The Enlightenment Period
Did Vico interact with other Enlightenment thinkers over his lifetime?
No. Giambattista Vico’s circumstances did not afford him the leisure of an intellectual vocation. Outside of Italy, only the German intellectuals, such as Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried von Herder, knew of his work. Italy was not united during his lifetime. Naples endured constant upheavals as Spain, Austria, and France took it over. Additional political stress resulted from the strength of the Jesuits within the city.
Vico’s father was a bookseller in Naples. After fracturing his skull as a child, Vico could not attend school for three years, so he read on his own. When he did enroll in university, he proved to be an undisciplined student. He concentrated on logic and medieval scholasticism before settling on law. But, after assisting his own father in a lawsuit in his teens, he never practiced law again. For 10 years after 1685, Vico worked as a tutor, reading on his own in philosophy, history, ethics, jurisprudence, and poetry. He did not like mathematics, nor was he particularly interested in science.
By the time Vico became professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples in 1695, it was a Cartesian center dedicated to the study of René Descartes’ philosophy. And Vico was opposed to many aspects of Cartesianism, especially his rationalism. From 1699–1708, Vico delivered the beginning lecture for the University every year. Of the essays that developed from those lectures, “On the Study Methods of Our Time” (1709), was well received for its advocacy of liberal education. This was quickly followed by his 1709 lecture, “On the Most Ancient Knowledge of the Italians.” In 1722 his three volume Universal Law was complete, and in 1725 both his autobiography and The New Science, which was to be revised in 1730 and 1744, were released. Vico failed to be promoted to chair of civil law and had to write poems and vanity pieces for hire to make a living. He grew bitter and his lifelong melancholy worsened. His death in 1744 followed an agonizing illness.