Giambattista Vico's Stages in World History

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From the Wikipedia:

"Vico would therefore be using an original organic idea that culture is a system of socially produced and structured elements.[19] Hence, knowledge of any society would come from the social structure of that society, explicable, therefore, only in terms of its own language. As such, one may find a dialectical relationship between language, knowledge and social structure.

Relying on a complex etymology, Vico argues in the Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in a recurring cycle (ricorso) of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human. Each age exhibits distinct political and social features and can be characterized by master tropes or figures of language. The giganti of the divine age rely on metaphor to compare, and thus comprehend, human and natural phenomena. In the heroic age, metonymy and synecdoche support the development of feudal or monarchic institutions embodied by idealized figures. The final age is characterized by popular democracy and reflection via irony; in this epoch, the rise of rationality leads to barbarie della reflessione or barbarism of reflection, and civilization descends once more into the poetic era. Taken together, the recurring cycle of three ages – common to every nation – constitutes for Vico a storia ideale eterna or ideal eternal history. Therefore, it can be said that all history is the history of the rise and fall of civilizations, for which Vico provides evidence (up until, and including the Graeco-Roman historians)."



Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

"In Vico’s view, is to appreciate history as at once “ideal”-since it is never perfectly actualized-and “eternal,” because it reflects the presence of a divine order or Providence guiding the development of human institutions. Nations need not develop at the same pace-less developed ones can and do coexist with those in a more advanced phase-but they all pass through the same distinct stages (corsi): the ages of gods, heroes, and men. Nations “develop in conformity to this division,” Vico says, “by a constant and uninterrupted order of causes and effects present in every nation” (“The Course the Nations Run,” §915, p.335). Each stage, and thus the history of any nation, is characterized by the manifestation of natural law peculiar to it, and the distinct languages (signs, metaphors, and words), governments (divine, aristocratic commonwealths, and popular commonwealths and monarchies), as well as systems of jurisprudence (mystic theology, heroic jurisprudence, and the natural equity of free commonwealths) that define them.

In addition to specifying the distinct stages through which social, civil, and political order develops, Vico draws on his earlier writings to trace the origin of nations back to two distinct features of human nature: the ages of gods and heroes result from memory and creative acts of “imagination” (fantasia), while the age of men stems from the faculty of “reflection” (riflessione). Vico thus claims to have discovered two kinds of wisdom-“poetic” and “philosophical”-corresponding to the dual nature of human beings (sense and intellect), represented in the creations of theological poets and philosophers, respectively (“Poetic Wisdom,” §779, p.297). Institutions arise first from the immediacy of sense-experience, pure feeling, curiosity, wonder, fear, superstition, and the child-like capacity of human beings to imitate and anthropomorphize the world around them. Since “in the world’s childhood men were by nature sublime poets” (Element XXXVII, §187, p.71), Vico reasons, nations must be “poetic in their beginnings” (Element XLIV, §200, p.73), so that their origin and course can be discovered by recreating or remembering the “poetic” or “metaphysical truth” which underlies them (Element XLVII, §205, p.74). This is manifest primarily in fable, myth, the structure of early languages, and the formations of polytheistic religion. The belief systems of early societies are thus characterized by “poetic metaphysics” which “seeks its proofs not in the external world but within the modifications of the mind of him who meditates it” (“Poetic Wisdom,” §374, p.116), and “poetic logic,” through which the creations of this metaphysics are signified. Metaphysics of this sort is “not rational and abstract like that of learned men now,” Vico emphasizes, “but felt and imagined [by men] without power of ratiocination...This metaphysics was their poetry, a faculty born with them...born of their ignorance of causes, for ignorance, the mother of wonder, made everything wonderful to men who were ignorant of everything” (“Poetic Wisdom,” §375, p.116). Incapable of forming “intelligible class concepts of things”-a feature of human mind realized only in the age of men-people “had a natural need to create poetic characters; that is, imaginative class concepts or universals, to which, as to certain models or ideal portraits, to reduce all the particular species which resembled them” (Element XLIX, §209, p.74).

From this genus of poetic metaphysics, Vico then extrapolates the various species of wisdom born of it. “Poetic morals” have their source in piety and shame (“Poetic Wisdom,” §502, p.170), he argues, while “poetic economy” arises from the feral equality of human beings and the family relationships into which they were forced by need (“Poetic Wisdom,” §523, p.180). Similarly, “poetic cosmography” grows from the seeing “the world as composed of gods of the sky, of the underworld...and gods intermediate between earth and sky” (“Poetic Wisdom,” §710, p.269), “poetic astronomy” from raising the gods “to the planets and [assigning] the heroes to the constellations” (“Poetic Wisdom,” §728, p.277), “poetic chronology” out of the cycles of harvest and the seasons (“Poetic Wisdom,” §732, p.279), and “poetic geography” from naming the natural world through “the semblances of things known or near at hand” (“Poetic Wisdom,” §741, p.285). As the faculty of reason develops and grows, however, the power of imagination from which the earliest forms of human society grew weakens and gives way finally to the power of reflection; the cognitive powers of human beings gain ascendance over their creative capacity, and reason replaces poetry as the primary way of understanding the world. This defines the age of men which makes philosophy, Vico reasons, a relatively recent development in history, appearing as it did “some two thousand years after the gentile nations were founded” (Element CV, §313, p.92).

