The Vision of Human Progress: Vico, Gibbon and Condorcet
After his primary education was completed, Vico served as a private tutor to the nephews of the bishop of Ischia. He returned to Naples in 1695 and four years later was appointed to the chair of rhetoric at the university, a post he held well into the 1730s. His professorship was a minor one. Although its modest stipend gave him a measure of security, his post offered little in the way of intellectual stimulation. No doubt, throughout his seventy-six years -- Vico died in 1744 -- he hoped for better things. His failure to obtain a chair of civil law at Naples when it became vacant in 1723 was a bitter disappointment from which he was never to fully recover.
Vico's first intellectual influences were Plato, Tacitus and Machiavelli and he was especially adept in the fields of jurisprudence, linguistics and history. His first important lecture, "On the Method of the Studies of Our Time," was printed in 1709 and was followed immediately by another lecture, "On the Most Ancient Knowledge of the Italians." Both essays carried with them almost Renaissance-like concerns.
In 1725 he wrote his famous Autobiography (published 1728). Also in 1725, he published the first edition of his most important work, the Scienza Nouva (The New Science). He was a restless man and never entirely satisfied with this edition of THE NEW SCIENCE. He spent the remainder of his life making extensive alterations and additions to it. The second edition, largely rewritten, appeared in 1730 and a third edition, published in the year of his death, contained still more revisions. The New Science, has a rather strange history. During the 18th century it remained largely unnoticed by European thinkers although it is apparent that the German Romantic, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), may have been acquainted with it. Much of Herder's Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784-1791), seems to echo a great deal of what was implicit in the thought of Vico.
For the most part, the general thesis of The New Science was too unfamiliar and its overall approach was out of line with mainstream Enlightenment thought (see Lecture 9). It was only in the 19th century when, under the influence of German Romanticism -- a different intellectual climate altogether -- that Vico's work began to attract a greater audience. In England, the Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and Rugby headmaster, Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), found much to admire in Vico. The French historian, Jules Michelet (1798-1874), considered Vico as his master and in 1824 translated The New Science into French. By the 20th century, Vico was still, however, relatively unknown. But he was rescued by two philosophers of history: Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) and R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943). Assisted by Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), Croce collected Vico's works in eleven volumes (1914-1941). In 1913, Collingwood translated Croce's work of 1911, La filosofia di Giambattista Vico into English.
Vico had been rescued but his reputation is still minimal. As one historian has admitted, "it is unlikely that he will ever be widely read."
The New Science is clearly a philosophy of history. It is also an attack on Cartesian philosophy. Vico believed that Descartes' ideas (see Lecture 8) were exclusively oriented toward mathematics and the physical sciences. For Vico, Descartes neglected other branches of the human experience -- art, law, and history. Vico attacked three fundamental principles of Cartesian philosophy: (1) the appeal to self-consciousness as the basis of all knowledge -- the cogito; (2) the belief that God's existence could be proven a priori, that is, prior to experience; and (3) the reliance on a method of clear and distinct ideas as the universal criterion of truth.
By 1720, this criticism was not really that much of a surprise. John Locke (see Lecture 8) had already demolished Descartes in 1690, and even the French philosophers who admired Descartes for his work, could only criticize him in light of what they understood about Locke and Newton. For Vico, there may be ideas that are clear and distinct, but these ideas could subsequently turn out to be false. And although mathematical propositions satisfied the Cartesian criteria of self-evident truths, certitude is not to be found in self-evidence, but in the fact that mathematical systems are man-made. So Vico, skeptical of Descartes, cast doubt on the greatest 17th century doubter of them all. The epistemology which Vico addressed in opposition to Descartes, is the foundation upon which his revolutionary philosophy of history was built.
Descartes neglected history altogether -- compared to science and mathematics, history was a poor thing indeed. Vico, however, thought differently. The historian could achieve a more profound knowledge than the natural philosopher. Nature was not made by man -- it was external to man, outside him. In the case of history, by contrast, the world to be studied and comprehended is the human world -- the result of human will, success and failure, loves and hates. In considering the course of human history, Vico was ahead of his time. He did not wish to suggest that we interpret the past in terms of our own characteristic purposes, interests and ideas. This is what Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) had done.
