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A Little Giambattista Vico Sampler

‘Iconography of famous men and women: from the time of the Risorgimento of the sciences and the arts to the present day’, Milano, Antonio Locatelli, 1837. Engraving by Giuseppe Fusinati.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA is a sampler introduction to give a taste of Giambattista Vico’s style, world and scope of Ideas. ‘Giambattista Vico (23 June 1668 – 23 January 1744) was an Italian philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist during the Italian Enlightenment. He criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism, finding Cartesian analysis and other types of reductionism impractical to human life, and he was an apologist for classical antiquity and the Renaissance humanities, in addition to being the first expositor of the fundamentals of social science and of semiotics. He is recognized as one of the first Counter-Enlightenment figures in history. Vico’s intellectual magnum opus is the book ‘Scienza Nuova’ or ‘New Science’ (1725), which attempts a systematic organization of the humanities as a single science that recorded and explained the historical cycles by which societies rise and fall’. Source: Wikipedia.


🌿Foreword by Lexi Roberts- Giambattista Vico, during the Enlightenment era’🌿

‘During the Enlightenment era many rhetoricians argued what was truly knowledge and the means of understanding and finding truth. Many such as Descartes argued that mathematics and science were the only legitimate sources of knowledge. The rhetorician Giambattista Vico criticized Descartes idea, insisting that language is a crucial part of knowledge. Vico sought to reconcile the humanism views of the Renaissance but with a modern non-Cartesian science approach.

Vico believed that without language humans would be lost because language reveals the process of reason, passion, imagination, social conventions and historical circumstances. What humans believe to be true is what they have stated is true overtime. Therefore history is crucial to understanding what is true. Through history, human nature and language give shape to the social relations and institutions of our world.

Vico created three stages through which human history evolves: the poetic, the heroic, and the human. The poetic generates knowledge by metaphor. The heroic is developed through nations by a system of laws to preserve organization of society. The human through a self-conscious study of human knowledge leads to a greater equity in law and democracy in politics.

Personally I agree with Vico’s ideas. Without language, knowledge is not truly possible. Language is needed to create ideas and thoroughly work them out. I also agree with Vico that history has determined what we know to be true. Language is crucial to the development of humans and overall knowledge. As Vico said, without language humans would be lost.’


🌿Proem to ‘On The Most Ancient Wisdom Of The Italians’,

translated and edited by Lucia M. PALMER 🌿

‘As I was studying the origins of the Latin language, I noticed that the origins of many words were so learned as to seem derived from some inward learning rather than from the vernacular usage of the people. Certainly, there is nothing to prevent any language from being filled with philosophic expressions, if philosophy is much renowned in that people. From my own memory, I can draw the fact that when philosophers of Aristotle’s school and physicians of Galen’s flourished, it was common for unlettered men to speak of the “abhorrence of the vacuum,” “natural antipathies and sympathies,” “the four humors,” “qualities,” and countless similar expressions.

Afterward, in fact, as the new-fashioned technique of physics and medicine had come into use, one might occasionally hear the man in the street mention the “circulation of the blood” and its “coagulation,” “helpful and harmful fermentation,” “air pressure,” and other such phrases. Before the time of Hadrian, the words ens, essentia, substantia, and accidens had never fallen on Latin ears because Aristo­tle’s ‘Metaphysics’ was not known.

After this time, learned men paid attention to this work and these terms became common. For this reason, then, since I had noticed that the Latin language abounded in quite learned phrases, and since, according to historical evidence, the ancient Romans had devoted themselves down to the time of Pyrrhus to nothing but farming and war, I conjectured that they had taken these expressions from some learned nation and used them unaware of their meaning.

Of learned peoples from whom they could have borrowed these phrases, I discovered two: the Ionians and the Etruscans. There is no need to say much about Ionian culture, since an Italian school of philosophy and a very learned and outstanding one at that-flourished among the Ionians. Moreover, the Etruscans’ doctrine of magnificent sacred rites, a subject in which they excelled, proves that they were a very erudite people. For it is only when natural theology is cultivated that civil theology is ennobled; whenever worthier opinions of the Supreme Being are held, religious institutions become more august. And hence, by the same token, among us Christians ceremonies are the purest of all because the doctrines concerning God are the holiest of all. Moreover, the fact that the architecture of the Etruscans is simpler than that of any other people affords weighty proof that they had knowledge of geometry before the Greeks.

