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  • Utopian Worlds: Vico, La Capria and Mazzotta
  • Giuseppina Palma (bio)

In the Elementi” of the Scienza nuova Vico rejects the illusion of political power that in the Republic Plato ascribes to philosophy because, he claims, “La filosofia considera l’uomo quale dev’essere” (SN 131). For the Neapolitan theorist, this premise contradicts the reality of human nature, which in its ruthless single-mindedness forges selfish systems. According to Vico, human greed kindles the tension between self-interest and common good and this leads to, among other things, cultures that seek to destroy each other, personal desires that disrupt harmonious ambitions and individual powers that render virtues powerless. Holding no illusion about the tyranny to which passions subject humanity, Vico deems philosophy powerless also because it lacks grounding in the realities shaping history; this makes it an unreliable compass for steering human will toward a socially and politically just polis.

By contrast, he believes that legislation provides the tools to confront and overcome the challenges facing humanity. Its codified value system guides humanity toward the delineation and championing of the sensus communis. For Vico the boundary of the law keeps humanity’s passions under control, regulates social affairs and ensures that society prevails, rather than the most ambitious individuals. To elucidate this point, and with a shift that characterizes both the complexity of his thoughts and his boldness, Vico asserts that human “ferocia”, “avarizia” and “ambizione” are channeled into “la fortezza, l’opulenza e la sapienza delle repubbliche” through the work of Providence that has a “divina mente legislatrice” (SN 132). Vico’s claim that Providence [End Page S32] counters humanity’s deviousness with guidance and wisdom is a daring vision that fuses political and theological philosophy. This system, he claims, shapes the storia ideale eterna. In it, Providence is not a malleable abstraction that reconciles conflicting forces; instead, it is God’s participation in creating egalitarian systems (NMW 252). By trumping injustice, these transform vices into virtues, civil unrest into social harmony and suffering into contentment.

The illusion of utopia, a vision of that which is perfect and not requiring improvements, seems absent in the principles underpinning Vico’s universal history. The pragmatic lens through which he views human history leads him to believe that the human spirit possesses a unique adaptability that is the living manifestation of the emotional baggage shaping human nature: it is angry, and at times amusing, but most often disconsolate and tormented. A knot of plasticity, even in its anguish it endeavors to master its surrounding circumstances and to realize the social potential of which it is capable. Vico’s understanding of the unremitting growth, adaptation, fluidity and renewal that sets the human spirit apart is encapsulated in the idea of “nascimento […] in certi tempi e con certe guise” (SN 147). Through this, with extraordinary incisiveness, and in opposition to the dominant cultural and intellectual philosophical currents of his times, Vico picks apart the incongruous notion of the fixity of human nature.

In the evolving communicative forms that begin with the use of signs, progress to linguistic metaphors, and in turn change to the literal use of prose, Vico detects yet another sequence of the phases marking the progress of human history. As he describes linguistic developments, Vico emphasizes the elasticity of language, equating to humanity’s innate sense of adaptation. Through verbal and written communication—which also includes the poetic language of laws— humanity modifies and improves social institutions. The momentous passage from a silent, quiescent mass to an audacious, goal-seeking and social-minded one captures the essence of a people increasingly more aware of its needs and determined to have them met. Impatient to master the ambiguities surrounding it, humanity turns from physical force to the power of language to achieve socio-political goals. These unremitting efforts to engineer its fortune, are for Vico evidence that utopia is extraneous to human experience because a fully realized, flawless society is not part of the immanent.

Yet his dismissiveness toward utopia is countered by his awareness that model societies exist within literary contexts. Within the university’s limits, as Mazzotta argues, utopia becomes feasible for Vico [End Page S33] (NMW 49). By looking beyond...