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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 301-304

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Book Review

Ancient Language and Myth as New Science:
Vico's Response to the Moderns

Mark Williams,
California State University, Long Beach

Guiseppe Mazzotta. The New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). Pp. 286. $52.50 cloth.

James Robert Goetsch. Vico's Axioms: The Geometry of the Human World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). Pp. 190. $35.00 cloth.

When Giambattista Vico argued for the importance of poetry and rhetoric at the University of Naples convocation in 1708, the instruments of science and the discoveries of scientists overshadowed his words. With killer pathogens newly visible through microscopes and the laws of gravity confirmed through [End Page 301] telescopes, Vico knew students would be increasingly disinterested in the study of language. So Vico claimed that even though science provides important discoveries, the empirical project ultimately ends in fractured views of a world created by God and in an arrogant politics of power. We can know only what we make, Vico writes. This principle of verum-factum sanctions his descent into the myths and parables made by the ancients to counter Descartes' distrust of language, to correct Machiavelli's conspiratorial political science, and to unify the splintered, instrumental vision of the Enlightenment.

Vico surveys an encyclopedic range of texts in The New Science (1725) to recover the "modifications of mind" that produced the first poetic knowledge and that informed the rituals of religion, families, and pagan politics (374). Vico argues that language allowed the first persons to render a sense of the divine in a dangerous and chaotic world. Separated from God by the flood, their imperfect minds a "measure of all things" (120), man imagined the sky as "a great animated body" where Jove wields thunderbolts (502). This anthropomorphic making of divinity through the tropes of poetic logic is a necessary expression common to all people and all nations. The Christian God, in providential contrast, views the civil world from above (2).

The paradox of man creating God through language and God creating man through miracle is central to Vico's project and is one reason why he can be so difficult to read. He investigates particular human experience to posit universal human actions in a writing style that his contemporaries and ours have called incoherent. Indeed, while Vico condemns the conceit of the moderns for relying on science to reach clarity and certainty as they ignore history and their own imaginative constructions of the world, some wonder if Vico displays a conceit of his own as he celebrates the poetic wisdom of probabilities uncovered through myth, while maintaining an all-knowing God who "confirms the truth of the Christian religion" (1047). Two recent texts offer important explanations of this Vichian paradox by examining the antithetical quality of his writing, the role of divinity and faith for politics and philosophy, and the importance of poetry and rhetoric for realizing wisdom. Guiseppe Mazzotta and James Robert Goetsch Jr. examine Vico's project to consider present day dismissals of language as a surface concern; poetry and rhetoric are, for Vico, the means to unite fractured human experience.

In The New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, Mazzotta grants Vico visionary status as one who offers a counter-discourse to modernity through a spiraling style of thought and writing called recorso. Recorsoallows Vico to divine the future through the past, to discover the laws of history, and to integrate theology with politics and philosophy. In Vico's Axioms: A Geometry of the Human World, James Robert Goetsch Jr. details how Vico's deploys acutteza to discover a sense of the unfamiliar in The New Science, to reexamine the role of rhetoric and poetry to make knowledge in a world of contradiction. Both authors consider how Vico revalues myth and history to offer better understanding and appreciation of "the whole": what Mazzotta calls poetry's power to unify...


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