Etymologies testify to the fact that a good and large part of the Latin language was imported among the Latins from the Ionians. It is further agreed that the Romans derived from the Etruscans the rites of their gods and, along with them, also the sacred phrases and priestly language. Therefore, I take it as certain that the learned origins of Latin words came from these two peoples. For this reason, I have directed my attention to unearthing the most ancient wisdom of the Italians from the etymologies of the Latin language itself. As far as know, this is something no one has attempted hitherto, and perhaps it deserves to be numbered among Francis Bacon’s desiderata.

Plato sought to unveil the ancient wisdom of the Greeks by the same method in his ‘Cratylus’. But the notable achievements of Varro. In his ‘Origins’, Julius Scaliger in the ‘Causes of the Latin Language’, Franciscus Sanctius in ‘Minerva’, and Gaspar Scioppius in his ‘Notes’ to that work are far removed from our undertaking here. These men busied themselves in unearthing the causes of language and in formulating it into a system on the basis of the philosophy to which they were devoted, and in which they were learned. Whereas I, not being an adherent of any school of thought, shall seek out the ancient wisdom of the Italians from the very origins of their words.’


🌿From ‘The New Science’. Translated and Edited

by Jason Taylor and Robert Miner🌿

Mythological Canon- Paragraphs 579 to 581.

‘Returning now to the three characters of Vulcan, Mars, and Venus, it is noted here (and such notice must be considered an important canon of this mythology) that there were three divine characters who signified the heroes, as distinct from another three characters who signified the plebeians. So, there is the Vulcan who rends the head of Jove with a blow from an ax, whence Minerva is born, and who, when he tries to intervene in a contest between Jove and Juno, falls with a kick from Jove from the heavens and remains lame. There is the Mars whom Jove strongly reproaches where Homer makes him say that Mars is the basest of all the gods, and Minerva in a contest among the gods, also in Homer, wounds Mars with a blow from a rock—these must have represented the plebeians who served the heroes in battle—and Venus—who must have represented the natural wives of plebeians of this sort—is caught, along with that plebeian Mars, in the nets of the heroic Vulcan and, when both are discovered to be naked by the Sun, they are mocked by the other gods.

Consequently, Venus was later erroneously believed to be the wife of Vulcan. However, we saw above that in the heavens there was no marriage except that between Jove and Juno, and, indeed, this was sterile; and Mars was not said to have committed adultery with Venus, but to have lain with a concubine, for the plebeians would only contract in the natural marriages which, as will be shown below, were, in Latin, called concubinati.

Just as we have explained these three characters here, so too we will explain in their places others below. Among these, we will find a plebeian Tantalus, who can neither take hold of apples rising too high nor touch water sinking too low; a plebeian Midas, who, because all that he touches becomes gold, dies of hunger; a plebeian Linus, who contends with Apollo in song and, defeated by him, is killed.

The double myths or characters must have been necessary in the heroic state, where the plebeians did not have names and took the names of the heroes to whom they belonged, as was stated above, and this in the midst, moreover, of the extreme poverty of language which they must have had in those times (even in the present abundance of language, the same term often signifies two different, and, in some cases, contrary, things).’


Epitome on Poetic History- Paragraphs 679 to 680. 

‘This entire divine and heroic history of the theological poets was described to us with much infelicity of expression in the myth of Cadmus. He kills the great serpent; he deforests the great ancient forest of the Earth. He sows the teeth of this serpent; this is a fine metaphor, as was stated above, for the hard curved wood which prior to the discovery of the use of iron must have served as the teeth of the earliest ploughs, and with these, which are still called “teeth,” they ploughed the earliest fields of the world. He casts a great stone—that is, the hard earth that the clients, or familial servants, wished to plough for themselves, as was explained above. Born from the furrows were armed men; these represent the heroic contests over the first agrarian law in which, as we stated, the heroes emerged from their grounds—which is to say that they were the lords of those grounds—and united in arms against the plebeians. And they fought not among themselves but with the clients rebelling against them. And the furrows signify those orders in which they united and by which they formed and settled the first cities on the basis of arms, as is all stated above. And Cadmus changes into a serpent; thus does the authority of aristocratic senates come into being, or, as the most ancient peoples of Latium would have said, ‘Cadmus fundus factus est’ [“Cadmus has become the ground”], and, as the people of Greece said, Cadmus changed into a Draco, who wrote laws in blood.

All of this is that which above we promised to make it possible to see, that the myth of Cadmus contains many centuries of poetic history and is a great exemplar of the infant muteness in which the world in its childhood toiled to express itself, which is one of the seven great sources of the difficulty about myths that we will enumerate below .

This shows with how much felicity of expression Cadmus knew how leave a history written in his common alphabetic letters, which he supposedly brought to Greece from the Phoenicians! And Desiderius Erasmus (by a thousand inanities unworthy of a man with such great erudition that he was called the “Christian Varro”) suggests that it [the myth of Cadmus] contains the history of the letters discovered by Cadmus.

