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Vico's Theory of History and the French Revolutionary Tradition

Author(s): Patrick H. Hutton

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1976), pp. 241-256
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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Giambattista Vico is today widely heralded as one of the most

original minds of the eighteenth century for his pioneering work in the
social history of ideas. Hence it is instructive to examine the ways in
which Vico has appealed to those who have theorized about the nature
of social change in history. Some historians have portrayed him as a
precursor of Marx because of his bold speculations about the advance
of civilization through social conflict toward egalitarianism. Yet it is
important to remember that Vico has appealed equally to conservatives, who have discovered in his writings not a prophecy of progress for
the modern age but rather a prediction of decline. The historiography
of the French Revolutionary tradition provides a particularly interesting field for analyzing this problem. French historians have been
inclined to see in their Revolutionary tradition a larger meaning about
the course of modern history, and many have valued Vico's vision of
history as a frame of reference with which to judge that tradition's
nature. The most celebrated of these is Jules Michelet, who toward the
middle of the nineteenth century turned to the New Science as a basis
for idealizing the significance of the Revolution of 1830. For Michelet,
the Revolution signalled man's entry into a new awareness of his capacity to shape his social destiny, a lesson Michelet claimed to have
learned from Vico. Yet opponents of the revolutionary movement in
France have found in Vico an apologist for traditionalism. In the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre cited
Vico's New Science as a warning about the degenerative effects of violent social change.' A century later, Georges Sorel, an iconoclastic
critic of the French Revolutionary tradition, invoked Vico's theory of
history to predict that modern civilization was on the verge of its
demise. Thus each of Vico's admirers has looked to the New Science as
an authority with which to corroborate his own sense of history's direction. When their varied viewpoints are tallied, however, the directions they suggest trace an arc which continues to run the entire course
of Vico's ideal nation-full-circle.
Vico would certainly have approved of the quest of French historians to discover in their past the meaning of the "course the nations
run." But some scholars have questioned whether Vico would have been
comfortable in the role of social prophet for the modern age. HisElio Gianturco, Joseph De Maistre and Giambattista Vico (New York, 1937).



torians who have studied Vico in the eighteenth-century Neapolitan

context, in which he lived and wrote, note his indifference to the major
political quarrels of his day.2 His personal sensibilities were conservative, and his interests as an historian were concentrated exclusively upon ancient civilization. Studies of the French Revolutionary
tradition have generally favored a linear conception of history, whereas
Vico's conception was cyclical. Leaders of French revolutionary movements were overwhelmingly committed to the affirmation of autonomous human goals, but Vico interpreted human ends in terms of a
larger Providential design. Some scholars have dismissed Vico's
references to Providence as a ruse to satisfy ecclesiastical censors. In
fact, he believed that his theory of history would reaffirm the teachings
of Catholic orthodoxy. Moreover, Vico's stress upon creative elites is
obviously at odds with the recent interest among French historians in
the role of anonymous popular movements in shaping the course of the
French Revolution. Hence, the presentation of Vico as a philosopher of
progress, or references to a parallel between the role of Vico's poetfounders and the Jacobins of the French Revolution, ascribe to him motives which were beyond anything he ever conceived.3
Studies of the historical Vico have greatly increased our understanding of Vico's preoccupations. But it is the prophetic uses of Vico's
thought which account for his acclaim among subsequent generations,
most notably our own.4 Vico's New Science has enjoyed lasting appeal
as a source of insight for theorists who aspired to new or fuller social
conceptions, even if they sometimes modified Vico's theory to serve
their own tendentious designs. The fact that theorists of varied background and intent have discovered in Vico the inspiration for their
endeavor is itself a testament to the depth of his vision. The enduring
value of Vico's New Science is derived not from its completeness as a
social history nor from its accuracy as a prediction of history's direction, but rather from its scope as a paradigm of man's social nature,
a nature which can only be perceived in the process of historical change.
To understand Vico today, it is necessary to retrace his ideas as they
have been delineated upon the wider map of modern historiography.
2Benedetto Croce, The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, trans. R. G. Collingwood
(New York, 1913), 249-52.
3Arnaldo Momigliano, in his article "Vico's Scienza Nuova: Roman 'Bestioni' and
Roman 'Eroi'," History and Theory, 5 (1966), 3-23, explains that Vico's theory of
social conflict was not an apology for revolution, but a device designed to preserve the
distinction between sacred and profane history. The poet-founders of civilization, the
"great beasts" who ruled the first cities through poetic intuition, were presented not as
a proof of primitive man's autonomy, but rather of his dependence upon divine Providence for survival. If some historians have seen an analogy between them and the
Jacobins of the French Revolution, the Jacobins themselves would hardly have found
flattering an image which denied both their autonomy and their rationality.
4George Lichtheim, Europe in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1972), 358-62.



