Book Summary: On the Study Methods of Our Time / Giambattista Vico


According to Vico, “the men of the modern age, have discovered many things of which the Ancients were entirely ignorant; the Ancients, on the other hand, knew much still unknown to us” (p.4). And pursues the question ‘which study method is finer and better, ours or the Ancients?’ while describing his goal as “to indicate in what respect our study methods are superior to those of the Ancients; to discover in what they are inferior, and how we may remedy this inferiority” (p.6).

Vico argues that every study method may be said to be made up of three things: instruments, complementary aids, and the aim envisaged. “Some of the new instruments of science are, themselves, sciences; others are arts; still others products of either art or nature” (p.6). As an example, the instrument of medicine is chemistry, that of astronomy, the telescope, that of physics, geometry and the geometrical method. And “as for ‘complementary aids’, I include among them the orderly reduction of systematic rules, of a number of subjects which the Ancients were wont to entrust to practical common sense. Complementary aids are also works of literature and of the fine arts whose excellence designates them as patterns of perfection” (p.8). Finally, the aim of all kinds of intellectual pursuits, according to Vico, is Truth.


Vico presents many cases in various fields such as chemistry, medicine, astronomy, geography in which the moderns have significantly excelled which the Ancients only wished to do so — with the usage of many advanced instruments like the compass, telescope, and other fields of knowledge. “All these things were entirely outside of the narrow range of sight of the science of the Ancients; modern science throws a flood of light upon them” (p.10). Likewise, when it came to complementary aids, with the advancements in poetry, painting, sculpture, etc., along with the invention of many more printing places, have made the modern age excel in the sciences. Finally, with the establishment of many great institutions of learning, like the universities, the single goal of pursuit truth has been empowered even further. Next, Vico promises to “scrutinise these advantages of our methods, and try to ascertains whether these methods lack some of the good qualities possessed by those of antiquity: or whether, instead, they are impaired by faults from which ancient methods were exempt” (p.12).


Vico criticises the method of educating the youth at his time, which was based on philosophical criticism first — instead of starting to educate the young in common sense. “Such an approach is distinctly harmful, since training in common sense is essential to the education of adolescents, so that that faculty should be developed as early as possible; else they break into odd or arrogant behaviour when adulthood is reached” (p.13). Vico links old age with reason and adolescence in imagination and argues that the imaginative part of education should not be dulled but flourished with the cultivation of memory — which the Ancients were able to do as they required their youths to learn the science of geometry which cannot be grasped without a vivid capacity to form images.

Vico gives arguments for both sides on teaching philosophical criticism and ars topica (the art of “topics”) and sums up the differences as “intellectualistic criticism enables us to achieve truth, while ars topica makes us eloquent” (p.17). Whereas, people of his timed focused on the former, the Ancients mostly focused on the latter. According to Vico, both sides have their defects. “The specialists in topics fall in with falsehood; the philosophical critics disdain any traffic with probability” (p.19). Vico suggests the following: “To avoid both defects, I think, young men should be taught the totality of sciences and arts, and their intellectual powers should be developed to the full; thus they will become familiar with the art of argument, drawn from the ars topica. At the very outset, their common sense should be strengthened so that they grown in prudence and eloquence. Let their imagination and memory be fortified so that they may be effective in those arts in which fantasy and mnemonic faculty are predominant. At a later stage let them learn criticism, so that they can apply the fullness of their personal judgement to what they have been taught. And let them develop skill in debating on either side of any proposed argument” (p.19).


Vico proceeds to touch upon the problems raised by the applications made by the moderns of the geometrical method to physics. Vico explains how, in the opinions of the scientists of his time, the physics based on the geometrical method is regarded as to be the authentic voice of Nature. But Vico has a sceptical approach as he suggests people to “pause and repeatedly ponder whether they are not carelessly following an unsafe path, leading away from the goal of the solution of the problems of nature” (p.22) — as some of the assumptions were already proven to be false in his time. Vico further writes, “The method by which they were reached is that of geometry, but physical truths so elicited are not demonstrated as reliably as are geometrical axioms. We are able to demonstrate geometrical propositions because we create them; were it possible for us to supply demonstrations of propositions of physics, we would be capable of creating them ex nihilism as well” (p.23). After having stated that the ideal patterns of reality exist in God alone, Vico suggests that, instead of being like the Ancients who researched nature to match the gods in happiness, the people of his time had to engage upon the quest of inquiry while letting failures help in reached towards the Supreme Being, who alone is the Truth, and the Path to Guide it.

Vico contrasts the geometrical method to rhetoric. He argues that “geometrical method constitutes a hindrance in the way of an eloquent exposition of the principles of physics” (p.24). Men would find it extremely hard to follow a long chain of reasoning without any eloquence. On the other hand, a good orator knows his audience well and delivers in a manner according to a way they would understand, stirring minds and sets about arousing the emotions of the audience.


