Vico and the Ambiguities as Part of Understanding the Novel

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. Limited references. All references to Vico’s New Science  give paragraph section followed by page number in the Cornell University Press (Ithaca NY) 1975 edition translated by Thomas Goddard Berhin and Max Harold Fisch.  A pdf of the first, 1948, edition of that translation can be found here.

Post Carries on from the post two down from this one 

Debates around Vico’s influence include considerations of how likely readers are to have understood him, and that has a lot to do with ambiguities like his discussion of divine language. To some degree he does give the key to these ambiguities in passages where he suggests that aspects of earlier stages may linger in later stages, as in the abrupt transition he claims took place in ancient Greek from the poetic-barbaric phase of Homer to the philosophical-human phase of Plato and Aristotle, or aristocratic remnants in the democratic phase of the Roman republic.

Vico initiates the philosophy of the novel because he both discusses the Homeric epics in terms which connect strongly with the nature of the novel, and because he identifies the tension between heroic-divine aspects and human aspects of narrative fiction. In one aspect of Vico’s interpretation of Homer, there is a straightforward identification of Homer with the heroic age, as part of a straightforward layout of stages of history and related stages of language and law. Another aspect is where the ambiguities become productive as Vico’s historical analysis is full of overlaps, historical lags and anticipations, which might be presented as exceptional but are so frequent they are the norm.

His presentation of the heroic age is partly through Virgil, writing centuries into the human age in Roman history. For Vico the human history of Rome begins with democratic reforms to the republic as the plebeians struggle to take absolute power from the patricians, the aristocrats who define themselves as descended from the gods. Most famously, getting towards the time of Virgil, Julius Caesar claimed to be a descendent of Venus. That claim of Caesar is the kind of left over that Vico has to account for, and even needs to have as he cannot finish his account of the heroic age within the productions of that age.

The emergence of the Greek human age is given an exceptional status, because Vico claims that Greek philosophy emerged when the Greeks were still in some ways living in the heroic poetic age. Vico is referring to the way that Greek culture was still dominated  by Homer in the fifth century BCE and that plays were being performed using the same mythology, as in the famous tragedies. There was a rapid movement from the poetic universals of Homer, which belong to the barbarism of the heroic age, lacking in the capacity for abstraction, to the philosophical universals of Plato Axiom twenty-one:

The Greek philosophers hastened the natural course which their nation  was to take, for when they appeared the Greeks were still in a crude state of barbarism, from which they advanced immediately to one of the highest refinement while at the same time preserving intact their fables both of gods and of heroes. (NS section 158; Vico 1975, 66)

Further ambiguity emerges with regard to Aesop’s fables, as though they were written down after the time of Plato, they must have come from the barbaric age, because of the use of animals that refer to the aristocratic way of thinking about the plebeians. (NS 424-425). That is the flaws of animal behaviour comes from assumptions the aristocrats made about the lower classes, who they thought as on the same level as animals. His account of this situation confirms that we can think of his account of literature in the ancient human and philosophical age as pervaded by remainders from the heroic-aristocratic age of imaginary universals.

The next step in thinking about how Vico contributed to the philosophy of the novel is that the supposedly exceptional situation of ancient Greece is repeated in the emergence of philosophical culture in medieval France. Vico argues for a cyclical theory of history largely focused on the idea that the history of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, during the fifth century, marked the beginning of a new barbarism, in which the stages towards human monarchy had to be repeated. The Homeric-Barbaric age was repeated in the Song of Roland the French epic of the beginning of he twelfth century, and was followed quickly by a repetition of the birth of philosophy in the Philosophical Sentences of Peter Lombard in the middle of that century.

 

More on the philosophy and literature theme coming soon

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