For this reason, our search for the true Vico in the historiography of
modern France is not unlike Vico's search for the true Homer in the
poetry of ancient Greece. Our task in this essay is to explain how the
prophetic uses of Vico's theory of history by French scholars, especially by Michelet and Sorel who considered his work most deeply,
reflect changing perceptions of the meaning of social revolution in the
French experience. Such a study may not enable us to choose between
Michelet and Sorel. But it should help us to appreciate more fully the
relationship between continuity and change in Vico's vision of human
destiny, and the relevance of that vision to the ongoing debate among
French historians concerning the character of their Revolutionary heritage.
Vico's theory of social history is easily outlined, for it is based upon
an archetypal model of the genesis and disintegration of civilization.
The model is discovered in the study of social institutions, in whose
mythopoetic origins and rational modifications the direction of history
is revealed.5To study social history is to study human intentions as they
are manifested in the social world that men have themselves created.
Historical change corresponds to men's changing perceptions of their
social needs.6 Primitive men enter civil society for the security it offers.
The founders of civilization are quite literally the founders of cities, the
asylums in which they seek refuge from the barbarous surroundings in
which they have lost their way. They are poetic in that they evoke from
their own minds the myths with which their followers can grasp in a
preconscious way the nature of life in society. They are practical in that
their myths prepare the way for the creation of social institutions. In
this sense, the creation of civilization is a process of myth-making
through which men come to understand their social needs in the
imaginative forms which the myths provide, and to define their life
5Vico's social theory is derived principally from his study of the social institutions of
Greece and Rome: those of Greece as perceived in the poetry of Homer; those of Rome
in the Agrarian Laws. His intent is to prove that the social and juridical institutions of
Rome were not modeled upon those of the older Greek civilization, but rather evolved
independently. This interpretation becomes the basis of his "natural law of the gentes,"
in which he concludes that the autonomous yet parallel development of Greek and
Roman societies was not the consequence of an historical transmission but of an
archetypal social evolution common to all civilizations. The New Science of Giambattista Vico, 3rd ed. (1744), trans. and ed. Thomas G. Bergin and Max H. Fisch (Ithaca,
1961), 31-39, 145-76, 245, 311, 349, 393, 915ff., 1096; hereafter NS. (All references to
this work are to numbered paragraph rather than to page.) See also Max H. Fisch,
"Vico on Roman Law," in Essays in Political Theory Presented to George H. Sabine,
ed. Milton R. Konvitz and Arthur E. Murphy (Ithaca, 1948), 62-88.
6For Vico, these intentions are transparent in the poetry of primitive peoples, and in
their jurisprudence, which was a "severe kind of poetry," NS, 215-33, 311, 338, 102738. For the role of poetry in Vico's theory of history, see Patrick H. Hutton, "The New
Science of Giambattista Vico: Historicism in its Relation to Poetics," Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 30 (1972), 359-67.



activity through the institutions upon which these myths are based.
"Wisdom" is practical knowledge of how to live in the city. Wise men
memorize the myths and imitate the institutions of the poet-founders,
whom they hold in religious awe for their power to create ideal social
forms with which to liberate themselves from the chaos of the physical
world. The history of the origins of civilization is thus a sacred history,
in which primitive man discovers his human nature in the process of his
integration into society.7
Civilization develops with the quest of the uncivilized to gain access
to the privileged enclaves of the cities. That quest promotes a conflict
between the civilized elites, who are dedicated to guarding the territorial
boundaries and sacred institutions of the cities, and the barbarous commoners, who seek the civil rights and through them the security which
the cities provide. In the course of the struggle, it is the latter who prevail, as ambitious princes find it advantageous to champion their cause.
The growth of civilization is thus the product of a struggle to extend the
sphere of application of public law. The process is fulfilled in the
progression from elitist to democratic societies, culminating in the
monarchy, which guarantees to all men equal rights under the law.8
The decline of civilization, however, is a necessary consequence of
this very accomplishment. The extension of civil rights proceeds at the
expense of the elite's sense of civic duty to act as guardians of the law.
As the monarchs assume these functions, the citizenry turns from civil
responsibilities to private interests. Under these circumstances, the
myths of the elite lose their utilitarian value as creative demonstrations
of the wisdom of law. The result is a loss of the sense of the sacred, i.e.,
of the practical need to defend civic institutions, and of the mimetic
need to affirm their value in religious ritual. The decay of civilization is
thus a process of demythologizing. In losing the memory of his mytho7Vico describes how the Greek and Roman gods personify the various social needs
of primitive peoples. Every nation, for example, has a conception of Jove, the god who
inspired the founding of civil society. Primitive man believed that Jove ruled by signs.
The power of the poet-founders, therefore, was based upon their capacity to divine
Jove's meaning. The authority of divination was thus one of lawgiving. The Roman
term for law, ius, Vico explains, originally meant Jove, and the oracle was civilization's
first juridical institution. NS, 187, 193-264, 361-67, 376-99, 433, 473-82, 489-91, 521,
553-61,925,938, 1038.
8This argument is based upon Vico's interpretation of the Agrarian Laws (the Law
of Servius Tullius and the Law of the Twelve Tables) as the essential sources of the
social history of Rome during its "heroic" age of class conflict. These laws were designed by the patricians to mollify the plebeians by granting them qualified rights of
land ownership. In fact, these measures served only to exacerbate the plebeians' demand for full civil rights, a demand which the patricians were eventually forced to
concede. The tribunes, originally chosen by the plebeians to champion their rights
against the patricians, finally took advantage of their crucial role in extending the application of public law in order to seize power as sovereign monarchs. NS, 104-15, 26593,582-86, 597-98,609-11,915-1008.



poetic origins, civilized man ceases to understand his human nature.