Vico acknowledged his debt to Hobbes (see Lecture 8) but he also believed that Hobbes was guilty of an error. By discussing the origins of human society, the origins of civil society, the social contract and the state of nature, Hobbes assumed that human nature was a fixed entity. In other words, Hobbes assumed that men, living in some state of nature, that is, before civil government, had mental powers and outlooks essentially the same as men of the 17th century. Vico called this a "pseudo-myth." Hobbes and others had created a false picture of how early man lived, thought and behaved.
Rejecting all these misconceptions in a flash, Vico argued that man is a being who can only be understood historically. Vico's approach, then, was the opposite of both Hobbes and Descartes. He rejected the belief that all men have looked at themselves and their world in exactly the same way. Once he recognized this, the task and scope of historical investigation took on profound methodological implications. The materials for reaching historical understanding were close at hand -- for Vico, they are to be found above all in language and in myths, fables and traditions which have been handed down from earlier times. Historical study requires not only a high degree of skill -- study also require that the historian embrace and imaginative capacity for recapturing the past (empathy) -- a past that is vastly different from the present of the historian.
One of Vico's most crucial insights -- insights that appear full blown in the work of G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) -- lay in his claim that the various aspects of a society's life at any given stage of its history form a coherent pattern and are intrinsically connected with one another. With a specific art form or religion go a certain type of political or economic organization, a certain set of laws, a collection of manners, styles of thought and so on. He incorporated all of this in his cyclical theory of historical development. This is the ricorsi for which Vico is most remembered.
Human societies pass through successive stages of birth, growth, development, decay and death. First there is the purely bestial condition, from which emerges what Vico called, "the age of the gods." Here the basic social unit is the patriarchal family. In the age of the gods, man's brutal or bestial instincts are curbed by their fear of supernatural powers. This, of course, signifies a mythopoeic world view -- myth-making -- as well as the beginning of religion.
The next stage is marked by the "age of heroes." This stage appears as a consequence of alliances formed between the fathers of families to meet the challenges from both within and outside the family. Oligarchies are established through these alliances and society is divided between patrician rulers and plebeian slaves. Laws are necessarily cruel and unjust and the poetry of the age is marked by ferocious and predatory ideals of behavior. This stage is followed by the "age of men," which is engendered not by reverence for human reason and natural law but by class conflict. The plebeians demand and gradually achieve equal rights and a legal system that respects its interests. However, the weakness of traditional ties and the questioning of accepted customs and values that result from the establishment of free democratic republics leads inevitably to corruption and dissolution. The end of the cycle comes either through conquest from without or through inner disintegration or both. This is followed by a reversion to barbarism and the cycle is then repeated.
An example of this cycle is, of course, drawn from Rome. The mythical Romulus is seen as a symbolic expression of the period when rebellions within the family against the fathers produces a feudal society. Sharp divisions are established by law between patricians and plebeians. This was followed by the Struggle of the Orders (490-300 B.C.) in which the plebeians gained crucial rights such as the Law of the Twelve Tables, the election of Tribunes and inter-marriage. In other words, civil sovereignty is formed within a republic. Yet the possibility of acquiring personal wealth and power which the Republic opened up, led to discontent and unrest among the people. Under the Caesars of the late Republic and throughout the history of the Empire, combined with the forces of individualism and barbarian invasion, the Empire collapsed. Such are the cycles of history, all governed by "Providence."
As I have suggested, few 18th or 19th century thinkers read or even new of Vico's New Science. He did not influence Enlightenment thought in general. Then why do we mention him? Well, his ideas clearly fit the patterns of the Age of Reason itself. His insights were generated from his study of law, legal theory, language and above all, history. His model was clearly Rome. However, we ought to be more inclined to view Vico not as an intellectual father of the Enlightenment, but rather as a thinker who anticipated -- though did not directly influence -- thinkers such as Herder, Hegel and Marx.
Thanks to Giambattista Vico, our view of human history as well as our view of human nature have been enriched and transformed. He believed that the historian must look to the past and understand it in collective and institutional as well as personal (empathetic) terms (thus anticipating much of 19th century historicism). Vico showed that the economic and class structure of society was crucially relevant to the formation of dominant ideologies (clearly anticipating Marx). Lastly, Vico showed that the past should be understood sympathetically -- the historian should not judge the past according to present standards and values. The past ought to be examined in light of its historical context (the "pastness of the past").
