Modernity has attracted its fair share of critics. Recent specimens would include Alasdair MacIntyre, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and George Grant—writers who have offered penetrating if not mutually compatible critiques of modernity. In their wake the time seems ripe to develop not yet another criticism, but rather a robust and substantive alternative to the dominant version of modernity. In his new book on the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), Giuseppe Mazzotta takes a step in this direction as he attempts to unfold “Vico’s counter-discourse to modernity.”
This counter-discourse, because “counter-,” requires its own critique of the ruling modern thinkers, especially René Descartes. Vico is commonly considered to be the founder of the philosophy of history, and it is in the name of history that he launches his polemic against the ahistorical or even antihistorical ideas of Descartes. Writing in the generation after the great Frenchman, Vico denies Descartes’ assertion that the self is outside of time, able to know its own existence and essence even if unable to know for certain anything else. Instead Vico proposes that, in the words of Mazzotta, there is a “history of the self and there is a history of the mind in that both steadily experience alterations and shifts.” Vico defended this view of the self in his Autobiography (1728), and, in his greatest work, Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations (1725), he argued for the parallel historicity of the entire human race. In arguing against Cartesian reason in the name of temporality, Vico anticipates ideas that are often taken to be distinctively postmodern. Mazzotta attributes to him the idea of an “archaeology of the self and of history.” Authors like MacIntyre have urged the desirability of using genealogical and deconstructive devices as weapons to demolish the modern Enlightenment. Mazzotta’s analysis shows that this is a much older strategy than our contemporaries believe.
As one might expect from someone with a primarily literary training (the author is a top Dante scholar and professor of Italian at Yale), Mazzotta focuses less on Vico’s explicit argument against the cogito and more on important contrasts of form and style, e.g., the fact that Descartes writes his autobiographical fable in the first person, whereas Vico adopts the third person in writing his life. Mazzotta’s formulations make Vico sound decidedly ahead of his time: “For Vico there is no a priori essence for the self: one is what one makes of oneself, and one makes of oneself what one knows, so that being, knowledge, and making are ceaselessly interwoven in an endless recirculation.”
Vico’s conception of the tight relationship between knowing and making is captured in his basic axiom verum et factum convertuntur, “the true and the made are interchangeable.” Mazzotta does not attempt any straightforward exposition of this principle and its various applications. Somewhat like Vico himself, Mazzotta prefers to circle around a conceptual nucleus rather than employ a more linear approach to the text. This approach has its disadvantages, especially for the beginner who wants to understand Vico, but the insights that emerge from what Mazzotta explains as the “mobile curves” of his “baroque style” are valuable. As a “visionary realist,” Vico is able to transpose a Christian poetics into “a politics of the sublime or into a politics of wonder,” whereas “Descartes, in his optimistic scientism, wants us to wonder at nothing.”
Focusing on epistemology and philosophy of history, Benedetto Croce thought that Vico was an essentially “apolitical” thinker, but Mazzotta sides with the recent consensus that politics was a central preoccupation of Vico, and he usefully compares him to Machiavelli and Hobbes. Like Machiavelli, Vico wants to take his starting point from a “realistic” conception of how men are, though he names Tacitus rather than Machiavelli as his model. He “thoroughly subscribes to the trenchant critique of political utopianism” found in the Prince, in Mazzotta’s view, and “agrees with Machiavelli that politics is a seraglio of boundless passions and a theatre of crude power games.” With Lucretius and Hobbes, Vico acknowledges the centrality of fear in the domain of politics. With Francis Bacon and Hobbes, he proclaims grand encyclopedic ambitions, aiming in his jurisprudential writings and in the New Science for “an all-embracing synthesis or harmonization of possible contradictions and divisions.” It is plausible to see Vico as combining tradition, encyclopedia, and genealogy, thereby uniting what MacIntyre divides in the subtitle of his Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry .
Vico differs from Machiavelli and Hobbes, however—first by forthrightly rejecting their “Epicurean” interpretation of the role of fear in politics. Where Machiavelli and Hobbes believed that the ruler governs a people afraid of each other and of him, Vico saw a more transcendent object of fear. As a “founding moral-political experience” (in Mazzotta’s words), fear is rooted “in the awareness of a lightning bolt that forces archaic man, desirous for self-preservation, to seek shelter in the recesses of the cave, acknowledge his limitations, and submit to the awesome, mysterious powers of the divinity.” Fear restrains humans from their original bestial liberty and prompts them to acknowledge divine authority. Vico’s use of the concept of fear, Mazzotta concludes, “bends the vocabulary of philosophy in a theological direction.”