Without challenge in its life of ease, without faith in its historical
origins, the city succumbs to moral corruption and its institutions disintegrate. The history of the demise of civilization is thus a secular history, in which rational man loses sight of the moral foundations of his
community. The cycle of civilization returns to its chaotic origins.9
It was Michelet who was chiefly responsible for introducing Vico's
theory of history to the French intellectual community. Yet it is worth
noting that Vico's ideas were first popularized in France during the Napoleonic era by a coterie of Neapolitan intellectuals, exiled from their
native city following the fall of the Republic there in 1799.10These
"Jacobins," who had initially favored the spread of the French Revolution abroad, had grown disillusioned with its adverse impact upon
their own efforts to found a republic. As witnesses to, and in some
cases participants in, the abortive Revolution at Naples, they repudiated Jacobinism as an abstract ideology unsuited to their social
needs, and turned to Vico as a surer guide to the possibilities for
enlightened reform which their own historical tradition offered. It was
they, ironically, who generated the interest in Vico in France which led
Michelet to discover him." In the transmission from the Italian to the
French milieu, Vico's theory of history was to undergo a thorough
metamorphosis, the one which subsequently established his reputation
as a prophet of the modern age.
Best known of the Neapolitan exiles was Vincenzo Cuoco, who
wrote a history of the Revolution at Naples which was translated into
French in 1807. Believing that he lived in a decadent age, Cuoco
consoled himself with the promise of eventual renewal which Vico's
grand scheme of history offered. As suspicious of the revolutionary
virtue of the intellectuals as he was of the capacity of the comon people
to contribute to a revolution, he put his trust in Napoleon, who, in his
resemblance to the Vichian monarch of civilization's last stage, seemed
9The Vichian cycle of civilization moves full-circle in three stages: from a primordial
organic unity in the family monarchies of the poet-founders, through the social conflict
which characterizes the intermediary stage of the heroic and popular commonwealths,
to the unstable social equality of the civil monarchies, with whose dissolution the
process begins once more. NS, 916-18, 1004-08, 1026, 1046-87, 1097-1106.
'?Benedetto Croce, History of the Kingdom of Naples, trans. Frances Frenaye
(Chicago, 1965), 190-220; Enrico De Mas, "Vico and Italian Thought," and Alain
Pons, "Vico and French Thought," in Giambattista Vico: An International Symposium, ed. Giorgio Tagliacozzo and Hayden V. White (Baltimore, 1969), 147-85.
"There is no evidence of any direct influence of Cuoco upon Michelet. Michelet's
direct contacts were with lesser figures among the Neapolitan exiles-Francesco Salfi,
whom Michelet cites for his work on Vico, and Pietro De Angelis, who personally presented Michelet with copies of Vico's writings. For Michelet's references to Salfi and
the correspondence from De Angelis to Michelet, see Paul Viallaneix, ed., Oeuvres
completes de Michelet, 2 vols. to date (Paris, 1971- ), I, 259-75.



