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Vico's Youthful Struggles.
nessed in the tame, laborious, hood-winked team. He pulled, indeed, most vigorously; was willing to draw, by his own strength alone, the whole cumbrous machine; but insisted on knowing whence it started, and whither it was bound; exigences which altogether startled, scandalized, and greatly angered the grave and reverend signors, his instructors. So the troublesome and unsilenceable young questioner quarrels with one master after another; tries the Jesuits, tries the civilians, tries the canonists, tries the Aristotelians, tries the Platonists; prefers the realism of the last to the nominalism of their opponents; but finds all flat, stale, and unprofitable; parrot-like jabberers of cut-and-dry formula; unable utterly, every one of them, to supply nutritious food to the craving of an awakened and active intelligence. So the almost despairing youth breaks away from all the recognized teachers, with loud and indignant cry against the false doctors, who would feed the young generation with chaff instead of corn. Alas! poor doctors! had they not been reared on merest chaff themselves?
So Vico, marked already as a pestilent and impracticable fellow, who must needs be ever thrusting his mental elbows into the ribs of his brother travellers who would fain jog on their journey in tranquil slumber, retires to the paternal garret, determined to carve out for himself, by dint of solitary labour, that road to the fountain-heads of the philosophy of universal law, which he can find none to open for him. Some of the great works of the acknowledged fathers and founders of legal science, he contrives by hook or crook to obtain. The huge tome containing the Civil Institutes' of Vultejus, is given to him as a present by an old customer of his father's; who himself, a disappointed man, from having failed to obtain any of the forensic honours of his vocation, sympathises with the young man's contempt for the leaders of the profession. With these materials he resolutely sets himself down to labour in the seclusion of his father's humble home. Seclusion, but, unfortunately, not solitude; for the narrow limits of the poor bookseller's dwelling forbid the possibility of this; and the young jurist has to spend his laborious nights, growing paler than the pale light of his feeble lamp, in the same apartment in which the family sleep. Often at the rustling of a turning leaf, despite his utmost caution to avoid all sound, his uneasy mother wakes from the sleep, that consciousness of his vigil has rendered too light for repose, chides his unhealthful labour, and entreats him to close his books and sleep. But impulses, stronger than the mother's voice, prop up his weary eye-lids; and the family, rising to their daily labours, find that he has not yet quitted his.
This lasts for several months. The insatiable student reads enormously; thinks much, and digests his learning as best he may, al
ready laying up in his mind, peacemeal, tentatively, and all unformed as yet, portions of the foundations of those vast theories, which he spent his life in completing, adjusting, strengthening, and propounding. At length, one day, a kind prelate, the Bishop of Ischia, observing his worn and discouraged looks, as he sat in a public library, accosted him; was pleased with his reply and with his manner, and finally engaged him as tutor to some nephews of his, who lived in a castle among the mountains at some distance from Naples. This castle luckily contained a large library. And there Vico lived for nine years, happy in enjoying the means of uninterrupted study, unbroken by cares respecting the material necessaries of life.
At the end of this time he returned to Naples, and commenced his career as an advocate, with but poor success, as may be easily guessed by those who know what it is for that man to attempt to scale the steep heights of professional eminence, who has made himself obnoxious to those already in possession of them. Merit, however, found some few friends even at Naples in the seventeenth century, and Vico was fortunate enough to obtain a professorship of rhetoric endowed with the munificent stipend of a hundred crowns per annum. But poor Vico was by this time a married man, and a family could not live, even at Naples, on a hundred crowns a year. The wolf was at the door. And the philosophical jurist was fain to earn scanty and precarious bread for his wife and infants by executing any of those frivolous orders for bits of verse or bits of prose, which on occasions of births, deaths, or marriages, etc., the great (!) of that day were wont to purchase from the men of letters for the gratification of their vanity. Nothing could be more lamentable, more deadly to the best interests of humanity, and more pernicious to both the classes concerned, than were the position and the reciprocal relations of the educated poor, and the uneducated rich, so well set forth in the following passage of the Princess Belgiojoso's introduction.
