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The Neglected Genius: Giambattista Vico of Naples

Giambattista Vico - Lucian of Samosata Wiki

“I don’t believe in any science, but my imagination grows when I read Vico in a way that it doesn’t when I read Freud or Jeung.” – James Joyce (Ellman, Richard: James Joyce. 2nd ed. pg. 693, New York: Oxford UP, 1983)

The simplest definition of history is the branch of knowledge dealing with past events. Though it is admittedly an oversimplification, one could argue that human history is created by basically two types of people: doers and sayers. The doers could also be termed “people of action”; those who make their mark by engaging in activities that significantly alter the world, for better or worse. Examples of this sort include Alexander of Macedon, Christopher Columbus, the Wright brothers and Albert Einstein.

Sayers, on the other hand, are those who, through the printed and/or spoken word, seek to alter the world around them by impressing their thoughts on others. Examples of this sort include Kong Qiu (Confucius), Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Paine and Karl Marx.

As one might imagine, often there is a considerable degree of overlap between these two broad categories. Thomas Jefferson, for example, one of America’s greatest presidents, was also a political philosopher who sought, through his writings, to spread the ideals of liberal republicanism across the globe as a counter to the hegemonistic aspirations of British monarchial imperialism.

It has been said the only thing truly respected in the animal kingdom is strength, and though many still don’t like to admit it, we humans are members of that kingdom, albeit it’s most psychologically complex members. Thus, it should come as little surprise the bulk of the Great Unwashed would be more familiar with the “greats” among the doers than those among the sayers. It should be comparatively easy (thanks to Hollywood) to find Americans familiar with the life of General George S. Patton Jr. Good luck trying to find someone (outside of a university campus) who’s ever read any of the works of Thomas Paine.

Humans first began putting their thoughts into writing about 5,500 years ago. Over the centuries, as human societies became more sophisticated, the most intelligent and learned members of those societies found time to begin tackling problems related to abstract concepts such as truth, purpose, meaning, morality and value. These early sayers wrote down their thoughts on these issues in the early scripts for posterity. It was these writings that eventually gave rise to the disciplines which today we collectively call “philosophy”.

The millennia have produced countless philosophers; most of whom, together with their philosophies, have disappeared into the mists of time. People either ignored them and their teachings or some followed them only to discard them when another caught their fancy. Still other philosophies at one time enjoyed a wide number of adherents, only to disappear under a brutal suppression. Catharism is an example of this.

One subject that has always fascinated this writer is that of the neglected genius; a person who through their writings exerted a significant if not profound influence on future generations, but for whatever reason is not rightfully given their due by historians. The subject of this essay is one such person; a son of il sud who deserves more space in the history books than he is given.

Giovanni Battista (or Giambattista) Vico was born on June 23rd, 1668 in the city of Naples in the Kingdom of Naples. He was born in a room over his father’s small bookshop. His father, Antonio di Vico of Maddaloni (in Campania), was a farmer’s son who had moved to Naples about 1656. His mother, Candida Masullo of Naples, was the daughter of Giambattista Masullo, a carriage maker. She was Antonio’s second wife and their son Giambattista was the sixth of eight children she bore her husband.

Giambattista Vico described his father as being of “a cheerful disposition” and his mother of “a quite melancholy temper.” He stated both contributed to his character.

At the age of seven he fell head first off a ladder, fracturing the right side of his skull. The family physician predicted the boy would either die or grow up an idiot. He did neither. Years later, however, he would attribute his penchant for melancholia and his irritable temper to this childhood injury. He convalesced for three years, his father making sure the boy attended to his studies. When young Giambattista was well enough to return to school, both his father and his teacher discovered to their surprise the boy not only had maintained his studies, he was actually ahead of his peers in learning. He was advanced to the next grade level.

He was next tutored by Jesuit priests where he again demonstrated surpassing intellectual gifts, but he withdrew from them when he felt they slighted his intelligence. He continued home schooling, often studying through the night, ignoring his mother’s admonitions to go to sleep. He credits the Jesuit priest Antonio del Balzo, a nominalist philosopher, with first piquing his interest in philosophy.