to offer the stability and discipline requiredin Naples until an opportunity for a surer, more prudent reconstructionof the Republic
might presentitself.12Michelet,of course, had little use for Napoleon,
whose reignwas all but forgottenin the optimismwith whichMichelet
greeted the post-Napoleonicage. Michelet sensed that he lived in the
midst of an historicaltransitionto an era whichofferedmankindnew
horizonsof consciousnessand new possibilitiesfor social progress.13If
he understoodthe full cycle of Vico's theory of history, he clearly favoredits risingstages.
Michelet drew several of his basic ideas directly from Vico's
model.14Essentialto his conceptionof history was Vico's insight that
humanityis its own creation. Michelet'sargumentconcerninghuman
developmentfaithfullyfollows the Vichiandialectic of challengeand
recognition.Man creates his own nature in meetingthe challengesof
his environment.In the processof freeinghimselffrom physicalnature
he begins to understandhis human nature.15This concept Michelet
linkedwith a secondandequallyimportantVichianinsight:humanityis
a social creation. The hero in history is the "people"in its collective
striving to realize its destiny: social understanding.Humanizationis
thus a process of socialization. Individualhistorical figures are but
mythologicalembodimentsof socialgroupsat particularstages of their
historicaldevelopment.16Thus Micheletwas able to explainwhy social
historyis an appropriatesubjectof historicalinquiry.
Vico also providedMichelet with an appreciationof the way in
which social understandingdevelops in time. The progress toward
social understandingresults from the interplayof two kinds of perception:individualsense and common sense. Individualsense is the capacity to grasp practical realities. Common sense is the capacity to
recognizehumanvalues.Both are utilitarianandboth providea kindof
redemption.Individualsense saves the man in the present. Common
sense saves mankindfor the future. In theirinteractionthey providea
demonstrationof the meaningof universalhistory. Historyis a saga of
man's heroic struggle for "liberty,"i.e., for a comprehensiveunderstandingof that whichhe has freelycreated:his social nature.17
Micheletlearnedfrom Vico a way to envisionhistory,but the vision
at whichhe arrivedwas very muchhis own. Micheletquiteconsciously
12Vincenzo Cuoco, Histoire de la revolution de Naples, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1807), esp. iiixxvi, 1-5, 151-94,393-412.
13ForMichelet's intellectual formation, cf. Gabriel Monod, Jules Michelet: Etudes
sursa vie et ses oeuvres (Paris, 1905), esp. ch.I.
14Michelet's most important discussion of Vico is found in his "Discours sur le
systeme et la vie de Vico," Oeuvres choisies de Vico (1835), in Oeuvres completes de
Michelet, I, 283-301. See also Michelet's article, "Vico," in the Biographie universelle,
48 (1827), 362-73; and his Histoire Romaine (Paris, 1843), 4-9.
'6Ibid., I, 280, 288-92.
'5Michelet, "Discours sur Vico," I, 279-80.
'7Ibid., I, 283, 286-89.



adapted the cyclical character of the Vichian dialectic to the needs of

his own linear conception of history.18 One might argue that Michelet,
living in the midst of a revolutionary era, was bound to express a more
optimistic viewpoint about the possibilities of progress. But their
differences concerning the direction of historical change and the
meaning of progress are more fundamental than those of vantage
points in time. Michelet never specifically questions Vico's view of
human nature, but he does specifically reject the Augustinian view of
man as a concupiscent being, the view to which Vico subscribed.19
While Vico and Michelet both explain progress as a process of humanization, they were to draw decidedly different conclusions about the
manner in which it was achieved. For Vico, man's creativity is tied to
social necessity. As man overcomes his environmental challenges, his
sense of necessity recedes. His creative energies dissipate and his social
institutions decay. Spirit in Vico's theory of history must eventually
return full circle to matter to be born anew.20For Michelet, in contrast,
human creativity acquires an autonomy apart from circumstances of
need. Man's quest for "liberty" is based upon a capacity for selfexpression as well as a need for self-preservation, a conception which
diminishes the utilitarian connotations of social creativity. Spirit in Michelet's theory of history need not return to matter. The possibilities
for its growth are limitless.21 It is no surprise, therefore, that Michelet
pays scant attention to the Vichian notion of the return of civilization to
its origins.22
Whereas Vico's paradigm of history is of a cycle of renewal and
decay, Michelet's is of a converging and expanding gyre. For Michelet,
man's quest for liberty proceeds in space as well as time. Michelet included the spatial dimension in his model to convey his belief that the
process of humanization converged upon the French historical
experience.23In his Introduction to Universal History, he depicts man's
history as a spiritual journey from Asia, where fatalism prevails over
liberty, to Europe, where the preconditions for the growth of liberty appear with the urban civilization of the Greco-Roman world. Within
Europe, man's struggle for liberty progresses inward in space and upward in time, as each major European country transfigures an attribute
of an Asian nation at a higher level of social consciousness. The movement of history is toward France, whose "genius" it is to reconcile
liberty and equality in a perfect harmony.24
'8Ibid., I, 283-84; Michelet, "Introduction a l'histoire universelle" (1831), in
Oeuvres completes de Michelet, II, 227-58.
'gMichelet, Histoire de la Revolution francaise, ed. Gerard Walter, 2 vols. (Paris,
1939), I, 24-30; NS, 129, 310, 341.
20NS, 1106.
21Michelet,"Histoire universelle," II, 229-30, 257.
22Ibid.,II, 236-37; Michelet, "Discours sur Vico," I, 297-99.
24Ibid.,II, 230-53.
23Michelet,"Histoire universelle," II, 227.