"The man of letters, necessarily poor and humiliated, revenged himself for the disdainful treatment he received, by treating in his turn disdainfully such of his fellows as were younger or less fortunate than himself. For the literary man every noble was a master; every competitor an adversary. Dependents of a haughtily patronising aristocracy, excluded from political and military dignities, deprived of all opportunity of putting forth their power in active life, their sole domain was that of words; and their office was to express in the best possible languagewhatever they were bid. This so fertile thinker, Vico himself, was but too happy when some illustrious or powerful personage came to interrupt his meditations, force him to turn away his thoughts from the system of universal law, which he was incessantly contemplating, and order a discourse upon some given subject, with directions respecting the sen
Penury and Subservience.
timents and opinions he was to express in it! Fortunate, if he had but to celebrate the graces of some youthful bride, or the transports of a young mother! It not unfrequently happened to him to receive contradictory orders; as, for instance, when after having condemned the Austrian conspirators at Naples, in a pamphlet entitled, A History of the Conspiracy of Naples,' he wrote the epitaphs of two of their chiefs, in pursuance of an order received from Count Daun, heaping eulogiums on them when their party was triumphant, after having branded them when their opponents were in the ascendant. Vico himself furnishes us with the information of these facts. Nor does he express a single regret at having written in opposition to his sentiments; or even the most feeble wish that it had been possible for him to preserve his independence. He seems to have considered himself as in no wise bound to have any opinion of his own on this sort of matters; and, probably, if he had refused to give expression to an opinion, because it was contrary to his own, he would have been deemed out of his senses by some, and monstrously presumptuous by others. He would have been left to perish as a reward for his independence.
"The weakness of Vico has nowhere left more deplorable traces than in the eulogium he wrote on Antonio Caraffa. This memoir forms a volume; and the language employed by Vico is that of the warmest panegyric. Yet all the world knows very well what Antonio Caraffa was. Born of a noble Neapolitan family, he entered into the service of Austria, where he distinguished himself in the wars against the Turks. Being entrusted with the administration of the conquered provinces, he manifested great abilities in the government of them. But when commissioned to punish the partisans of the revolutionist, Tekeli, in Hungary, he committed atrocities which the manners of his times cannot palliate. The histories of the revolutions of Hungary bear witness against this man, and report in detail the acts and judgments of which he was culpable. Vico could not have been ignorant of these facts; yet he devoted his nights during two years, despite the weak state of his health, to the composition of this work; for which Adrian Caraffa, uncle of Antony, furnished him with the materials. He himself boasts of the merit of the work. I have rendered,' says he, 'due honours to this personage; I have spoken to princes in language of reverence, and I have treated the truth with justice.' The phrase is not a happy one. But it was impossible for Vico to use the words 'truth' and 'justice' happily on such an occasion. This life of Marshal Caraffa had a great success, and obtained from Pope Clement the Eleventh the epithet of The Immortal History.' Vico, moreover, received a thousand ducats for it, which sum furnished the dowry of one of his daughters."
A more miserable picture of a noble mind degraded to unworthy purposes by the iniquitous organisation of the social system in which it was doomed to work, it is impossible to imagine. Nor is it possible to wash the unfortunate philosopher from all blame for the prostitution of his pen, even by urging the general tone of
feeling which prevailed on such subjects in his day. There have been minds, martyr spirits, who would in any and every age, and amid the corruptions of the foulest social rottenness, have perished, and seen their best loved perish around them, rather than sell the freedom of their thought, and barter their intellectual independence for bread. Vico was not one of these. But still, let us not, standing as we are at our ease upon the proud social eminence which has been reached after so many centuries of brave struggles-occupying as we do in secure freedom the intellectual territory, which has been acquired for us by the hard fighting of so many noble spirits gone to their rest,-let us not be too severe on him, less fortunate and more hardly tried, who yielded to the prejudices of his age rather than see his children starve. It is very easy for the Princess Belgiojoso, writing amid every luxury which wealth can furnish, and secure in the enjoy ment of the most ample intellectual freedom,-it is cheap virtue in her to condemn the deplorable weakness' of Vico. Let the princess take her own heart to task, and ask of it, what opinion of her own she holds sufficiently dear to her soul to avow it with constancy, if abject poverty, disgrace, want, and the world's contumely, were to be the immediate reward of its avowal. No! let us forget the base nature of the hireling toil which the poor philosopher was compelled by hard necessity to submit to: let us remember only the father, tearing his mind from the lofty speculations which he loved, and devoting his painful nights, despite his feeble health,' to the ungrateful labour which was to secure a position and a home for his daughter-remembering well, also, for certain useful purposes, what the frame was of that society which presented such a spectacle.
