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sorship of jurisprudence in the university of his native city, to which he was most undeniably entitled by position and qualifications, and which would have afforded him and his family a comfortable competency in his old age, in consequence of having promulgated and maintained so unheard-of and shocking a heresy.What? No such man as Homer! And here are his works in our hands, undeniable proof of his existence. The learned heads of the university are scandalised beyond forgiveness. No Homer! Church-king-country-every thing is in danger! A dangerous man, this Vico! Let him starve. He nearly did.
The leading quality of Vico's mind seems to have been sagacity -acuteness. He was a most intrepid theorizer; and he was gifted with a degree of self-confidence and courage, if it may be so called, which forbade him to shrink from any the most startling results and conclusions, to which the working out of his theories might lead him. His theory once formed, he seems thenceforward to have regarded it as certain truth, to which all facts must be found to be conformable, or be made so, one way or other. Are recorded facts utterly irreconcileable with his system? -Then they are not true. Take, as a sample of his method of proceeding, the line of argument which led him to one of his most celebrated and remarkable conclusions; reduced to simple syllogistic form, it is as follows:
Monarchy is the most perfect form of human society; aristocracy the most primitive and imperfect; democracy the transition state, which conducts a nation from the latter to the former of these.
But the universal law of human society is progress from the imperfect to the more perfect.
Therefore, in the history of every people, the earliest form of their society was aristocracy; their next, democracy; and their last, monarchy.
Therefore Rome, during the earliest period of its history, must have been governed by an aristocracy, and not by kings.
The principle which he has thus established, he regards as far more infallibly true than any recorded statement of facts. He looks upon it as an unerring test of the credibility of a historian. He applies it inexorably upon every occasion, and hesitates not an instant to reconstruct vast tracts of history so as to render them in accordance with this infallible dictum.
Every searcher after truth, historic or other, will most undoubtedly do well to commit himself, with implicit confidence, to the guiding clue of logical deduction, unalarmed. unbiased, regardless of the conclusion to which it may lead him, and prepared to accept it, whatever it may be. It is a guide which
Notions of Logic.
cannot err. BUT by how much the more implicitly the reasoner abandons himself to the guidance of the syllogistic thread, by so much the more careful should he be in the establishment of those first principles, those fundamental assumptions, to which the end of the clue is fastened.
But Vico as a Platonist, and admirer of the synthetical philosophy, disliked Aristotle's analytical method, and the system of logical deduction. How far he comprehended the principles of Aristotle's logic, or was capable of appreciating them, may be seen from the following almost incredibly absurd passage, in which his biographer sets forth his reasons for disapproving of the méthode algébraique,' as she, adopting his phraseology,
chooses to denominate it.
"The algebraical method consists in defining, first of all, the words establish which it is necessary to make use of; in the next place, you certain general, common, and incontestible principles; then put forward in the discussion some proposition of small importance, which your adversary grants you without suspicion; and on which you forthwith proceed to rest arguments, that, having no natural force of their own, could not stand by themselves; you then proceed from simple to complex truths," &c. "This method," she adds, still stating Vico's opiFor each nions, "allows the existence of an abundant source of errors. separate proposition forming part of a compound proposition may be true, and yet their reciprocal relations may be ill determined; so that from the ill-assorted union of several truths something false or imperfect may result."
Such is the notion formed by Vico and his biographer of the nature and application of logic. They deem it to be a sort of recipe for the skilful practising of certain juggling trickeries-a kind of intellectual legerdemain, by which a special pleader may entrap an unwary adversary! Well! An amateur philosophical princess, who cannot be expected to give more than the odds and ends of her precious time to such matters, may perhaps be pardoned for writing such ludicrous absurdities even in the nineteenth century. But what can be said of a grave and laborious philosopher, who conceives that he has examined and mastered a system of philosophy, and thus reports his judgment of it?
The princess proceeds thus:
"Vico, early accustomed to the synthetic method, proper only for great minds, a method more rapid though less sure than the analytical scheme, could not bring himself to endure the slow process of logic. Truth spoke to him, and drew him towards her without any intermediate means. He contented himself with having learnt to know a new road which led to the truth; and he promised himself that he would make use of it, when the path of synthesis should be closed to him, or
should threaten to lead him astray. He renounced, therefore, the study of mathematics."
We must just show our readers-it will not take them two minutes-one or two of the truths, to which this rapid method, proper only for great minds,'-the method which, in plain English, good reader, we call guessing,-conducted our philosopher. Let us see whether the path of synthesis' ever did happen to lead him astray. When Truth spoke to him without any intermediate interpreters,' let us hear what she said.
"Each one of the elements," says Truth, speaking face to face to Vico, without any slow process of logic, "each one of the elements that compose the world is attracted towards a superior principle, which in its turn tends to mount up to one above, and so on up to the insurmountable barrier, up to the eternal principle. All these elements which aspire to elevate themselves, and which are prevented from doing so by the grossness of their nature or by their weight, must therefore form atoms of a pyramidal form. Fire, which is nothing but concentrated air, tends to mount up towards its principle, and so forms the brilliant pyramid which we call flame."
Take another oracular communication from the same infallible
Burning fevers are the result of the introduction of a certain quantity of air into the veins, which proceed from the heart, or from the centre to the circumference; which air causes the dilatation of the diameter of the reservoirs of blood of the closed side opposed to the exterior. Malignant fevers are the result of the reverse operation."