Vico acknowledges how “geometry is undoubtedly a propulsive force in the development of mechanical inventions” (p.27) and how the inventions made by the moderns are immeasurably superior to the Ancients. But when it comes to how much “analytic geometry” (independently invented by Descartes, also known as Cartesian geometry) contributes to the advancements in mechanics, Vico is doubtful and gives an example in which a ship, perfectly designed by the analytical, method sank to the bottom of the sea right after being released to water. Thus, Vico questions whether machines built using analytical geometry are of no use and suggests that “we need to train young minds for the practice of mechanics by means of a close study of visual geometrical figures, and not by means of abstract algebraic symbols” (p.30).


Vico moves his focus to medicine, which he thought Ancients were superior in compared to moderns because the Ancients “felt that the causes of diseases are deeply hidden and uncertain; as a consequence they were exacting and scrupulous in their effort to aim at the only result which they knew they could, on the basis of long-continued observation, aim at and achieve; and this result was to get hold, not so much of the causes as of the symptoms of disease, and then surmise the disease’s gravity and future course, and proceed to conduct a medical treatment” (p.30). Whereas, the modern way of treatment was to suspend action and wait for the diseases to come to a head to identify its causes. “This dictum, and the attitude it indicates, was unknown to the Ancients. They realised that physical health, like everything else that is good, can be more easily preserved than restored” (p.31).

Vico points out the main drawbacks of the art of medicine of his time, mainly criticising how “the moderns are led astray by their fondness for that strictly deductive form of reasoning” (p.32). He further writes and arrives at crucial ideas, “illnesses are always new and different, and no two sick people are ever alike. Nor am I, at the present moment, the same individual I was but a minute ago while talking of the sick: countless life-instants have already passed by, numberless motions have already taken place, by which I am continuously pushed in the direction of my last day. Thus, since every genus (and every true genus contains a whole series of particular cases) contains an exceedingly great number of specific diseases, and these diseases cannot all be categorised under a single general class name, it is impossible for us to attain truth in this sphere, either through the syllogism, since its major premise consists of a general notion (and particular instances cannot be subsumed under a general notion)” (p.32). So, he proposes to “cultivate the practices of preventive medicine applied by the Ancients, chiefly gymnastics and dietetics, along with the curative procedures devised by us” (p.33).


Vico laments that “the greatest drawback our educational methods is that we pay an excessive amount of attention to the natural sciences and not enough to ethics. Our chief fault is that we disregard that part of ethics which treats of human character, of its dispositions, its passions, and of the manner of adjusting these factors to public life and eloquence. […] we devote all our efforts to the investigation of physical phenomena, 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). Therefore, “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” (p.33-34).

Vico imagines a contrast between what he refers to as ‘abstract knowledge’, which is what the youth were thought, and as ‘prudence’, which is the study methods concerning human sciences. “The difference, therefore, between abstract knowledge and prudence is this: in science, the outstanding intellect is that which succeeds in reducing a large multitude of physical effects to a single cause; in the domain of prudence, excellence is accorded to those who ferret out the greatest possible number of causes which may have produced a single event, and who are able to conjecture which of all these causes is the true one” (p.34).

Vico then touches upon the significance of eloquence in the education of the youth — as he thinks that eloquence does not address itself to the rational part of our nature, but almost entirely to our passions. According to him, the effect of persuasion is achieved with the following, “the soul must be enticed by the corporeal images and impelled to love; for once it loves, it is easily thought 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” (p.38). Hence, in this sense, philosophy and eloquence, together, are capable of turning to good use the agitations of the soul. “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” (p.39).

Vico also mentions about the abstractness of the French language which “makes it impossible for the French to impart an ardently emotional tone to their lives” (p.39); as contrast to Italians who “praise our orators for fluency, lucidity, and eloquence, the French praise theirs for reasoning truly” (p.40) — thus forming a bridge between linguistic mechanics of a language and study methods in a culture.


Vico turns to poetry which he had described as being undermined by abstract philosophical criticism, a method he saw detrimental to adolescents whose memory and imagination had to be cultivated. In addition, Vico compares philosophy with poetry with the following, “The poet teaches by delighting what the philosopher teaches austerely. Both teach moral duties; both depict human habits and behaviour; both incite to virtue and deter from vice. But the philosopher, addressing himself to cultivated men, treats these matters in a generic way. The poet, instead, because his business is with the majority of men, induces persuasion by giving plastic portrayals of exalted actions and characters” (p.43).


The author, this time, compares Christian theology to the paganism of the Ancients and criticises the ancients for, what he calls, entertaining a multitude of contradictory and vague opinions as to the nature of the gods also that the rulers of the pagan world tolerantly allowed philosophers to profess antithetical opinions on divine things and that they penalized the impiety of only of such thinkers as denied the existence of the gods. Whereas, Vico treats branches of Christian theology as more systematic and superior.


Having previously discussed about the instruments of knowledge, Vico now focuses on the complementary aids to our study methods. He notes how “when undivided attention was given to the cultivation of philosophy, or (which is the same) when the contemplation of the ‘ideal nature’ was kept in view, Greece, Rome, and the modern epoch experienced the greatest flowering of superior writers in each of those arts. But as soon as perceptive treatments regulating those arts were composed, the writers that arose were not similarly outstanding” (p.47).