Michelet had moved from Vico's conception of history's origins to

his own of history's center. Hence the enormous significance which the
French Revolution acquired in his model of history. It was in Revolutionary France that the process of humanization was for the first time
fulfilled. Announced by the Revolution of 1789, its denouement was
revealed only in the July Revolution of 1830, the first truly popular
upheaval.25Michelet sought to show that the meaning of the French
Revolution had been distorted by historians who focused upon its
leaders, especially those identified with the Terror. For Michelet, the
chief historical actor of the Revolution was the "people," whose
"greatness of heart" enabled the Revolution to succeed. If the Revolution thus assumed more nearly anonymous proportions, it lost none
of its grandeur. Michelet especially liked to describe the festivals of the
Revolution, which manifested the sense of unity of the French as a
nation, and the hope of unity for mankind.26For Michelet believed that
the movement of historical progress was about to turn outward to
radiate the spirit of the French achievement upon a wider world.27
Michelet vigorously proclaimed the value of Vico's theory of history; Georges Sorel was more sparing in his praise. His intellectual debt
to Vico was nonetheless profound. Sorel's initial encounter with Vico
came by way of Marx, to whose materialist epistemology Sorel had enthusiastically subscribed.28In 1896 he devoted a long critical essay to
Vico in which he measured the New Science against Marxian orthodoxy and found it wanting. Sorel rejected Vico's scheme of a
universal history as well as the idealist presuppositions upon which it
was based. Insofar as he acknowledged the value of Vico's cyclical
model of history, it was its descending phase which interested him.
Sorel responded especially to Vico's insight into the relationship between challenge and creativity.29For he shared with Vico a pessimism
about human nature altogether foreign to Marx and his followers, a
pessimism he described in terms which echo Vico's perceptions: a conviction about the weakness of human nature and an identification of
creativity with willful courage. These principles for Sorel had a
corollary. Because men are weak, they shun the pain of creativity
unless they are inspired.30Such beliefs led Sorel back to Vico's poet25Ibid.,II, 253-55; Michelet, Histoire de la Revolution, I, 1-8.
27"Histoireuniverselle," II, 256-58.
26Histoirede la Revolution, I, 1-8, 395-433.
28For discussions of Sorel's intellectual evolution: Irving L. Horowitz, Radicalism
and the Revolt against Reason (Carbondale, 1961); James H. Meisel, The Genesis of
Georges Sorel (Ann Arbor, 1951); Isaiah Berlin, "Georges Sorel," The Times Literary
Supplement (London), 31 Dec. 1971, 1617-22.
29Sorel, "Etude sur Vico," Le Devenir social, 2 (1896), 786-817, 906-41, 1013-46;
30Sorel, "Letter to Daniel Halevy," Reflections on Violence (1908), trans. T. E.
Hulme and J. Roth (New York, 1961), 30-36.



founders of civilization, and to the discovery of the guiding concept of

his mature social thought: that of the social myth, which Sorel defined
as a conviction which moves men to act courageously to create social

While these speculations led Sorel away from the orthodox Marxism of his age, they gave him a perspective upon Marxism which set
guidelines for the reinterpretation of Marx by European intellectuals in
the twentieth century.32 The majority of Sorel's Marxist contemporaries viewed ideology as a passive reflex of economic preconditions.
Vico's theory enabled Sorel to grasp the essential role of human volition in the Marxian dialectic of social development. For Vico's concept of mythopoetic creation (verum = factum) is similar to Marx's
concept of life activity (praxis), whose meaning Sorel was, among
Marxist sympathizers in France, the first to understand.33 Sorel
recognized that for Marx, as for Vico, consciousness is formed through
man's creative response to the challenges of his environment. Thus consciousness plays a positive role in social change, as knowing and acting
are aspects of the same process. In Sorel's terms, mythology is the
"language of movement" in life activity, the ideal temporal structure of
the ordeal of social creation.34
Equally important, Sorel learned from Vico that social progress
never follows from the simple imitation of existing ideas, however
radical they appear to be. The making of the good society depends not
upon a blueprint which is faithfully applied, but upon a vision which
assumes form through willful improvisation. Myth is the formative
logic of the movement from ideas dimly perceived in the face of
challenge to ideas clearly understood as challenge is overcome.35In this
way, Sorel came to understand Marxism itself as a mythology, an
insight which he believed to be his most important contribution to
Marxism as a developing social philosophy. Whereas orthodox
Marxists accepted Marxism as a law of history based upon impersonal
economic processes, Sorel preferred to view the doctrine as a mythic
vision with which to effect change. The primary value of Marxism as an
ideology was not in its transcendent perspective upon the historical
process but in its capacity to inspire men to overcome oppressive
realities. Indeed, Sorel wondered whether Marxism as a mythology had
not expended its creative resources. That is why he ridiculed his
Marxist contemporaries in France for quarreling over points of doc31Ibid., 42-50.
32Note, for e.g., Georg Lukacs's acknowledgement of his intellectual debt to Sorel
in his La Thorie du roman (Paris, 1963), 13.
33GeorgeLichtheim, Marxism in Modern France (New York, 1966), 15-16, 26-28.
34Sorel, "Letter to Halevy," 48-5 1.
35Sorel, "Etude sur Vico," II, 812-17, 906-14; Sorel, Materiaux d'une theorie du
proletariat (Paris, 1919), 66-67.



