Many great minds of the modern world, from Karl Marx to James Joyce, have claimed Giambattista Vico as an intellectual forefather.
But Mark Lilla finds that these admirers usually misread the arguments of the West's first antimodernists.
Giambattista Vico was born in Naples in 1668 and died there in 1744. The son of a modest bookseller, he received an unconventional education, tutoring himself in his father's shop between short and difficult periods in Jesuit schools. At the age of 19 he left the city to tutor the sons of a minor aristocrat and spent much of the next nine years studying Latin and writing mediocre poetry. On returning to Naples he began to frequent scientific and philosophical circles with ties to those in other European capitals, but he never traveled again or mastered another European language. His professional advancement was blocked at almost every turn. Although trained in law, he failed to win a highly prized university chair in that discipline and remained instead an ill-paid professor of rhetoric for more than 40 years, supplementing his income by writing Latin inscriptions and court histories. The audience for his own philosophical writings--on metaphysics, jurisprudence, and finally a "new science concerning the common nature of the nations"--hardly extended beyond Naples during his lifetime. He admired Leibniz and Newton as "the two foremost minds of our age," but all his efforts to engage their pan-European intellectual circles ended in bitter, embarrassing failure. He died at home in poverty and obscurity, a provincial curiosity having left no apparent trace on the European thought of his time.
As the English historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin has remarked, "Vico's life and fate is perhaps the best of all known examples of what is too often dismissed as a romantic fiction--the story of a man of original genius, born before his time, forced to struggle in poverty and illness, misunderstood and largely neglected in his lifetime, and all but totally forgotten after his death." It is indeed a romantic story, and in more than one respect. For the fact that we read Vico today, that many consider him an undiscovered genius or even a prophet, must be credited to his rediscovery during the 19th century in the cultural upheaval that has come to be called Romanticism. Indeed, Vico's works, including the now-famous New Science (1744) were virtually unknown to educated Europeans until the Romantics happened upon them. The most important was French historian Jules Michelet, who reported a "frenzy caught from Vico" in 1824, which soon became an "incredible intoxication with his great historical principle." Eventually Michelet declared that "I have no other master than Vico." Upon the appearance of Michelet's abridged French translation of the New Science in 1827, Vico gained immediate renown as the first thinker to have stumbled upon the historical, political, and aesthetic ideas then sweeping the continent. Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce's later judgment of Vico, that he was "neither more nor less than the 19th century in germ," was confirmed time and again by those who claimed to find in his writings what Michelet called the "principle of man's self-creation."
To those touched by the Romanticism of the age, Vico's works appeared to offer scientific grounds for a Promethean view of human nature and society. Through his analysis of poetry and early religion, Vico seemed to have discovered that human beings make their own social arrangements through language, that the moral truths of those arrangements change with language, and that they might be rejuvenated by our returning--through a historical ricorso--to the pagan and poetic beginnings of the first societies.
The Vico we read today is, in most respects, the same figure we inherited from this Romantic rediscovery. Even now he is esteemed as a pioneer by many who possess only a passing familiarity with his writings. These admirers believe he discovered new philosophical principles essential to the modern outlook: namely, that man transforms his own nature in history and that truth changes in different cultural or linguistic contexts. …