In this part, Vico dives into the contemporary and the ancient way of studying and practicing law, by contrasting the moderns with the Romans and the Greeks. First, Vico asks the following question, “It is interesting to speculate on the strange fact that whereas we moderns possess an immense number of books on law, as did the Romans after the promulgation of the Edictum Perpetuum, prior to that time the Romans had very few, and the Greeks posses no works on law. Why?” (p.48). To find an answer to this question, Vico presents a historical narration of law in these civilisations and shows how crucial orators’ forensic ability was and how jurists were themselves philosophers. The mysteries of the law was kept hidden from the general public by not writing them out in widespread books. Eventually, some changes occurred in the Roman Empire, such as the division of the public from the private, the decline of legal philosophy, the adoption of Christianity, which slowly led to the shift from orators to writing. “In conclusion, at the time when the secrecy which surrounded the art and practice of law altered with the Roman state, laws and legal theory underwent change; the roles of jurists, orators, magistrates and law courts became quite different from what they had been. And thus we came to possess a new art of law and a new type of legal literature, and we have grown beyond the Greeks and the early Romans” (p.59).

Vico then writes about some of the advantages and disadvantages of the moderns’ law, compared to the Ancients. “It is an advantage for us that theoretical and practical aspects of law have coalesced today into a single corpus […] but this advantage has a drawback; modern jurisprudence is healthier because of being separated from eloquence, but weaker in its separation from philosophy” (p.60).

Finally, Vico has certain suggestions for the modern monarch in order to prosper in the realm of law. The modern monarch, therefore, who wishes his realm to prosper, should be well-advised to have Roman laws interpreted according to aequitas civilis. Let him instruct judges to adjudicate disputes this way. Let judges, moreover, use the skill of the best lawyers in uniting public interest with private cases; let them avail themselves of their oratorical powers against the lawyers of the defence so as to give precedence always to public interest over private claims; whereas, as we know, it is the effort of the lawyers to give priority to the private claims of their clients over the public interest” (p.69-70).


Vico argues that imitation of the masterpieces of the arts hinder rather than help students in the field because “whatever excellence nature had to offer in each domain of art was appropriated by the artists who came first—otherwise they would not be supreme” (p.71). Thus, “who are endowed with surpassing genius, should put the masterworks of their art out of their sight, and strive with the greatest to appropriate the secret of nature’s grandest creations” (p.72).


Vico does not deny the vast benefits of advancements have brought to knowledge, as it has made it easier to publish many copies of books with a lesser cost. However, Vico is also a bit afraid of the fact that “the abundance and cheapness of books may cause us to become less industrious; we may be like banqueters, who, being surfeited with gorgeous and sumptuous dinners, wave away ordinary and nourishing food and prefer to stuff themselves with elaborately prepared but less healthy repasts. In effect, when books were written by hand, only words composed by authors of tested and well-established reputation were reproduced, since they were the only ones worth the labour spent on the task of copying them” (p.72-73). Vico thus proposes that “The Ancients should be read first, since they are proved reliability and authority” (p.74).


The author touches upon the role of universities in Ancients, which was almost non-existent. This was for several reasons. In Greece, “a single philosopher synthesised in himself a whole university. […] The need for universities was felt by the Romans even less than by the Greeks, since, as I have pointed out, they thought that wisdom consisted in the art and practice of law. […] But with the transformation of republic into principal education, it being in the interest of emperors that the science of law should be propagated as legal doctrine” (p.74-75). Although the universities of the moderns are much greater in quantity, Vico is not content with the incoherence of modern times in knowledge. “Today, students who may be trained in the art of discourse by an Aristotelian, are though physics by an Epicurean, metaphysics by a Cartesian. They may learn the theory of medicine from a Galenist, its practice from a chemist; […] Students’ education is so warped and perverted as a consequence, that, although they may become extremely learned in some respects, their culture on the whole (and the whole is really the flower of wisdom) is incoherent. To avoid this serious drawback, I would suggest that our professors should so co-ordinate all disciplines into a single system so as to harmonise them with our religion and with the spirit of the political form under which we live” (p.77).


Vico ends the book by reminded the audience that students of eloquence, his expertise field, ought to “grapple all kinds of disciplines, and to discourse about their advantages and disadvantages, so that they may attain those and escape these, should he not be competent to expound his opinions on such knowledge?” (p.78). He ends with the following remarks, “It is a common experience to see an individual who has concentrated all of his efforts on a single branch of study, and who has spent all his life on it, think that this field is, by far, more important than all others, and to see him inclined to make application of its specialty to matters wholly foreign to it. This may be due to the weakness of our nature, which prompts us to take an inordinate delight in ourselves and in our own pursuits. Though I am afraid of delivering false judgements on all subjects, I am particularly afraid of advancing erroneous views on eloquence, since I profess it. After stating this in defence of my assignment and of the way I have discharged it, permit me to say that I shall be greatly indebted to any one who wishes to criticise with pertinence and with concrete reference to their intrinsic purport, the points that I have brought up, so as to free me from eventual errors. He will be certain to enlist my gratitude by his mere intent to do so” (p.80-81).

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