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Legislation considers man as he is in order to turn him to good uses in human society. Out of ferocity, avarice, and ambition, the three vices which run throughout the human race, it creates the military, merchant, and governing classes, and thus the strength, riches, and wisdom of commonwealths. Out of these three great vices, which could certainly destroy all mankind on the face of the earth, it makes civil happiness. We observe that all nations...keep these three human customs: all have some religion, all contract solemn marriages, all bury their dead.

NameGiambattista Vico
Life1668 - 1744
CountryItaly
CategoryWisdom
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However good and however useful freedom may be, it can never be unlimited. Like a wild horse must be bridled before it can be useful, man's ferocity, avarice and ambition must be somewhat curbed. One of the wisest ideas of Western civilization is that society must be ruled by law. A law, moreover, which everybody must obey - the strong, the rich and the powerful, even the kings and princes. Laws are useful, but they cannot change society in any direction. They must conform to human nature. How do we know what that is? By observing our history, Vico said, far back and widely over the globe. In doing so, what did Vico see? He found, always and everywhere, some religion, solemn marriages and burial of the dead. Man has a deep, spontaneous religious urge. We long to know from where we came, to where we are going, and why. The answers vary. "Varieties of religious experience" is William James's title of a classic study in the field. Most societies have thus been "polytheistic", that is, they have had many different Gods, like the Greeks. Tiberius, for instance, built his dozen palaces on Capri in the honor of the twelve major Roman Gods. Freud has told us that human culture to a large extent is the problem of reigning in the wild promiscuous nature of our
sexuality. In order to protect our children, unable to take care of themselves for several years after birth, a mother needs the help of a father. To curb man's desire for other women, civilized mankind has enacted marriages in which the two partners promise to love each other, in health and joy as well as in sickness and poverty. To strengthen that bond, marriages have been made "solemn", as they indeed should be, by religious rituals. The choice of a wife or a husband is, by far, the most important act in the life of a human being! Vico also found a third custom: all people bury their dead and this, too, with religious rites. The place where the dead are buried is holy for the members of the family; they want to own it. This may be the origin of private ownership, on which Vico placed much importance for the progress of society. In the past century, we experienced a teaching that spit upon religion, urged free love, looked upon dead bodies as a hygienic problem of waste disposal, and made private property a crime. It is, indeed, instructive that all societies which were ruled by that teaching have declined into murderous and uncivilized tyrannies, confirming not only Vico's insights, but also Dostoyevsky's idea that "if God is dead, all is permitted." The big city close to Capri, Naples, with a history as long as that of Rome, has given mankind at least three truly great philosophers: St. Thomas of medieval times, Benedetto Croce in the 20th century, and Vico. That all civilized societies, like Naples, are built upon good laws, supporting religion, solemn marriages and respect for life, for death and for private property, that is the wise, conservative insight of Naples' Giambattista Vico.