Thanks to printing, books are published everywhere; this is why, with the moderns, those are so numerous who, not content to know one or two authors, have an erudition which depends upon abundant, varied, and almost infinite reading. And finally we have universities, which are institutions organized in view of the study of all kinds of sciences and arts, thanks to which intelligence, esprit and language are carried to their perfection. And in almost all these studies a single end is aimed at today: the truth. To the point that if I undertook to make a speech in praise of the truth, I would deserve the fact that one would respond to me, with stupor: But who has ever thought to dispraise it? - Vico.
Foucault revivied Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the cultural causes and consequences of the Will to Truth in the sixties; the diagnosis has rapidly penetrated to every sphere of the discourses devoted to the social sciences, and to the humanities. One hundred fifty years before Nietzsche, Vico was expressing his own discomfort with truth as the ‘single end’ of study, for reasons that reappear in Nietzsche’s account. It is a protest, on Vico’s part, that is almost wholly prophetic – for though, as Fontenelle wrote, the new mechanical ingenuity was appearing under the very noses of the poets and philosophers, in trades and shops, without the poets and the philosophers being aware of it, certainly the great European metropoles – London, Paris, Naples – had not yet been wholly caught up in the great transformation that instituted monetized commodity markets and industry on a mass scale, the concomitants of the artificial paradise. Fontenelle, Nietzsche justly wrote in a passage in The gay science (a Viconian book), ‘grew after death” – ‘Those small, bold words over moral things, that Fontenelle threw out in his immortal eloges, seemed to his time to be paradoxes and games of a not inoffensive wit; even the highest judges of taste and reason didn’t see anything else in them – yes, including Fontenelle himself, perhaps. Now something unbelievable has happened: these thoughts become truths! Science proves them! The game becomes serious! And we read these dialogues with another feeling than that with which Voltaire and Helvetius read them, and lift their progenitor into another and highter rank of intellects, as these did – justly? Unjustly?”
Vico’s examination of the “method” of the ancients versus the moderns is, on its face, an examination of the most modern of methods, that of science- as we find it in Descartes – with the ancients. But there is another face of his essay. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to look at what Vico says about printing. Remember that Vico, in the smallest of parentheses in his autobiography, tells us that his father owned a bookshop. Remember that the great encounter in Vico’s life – with the Bishop of Ischia – occurred in another bookshop (Michelet mistranslates this as a ‘library”), where Vico seemed to charm the Bishop with his knowledge of canon law, and his latin. Vico’s autobiography mentions several incidences concerning finding books, which was of course the bookseller’s trade. LI could, if you like, find something a bit Oedipal, then, in Vico’s remarks about printing, and the preference for the quill – for copying.
At the same time, it is important to note the conjunction of the intellectual and the material here. Vico sees that matter is a matter of routine.
A long citation, and then to bed.
In fact, when books were written by hand, the copyists, in order to make their labors worth the pain, only transcribed authors who had a well established reputation, and, as they sold their copies dearly, the amateurs were sometimes constrained to copy them with their own hand. What admirable profit one takes from this kind of exercise! We better meditate a text that we write, and chiefly that we write in calmness, without precipitation, peacefully, and in always following the order. Thus is established between us and the authors not a tie of superficial acquaintance, but a long habit by which we finish purely and simply by identifying with them. It is for this reason that the bad authors, when one copied them by hand, knew disfavor, and the goood saw their works diffused for the great benefit of all. Bacon made proof of more cleverness than good sense when he remarked that, in the influx of barbarians, the authors with the most weight sank to the bottom, while the light ones swam on the surface. In all genres, the most important, the best authors have come down to us, thanks to writing, and if this or that author has disappeared, one must attribute it to chance. When I question my memory (I wrote this when I was still not an old man) I perceive that I have seen writers who enjoyed while alive such glory that their works had been printed twelve times or more, and who are now disdained and even held in contempt. Others, remaining too long in obscurity and indifference, now see their name celebrated by a change in circumstance by the greatest experts.”