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Historical Knowing and Creative Politics in Machiavelli and Vico

  • Author(s): Pomara, Francesca Maria
  • Advisor(s): Ascoli, Albert R
  • et al.

The following reading of Giambattista Vico’s Scienza nuova (1744) employs a Machiavellian lens to illustrate how issues preventing political longevity and encouraging ever-proliferating contingencies are overcome epistemologically, not through atemporal Cartesian reason, but rather through a layered, trans-historical hermeneutics. Because Vico frequently references (both tacitly and explicitly) Niccolò Machiavelli and because the two thinkers have a common grounding in humanist studies, particularly in rhetoric, the present discussion will explore the ways in which they share a distinct worldview that defines history as the epistemological experience of the individual and places concerns for proper governance at its core.

A triadic interpretive schema will parse through three major thematic threads common to both Machiavellian and Vichean thought—advice; the individual; and communal laws—in order to analyze their three corresponding modes of argumentation—the visual, the metaphorical/poetical, and the legal—that are essential to substantiate the affinities and novelty of these two thinkers’ practical philosophies.

The Introduction will discuss Machiavelli and Vico’s similar peripheral location with respect to modernity as a means to establish the basis for their comparison. Specifically, the Introduction will explain why Machiavelli’s writings deepen comprehension of the Scienza nuova and the claim Vico puts forth within it of its innovation from his pro-Descartes contemporaries.

Chapter One, entitled “Allegorical Thinking and the Problem of Contingency,” will confront the difficulty of securing universally applicable praxes, as typified by the slippery counsel in Machiavelli’s Principe, and will analyze how Vico proposes a solution through the Scienza’s frontispiece. By foregrounding the rhetorical and interpretative techniques that enable allegory to link two levels of meaning—surface and hidden, poetical and philosophical—Chapter One will show how the Machiavellian prince anticipates the overcoming of temporal obstacles that is central to the reading and implementation of Vico’s science, particularly through the visualization of two moments in time.

Chapter Two, entitled “The Individual, the Collective, and the Fictions of Exemplarity,” analyzes the entity responsible for the resolution of contingency, moving from the individual to the many. Machiavelli, in his Vita di Castruccio Castracani, obliquely answers the question he proposes on the waning validity of the self as both model and propagator of continuity, overturning the efficacy of legacies according to filial succession for one based on interpretative ties. Chapter Two contends that Castruccio’s sayings look forward to the ways in which Vico argues Homer’s exemplarity as depending less on an individual’s merits and more on a collective representational impulse, with a person’s identity becoming the vehicle for the majority’s ideas, desires, and will.

Chapter Three, entitled “Legislating the Histories of Human Thinking,” brings together the allegorical and collective modes of thinking from Chapters One and Two, respectively, in order to demonstrate how both Machiavelli and Vico envision laws as essential to political stability and history as essential to practical philosophy. By comparing representations of legal processes and order in Machiavelli’s Istorie fiorentine and in the final two books of Vico’s Scienza, Chapter Three’s argument will highlight the core kinship between these two thinkers’ political theories as centered on the need to safeguard societies against change by using the very source of change itself—the human mind and its concrete, disembodied manifestations in society.

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