Vico on Homer, Philology and Law

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.

A rather long post, and I can’t even say it has the strictest unity, however, there are some aspects of reading, and interpreting, Vico I want to bring together, and that means a longer post than usual.

‘the heroic fables were true stories of the heroes and their heroic customs, which are found to have flourished in the barbarous period of all nations; so that the two poems of Homer are found to be two great treasure houses of discoveries of the natural law of the gentes among the still barbarous Greeks’ (NS 7; Vico 1975, 7); Axiom twenty: ‘If the poems of Homer are civll histories of ancient Greek customs, they will be two great treasure houses of natural law of the Gentes of Greece’. (NS 156; Vico 1975, 65).

Vico refers to that institutions mentioned in Homer that could have existed without writing. These include customary laws, the agora (citizens’ assembly), and the ‘boule’ (a secretive meeting of the nobles) (NS 521; Vico 1975, 160-161). Laws were discussed in secret in the boule and then publicised in the agora. The secret discussion in the boule is part of the aristocratic-heroic approach in which the  nobles exclude the animal like plebeians from their sacred order, and its correspondingly sacred discussions, so that only what they want to be revealed is revealed at the agora. The boule and agora were institutions of Athens centuries after Homer, and and many centuries after the events Homer described, so Vico himself may be seeing something in Homer which was only properly institutionalised later.

Vico argues in New Science 338 (Vico 1975, 100), the opening of the section on Method that concludes Book I, that the study of Homer as the source of knowledge of barbarism must be accompanied by the study of ancient mythology and philosophy (highlighting Epicurus), along with the seventeenth century political and legal thought of Hugo Grotius,Thomas Hobbes, and Samuel Pufendorf. In this latter emphasis he is drawing attention to the three earliest figures in what we know know as the social contract or contractarian tradition in political and legal thought. There is a issue about the relation of contract theory to natural law theory, that is to say the relation between deriving the legitimacy of laws from a voluntary contract that founds society under laws and political institutions on one side and deriving the legitimacy of laws from the principles which reason shows all humans when thinking correctly and which may come from God. The natural law theory precedes contract theory, going back as it does to a definition given by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics].

The generally accepted view of contract theory is that it has roots in Grotius’ account of the origins of law in agreement as in ‘The Preliminary Discourse’ of The Rights of War and Peace (Grotius, 2005, vol. I, 75-132), which also emphasises natural right. Accounts by Hobbes in Leviathan and Pufendorf in The Whole Duty of Man, According to the Law of Nature (2003) build a more explicit theory of laws and institutions that rest on a moment of contract that establishes the basic conditions of law and institutions to enforce law, which also make decisions about how they can best maintain themselves, that is exist as political institutions as well as legal institutions, so establishing the sphere of politics. The idea is continued in Locke and Rousseau, and then in Kant where it becomes more of a general condition than a historical moment. This way of thinking was revived in the late twentieth century by John Rawls and Robert Nozick, if in a rather formalised way compared with the figures mentioned by Vico.

Vico’s account suggests a strong liaison between the emergence of contract theory and the development of a philological-historical-philosophical approach to Homer and literature, though not only contract theory since Niccoló Machiavelli is also invoked, though very briefly (New Science 1003, 1109). Vico would surely have said more if Machiavellianism had not become a synonym for evil or if he had been writing in circumstances less constrained by Catholic conservatism. There are other early modern political theorists, not associated with contract theory, who feature in the New Science: John Selden, the British jurist and Hebrew scholar; Jean Bodin.

So in general, Vico sees political thought of the seventeenth century, with regard to all theories of law and the state, as establishing a model of thinking concerned with a historical understanding based on philology, laws, and the form of the state. During the eighteenth century there were there two major political thinkers who also wrote novels, Rousseau (Julie or the New Eloise, Émile) and Montesquieu (Persian Letters), with the trend persisting into the early nineteenth century in Benjamin Constant (Adolphe).

These novels arise, because in that time they were an inviting way to deal with the passions and sympathies within civil society, that are necessary to the functioning of civil society, but are not very readily captured by theories of law and the state. So these novels, at least in part, share the role of  theories of ethical sentiment in the late eighteenth century (Adam Smith, David Hume), which provide psychological mechanisms and moral theory of a kind which explains how there can be civil society and co-operative associations between people in a world where natural law seems less plausible as a unifying explanation of institutions of justice and individual virtues.

Vico’s thought in the New Science anticipates these developments, because it puts narrative fiction at the heart of the understanding of society, with regard to its institutions, laws, religion, customs, and ethics. The philological investigation of the institutions of the past means investigating literature and its also means treating law as literature, as can be seen in the discussion of the origin of ‘persona’ in Roman law (New Science 1033-1036) in the ‘Final Proofs’ of Book IV.

In conformity with such natures, ancient jurisprudence was throughout poetic. By its fictions what had happened was taken as not having happened, and what had not happened as having happened; those not yet born as already born; the living as dead; and the dead as still living in their estates pending acceptance. It introduced so many empty masks without subjects, jura imaginaria, rights invented by imagination. It rested its entire reputation on inventing such fables as might preserve the gravity of the laws and do justice to the facts. Thus all the fictions of ancient jurisprudence were truths under masks, and the formulae in which the laws were expressed, because of their strict measures of such and so many words—admitting neither addition, subtraction, nor alteration—were called carmina, or songs […].

(NS 1036/Vico 1975, 390)

The Roman laws were fictions and the products of imagination in their references to future and hypothetical circumstances, the fables used to justify the property owning structure as its existed. These were stories that both preserved the laws and were true to the facts, so carrying out the function of reconciling general principles with particular circumstances, sanctification and realism. The duality of law between fiction and fact extended to the emptiness of masks, as in the legal persona that exists for the purposes of legal decisions, and the truths underneath in which existing social relations are recognised. Law has a Homeric foundation for Vico in the violence with which the barbaric heroes enforce their rights, and in the sacred secrecy observed with regard to the laws, known only to the  aristocrats-priests, though that latter point comes more from Roman history than Homer. Vico emphases that the heroic-aristocratic period emphases obsession with the literal meaning of laws, and the extreme enforcement of what they are taken to mean. The idea of contextuality and variability of interpretation of the law emerges in the human-democratic era and is perfected in the democratic monarchy that judges every case with regard to its own context, interpreting the law anew at every instance.

The emphasis on the democratic sympathy and contextuality with which laws are interpreted bring us again to the modern novel as the place where egalitarian moral sentiments and humane interpretation of law typically enter into a struggle with older forms, which are more suited to the epic world of remorseless warrior nobles.

More on the philosophy and literature theme coming soon


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