trine which failed to touch the concerns of the working class. The
creation of a new society of necessity meant the creation of a new consciousness. The need, Sorel asserted, was for a social myth born of
present necessities.36
The reinterpretation of Marxism as a mythology of history permitted Sorel to reconsider the place of his own age in the development of
civilization. It was to Vico that Sorel was to turn once more. For Marx
offered an explanation of progress only, while Vico provided one of decline as well. Sorel sensed that his own age was one of social dissolution
and noted that Marx had accepted the idea of progress uncritically. He
had assumed that the coming of the classless society would be the outcome of a vigorous struggle between two dynamic social classes. What
would happen, Sorel asked, if the proletarian revolution occurred in an
age of decline?37
In addressing that question, Sorel explained the revolutionary
movement in modern French history as one of decline. His analysis is
not unlike the Vichian explanation of the transition from the
aristocratic to the popular commonwealth.38 Sorel described the
French Revolution as a process of social leveling which maintained
essential lines of continuity with the past. The French Revolution did
not denote the birth of a new civilization, but represented instead the
accession of the bourgeoisie to civil rights previously denied them. Sorel
explained that most of the leaders of the Revolution were lawyers who
already enjoyed a place in the Old Regime, and who were more interested in governmental efficiency than they were in liberty. None was
more characteristic than Robespierre, who furthered the trend toward
the consolidation of public power. Sorel pointed to the ease with which
Napoleon had assumed power as proof of how little social change had
actually taken place. No new institutions had been created; no new
social vision had been born.39
Similarly, Sorel dismissed the activities of the revolutionary movement in France in the nineteenth century as manifestations of social
decadence. The activities of the Blanquists and of other Jacobin groups
were banal in that they called for the completion of a revolution that
had never taken place.40 The memory of the French Revolution
operated as a powerful myth in the early nineteenth century only because it was closely identified with the military glory of Napoleon. With
the defeat of France in the War of 1870-71, the myth of the French
36Sorel, Reflections on Violence, 126-40; Sorel, "The Decomposition of Marxism,"
in Radicalism and the Revolt against Reason, ed. Irving Horowitz, 232, 241-54.
37Sorel, Reflections on Violence (1908; English 1914), 92-93, 97; Sorel, "Etude sur
Vico," II, 930-32.
38"Etudesur Vico," II, 923-24.
39Reflectionson Violence, 94-95, 104-11, 170; "Decomposition of Marxism," 228.
40"Etudesur Vico," II, 925; "Decomposition of Marxism," 241, 247-48.



Revolution ceased to provide creative inspiration. Hence Sorel

contended that the bourgeoisie of his own day spoke of progress in
terms of a myth in which it no longer believed.41Under the circumstances, Sorel somberly considered the prospect that French civilization was descending the Vichian road to barbarism.42
Sorel, however, was no more willing to be bound by Vico's model of
historical decline than by Marx's model of progress. Hence he argued
that social decline was dependent upon passive acceptance of the world
as it is. Creative social change need not wait for the historical cycle to
run its course, but might be initiated at any time. The option between
social creation and social imitation is always open, and the choice made
determines the phase of the Vichian cycle that a nation will run. For
Sorel, history itself had become a myth of moral choice between
renewal and resignation.43
Creating the "path to deliverance" in his own age, Sorel recognized,
was no easy task. It included the rejection of accepted approaches to
progress, including the rituals of the Revolutionary tradition. Sorel
looked to the proletariat for what he believed to be the embryo of a new
social myth, that of the general strike. Like the Vichian poets
misunderstood by the "scholars in their conceit," the proletariat, Sorel
believed, had been ignored by middle-class Marxist intellectuals. It was
in the energy of proletarian violence that the consciousness of the new
society would grow.44
Despite the insights which Sorel drew from Vico concerning the
social uses of mythology, he never abandoned his initial commitment to
the dialectical materialism of Marx. The end of human striving for
Sorel remained the fulfillment of an economic reality.45 In tying the
"will-to-deliverance" to the proletarian struggle for a classless society,
he unwittingly committed himself to a conception of universal history,
but one which lacked the irony and grandeur of Vico's. In Vico's conception, the goal of history was man's recognition of his human nature,
a rational nature which Sorel was determined to deny. Hence he was
obliged to dwell upon the preconscious phase of creativity closest to
material reality. Minimizing the value of rational understanding,
Sorel's myth of history required a ceaseless return to primal origins.
The result was the denial of the possibility of a developing civilization,
i.e., of the transmission and growth of values through social institutions
in time.46It was precisely this possibility which Michelet valued most of
41Reflections on Violence, 99-103, 210.
43Ibid., 117-18; "Etude sur Vico," II, 926, 933n., 937-39.
44Reflectionson Violence, 86-92, 98, 115-16, 119-50, 175-76.
45"Etudesur Vico," II, 935; Materiaux d'une theorie duproletariat, 55-56, 131-33.
46"Etudesur Vico," II, 916, 926, 930, 933n., 1031-34, 1040; "Letter to Halevy," 4546; "Decomposition of Marxism," 248; Materiaux d'une theorie du proletariat, 67-68.



