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What Is Wisdom?

Giambattista Vico

Wisdom is the faculty that commands all the disciplines; by these, all the sciences and arts that complete our humanity are apprehended.

Plato defines wisdom as that which is the perfecter of man.

Man, in the being proper to him as a man, is nothing other than mind and spirit, or, I mean to say, intellect and will. Wisdom must complete the human in both of these two parts, and the completion of the second follows from the completion of the first, such that, because of a mind illuminated by knowledge of the things that are highest, the spirit is led to the choice of the things which are best. The highest things in this universe are those that come from attending to and reasoning about God. The best things are those that look to the good of the whole of humankind. The former are called the “divine things,” and the latter, the “human things.” Therefore, true wisdom must teach knowledge of the divine things so as to conduct the human things towards the highest good.

We believe that Marcus Terentius Varro (who deserved the title “most learned of the romans”) erected, on this basis, his great work, Rerum divinarum et humanarum, for which the injustice of time has made us feel a great loss. In this book, we will treat these things to the extent allowed by the weakness of our learning and the sparseness of our erudition.

Wisdom among the gentiles starts with the Muse, who is defined by Homer in a golden passage in his Odyssey as “science of good and evil,” which was later called “divination”; it is upon the natural prohibition of this (because it is a thing naturally denied to men) that God founded the true religion of the Hebrews, from which comes our Christian religion, as was proposed in the Axioms above.

Thus, this Muse must have originally been, in its proper sense, the science of divining the auspices, which—as was said in an Axiom above and will be stated below [§381]—was the commonplace wisdom of all nations for contemplating God by the attribute of his providence, through which divinari God is named in his essence “divinity” [divinità]. And because of such wisdom, we will see below that wise men were the theological poets who certainly founded the humanity of Greece—hence, in Latin, judicial astrologers are called “professors of wisdom.”

Subsequently, “wisdom” was later used of men noted for the advantageous counsels they gave to humankind, such as those who were called the seven wise men of Greece.

Later, “wisdom” came to be used of men who, for the good of peoples and nations, wisely ordered republics and governed them.

After this, the term “wisdom” came in addition to signify the science of natural divine things—that is, metaphysics—which, accordingly, was called divine knowledge: this science comes to know the mind of man in God, and because of the fact that it knows God to be the source of whatever is true, it knows him as the ruler of whatever is good. As a result, metaphysics must essentially work towards the good of humankind, whose preservation rests upon the universal sense that divine providence exists; hence, perhaps Plato deserved the title, “divine,” because he demonstrated this and, accordingly, science which denies such a God and such an attribute should be called “folly” rather than “wisdom.”

Finally, wisdom among the Hebrews, and subsequently among us Christians, was called the science of eternal things revealed by God. The original term for this knowledge among the Etruscans, perhaps on account of its aspect as the science of what is truly good and truly evil, was “science in divinity.”

Consequently, we must make out three kinds of theology, with more truth than those kinds that Varro made out. First, there is poetic theology, that of the theological poets—which was the civil theology of all the gentile nations. Second, there is natural theology—which is that of the metaphysician. And, in place of the third kind proposed by Varro—which is the poetic theology that among the gentiles was the same as civil theology, but which Varro distinguished from both civil and natural theology because, led astray by the common folk error that within the myths are contained the high mysteries of sublime philosophy, he believed it to be a mixture of civil and natural theology—we instead propose, as the third kind, our Christian theology, a mixture of civil, natural, and the highest revealed theology, all three of which are conjoined in the contemplation of divine providence. This divine providence has conducted the human things in such a way that starting from a poetic theology (this regulated the human things by certain sensible signs believed to be divine indications sent to men from the gods) and passing through the medium of a natural theology (this demonstrates providence through eternal reasons which do not fall under the senses), the nations were disposed to receive a revealed theology on the strength of a supernatural faith, superior not only to the senses, but also to human reason itself.

From The New Science by Giambattista Vico. Translated and edited by Jason Taylor and Robert Miner. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) was professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples as well as a pioneer of modern cultural anthropology, linguistic theory, and legal history. Jason Taylor is an associate professor of philosophy at Regis College. Robert Miner is professor of philosophy at Baylor University.

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