Vico also breaks from modern attempts to reduce justice to a utilitarian set of values and argues for a Platonic conception of justice, sovereign and transcendent. Rigorous attention to the “is,” Vico tries to show, reveals the emergence of the “ought.” The development of moral norms partly involves the rise of the weak against the strong, as with Nietzsche—well before the German immoralist, Vico noticed the original identity of “strong” and “good”—but this is understood as the operation of divine Providence rather than ressentiment. Providence is the key to Vico’s synthesis of Plato and Tacitus or, one might say with equal validity, Augustine and Machiavelli.
In this “rational civil theology of divine providence,” as Vico terms it, both conceptual analysis and empirical history are brought to bear. Although Mazzotta focuses principally upon the New Science, he briefly mentions the earlier (and in some ways clearer) Universal Law. In this text, Vico explains the details of the historical development of law (both civil and natural) by arguing (1) that law originates from the divine and (2) that human beings and the virtues and rights arising out of their fallen condition are best understood as modifications of the trinitarian nosse, velle, posse (knowledge, will, power). Although Vico suppresses the explicitly trinitarian dimension of his argument in the New Science, he does not abandon it, as a reading of the two texts in tandem would show. Mazzotta follows the majority of interpreters in giving short shrift to the Universal Law. But in acknowledging the text and resisting the temptation to ironize about it, he sets himself apart from the general run of Vico interpreters.
It is difficult to separate Vico’s negative critique of modernity from his positive discourse. Although Vico wrote a Scienza nuova in forma negativa (the text is now lost), he suppressed it on the ground that a positive alternative would be of greater value. Mazzotta rightly observes that although the New Science can be read as a “chapter in critical philosophy,” Vico’s thought is more than that. The bulk of Mazzotta’s book attempts to expound the New Science with a view toward showing its ability to enlarge our understanding of the interrelations between aspects of culture”poetry, myth, law, religion, history, economics, physics”that are too often regarded as essentially disjointed rather than as parts of an organic whole.
The explorations of Vico’s texts in relation to Homer, hermeticism, and the rhetorical tradition are dense and subtle, and do not lend themselves to easy summary. Mazzotta proclaims his interpretative principle in the introduction: “Poetry, as the language of the imagination, is not a lie.” Building on the work of John Milbank, Mazzotta suggests that Vico’s “poetic passionalism,” despite its Romantic aura, is more akin to an Aristotelian or Thomistic notion of art as a virtue of the practical intellect in the order of making. Mazzotta understands the principle that truth is making not as radically modern, as David Lachterman would have it, but as an insight about the link between truth and art common to Aquinas and Dante. Poetry (from the Greek poiesis for “making”) is not antithetical to philosophy. It is a crucial part of the quest for wisdom that provides “reason’s defense from itself, from the technological and ratiocinative excesses that stifle the life and freedom of the imagination.”
Although he dwells on profound continuities with the tradition, Mazzotta recognizes something genuinely “modern” about Vico. Part of Vico’s modernity consists in his deep attachment to the encyclopedic ideal. But Vico also was able to see the limitations of the encyclopedic approach. In the final and perhaps boldest chapter of the book, Mazzotta considers Vico’s approach to the Bible. Against Croce, who thought that Vico’s decision not to include Scripture within the subject matter of the new science was a way of devaluing orthodox Judaism and Christianity, Mazzotta contends that Vico deploys the distinction between the Jews and the gentiles as a support for his conviction that pagan culture engages in an “idolatrous literalization of the nexus between God and nature (or their false pantheistic unity).”
Vico simultaneously marginalizes the particulars of sacred history and incorporates its assumptions about transcendence within the norms of the new science. He does this, according to Mazzotta, because he “envisions a political order in which Christians are the vital ‘remnants’ both inside and outside of history.” In construing the Bible as a “text that demands and causes a scandalous separation between Jews and gentiles . . . among the Jews themselves, among Jews and Christians, and, a fortiori, among Christians,” Vico subtly but decisively ruptures his apparently seamless encyclopedia.
Informed by the erudition of a first-rate Renaissance scholar, The New Map of the World contains much that stimulates and provokes. The book is written at too high a level to be the ideal introduction to Vico. Yet its appeal need not be limited to Vico scholars. Mazzotta’s persistent engagement with questions about modernity and its relation to antiquity and the Middle Ages will prove instructive for students of the history of ideas, and perhaps have the salutary effect of inspiring more philosophers and theologians to read Vico himself.
Robert Miner is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Boston College.