Graduate Seminar: John Schaeffer

John Schaeffer, Northern Illinois University
John Schaeffer, Northern Illinois University
Center for Renaissance Studies Programs
Graduate Seminar
Friday, January 10, 2003 to Friday, March 14, 2003

Sensus Communis: Vico on Rhetoric, Religion, and Law
John Schaeffer, Northern Illinois University

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) was born in Naples and spent his whole life there. He was the Royal Professor of Eloquence at the University of Naples where he taught rhetoric for most of his life. He was also a practicing rhetorician who delivered ceremonial orations , wrote epitaphs and dedications, and composed histories and biographies. Vico detailed a new approach to humanistic knowledge and cultural history that is currently arousing such interest in many scholarly disciplines that it is often referred to as “the Vico explosion.” Most contemporary interest in Vico centers on his Scienza Nuova that developed the ideas on cultural cycles for which he is best known.  He also wrote a treatise on natural law entitled In the Il diritto Vico develops a theory of natural law radically different from the received tradition that developed its idea of natural law from Hobbes, Grotius, and other Enlightenment thinkers. These thinkers developed their theories of natural law in accordance with the Enlightenment ideal of universal reason that saw rhetoric and religion as manifestations of logical and perceptual error. Vico differed from this tradition in that he saw religion and rhetoric as driving forces of civilization rather than as impediments to reason. The result of Vico’s thinking about religion and rhetoric was what he called “the natural law of the gentes.” This concept is unique in the history of natural law. By it Vico meant that natural law is culturally specific, that it is not a static, moral absolute that emerges the same way in every culture, but a practice of equity that is historically conditioned and which emerges gradually within linguistic and religious contexts. 

Sensus communis is the epistemological foundation of Vico’s thinking about law, and Vico developed his idea of sensus communis from his experience as a teacher and practitioner of rhetoric. For Vico, sensus communis means far more than Aristotle’s definition of it as mere “common opinion.”  Sensus communis denotes pre-logical cultural and value assumptions imbedded in both institutions and language. Sensus communis is, at one level, culturally specific, but at deeper levels it is universal. Natural law emerges from sensus communis’s deepest levels but is shaped by its more culturally specific attributes. The two  important of those attributes are religion and rhetoric.

 The purpose of this seminar is to investigate to what extent Giambattista Vico’s concept of sensus communis can help reformulate the relationship between rhetoric, religion, and the current revival of natural law theory. The course will focus on the extent to which concept of natural law developed by Vico is grounded in a concept of sensus communis rooted in rhetoric and shaped by religion. The course will then compare Vico’s thought to that of Hobbes, Bacon, and others to determine his relevance to the received tradition.

  •  The rhetorical basis of Vico’s concept of sensus communis
  • Vico on the role of religion in forming or maintaining sensus communis
  • The rhetoric of equity and its role in the critique of law
  • The rhetorical limitations of the western legal tradition
  • The possibility of a secular theory of natural law
  • Vico’s potential for providing a culturally neutral basis for natural rights

Participants: James Bromley, Loyola University Chicago; Ryan Hennessy, University of Chicago; Elizabeth McFarland, Northern Illinois University; Kurt Neumann, Northern Illinois University

Learn more about Center for Renaissance Studies programs for graduate students.