Philosophy of the Novel: Vico on Homer and the significance of Cervantes

Early draft version extract of work in progress for a project on philosophy of the novel, beginning with the importance of Vico even if he does not address the novel. He does address Homer and the approach of his New Science is a highly suggestive in relation to the genre of the novel. No references 

The Principles of A New Science concerning the Nature of the Nations by Giambattista Vico was a major Enlightenment  work in philosophy of history, and is various other things, including the first great contribution to the philosophy of the novel, if in a slightly roundabout way. The New Science is full of the role of literature in interpreting history and understanding human society, creating a kind of philosophical-historical writing full of attention to literary style, rhetoric, and imagination.

One of Vico’s major preoccupations is the interpretation  of Homer as a key to the stage of history in which human communities are governed by aristocrats thinking of themselves as heroes descended from the gods, exactly the thinking of the warriors and kings in Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. This is a barbaric age for Vico, but it is not just this age which is explained in Homeric epic, since he takes it to include references to the divine and human ages, that is the age of pre-urban communities led by giants who have just left the wilderness and the age of democracies and monarchies that rest on the will of the people. The divine age appears in The Odyssey in the encounter with the cyclops, Polyphemos, while the human age appears in signs of luxury from after the heroic age, as in the curled hair of Paris in The Iliad or the luxury of the palace of the Phaeacians in The Odyssey.

Of course Homeric literature is written in verse and is epic rather than novel in form. However, Vico’s way of understanding epic appears in the time in which the novel is becoming established as a literary form, and Vico’s way of understanding the human world as something that begins to appear in Homer, gives us an understanding of the novel. Tensions between kings and lower class characters in Homer, show the emergence of  human world, a novelistic world within the epic. The transition between the two epics is thought of by Vico as the transition towards a more human world, since Odysseus, the central figure of The Odyssey is more human than Achilles, the central figure of The Iliad, in his use of intelligence rather than pure warrior strength.

Even Achilles brings out the beginnings of the human world, as Vico notes particularly with regard to the Shield of Achilles, on which the god Hephaestus has forged images of the vital aspects of early history. So in Vico’s reading, Homeric epic is not just supernatural and heroic tales detached from a broader world, they are a literary world within which novelistic themes, structures, and characters are merging, including the ideas of tension between the mythical-heroic and the mundane-humane which are at the centre of the novel, and which Vico suggests are also foreshadowed in Virgil and Dante.

A good context for understanding Vico’s thoughts on literature, though more the implications of those thoughts when we look at the evolution of literary forms and  aesthetic theories is Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605 and 1615), which tells of a minor Spanish aristocrat turned crazy by his obsessive reading of Medieval romances, so that he believes is a knight in these stories, in a world of enchanters, magic, fabulous powers, giants, and chivalric quests. While identifying a beginning to the novel, or any genre is a paradoxical rather quixotic enterprise itself, Don Quixote is a strong candidate, and appreciation of that novel is itself tied up with appreciation of the novel as a form. Hegel who had limited respect for the novel did not see much depth in Don Quixote, while Friedrich Schlegel who thought the novel was a form that fused poetry and philosophy as Plato had in his dialogues, was a great admirer of Cervantes’ novel.

In  the evolution of novelistic form, the importance of Quixote  was confirmed in the eighteenth century in England, as Henry Fielding include an element of pastiche and parody of it in Tom Jones, while it was one of the major comic novelists of the eighteenth century, Tobias Smollett who translated Cervantes into English. The time at which Cervantes was first translated into English and then translated by a major writer of the time roughly coincides with the George Chapman translation of Homer into English and the Alexander Poper translation. So by the time Vico was writing, a seventeenth century novel mocking the supernatural and heroic was at least part of the way to its current all time great masterpiece status, while the translations of Homer into modern languages out of the Ancient Greek had become significant literature. The translation history of Homer into Italian goes back to the late sixteenth century, and Cervantes was translated immediately, as was the case for English editions.

More on this topic coming soon

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