The Doctors of Soul: Giambattista Vico

The Doctors of Soul: Giambattista Vico

Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

Giambattista Vico was born in Naples, Italy in 1668 to a poor book seller and a carriage maker’s daughter. Due to much illness, he was mostly self-educated. He was considered a fine political philosopher, Italian jurist, rhetorician, and historian. He was vehemently anti-Cartesian and anti-reductionist. According to Wikipedia,

Vico is a precursor of systemic and complexity thinking, as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism. He is also well known for noting that verum esse ipsum factum (“true itself is fact” or “the true itself is made”), a proposition that has been read as an early instance of constructivist epistemology.

He is credited with originating the philosophy of history. His major work was the Scienza Nuova, The New Science. He died in Naples in 1744.

Vico was one of the great scholars who owed much to Ficino’s translations of Plato and Plotinus. Vico had originally studied the Scholastics, but around 1690, he abandoned that project and began to focus on Plato, Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch. This was the turning point for him, one that made him an illustrious Doctor of the Soul.

Vico’s contribution to depth psychology and the study of soul is considerable. Apparently, he learned the ways of soul from reading the ancient writers, such as Plato and Plotinus, as well as Renaissance scholars like Ficino and Petrarch. Vico put imagination at the center of all that he taught. According to Hillman,

He deserves the attention of those concerned with Jung mainly because of his elaboration of metaphorical thinking. For him, such thinking was primary, just as with Jung fantasy-thinking is primary (Hillman 158).

Vico was very close to Jungian thought with his notion that various cultural ideas and myths are autochthonous, i.e., they arise from a single source. In The New Science, he writes, “Uniform ideas originating among entire peoples unknown to each other must have a common ground of truth” (Vico 144). This common ground that connected all peoples he called “imaginative universals.” These are very much like Jung’s archetypes.

There must in the nature of human things be a mental language common to all nations, which uniformly grasps the substance of things feasible in human social life, and expresses it with as many diverse modifications as these same things may have diverse aspects. A proof of this is afforded by proverbs or maxims of vulgar wisdom, in which substantially the same meanings find as many diverse expressions as there are nations ancient and modern (Vico 60).

Vico is most assuredly “an ancestor of the Jungian approach” (Hillman 157). Vico’s imaginative universals sound strikingly similar to Jung’s idea of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Through his teaching of what he called “poetic characters,” Vico further developed the Ficinian insistence on the importance of fantasy.

The [poetic] characters of which we speak are found to have been certain imaginative genera (images for the most part of animate beings, of gods or heroes, formed by their imagination) to which they reduced all the species or all the particulars appertaining to each genus; exactly as the fables of human times, such as those of late comedy, are intelligible genera reasoned out by moral philosophy, from which the comic poets form imaginative genera (for the perfected ideas of the various human types are nothing but that) which are the persons of the comedies. Hence such divine or heroic characters are found to have been true fables or stories, and their allegories are discovered to contain meanings not analogical but univocal, not philosophical but historical, of the peoples of Greece of those times. Furthermore, since these genera (for that is what the fables in essence are) were formed by most vigorous imaginations, as in men of the feeblest reasoning powers, we discover in them true poetic sentences, which must be sentiments clothed in the greatest passions and therefore full of sublimity and arousing wonder (Vico 19).

Not only does Vico’s teaching resemble Jung’s, it also resembles Hillman’s archetypal psychology, with its insistence on a multiplicity of the “poetic characters,” or gods. There is also a kind of inkling of an archetypal therapy in Vico’s writings. The poetic characater, such as Pan, for example,

becomes the psychic structure by mean of which we place events and see how well they conform with their universal types, or archetypes, of the mundus imaginalis. The poetic character would be what we call the archetypal image with which events in your or my case history can be compared, the lacunae discovered, and a rectification takes places (Hillman 159).


Like Hillman, Vico defends the Neoplatonic principle of epistrophe, or ricorsi, as Vico calls it. This is very similar to Hillman’s method of “reversion,” described above, where fantasies are traced back to their archetypal origins in the Gods. Of this, Hillman elaborates that

Archetypal therapy of this sort proceeds by means of “likeness.” In Neoplatonic thought, especially as worked out by Proclus, events can be recognized for what they truly and essentially are, and thus “redeemed” through this recognition, by “reverting” them to their true cause in the divine ideas. These divine ideas become in Vico the universali fantastici, or poetic characters, and in Jung the archetypes (ibid.).

Vico’s ricorsi is a multifaceted idea that has been pored over and debated since Vico was rediscovered in the nineteenth century. But, according to Notre Dame philosophy professor, A. Robert Caponigri,

‘Ricorsi’ appears in Vico, in the first instance, as a methodological notion. It designates a methodological device for making effective his discovery of the primacy of poetry and, with this, of the genuine time-structure and movement of history. It consists in the employment of the categories of poetic wisdom for the interpretation of the cultural and social structures of post-poetic times. By this employment there is determined abstract contemporaneity between time-form structures (Caponigri 131).

Ricorsi, most commonly interpreted, is the recurrence theory of history, but that is not what Prof. Caponigri really thinks it is in Vico’s schema. He gives several lengthy explanations that are not in the scope of this article. For more detail, I refer you to his book, Time and Idea. Hillman claims ricorsi includes the meaning that “archetypal persons transcend historical limitations even as they manifest themselves in historical time.” Vico’s “poetic figures are the ultimate categories for understanding human existence” (ibid.). 

The mirror of the soul, peered into during the process of reversion, leads us to understand more about ourselves and our world. We examine our actions and behaviors and ask the question, What god do these behaviors conform to? What archetypal mythemes does my behavior reflect? In this way, we give place to the gods, and, thus, they do not arise within in us as diseases. Remember the words of Jung,

The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus, but the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room (Jung, 37).

This is what occurs when a society disposes of the gods, as our Western obsession with Cartesianism has done.

Thus, Vico has lent much to depth psychology. Now, we see why he is considered a Doctor of Soul.


Caponigri, A. Robert. Time and Idea. Chicago: Regnery, 1953.

Hillman, James. Loose Ends. Irving: Spring, 1978.

Jung, C.G.(1929). Commentary On The Secret Of The Golden Flower. In Alchemical Studies. In The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Vol. 13. Princeton: Bollingen. 

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science. Trans. by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Ithaca: Cornell, 1948.

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