIsch translation is only a bit over 400. Big pages, but not that big.

    1. Maybe my edition just has small pages.

      I can't imagine someone with the spirit to re-read it. But perhaps a post by you on Vico would be perceptive, and funny. See if you can free some time on your agenda.

  3. Thanks for the post Miguel. I'm still planning on reading Vico and several works "around" him (like a study of the times, I guess), but it will be later in the year. It's helpful to know how to prepare for it and what to expect.

    1. I hope I didn't get you disillusioned. Don't take my word for it. Tom vouches for him, and he knows his stuff. But Vico is not for me. Perhaps you can make me see things differently.

    2. Sometimes something just isn't "for you" regardless. I found a couple of books by Frank Manuel I want to do in conjunction with it…a peak in those have peeked my interest. But it isn't happening until summer.

  4. He was a professor of Modern History at Brandeis and wrote several excellent books on the history of science and ideas. Two in particular I've picked up: The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods and Isaac Newton Historian. The first looks at the nature of the gods as viewed in the 1700s, the second looks at Newton's many works focusing on history and myth. They should provide a good overview of what Vico was seeing and hearing on some of the topics he touches on while he was writing The New Science.

    1. Indeed those must be very interesting books. I'm more anxious to read your Vico month now, knowing it's not going to have just Vico :)