On the Pioneer Trail

Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas

by Isaiah Berlin
Viking Press, 228 pp., $12.50


There is perhaps a slight element of prejudice in the opinion, widespread among us Piedmontese, that San Gennaro and Giambattista Vico must be left to the Neapolitans. This opinion is indeed prejudiced in so far as it does not take into account that both San Gennaro and Vico have proved embarrassing to educated Neapolitans, and more especially to the descendants of those lawyers who in the eighteenth century came down from the provinces to Naples to fill high positions in the administration and who embodied the Enlightenment.

Benedetto Croce and Fausto Nicolini, the scions of two such Abruzzese families (as Nicolini was fond of recollecting), are exactly a case in point. To be the historians of Naples, and more specifically the interpreters and editors of Vico, they had to come to terms both with the saint of the plebeians and with the plebeian philosopher who had understood the fancies of the “bestioni” so well. As for San Gennaro, it was simple enough. Croce expressed his sympathy for a popular Catholicism which in his judgment was more meaningful than the Catholicism of the theologians and did not claim the approval of the educated: see his essays in Uomini e cose della Vecchia Italia II (1927) and Varietà di storia letteraria e civile II (1949).

Vico was of course more difficult, as one can see from the extensive work on him that Croce and Nicolini produced during a period of some forty years. Vico stuck to Catholicism, kept sacred and profane history separate, and not only contemplated recurrences of barbarism but described barbarian ages (and religious peoples) with suspicious relish. Furthermore, an important factor in his historical cycles was the antagonism between patricians and plebeians which monarchies were able to control only for limited periods—before and after barbarism: “For the plebeians, once they knew themselves to be of equal nature with the nobles, naturally will not submit to remaining their inferiors in civil rights; and they achieve equality either in free commonwealths or under monarchies” (The New Science, prg. 1087, translated by T.G. Bergin and M.H. Fisch). A very obliging fellow in his daily transactions, Vico was not equally accommodating when he took up the pen to write the Scienza Nuova.

Croce never denied the existence of mystery in human life and never closed his eyes to violence and barbarism. But he invariably refused to have mystery turned into religion and perhaps only toward the end of his life faced the recurrence of barbarism as a foreseeable possibility. In his Hegelian heyday when he wrote on Vico (1911) he believed in dialectical progress, in elites, and in civilized conversation with past ages from a well-chosen vantage point. Thus his answer to Vico was to deny the existence of historical cycles and of class struggle and to turn Vico’s interpretation of myth and language into a chapter of the history of aesthetics. If only Vico had realized that fantasy and logic, economic calculation and morality follow each other in circles within…

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