Since history itself, in Vico’s view, is the manifestation of Providence in the world, the transition from one stage to the next and the steady ascendance of reason over imagination represent a gradual progress of civilization, a qualitative improvement from simpler to more complex forms of social organization. Vico characterizes this movement as a “necessity of nature” (“Idea of the Work,” §34, p.21) which means that, with the passage of time, human beings and societies tend increasingly towards realizing their full potential. From rude beginnings undirected passion is transformed into virtue, the bestial state of early society is subordinated to the rule of law, and philosophy replaces sentiments of religion. “Out of ferocity, avarice, and ambition, the three vices which run throughout the human race,” Vico says, “legislation creates the military, merchant, and governing classes, and thus the strength, riches, and wisdom of commonwealths. Out of these three great vices, which could certainly destroy all mankind on the face of the earth, it makes civil happiness” (Element VII, §132, p.62). In addition, the transition from poetic to rational consciousness enables reflective individuals-the philosopher, that is, in the shape of Vico-to recover the body of universal history from the particularity of apparently random events. This is a fact attested to by the form and content of The New Science itself.

Although from a general point of view history reveals a progress of civilization through actualizing the potential of human nature, Vico also emphasizes the cyclical feature of historical development. Society progresses towards perfection, but without reaching it (thus history is “ideal”), interrupted as it is by a break or return (ricorso) to a relatively more primitive condition. Out of this reversal, history begins its course anew, albeit from the irreversibly higher point to which it has already attained. Vico observes that in the latter part of the age of men (manifest in the institutions and customs of medieval feudalism) the “barbarism” which marks the first stages of civil society returns as a “civil disease” to corrupt the body politic from within. This development is marked by the decline of popular commonwealths into bureaucratic monarchies, and, by the force of unrestrained passions, the return of corrupt manners which had characterized the earlier societies of gods and heroes. Out of this “second barbarism,” however, either through the appearance of wise legislators, the rise of the fittest, or a the last vestiges of civilization, society returns to the “primitive simplicity of the first world of peoples,” and individuals are again “religious, truthful, and faithful” (“Conclusion of the Work,” §1104–1106, pp.423–4). From this begins a new corso which Vico saw manifest in his own time as the “second age of men” characterized by the “true” Christian religion and the monarchical government of seventeenth century Europe."


The Three Stages


"He described human societies as passing through stages of growth and decay. The first is a “bestial” condition, from which emerges “the age of the gods,” in which man is ruled by fear of the supernatural. “The age of heroes” is the consequence of alliances formed by family leaders to protect against internal dissent and external attack; in this stage, society is rigidly divided into patricians and plebeians. “The age of men” follows, as the result of class conflict in which the plebeians achieve equal rights, but this stage encounters the problems of corruption, dissolution, and a possible reversion to primitive barbarism. Vico affirmed that Providence must right the course of history so that humanity is not engulfed in successive cataclysms.

According to Vico, the origin of unequal social classes, which often retain the rigidity of primitive castes, must be attributed to imperfect forms of religion, not to technological progress. All of Vico’s anthropology is based on the affirmation of the absolute primacy of religion, which was no doubt suggested to him by the thought of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an Italian Renaissance philosopher. Vico observed that three principles are dominant in the birth and regeneration of nations: “All the people have a religion; official marriages are celebrated among them; and the burial of the dead is a properly human and universal custom.” Modesty and piety are the basic moral sentiments, the pillars on which the family is built. When they crumble, the descent toward the bestial state of man accelerates. Without expressly saying so, Vico thought that the degeneration that struck down the idolatrous religions of ancient times could even overtake what for him was the true religion—Christianity, which had established monasteries as refuges from the world and had secured the purity of sentiments and morals.

A second basic notion of Vico is that man has a mixed nature: he remains closer to the beast than to the angel. For Vico the second stage of barbarism, which closes the age of men, arises from an excess of reflection or from the predominance of technology. This stage heralds an imminent new beginning of history. The fundamental perversity of the second stage of barbarism makes it, in fact, more dangerous than the first, which in its excess of strength contains noble impulses that need only to be brought under control. Man becomes a coward, an unbeliever, and an informer, hiding his evil intentions behind “flattery and hypocritical wheedling.” Families live huddled together in tentacled cities, veritable “deserts of souls.” These degenerate peoples do not hesitate to rush into the worst of slaveries to find shelter and protection. Money becomes the only value. This dissolution from the age of men to the bestial state exposes humanity to a fate far worse than arrests or regressions of civilizations. Vico hoped to serve warning to men of the evils that could overtake them if they became worshippers of a materialist ideology or the servants of a science uninformed by conscience."


More information

  • The First New Science, edited and translated by Leon Pompa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Pompa, Leon, 1990, Vico: A Study of the New Science, second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.