These notions are familiar to us today. But it has not always been so and it was Vico's neglected writings that the first clear intimation of these ideas appeared. It is for this reason that the relatively neglected New Science of Giambattista Vico stands as a landmark in modern European social and intellectual thought. (This discussion brings up an interesting question: how important is a seemingly important work which hardly anyone reads?)
Edward Gibbon, 1737-1794
Edward Gibbon was born at Putney, Surrey on April 27, 1737. Frail as a child and constantly ill, he owed the preservation of his life to an aunt, Miss Catherine Porten who also acted as the young Gibbon's first instructor. After instruction by a series of tutors and a habit of voracious reading on his own, Gibbon entered Magdalen College, Oxford, at the age of fifteen. As Gibbon wrote in his Autobiography, he confessed to have entered Oxford "with a stock of erudition which might have puzzled a doctor and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy would have been ashamed. Fourteen months at Oxford, "the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life," Gibbon admitted, ended with his conversion to Roman Catholicism (June 8, 1753).
Gibbon's father, irate as can be imagined, immediately sent the errant seventeen year old off to Lausanne, Switzerland. There Gibbon fell under the religious tutelage and scrutiny of Daniel Pavilliard, a Calvinist minister. In his Autobiography, Gibbon admitted that:
Pavilliard, "endowed with a clear head and a warm heart," repaired the damage done and led the wayward son back to the true path of Protestantism. After this tumultuous ordeal, Gibbon developed a decidedly skeptical frame of mind. During his five years at Lausanne, Gibbon managed to learn French, Italian and Greek. He had also read all the Latin classics, which he placed into four divisions: historians, poets, orators and philosophers.
Gibbon was a man of exuberant erudition, quite characteristic of the philosophes in general. He also fell madly in love with Suzanne Curchod. "I saw and loved," Gibbon confided in his Autobiography. "I found her learned without pedantry, lively in conversation, pure in sentiment, and elegant in manners." Promising her marriage, Gibbon packed his bags and returned to Putney to break the news to his father. His father "would not hear of this strange alliance" and refused to give his consent. "After a painful struggle I yielded to my fate," Gibbon wrote. "I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son." Suzanne Curchod later married the distinguished French financier and statesman Jacques Necker (1732-1804) and became extraordinarily famous as a leading figure in the French salons. Poor Gibbon -- he never married.
Gibbon's first publication, Essay on the Study of Literature, was written in French and published in 1761. This was followed by another essay, the History of the Swiss Revolution. He sent the essay to David Hume (1711-1776) who approved the project but who chided him for writing in French. Henceforth, all of Gibbon's works were composed in English.
Between 1759 and 1762, Gibbon served as a captain in the Hampshire militia. He was a surprisingly able officer. In 1763, and with the Seven Years' War at an end, Gibbon returned to the Continent. He visited Paris as well as his old haunts in Lausanne and Rome. His Autobiography records that it was on October 15, 1764, while musing amid the Roman ruins on the Capitoline Hill that the idea of writing a history about the decline and fall of Rome first struck him.
Returning to England in 1765, Gibbon became a man of letters and a man about town. In 1774, he was elected to Dr. Johnson's Literary Club where he was befriended by the great Scottish economist, Adam Smith (1723-1790), as well as other leading English philosophes. In the same year Gibbon secured a seat in Parliament where he earned the distinction of never having made a speech. He was, however, preoccupied with other things, including a vast literary project. While sitting as a Member of Parliament, Gibbon was busy preparing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which appeared in 1776, the same year that Smith had published The Wealth of Nations. The dying David Hume dispatched a congratulatory letter to the thirty year old Gibbon but warned that a clamor would certainly result from Gibbon's sarcastic remarks on Christianity in the famous chapters 15 and 16.
Hume was right. The clamor came and it came quickly. Gibbon responded with his Vindication (1779), but that work did little to reassure the learned public, as attested to by the cold reception given to the second and third volumes. At least fifty English replies and refutations were published before Gibbon's death and literally hundreds have been published in numerous languages since his death in 1794.
Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was received as a masterpiece and his history is still regarded as such. It has not yet been superseded. To be sure, there are certain misrepresentations of facts which have been identified and since Gibbon's day, historical scholarship has uncovered facts unavailable to an 18th century historian. His prejudices have been revealed and as some of his misjudgments have become apparent. "But in the main things," wrote J. B. Bury, editor of the standard six volume text, Gibbon "is still our master, above and beyond the present."
