"What is eloquence, in effect, but wisdom, ornately and copiously delivered in words appropriate to the common opinion of mankind?"

"..the principles of physics which are put forward as truths on the strength of the geometrical method are not really truths, but wear a semblance of probability."

"Like Bacon, I would maintain that the moderns are led astray by their fondness for that strictly deductive form of reasoning which the Greeks called sorites. The person who uses the syllogism brings no new element, since the conclusion is already implied in the initial proposition or assumption: analogously, those who employ the sorites merely unfold the secondary truth which lies within the primary statement."

"But the greatest drawback of our educational methods is that we pay an excessive amount of attention to the natural sciences and not enough to ethics....Our young men, because of their training, which is focused on these studies, are unable to engage in the life of the community, to conduct themselves with sufficient wisdom and prudence; nor can they infuse into their speech a familiarity with human psychology or permeate their utterances with passion. When it comes to the matter of prudential behavior in life, it is well for us to keep in mind that human events are dominated by Chance and Choice, which are extremely subject to change and which are strongly influenced by simulation and dissimulation (both pre-eminently deceptive things). As a consequence, those whose only concern is abstract truth experience great difficulty in achieving their means, and great difficulty in attaining their ends."

" is an error to apply the prudent conduct of life the abstract criterion of reasoning that obtains in the domain of science. A correct judgment deems that men--who are, for the most part, but fools--are ruled, not by forethought, but by whim or chance. The doctrinaires judge human actions as they ought to be, not as they actually are..."

"...the soul must be enticed by corporeal images and impelled to love; for once it loves, it is easily taught to believe; once it believes and loves, the fire of passion must be infused into it so as to break its inertia and force it to will. Unless the speaker can compass these three things, he has not achieved the effect of persuasion; has has been powerless to entice...Two things only are capable of turning to good use the agitations of the soul, those evils of the inward man which spring from a single source: desire. One is philosophy, which acts to mitigate passions in the soul of the sage, so that those passions are transformed into virtues; the other is eloquence which kindles these passions in the common sort, so that they perform the duties of virtue."

"The systematization in preceptive form of many subjects that depend on common sense does harm rather than benefit to our study methods. In those subjects in which discretion and practical common sense are supreme, a great number of preceptive treatments is no more helpful than their absence."

"In the past, all arts and disciplines were interconnected and rested in the lap of philosophy; subsequently, they were sundered apart. Those responsible for this separation can be compared to a tyrannical rule who, having seized mastery of a great, populous, and opulent city, should, in order top secure his own safety, destroy the city and scatter its inhabitants into a number of widely strewn villages."

"...Noble students, you are to bend your best efforts toward your studies, not surely with such an end in view as the gaining of riches, in which the low money-grubbing crowd would easily beat you out; nor for high office and influence, in which you would be far outdone by the military and by courtiers; and still less for that which leads philosophers on, namely the love of learning itself, enthralled by which almost all of them pass their whole lives withdrawn from the public light in order to get the full enjoyment from the tranquil working of their minds and nothing else. Something far more exalted than this is expected of you.... it is expected of you that you exert yourselves in your studies in order to manifest the heroic mind you possess and to lay foundations of learning and wisdom for the blessedness of the human race; by this course of action, not only will riches and wealth, even while you disdain them, accrue to you, but also honor and power will come looking for you, though you care for none of these things..."

"Humans are human because they are conscious of living within a community. When the sense of fellowship is lost humanity is lost."

About Vico

The last defender of the rhetorical tradition against the Court Royal Logicians at the apex of Renaissance Humanism is the oft-neglected Giambattista Vico (1668-1744).  Most of all, Vico rigorously attacked Descartes' contempt for the litterae humaniores and, specifically, the languages.  As Verene (1990) notes:

"Vico's originality in the history of anti-Cartesianism manifests itself in five points.  The first is Vico's dissent from Descartes' view of the Discourse as a method of invention.  The second is Vico's opposition to Descartes methodological monism (Pascal has already voiced this opposition).  The third is Vico's endeavor to demonstrate the superiority of 'synthetic' or Euclidian geometry over Cartesian, analytical geometry.  The fourth is the attempt to expose the weakness of Cartesian medicine and cosmology, and to declare the inadmissibility of the reduction of physics to mathematics.  (One of the most persistent of Cartesian 'themes' is the mathematization of physics).  Finally — and this is the aspect that establishes the characteristic note of Vico's criticism of Descartes within the history of anti-Cartesianism — we have Vico's emphasis on man as an integrality (not sheer rationality, not merely intellect, but also fantasy, passion, and emotion), and his insistence on the historical and social dimension."

Vico's (1990) stand against Descartes is evident in his On the Study Methods of Our Time.  In this text, Vico compares the advantages and disadvantages of the study methods of his age in comparison to antiquity.  He develops a method which compares "study method" based on three aspects: instruments, complementary aids, and the aim envisaged (p.  6).  While instruments provide the tools for "a systematic, orderly manner of proceeding," complementary aids are the procedures which are "concomitant with the task" (p.  6).  Finally, the aim envisaged by the learner is present from the beginning to the end of the task of learning.