Michelet was oriented toward the future, yet he looked to the past
for mythic guidelines to its promise. Sorel was oriented toward the
past, yet he looked to the future for some form of mythic redemption.
The differences between their interpretations of the Vichian model of
history go deeper than those of temperament or orientation. They are
rooted in contrasting conceptions of the meaning of myth itself. For
Michelet, Vico's mythology was a vision of universal history. Its value
was derived from its insights into the historical process considered as a
whole. It was in this spirit that he praised the French Revolution as a
manifestation of the growth of human understanding. But for Sorel,
Vico's mythology was reduced from vision to fact. Vico's genius was to
perceive how myths move men to action. Historical understanding has
meaning only as a myth to inspire creative change. It was in this spirit
that Sorel declared the irrelevance of the French Revolution for the
problem of modern social change.
If the memory of the Revolutionary tradition did not prepare the
way for the coming of an "eternal July" as predicted by Michelet,
neither has it been eclipsed by more inspiring mythologies as was anticipated by Sorel. The memory of the French Revolution has continued to serve as a touchstone to which French historians have
returned countless times to reinterpret the nature of their national
vision.47The fact of that continuing return invites a closer look at the
cyclical dimension of Vico's theory of history, for it is the basis of his
conception of the relationship between social creation and historical
understanding. It is also the dimension of Vico's theory of history
which both Michelet and Sorel rejected.
The conceptions of mythology presented by Michelet and Sorel
mirror the two senses in which Vico understood history. The first was
his concern for the existential situation in which man encounters history in the act of its creation. It was the historical significance of this
creative encounter that Sorel learned from Vico. But Vico was also
concerned about the process of historical change in which man recognizes the direction in which history is tending. It was Vico's historical
perspective upon the problem of human destiny which inspired Michelet. Vico sought to find a middle way between a deterministic view of
history and a view of history without determination. In his "Final
Proofs to Confirm the Course of Nations," Vico considers this problem
in terms of two rules of law. The first rule is utilitarian; it is designed to
meet the practical needs of living in society. But there is a second rule of
law which is universal; it affirms the moral ground from which society
47For reviews of the subject, see Alfred Cobban, Historians and the Causes of the
French Revolution, rev. ed. (London, 1958); Paul Farmer, France Reviews its Revolutionary Origins (New York, 1944); Gerald J. Cavanaugh, "The Present State of French
Revolutionary Historiography: Alfred Cobban and Beyond," French Historical
Studies, 7 (1972), 587-606.



springs. The first rule is temporal; it is modified to meet changing social

needs. But the second rule is eternal; it is the unchanging idea of law itself. The key to Vico's theory of history lies in the interrelationship
which he establishes between the two rules. For Vico, it is through the
understanding of law in the utilitarian sense that the meaning of
universal law becomes clear. It is only through men's private quest for
their practical ends that mankind publicly discovers his moral goal: the
creation of the common good.48
Vico thus argues that the meaning of history as a vision of the
human condition can only be discovered in the phenomena of human
existence, in the concrete realities of historical evidence. The understanding of human nature requires an understanding of historical
origins. The "science of humanity" involves not only a recognition of
ideas, but also of the way in which these ideas come to light. It is in the
realities of history that clear ideas grow from inchoate origins. Had
there been no history, there could be no universal vision of human
nature.49 Historical progress, therefore, requires a full circle of discovery. To create anew is to remember the past. Knowledge of the past
provides not a law of history, but an understanding of the nature and
purpose of social creation in the fulfillment of God's eternal plan. It is
at this point that Vico moves from social history to social theology. For
Vico believed that the direction of human intention in history is
everywhere the same, and that it is this understanding, whether poetic
or rational, which gives man the courage to risk social creation once
more. The end of history is not an end to history, but man's affirmation
of his moral obligation to preserve himself by creating for the future.
The unity of history lies in that affirmation.50
In recent years, historical studies of the French Revolutionary
tradition have grown in sophistication, but the tendency to identify that
tradition with universal history endures. Vico's name is no longer invoked, but his conception of the relationship between fact and vision in
history remains relevant to the way in which French historians understand the meaning of their nation's revolutionary past. Most renowned
among historians of the French Revolution is Georges Lefebvre, whose
pioneering studies of popular revolution set guidelines for a generation
of students of modern French history. Lefebvre's stature among historians is based in part upon the quality of his archival research, but
even more so upon his capacity to synthesize complex events into a
generous and humane interpretation of the French Revolution and of
its place in world history. Because of his interest in the "revolution
48NS, 1036-43; also 309, 326, 349-60, 374, 501.
49NS, 313, 329, 331, 338, 348, 368, 779, 897, 1026, 1043.
50NS, 144-45, 198, 245, 332-33, 341-60, 385, 393, 399, 629, 915, 948, 992, 1032,