The most celebrated passages of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapters 15 and 16 in the first volume, are those which were most inflammatory to some 18th century critics. The problem that Gibbon set himself was to explain the progress of primitive or early Christianity and its influence on the fall of the Roman Empire. Writing as a philosophe, Gibbon came to the conclusion that the fall of Rome represented "the triumph of barbarism and religion." He ironically discussed the most commonly accepted causes of the triumph of Christianity, that is, the convincing historical evidence of "the doctrine itself and the ruling Providence of its great Author." He noted that over time, prejudice and passion have distorted the meaning of the doctrine. Meanwhile, God's Providence remains above man's scrutiny.
The first cause, the doctrine itself, Gibbon rules out as unhistorical. The second cause, God's Providence, is abandoned because it is unphilosophical. So, in the 15th chapter, Gibbon confined himself to discussing secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian Church -- causes which he believed could be tested by historical fact and philosophical analysis. With cool detachment, Gibbon examined the early history of the Church in the same spirit that he would examine any period of secular history -- no assertions of supernaturalism are made.
Gibbon goes on to discuss five secondary causes:
The fifteenth chapter closes with Gibbon's remark that Jerome, Eusebius or Augustine have little to add to the cause. Among the pagans, Plutarch, Galen, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius have nothing to add as well. The alleged miracles for the benefit of the Church pass unnoticed by Gibbon's pen. In the sixteenth chapter, Gibbon examinees the persecution of Christians by several Roman emperors. The blame, Gibbon argues, rests chiefly on the intolerant zeal of the Christians themselves. This, he adds, drove the emperors reluctantly toward persecution. There were peaceful periods and the detailed accounts of the suffering of the martyrs was based largely on the intervention of ecclesiastical writers like Eusebius. Gibbon then contrasts the two thousand Christians who lost their lives during the most extensive wave of persecution with the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives during the brief period of the Reformation.
The fame of Edward Gibbon rests upon his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. If he had not written this six volume magnum opus we would certainly know less about him -- he would more than likely have become just another dinner guest at the salons of wealthy Parisian women. But his conception of history is important and his rational criticism fully in tune with mainstream Enlightenment thought. He was a philosophe -- friend of Voltaire, Hume, Smith and Necker. Although many have criticized his suppositions and his style and wit, it is nearly impossible not to respect his immense erudition. More than Voltaire or David Hume, Edward Gibbon was the historian of the 18th century Enlightenment.
Marquis de Condorcet, 1743-1794
Condorcet was educated by the Jesuits at the College of Navarre and at the age of twenty-six was elected to the prestigious Academy of Science (he became perpetual secretary of the Academy in 1776). While a member of the Academy, Condorcet ably depicted the progress of the sciences in a series of eulogies of deceased academicians. The eulogies, it might be added, had the ultimate effect of making science more popular and accessible to the growing literate, middle class audience. Condorcet was also the protege of another leading French mathematician and philosophe, Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783), who saw that he was elected to the Academy Fran�ais in 1783 (in 1752 Frederick the Great offered d'Alembert the presidency of the Academy of Berlin but he did not wish to leave France).
Condorcet was very active in the pre-revolutionary campaigns for economic freedom, religious toleration, legal reform and the abolition of slavery. In 1786 he married Sophie de Gouchy, a woman whose Parisian salon was one of the most influential gathering places of the philosophes before the Revolution.
Condorcet took part in the opening debates of the French Revolution -- he was a member of the municipal council of Paris -- and he was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1791. As a prominent member of the Assembly, he directed a sustained effort toward the elaboration of a project for public education, an effort which by 1805, helped to establish the educational system of France. In the National Convention, Condorcet's opposition to the death penalty led him to cast his vote against the execution of Louis XVI in 1792/93 (as did Thomas Paine). He then undertook the task of drawing up a draft constitution for the new republic. His liberal constitutional scheme -- commonly known as the Girondin Constitution of 1793 -- suffered the same fate as the Girondins: expulsion and execution by the guillotine. In July 1793, his defense of his constitution against a constitution proposed by the Jacobins led to Condorcet's condemnation. He was now a wanted man. He spent the remaining months of his life secluded in Paris, working on his greatest work, the SKETCH FOR A HISTORICAL PICTURE OF THE PROGRESS OF THE HUMAN MIND, published in 1795. In March 1794, Condorcet left his seclusion and was immediately picked up and imprisoned outside Paris. He died during the first night of his imprisonment, the victim of exhaustion or perhaps self-administered poison.