In 1686 Vico fell ill (modern historians believe it was epidemic typhus). After he recovered he accepted a tutoring position from one Domenica Rocca in Vitolla, south of Salerno. It would last for nine years. Though he did recover from his sickness, Vico would be plagued with bouts of ill health that would last the rest of his life.

He went to the city of Rome in 1695. Four years later he married a childhood friend, Teresa Caterina Destito. Together they had eight children; three of whom died before reaching adulthood. By his own admission, of the surviving five, only one, Gennaro, was not a disappointment to him.

The same year he married he took a chair in Rhetoric at the University of Naples. For the remainder of his career, he would seek to attain, but never get, the more respectable chair in Jurisprudence. Like most of his children, this would be one of the sources of disappointment in his life.

In 1710 Vico first formulated his verum factum principle, as outlined in his work De Italorum Sapienta. Simply put, this principle states that truth is verified through creation or invention, and not through observation, as the eminent French philosopher René Descartes had argued years earlier.

Vico’s greatest and most controversial work was La Scienza Nuova (It: “The New Science”). First published in 1725, in it Vico argued that human societies, like mathematics, are wholly constructed and therefore knowable. He contended that civilizations basically develop in three cycles which he termed “the divine”, “the heroic” and “the human”. Each age, he claimed, displayed distinct political and social features. This theme of the cyclical nature of civilization would centuries later form the nucleus of Oswald Spengler’s masterful tome The Decline of the West (1918). Vico’s La Scienza Nuova would remain the most profound analysis of class struggles in human societies until Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital (1867).

In 1734 Vico was appointed Royal historiographer by King Charles III of Spain (who was also King Charles of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily). This gave him a salary far greater than his meager earnings as a professor of Rhetoric. Declining health forced him to give up his chair in Rhetoric to his son Gennaro in 1741. On January 23rd, 1744 Giambattista Vico died at the age of 75.

Giambattista Vico, during his lifetime and forever afterwards, has remained relatively unknown. Vico described himself as a “stranger” and “quite unknown” in his native Naples. Beginning in the 18th century, however, his views began to make quite an impression on the philosophical world. This occurred even though, ironically, in many cases the people being influenced by his ideas were unaware as to their actual origin.

In Italy, Vico’s influence on jurisprudence, economics and political theory can be traced from Vico’s own pupil Antonio Genovesi to Ferdinando Galiani and Gaetano Filangieri. His impact on aesthetic and literary criticism is evident in the writings of Francesco De Sanctis, Giovanni Gentile and his most ardent admirer: the redoubtable Benedetto Croce!

His thoughts went far beyond Italy, however. In France, his influence has been seen in the writings of Charles de Secondat, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Denis Diderot, Etienne Bonnot, and Joseph Marie.

In Germany Vico’s ideas found fertile ground. They influenced such people as Johann-George Hamman, J.G. von Herder, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Friedrich August Wolf and even the eminent figure of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe! A German translation of The New Science in 1822 by W.E. Weber and a French translation by Jules Michelet garnered for Vico’s views an even wider audience, even if Vico’s part in them was all too often downplayed. Subsequently, Vico’s views strongly influenced James Joyce (seen in his final work Finnegan’s Wake), R.G. Collingwood and Karl Marx.

In the UK Vico’s influence can be seen in the philosophical writings of the Empiricists and thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, though there is no evidence they were aware of its source.

20th century scholarship has drawn parallels to the writings of Vico and luminaries such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Spinoza and Nietzsche, numbering him with the greats. Like these men, Vico is recognized by some as a highly original thinker whose views have spread far beyond philosophy and influenced such disciplines as anthropology, education, cultural theory, literary criticism, psychology and sociology.

To those who know and appreciate his works, however, Giambattista Vico is chiefly remembered as the “father of the modern philosophy of history”. That his legacy is obscured, even if his works enjoy a wide dissemination, is a testament to the enduring bigotry our people face as a matter of course by our European neighbors. This obviously great man certainly deserves a loftier place in the history books than what has been given him.

Niccolò Graffio. “The Neglected Genius.” 06-23-2010. <>.

vico/the-neglected-genius.txt · Last modified: 2014/01/14 23:20 (external edit)