Certainly ... he [the reader] will perceive that all that has so far been written is a tissue of confused memories, of the fancies of a disordered imagination; that none of it is begotten of intelligence, which has been rendered useless by the two conceits enumerated in the Axioms. For on the one hand the conceit of the nations, each believing itself to have been the first in the world, leaves us no hope in getting the principles of our Science from the philologians. And on the other hand the conceit of the scholars, who will have it that what they know must have been eminently understood from the beginning of the world, makes us despair of getting them from the philosophers. So, for the purposes of this inquiry, we must reckon as if there were no books in the world. 1
It is a moment worth stopping for, not only because of the humorously magnificent gesture of shrugging away all other books. By this gesture Vico was signaling his intention: to clear the ground for something as yet undiscovered, for something obscured by a competing jungle of claims by nations and philologians. Vico's New Science is the "science" of social order. Through five books he argues for a universal rise of culture and civilization; he suggests the source and ordering of the development of language, family and political structure; he offers a curiously rancor-free reading of Homer; he sets out a running comparison of three major human social systems; and he finds a modern landing place for his ideas.
Vico divides the history of the world into the three ages. First is the age of the gods, in which the giants leave their bestial state, emerge from the forest into the lighted clearings, institute marriage, and acknowledge a pious fear of Jove, or God. Second he finds the age of heroes through his close readings of Greek and Roman authors. Heroics allow for the individual to regard himself and his honor above all else, to form famuli, and to impress on others, by the light of their arms, a social structure of nobles and plebians. In the third Age man moves through democratic forms of government to monarchy. He is ruled by rationality and lives in cities, under laws which treat of generalities, and not particulars.
Throughout The New Science there is a tension between Divine providence and human self-determination. In his conclusion Vico says, "[i]t is true that men have themselves made this world of nations." (382), but continues by insisting that within bounds, God had the preservation of the human race in mind. Initially God urges civilization through fear, then marriage, language, property rights and law. In these stages, humanity seems to have great latitude. But God also preserves humanity by allowing conquerors to punish the vitiated, so overthrowing civilizations and finally forcing a return to the forest. Vico asserts "[i]n one of its principal aspects, this Science must therefor be a rational civil theology of divine providence," (59) demonstrating the universal and eternal institutions ordered by providence for "this great city of the human race." (60)
Vico was not wholly unique. As a jurist, philosopher and professor
Vico was passionately engaged in the historical conversation -- he quotes
writers who serve as sources, he mentions writers who must be accounted
for, he tasks writers who must be corrected. In this sense, he not
only cannot get rid of books; his whole work rests on books, on other books.
In addition to the framework of scholarship, he wrote within his own the
political and civil framework. Monarchies are the state in which
nations finally rest. Many present day scholars might feel a kinship
to Vico upon seeing the pleasure he took in setting up a really big theoretical
Thus the proper and continual proof here adduced will consist in comparing and reflecting whether our human mind, in the series of possibilities it is permitted to understand, and so far as it is permitted to do so, can conceive more or fewer different causes than those from which issue the effects of this civil world. In doing this the reader will experience in his mortal body a divine pleasure as he contemplates in the divine ideas this world of nations in all the extent of its places, times and varieties. (61)
Yet Vico is uniquely suggestive. It would be hard to name a work that has more echoes of nineteenth and twentieth century thought on biology, economics, language, sociology, mythology. Bergin and Fisch first collaborated on the translation of Vico's New Science in 1939, and published in 1948. Was Vico needed then for the developing science of sociology? And what will be the occasion of the next Vico translation?
1 Giambattista Vico. The New Science. Trans. &
Ed. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. 3rd Ed.
Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961. 52.
All other quotations in this text are to this edition.