But if the princess is, in her nineteenth-century indignation at the prostitution of an author's pen, inclined to be rather severe on her protegé in the passage we have just quoted, it must be owned that she rates fully at their utmost value his general titles to the gratitude and remembrance of posterity. She opens her biographical sketch thus.
"The man, who anticipated by a century the progress of the human mind towards the modern sciences ;-who raised questions that had ever been considered, up to his own day, either satisfactorily solved, or insoluble; who brought the investigations of the most intrepid criticism to bear upon the most respected documents of antiquity;-who never bowed before any established prejudice;-who accomplished the double enterprise of pulling down and reconstructing universal history;-who has treated of all the sciences without possessing an accurate knowledge of any one of them, and has yet left to each of them some suggestive lesson;—the man who has guessed nearly all the discoveries of the nine
Vico's Merits and Demerits.
teenth century;-who, belonging to a period and a country where thought was not free, seemed not to be aware, that to speak out all his thought to every body, exposed him to the danger of being understood by nobody; -the man whose genius recalls to mind the noble intellects of Plato or Aristotle, deserves to be traced step by step in the development of his glorious intelligence, and through the misfortunes of his long and melancholy life."
Certes, the claims put forward in this opening announcement are of no ordinary kind. It must be a great man, indeed, who, after such a flourish of trumpets, can make his entry on the scene, and cause no disappointment to the audience. And truth to say, we think the Princess Belgiojoso has been injudicious in so magniloquently announcing the hero she was about to introduce to us. The fact is, that the reader is disappointed in the issue, and is tempted to visit on the reputation of the philosopher the fall of those unduly raised expectations, which the partiality of the biographer has led him to form. And yet a great portion of the above magnificent claims to the reverence of posterity may be with justice urged in favour of Vico.
The Neapolitan philosopher was the first to question much that his predecessors and contemporaries had never thought of questioning, and which another century of investigation has shown to be more than questionable. He did attack, with intrepid and most sagacious criticism, the entire fabric of (profane) history; pull down much that had never before been examined, and reconstruct it after his own somewhat arbitrary, but exceedingly acute and ingenious fashion. He did propound several most remarkable guesses at historical discoveries, which the improved historical science of the nineteenth century has ratified as truths. He did, unfortunately, treat of almost all the sciences, without possessing an accurate knowledge of any one of them. And lamentable is the amount of trash, and often incredibly puerile absurdity, that loads his pages in consequence, and has rendered them almost a sealed book to the readers of our century.
But after all our deductions from the high-flown tone of the princess's enthusiastic panegyric, there is enough left here to entitle Vico to take his due place in the cosmopolitan pantheon;-a place rather higher, it may perhaps be admitted, than has hitherto been generally accorded him. It certainly deserves to be more generally known and remembered, that the literal truth and value of the whole fabric of early Roman history, its facts, and its dates, had been questioned and pronounced fallacious a hundred years before the days of Niebuhr; and that the individuality of Homer, and the unity of his poems, had been doubted long before the time of Jacob Bryant. Poor Vico forfeited his election to the profes
VOL. XXXIV. NO. LXVIII.