If this were so, then this brilliant history (the history of so great a benefit to the nations as the discovery of letters which, because of its brilliance, ought to have had the widest repute) was instead hidden by Cadmus for humankind in Greece within the folds of this myth in obscurity until the times of Erasmus, so as to keep secret from the common run one of the greatest discoveries of commonplace wisdom, that it is from the “common run” [volgo] that such letters are called “common”[volgari].’


From ‘The New Science’-Book II-Paragraphs 720 to 722.

‘All these myths, the philosophers later discovered to be most congruous for meditating upon and explaining their moral and metaphysical things. And this awakened Plato to understand three divine punishments, which only the gods give and which men cannot give: the punishment of oblivion, the punishment of infamy, and the punishment of remorse by which a guilty conscience torments us. And he understood that it was through the via purgativa of the passions of the spirit which torment men (which he understood by the underworld of the theological poets) that one enters upon the via unitiva, along which the human mind goes toward God by means of contemplation of the eternal divine things (which he interprets to be what the theological poets understood by their Elysian fields).

However, it was with ideas entirely different from these moral and metaphysical ones (different insofar as the ideas which the theological poets stated were political, as was naturally necessary for them to do as the founders of nations) that the founders of gentile peoples descended into the underworld.

To there descended the Orpheus, who founded the Greek nation; and although forbidden in his departure from turning to look back, he did so turn and lost his wife, Eurydice, returning to the infamous sharing of women in common. To there descended the Heracles of whom every nation recounts some version as the one who founded it, and there he descended so as to free Theseus, who founded Athens and who himself descended there so as to lead out Proserpine—who, as we have stated, is the same as Ceres—so as to bring back the seeds ripened into grain.

However, this descent is explained most fully of all later by Virgil, who in the first six books of the Aeneid sings of the political hero and in the second six sings of the military hero; and it is by his profound knowledge [scienza] of heroic antiquity that he tells us that Aeneas made his descent in keeping with the advice and guidance of the Cumean Sybil (one of whom we have stated every gentile nation had, and the names of twelve of whom have come down to us), meaning that he descended as a result of divination, which is the commonplace wisdom of gentile humanity. In keeping with a bloody religion, Aeneas—who is pious in the piety professed by the most ancient heroes in the savagery and brutality of the recent bestial origins which was demonstrated above—sacrificed his associate, Misenus—that is, through that cruel right which, we also stated above, is the right which the heroes held over their earliest associates, upon which we also reasoned above; from there he carries on into the ancient forest—that is, the earth everywhere uncultivated and wooded.

He throws a sleep-inducing morsel to Cerberus, who then falls asleep, just as Orpheus had put him to sleep with the sound of his lyre—a lyre which, as we have shown above, was the laws—and just as Heracles bound him with the knot by which he defeated Antaeus—that is, with the first agrarian law conforming to what we have stated about it above—and it was on account of his insatiable hunger that Cerberus was devised as being triple-throated with a capacious gullet expressed by the superlative, three, as was explained above.

Thus Aeneas descends into the underworld, which we found was originally no deeper than the height of a ditch; and he presents to Dis (the god of heroic riches, of poetic gold, of harvest, the Dis who was the same as Pluto, who abducted Proserpine, who was the same as the Ceres who is the goddess of grain) the golden bough: here, the great poet takes the metaphor of the golden apple—which we found above to be ears of grain—and transfers it to the golden bough as the harvest. Where this bough is torn off, another comes in its place, for no subsequent gathering of a harvest comes until a year after the previous gathering has been made.

And when the gods are so pleased and so willing, the bough comes easily into the hand of the one who seizes it, but otherwise there is no strength in the world which is able to tear it off, for grain comes forth naturally where God wills; and where God does not so will, there is no human industry which is able to gather in its harvest.

From there Aeneas carries on through the middle of the underworld to the Elysian fields, for the heroes, by remaining settled in the cultivated fields, later in death enjoyed with burial eternal peace, as we have explained above. And from there Aeneas sees his ancestors and descendants, for it was with the religion of burial—which the poets called “the underworld,” as was also seen above, that they founded the first genealogies from which history took its start, as was also stated above.’

Statue of Giambattista Vico in Villa Comunale (Naples).


About Vico:🌿About Vico’s book, ‘The most ancient wisdom of the Italians’, Cornell University Press:🌿About Vico’s book, ‘The New Science’:🌿 Lexi Roberts ‘s article, “Giambattista Vico.” : 🌿 Resources about Vico:
A Little Giambattista Vico Sampler

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