The princess adds, "I have translated this passage literally, fearing that by any attempt to enlighten it, I might only add to its obscurity." We beg leave to say, that we have, in our turn, imitated the princess's caution.
We cannot resist adding to the above dicta the following, extracted from a mass of puerilities anent the first formation of human society, and the historical revelations respecting it, which may be discovered by rightly reading the fables of mythology. We need hardly add that Vico's sagacity had here again, as so often, indicated to him a path of inquiry which might have led him to more valuable results, if he had been less attached to 'that rapid method,' the fruits of which are such as these.
"The fable which represents Juno, the patroness of wedlock, hung up by the neck in the air by Jupiter, with two large stones tied to her feet, comprises the entire history of marriages."
This sounds very shocking! The history of all marriages is to be read in the symbol of a wife hung up by her husband with two stones at her feet!! Horrible! The reader fears that poor Vico, in
Vico's Radical Errors.
addition to his other misfortunes, must have been far from happy in his helpmate. But wait a moment. Let the philosopher explain. Attention!
"She-Juno-is hung up in air, because it is in the air that auspices are read. She has a cord round her neck to indicate the tie that attaches wedded pairs ;"-(we cannot for the life of us but think the tie thus indicated a very suspicious one ;)-"and as to the two great stones at her feet, they signify that marriage is of a stable and indissoluble nature."
Oh! do they? very satisfactory indeed!
We might easily add to the above citations a host of similar absurdities and puerilities. But the passages we have quoted are amply sufficient to illustrate the principal defect of Vico's mind, and to show the danger of that rapid method' of reaching truth, to which, as his biographer so complacently tells us, he was exclusively attached.
Two other circumstances, resulting both of them partly from defects in his own nature, and partly from the conditions of the time and country in which he lived, contributed to prevent Vico from being so great a man, or one so useful to humanity, as he might otherwise have been; and have consigned his name to the comparative obscurity that has been its lot. It is necessary to signalize them in order to enable the reader either to form a competent notion of Vico, or to draw from his biography any practical, useful suggestions.
The first of these is his attempt at encyclopedic universality. It was the stumbling block of the learned of that day. The boundary lines of the different sciences had not been ascertained and marked out. The points in which they bear upon and reciprocally illustrate each other had not been accurately distinguished from those in which no relation subsists between them. The principle of the division of labour, as invaluable to the labourers in the field of science as to those engaged in mechanical industry, had not yet been recognised. It was thought that a philosopher, or one who aspired to that high title, ought to know all that was to be known by man-the omne scibile' of the old scholastic labourers. This
omne scibile,' the sum of human knowledge, was understood, it must be remembered, to be bounded by much narrower limits than those now assigned to it in the conception of the merest sciolist. As the primal substances of nature were divided into the four simple elements, fire, water, earth, and air, so the entire field of man's acquirable knowledge was mapped out with similar simplicity and precision into a few great kingdoms, with all of which the student of philosophy was expected to make himself acquainted.
This would-be universality was also an especial snare to such an intellect as Vico's. His acuteness soon made him aware of the
very unsatisfactory state of the science of his day in almost every department; and the unshrinking audacity which led him to conceive the idea of reforming them all by forcing their facts and inferences into conformity with certain unbending theories of his own, could be satisfied with nothing less than a reconstruction of the entire edifice of human knowledge. He seems moreover to have been especially beset by that spirit of order which insists on finding analogies, parallelisms, and corresponding facts in the various and most utterly dissimilar regions of human inquiry. Like those symmetrical gardens in which every alley has its brother, every truth in his map of man's knowledge must have its corresponding truth in another part of the vast plan. Ethical truths are matched by pendent' physical ones. If three great laws rule one science, there must needs be three to match observable in the government of another. Those who have any acquaintance with the various systems of medieval philosophers will be aware that this symmetrical mania is not peculiar to Vico. It was, however, in his day beginning to be pretty well obsolete. But Naples was probably then as much in arrear of the rest of Europe as she is at the present day.
In truth this universality-the fact so complacently put for ward by his biographer, that he treated of all the sciences without precise acquaintance with any one,-has well nigh been fatal to his usefulness and his reputation.
The other circumstance, to which we alluded as having exercised a pernicious influence on his character and his career, is the too evident fact, that he was still a slave to that narrow bigotry, from which the contemporaries of Descartes were then beginning, in the more fortunate nations of Europe, to free themselves. From among other proofs of this we take the following:
"A certain bookseller of Naples," says the Princess Belgiojoso, "intending to publish a new edition of Grotius, employed Vico to furnish the work with justificatory notes. Vico eagerly accepted the proposal; and undertook to defend Grotius against the interested attacks of Gronovius, who was the intolerant partisan of absolutism. This defence of Grotius might have made us forget the panegyric on Antonio Caraffa. But after-reflection brought with it ungenerous counsels to Vico. He had already covered with MS. notes a volume and a half of Grotius, when he bethought him that it did not become a good Catholic to justify the work of a heretic."
This is a humiliating story; and cannot but go far to influence our estimate of Vico, of the loftiness of his views, and the calibre of his intellect. In fact we find this otherwise so audacious theorizer, so ready in all other cases to accept and maintain the results, to which his reasonings led him at whatever expense of