Philosophy of the Novel II: Vico on Homer. An Implicit Philosophy of the Novel

Rather a late addition in a series of posts I inaugurated here, in a post of August 27th. Travel, a conference, starting the new university semester back in Istanbul, dealing with renewal of my contractual and legal status in Turkey, partly keeping up with contributions to group blogs have all interrupted blogging here, though the material concerned is largely ready. I should be getting it out much more rapidly now. I should also say this is research proposal for a book that is never likely to be published though some major part of the ideas proposed have a reasonable chance o being published as a monograph about one maybe two years from now, and other ideas any appear in other places. The structure proposed is too complex, speculative, and ambitious to be the basis of a book that is likely to published though, or only possibly if I was much more of a big star in the philosophical firmament. If the time ever comes when I have the standing to publish a similarly ambitious book I will, no expectations of that though, and one consolation of  blog is to throw out ideas, and articulations of ideas, which might not find an audience otherwise.

Vico puts Homer and the interpretation of Homer at he centre, as a way of understanding a world in which rulers and the literate think themselves godlike, but are giving way to a human world, in which citizens are equal under laws in a language understood by all. That tension between the hierarchical domination of the priestly-aristocratic-hero class, in a world of poetic imagination; and the egalitarian world of the people, in a world where imaginative forms have been subordinated to abstract universals, and all are human rather than divine, is at the heart of the novel, which a democratic, or at least anti-priestly form, appealing to a world of secular humanity sharing common laws, passion and imagination, and where the world has become comparatively unstructured.

The world of political force perceived by Machiavelli, where mythical ‘animal’ capacities underlie the world of human law, is expanded by Vico in a history where force and myth (or religion) establish a social world that limits force, but as law grows, the state becomes more vulnerable to force. Since Rabelais and Cervantes the novel has something democratic about it and sceptical with regard to a world of myth distinct from the human world, suitable to aristocratic control.

The character of Don Quixote is a mockery of the aristocratic hero and of the world of mythical forces, as it works through characters lacking psychology where actions are frequently those of supernatural influences. The eighteenth century novel questions aristocratic power and morality that is not based on some kind of egalitarianism and practical application. These novels are not structured by a religious order of any kind, but by the search for a passion that will end the interplay of distorted egotistical passions discussed by La Rochefoucauld.

The human world of equality under the law in a democracy or a monarchy resting on popular welfare, described by Vico, is the world of the novel. Like the democratic monarch in Vico, the novel is based on a capacity for judgement that corresponds to the infinite variability of individual cases, rather than the simple insistence on the consistency of application regarding a few laws. Vico’s thought contains reactions to contract theory in politics, which he is inclined to see as reading the consequences of the absorption of revived Romand law into nature.

One of the contract theorists who emerged after Vico’s death was a major novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. On the other side, one of the major historical writers on law and political institutions, Montesquieu was also a novelist. Montesquieu had his own view of how Roman law came to permeate legal institutions and state practice in High Medieval Europe which has many points of contact with Vico. Both wrote what can be described as historical narratives of law and its contexts, which have novelistic features of diversity, and integration, distance and purposiveness in their portrayal of history.

We will see how that conditions the novel before Vico, particularly in Don Quixote, the novel in the eighteenth century, and subsequent centuries, and what that tells us about a whole form engaged with irony and social reality, on the basis of Vico’s understanding of Homer. In the eighteenth century that means some comparison with the ways in which moral sentiment takes over from natural law, how that process is part of what gives the novel a role, and how that fits with Vico’s own account of natural law, along with the rise of a new human age. The study of the  multiplicity of human passions, ideas, sentiments in Hume, Smith, and so on, and their integration, is in large degree a study of the structural conditions of the novel.



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