from below," Lefebvre is often identified as a Marxist.51Like Marx, he

is concerned with the economic preconditions of social conflict, several
levels of which he delineates with precision in his studies of the Revolution.52But his larger conception of the Revolution as a popular quest
to redefine France as a democratic nation probably owes more to Michelet than to Marx. Like Michelet, Lefebvre emphasizes the unity of
the French Revolution as a moral quest to affirm universal human
rights.53For Lefebvre, the Revolution represents not only the victory of
a social class, the bourgeoisie, but an important stage in man's
liberation from fatalism and servitude. Thus he characterizes the Revolution's manifesto, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, as
a statement of "moral intention," signifying the direction of universal
history. "Revolutionary action," he concludes, "takes place in the
realm of the spirit." 54
Recently the English scholar Alfred Cobban has attacked Lefebvre's interpretation of the Revolution for its preoccupation with
social conflict and catastrophic change. While praising Lefebvre's research, Cobban dismisses his interpretation as a myth whose primary
value has been to refurbish an idealized vision of the French heritage.55
With arguments reminiscent of Sorel's, Cobban emphasizes the social
continuity between the Old Regime and the Revolutionary Era, and the
construction of a new political regime which valued order and efficiency
more than liberty. In this sense, the Revolution signifies not the dramatic birth of a new society but the gradual institutional decay of the
old order.56
In his reply to Cobban, Lefebvre conceded that it was permissible to
speak of the French Revolution as a myth in a moral sense. "I have
written," he explained, "that, from the Sorelian viewpoint, the French
Revolution presents a mythic character: the convening of the EstatesGeneral spread the 'good news;' it announced the birth of a new society,
dedicated to justice, where the quality of life would be improved; in the
year II the same myth inspired the sans-culottes; it has endured in our
tradition, and as in 1789 and in 1793, it is revolutionary."57 Lefebvre
51Cavanaugh,"The Present State of French Revolutionary Historiography," 58788; R. R. Palmer, The World of the French Revolution (New York, 1971), 263.
52Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution, trans. R. R. Palmer (Princeton,
53Lefebvre, "La Revolution francaise dans l'Histoire du Monde," Etudes sur la
Revolutionfrancaise (Paris, 1954), 317-26.
54Lefebvre,The Coming of the French Revolution, 179-87.
55Cobban,"The Myth of the French Revolution," Aspects of the French Revolution
(New York, 1968), 90-108.
56Cobban, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1964),
esp. 162-73.
57Lefebvre,"Le mythe de la Revolution francaise," Annales historiques de la Revolutionfrancaise, 28 (1956), 345.



seems to have been unaware that Sorel himself repudiated this view of
the Revolution. If he cites Sorel to explain myth as the birth of a new
consciousness through creative ordeal, he also uses the myth of the
Revolution as did Michelet to explain its significance for a civilization
whose direction is still shaped by a consciousness of its historical
Cobban did not wish to disparage the moral legacy of the French
Revolution, but he did question whether Lefebvre's model of the Revolution corresponded to the facts that Lefebvre had himself uncovered.
"I am tempted to suggest," Cobban commented, "that in another
sense also the French Revolution might be called a myth. At first, I
must confess, I thought of entitling this lecture, 'Was there a French
Revolution?' "58 Cobban, of course, was not denying the reality of the
Revolution, but he was challenging the myth of its moral unity, and
that of its place in a universal history in which France holds center
stage. "This conception, whatever theory it is enshrined in," he concludes, "is the real fallacy behind all the myths of the French Revolution-the idea that there was 'a' French Revolution, which you can be
for or against."59
Interpretations of the relationship between the ethical and the empirical dimensions of the French Revolution thus remain unreconciled.
Hence Gerald Cavanaugh, summarizing the Cobban-Lefebvre controversy, argues that we are presently without a general theory with
which to interpret the meaning of the Revolution.60 It is nonetheless
still possible to place the debate within the orbit of the Vichian historical cycle. In Vichian terms, we should not be surprised that Cobban
seeks to explode myths, for his intention is to reduce the French Revolution to less heroic proportions. He looks at the Revolution in much
the same way that Vico looks at eras of historical decline. To view the
Revolution from this perspective is to describe it as a process of
demythologizing. Thus he notes the loss of confidence of elites and the
vulnerability of inflexible institutions as the values sustaining the old
order weakened. Nor should we be surprised that Lefebvre was willing
to identify his exacting research with the process of myth making. For
he resembles Vico in his vision of history as man's progress toward the
discovery of his rational humanity. For Lefebvre, the return to the
Revolution was not only to its events, but also to its creative values
which renew meaning and inspire confidence for present tasks.
The Lefebvre-Cobban controversy thus illustrates Vico's insight
into the relationship between fact and vision in historical understanding. In Vichian terms, it is a debate which ought never to end. To
58Cobban,"The Myth of the French Revolution," 93.
59Ibid., 108.
60Cavanaugh,"The State of French Revolutionary Historiography," 596-97.



believe that the opposition of fact and vision can finally be reconciled is
to believe that we can finally escape our history. For Vico, historical
knowledge remains the sine qua non for understanding the human condition, and constitutes the wisdom of the pious man: his reverence for
the way by which he has come to recognize his humanity.61 For those
who share Vico's faith in history, the prospects for further studies of
the French Revolutionary tradition appear promising.
The University of Vermont.
61NS, 1112.