Condorcet's aim was to bring to social questions the attitudes and methods of the physical sciences. The effect was to weld moral and political science into a new social science. This new social science would serve as the necessary precondition of a new rational political and social order. As a mathematician, Condorcet argued that all the truths of experience are merely probable. In the social sciences -- that is, in the sciences of man -- the observation of facts may be more difficult. The results of social science may therefore be less probable than those of the physical sciences. But Condorcet maintained that the probability of all statements of experience can be expressed and evaluated mathematically with probability theory. Condorcet accepted Descartes' claim that the physical sciences were merely probable. The idea of certainty was the criterion of truth and, like Descartes, he accepted mathematics as the paradigm of certain knowledge. Condorcet's argument in this respect ranks alongside that of Vico as one of the major 18th century attempts to establish the validity of social science. But whereas Vico turned from mathematics and the physical sciences in search of an historical conception of the New Science, Condorcet integrated them with the science of man in an essentially mathematical conception of science.
Condorcet viewed man in all his conduct as a gambler. Each individual automatically and instinctively balanced the probability of one opinion against that of another. In other words, man balances the desired goal of a proposed action against its probable results. The mathematical science of man was intended not only as an objective description of social behavior. This science would serve as a scientific basis for individual conduct which would enable men to substitute for instinctual modes of thought and action, the precise evaluation of reason and calculation. Social mathematics would free men from instinct and passion and restore the empire of reason in all social affairs.
The science of man would form the essential link between scientific advance and moral progress. Evil, as Condorcet remarked, was far more the result of erroneous calculation of interest than the product of violent passion. In his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, Condorcet turned to history for a demonstration of the power of reason and calculation in social affairs. The Sketch was only the hastily written introduction to a much larger work that Condorcet had planned to write on the history of science and its impact upon society. The Sketch also contains numerous fragments that contain Condorcet's enormous insights: an outline of a project for a universal, symbolic language of the sciences and a project elaborating upon a decimal system of scientific classification. Despite these fragments, it is the Sketch itself to which Condorcet's name and influence has long been associated. It is with the Sketch, often regarded as the philosophical testament of the 18th century, that Condorcet bequeathed the 19th century the fundamental idiom of its social thought, the "Idea of Progress."
The aim of the Sketch was to clearly demonstrate man's progressive emancipation from the arbitrary domination of his physical environment and from the historical bondage of his own making. The result, Condorcet tells us:
Condorcet's main objective was not to explain the growth of reason itself -- the growth of reason was natural and did not require explanation. His real concern was to point to the destruction of the obstacles which had inhibited the growth of reason, or, those which had diverted the historical development of the mind from the natural logic of ideas. Condorcet's hope for the future rested on two things. First, he was convinced that the obstacles which in the past had threatened the advance and diffusion of knowledge were finally being destroyed under the impact of a scientific, technological and political revolution. These obstacles he enumerated as elitism, tyranny, prejudice, ignorance, and political corruption. Second, he believed that the discoveries of sensationalist psychology had made it possible to articulate the fundamental principles of social science. He drew from the doctrine of the rights of man, a comprehensive outline of the principles of a liberal democracy. It would become the duty and purpose of the social sciences to implement a liberal democracy, and with it, increase the progress of the human mind.
No doubt Condorcet believed in the indefinite progress of the human mind. All he had to do was to look back to the past and note how far man had indeed traveled. While most other philosophes were more moderate in their faith in human progress, Condorcet saw no reason to disbelieve the cumulative effects of progress. He was literally intoxicated with the idea of human progress. If nature has endowed man collectively with reason, to understand laws and to modify their effects, than the progressive emancipation of man from natural was indeed rational. What has accelerated this progress is social science -- a social science which the 18th century had created for the century to come, a century which made the idea of progress its ruling idea.
Condorcet was a visionary -- progress would result with a liberal democratic government. Only such a government would sweep away the obstacles which had hindered the voice of reason. "The time will therefore come," wrote Condorcet in the Sketch,
Condorcet's vision was exemplary. His faith in progress, man's indefinite progress, was shared by many philosophes, and the 19th century would also belie a faith in progress and, in a way, Condorcet is the ancestor of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the father of positivism. Condorcet was also a perfectibilinarian -- man was capable of perfection. Perfection, however, was now conceived in a secular world, this world, and not in the City of God.
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