In terms of the instruments of his age, Vico most of all criticizes the method of teaching youth to first use philosophical criticism, which he feels is detrimental to a training in common sense.  For Vico, such a method leads to the instillment of abstract intellectualism at the expense of the practice of eloquence (p.  13).  The educators of his day, Vico felt, failed to hone the strengths of the youth in imagination, and this is nowhere more the case than in the neglect of teaching the "art of topics." As Vico asserts, "the invention of arguments are by nature prior to the judgment of their validity, so that, in teaching, that invention should be given priority over philosophical criticisms" (p.  14).  It is clear, in this case, that Vico is asserting that rhetoric, as opposed to scholastic logic, must be the centerpiece of education.  For, as he argues, "nature and life are full of incertitude," and thus we teach our youth well when we give them the tools of the ars topica — the art of true speech, of eloquence — such that they may utilize the loci, or lines of arguments, "to grasp the elements of persuasion in any question or case" (p.  15). When scholastic logic takes precendence over rhetoric, Vico argues, it results in a loss of eloquence, and, vice versa, "the specialist in topics fall in with falsehood" (p.  19).  Logic and rhetoric belong together.  But eloquence, through the cultivation of common sense, imagination and memory, must come first, and, "at a later stage let them learn criticism, so that they can apply the fullness of their personal judgment to what they have been taught" (p.  19).

The imaginative, rhetoric dimension has primacy for Vico in another way, as well.  When priority is given to the modern application of the geometrical method of Descartes to physics, "it is impossible to discard any part of the deductive process unless one attacks that method's basic principle" (p.  21).  Vico uses the metaphor of a house and its furniture.  Once the house of first principles is built, the deductive process allows only for the arrangement of the furniture.  The rhetorical dimension, however, holds the possibility of discovery, of inventio, through the rhetors' "capacity to perceive the analogies existing between matters lying far apart and, apparently, most dissimilar," and this involves metaphorical activity (p.  24).  This process, known as ingenium, is the very building of the house, and, thus, has priority over the deductive approach of logic.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the eloquence of the orator is the art which cultivates the speaker's ability to be attuned to the mood of the audience.
It follows, Vico shows, that the primacy of deductive logic leads to an excessive focus on the natural sciences while ethics is neglected.  Vico (1990) writes:

"Since, in our time, the only target of our intellectual endeavors is truth, we devote all our efforts to the investigation of physical phenomenon, because their nature seems unambiguous; but we fail to inquire into human nature which, because of the freedom of man's will, is difficult to determine.  A serious drawback arises from the uncontrasted preponderance of our interest in the natural sciences."  (p.  33).

 Vico, it is clear, foresaw the loss of the human dimension with the rise of modern science.  And, further, he foretold that this neglect would inevitably result in a loss of community, and, ultimately, a loss of wisdom and prudence, as well as loss of "a familiarity with human psychology" (p.  34).   Such a cultivation of abstract reasoning at the expense of the topics would result, said Vico, in one who is learned but destitute of prudence: one who "deduces the lowest truths from the highest." Yet, he continues, "it is an error to apply to the prudent conduct of life the abstract criterion of reasoning that obtains in the domain of science" (p.  35).  Nevertheless, as Vico predicted, our modern, natural science psychology is just such a project.  In fact, based on Vico's assertions, it seems as if modern psychology is itself the cultivation of ‘common sense,' but instead an errant kind which has forgotten its roots in the rhetorical tradition.

Read more:

The Psychology-Rhetoric Relationship: A Brief Historical Sketch by Brent Dean Robbins

Giambattista Vico Home Page
Giambattista Vico Home Page (different one)
A brief intro to Vico
Another brief intro to Vico
Jimmy Lo on Vico
Vico at Infoplease
Vico's Scienza Nuova
"Vico--The New Science" at Milton Web
Vico's "dipintura"
"Imagination and HistoricalKnowledge in Vico:
A Critique of Leon Pompa’s Recent Work" by Randall E. Auxier
"The Vision of Human Progress: Vico, Gibbon and Condorcet" at The History Guide
"The New Science"
"Vico's Sensus Communis" by Erik Growen
"Vico's New Science: The Unity of Piety and Wisdom" (abstract) Joseph P. Vincenzo
"Shades of Vico" (book review) by Aubrey Rosenberg
"Vico, The New Science and Finnegan's Wake" by Charles Cave
"Giambattista Vico and Ernest Borman"
"Vico and Grassi: Humanism in Rhetoric"
"A Brief Overview of Rhetoric" by Joseph Petraglia-Bahri
"The Rationality of Metaphor" by Bernhard Debatin
"Kelly, Bannister and a Story Telling Psychology" by Miller Mair
The Promise of Tolerance: the Political Theory of Giambattista Vico (abstract) by Jason Mullany Haynes
Hypertext and Giambattista Vico
Ernesto Grassi on Rhetoric
Boundary Mathematics and Architecture Theory
Building an Understanding of Constructivism

Recommended Books for Purchase:

The New Science of Giambattista Vico
by Giambattista Vico
On the Study Methods of Our Time
by Giambattista Vico
The Art of Rhetoric
by Giambattista VICO
On Humanistic Education
by Giambattista Vico
On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians
by Giambattista Vico
Autobiography of Giambattista Vico
by Giambattista Vico
G.B. Vico : The Making of an Anti-Modern
by Mark Lilla

The New Map of the World : The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico
by Giuseppe Mazzotta
Vico and Humanism : Essays on Vico, Heidegger, and Rhetoric
by Ernesto Grassi
Vico's Axioms : The Geometry of the Human World
by James Robert, Jr Goetsch
The Arbor Scientiae Reconceived and the History of Vico's Resurrection
by Giorgio Tagliacozzo
Giambattista Vico and the Cognitive Science Enterprise
by Marcel Danesi
Giambattista Vico, Post-Mechanical Thought, and Contemporary Psychology
by Michael S. Littleford
Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico : Vico's Paradox :
Revolutionary Humanistic Vision for the New Age
by Emanuel L. Paparella
Sensus Communis : Vico, Rhetoric, and the Limits of Relativism
by John D. Schaeffer
Vico (European Political Thought)
by Robert Mayer J.P. Flint (Editor)
Vico and Joyce
by Donald Phillip Verene (Editor)
Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language (Advances in Semiotics)
by Marcel Danesi


Copyright 1999, Brent Dean Robbins

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