- The New Science by Giambattista Vico
First published in 1765, The New Science is surprisingly relevant as Western civilization shows evidence of crumbling. Given the admitted difficulty of translating Vico's difficult prose, Giuseppe Mazzotta, Sterling Professor in the Humanities for Italian at Yale University, provides a helpful guide to the text. Vico's ambition in this book was to provide a reinterpretation of human civilization by tracing the stages of historical development shared by all societies. With hindsight provided by two and a half centuries, Mazzotto finds that Vico was not without influence, especially in later thinkers from Montesquieu and Karl Marx and to Hans Georg Gadamer. Rejecting the rationalism of Descartes, Vico finds his roots in the Stoics and in Augustine's idea of history, while acknowledging the importance of Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, and the Epicureans.
The book is divided into four parts: I, "On the establishment of Principles"; II, "On Poetic Wisdom"; III, "On the Discovery of the True Homer"; and IV, "On the Course that Nations Make." Our focus begins with Vico's meditation on poetic wisdom. All the histories of nations, he proclaims, have their origins in mythical beginnings, the Hebrew nation being the exception. All religious accounts or histories of origins are to be rejected. "Vanity" is a more important guide to a knowledge of national emergence. Speaking of the vanity of nations and the vanity of the learned, Vico points to the example of Manetho, an Egyptian high priest, who summarized all Egyptian history into a sublime natural history, just as the Greeks translated their history into an account of the development of Greek philosophy.
Speaking of wisdom in general, Vico identifies wisdom as the faculty that commands all disciplines, all the arts and sciences. The highest things [End Page 634] in the universe are those that come from attending to and reasoning about God. The best things, by contrast, are those that look to the benefit of the whole human race. Following a distinction between divine things and human things, he holds that true wisdom must teach knowledge of divine things so as to conduct human things toward the highest good.
Wisdom among the gentiles starts with the Muse, defined by Homer as the science of good and evil. God founded the true religion of the Hebrews from which comes our Christian religion. Divine science or metaphysics is the science the comes to know the mind of God in man, that is, God conceived as the source of all that is good and true. Metaphysics works toward the preservation and good of humankind insofar as it acknowledges the universal sense that providence exists.
Wisdom among the Hebrews and subsequently among the Christians finds its source in revelation, the science of eternal things disclosed by God. The root of civic authority is grounded in the recognition of providence. Divine providence, Vico goes on to say, has constructed the course of events in such a way that starting from the earliest wisdom, namely, poetic theology, and passing through the medium of natural theology, the nations became disposed to receive a revealed theology on the strength of supernatural faith, superior not only to sense but to human reason itself.
Reflecting on the subject of natural law, Vico cites Grotius to the effect that "natural law teaching prescinds from any reference to divine providence." There are three kinds of natural law, he declares: (1) divine law or the belief that things exist entirely by reason of the gods, (2) heroic law, the law of force, held back by religion that alone can keep one in the bounds of duty where there are no human laws or none strong enough to restrain it; and (3) human law dictated by human reason fully developed.
The Christian religion in speaking of human ends is better than all the others for it unifies a wisdom decreed to us with a wisdom reasoned out on the strength of doctrines culled from the best philosophers. Furthermore, in refining its doctrines Christianity advances the...