Vico Reading Homer (and Virgil)

Paper just posted at, ‘Vico on Homer and (Virgil)’.

Or read it here.

Vico Reading Homer (and Virgil)

(based on presentation of 16th March 2018 for Logoi: Discussions on Antiquity 2017-2019 Colloquium series)

Giambattista Vico’s, ideas created in the Naples of the early eighteenth century are present everywhere in modern humanities and social science, but his name is hardly mentioned. In particular, historicising and philological approaches to social knowledge and cultural inquiry, have strong antecedents in Vico’s masterwork, the New Science: 

[…] the philosophers failed  by half in not giving certainty to their reasonings by appeal to the authority of the philologians, and likewise how the latter failed by half in not taking care to give their authority the sanction of truth by appeal to the reasoning of the philosophers. 

(NS 140/Vico 1975, 63[ references to Vico’s New Science here and throughout given as NS + paragraph number/bibliographical reference, page number])

Vico’s achievement has a reading of Homeric epic and an understanding of its historical context at its heart. Vico pioneered the idea that the Iliad and the Odyssey owe more to oral tradition than any single writer, even claiming that there was no individual Homer, only a tradition of bards grouped together as ‘Homer’. This is itself a significant anticipation of a later eighteenth century interest in folkish traditions in literature. His work as a whole anticipates both the rationalism of Enlightenment and the Romantic idealisation of myth. Vico’s anticipations and underlying influence has been largely hidden from view, but there are significant exceptions which lead to an appreciation of his place.

Vico has been identified, by Arendt (1998, 232 and 298)  and Gadamer (1989, 17 and 217) as the thinker at the beginning of modern historical approaches to knowledge, in contrast to the model of the knowledge of nature. Foucault uses Vico to distinguish between spectacular and disciplinary modes of punishment, and power, in Discipline and Punish (1977, 45). In Of Grammatology (1997, 298), Derrida makes the idea of historical return in Vico fundamental to understanding Rousseau’s writing on the relation of nature and society. The scope of Enlightenment historical knowledge covers all of what is now known as the humanities and the social sciences, so Vico should be seen as the closest there can be to a single founder of these fields, leading the way in the Enlightenment pre-formation of the relevant disciplines in Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hume, Smith, Lessing and others which emerge in the form we known them across the nineteenth century. It is not clear that Vico directly influenced any of these thinkers, but he certainly foreshadows their thinking. His work is the first crystallisation of the  themes which are further combined and explored in later Enlightenment thinkers. His commentary on Homer, and in a more limited way, Virgil, does not just have a major bearing on the later development of classical philology, but on the whole development of humanities and the social science as the context of philology.

Vico was a scholar of rhetoric and law, who develops this kind of traditional humanistic learning into a philosophical and historical approach. It has an element of defence of humanism against Cartesian philosophy, an element of using Descartes as a model for humanistic-historical thought, and an element of developing a new enterprise, which is that of the science of the institutions created by the human mind. Descartes’ insistence on a deductive method along with the primacy of mathematics and the natural sciences is part of a shift away from the humanistic study of rhetoric and law, which informed the work of the Renaissance scholars preceding Descartes, like Machiavelli and Montaigne. That is writers imbued in the classics, for whom the scholarship of ancient texts and facility in ancient rhetorical techniques is at the core of their work. Machiavelli and Montaigne are awkward precedents for Vico, writing in Naples with church patronage and an active Inquisition in the background, but he does make a positive reference to Machiavelli in the New Science (NS §1003/Vico 1975, 374). Montaigne is completely absent from the text. Though Vico writes to prolong a tradition with ancient roots, he is dealing with thought that has emerged since the Renaissance which emphasises some mixture of nature or natural law, chance or determinism. The idea of nature as on object of observation in which motion through space, including astronomical space, according to mathematical formulae is primary, detaches nature from human purpose and scale. Though the idea of natural law has antique roots, its systematic formulation is a modern phenomenon based on the systematisation  of Roman law and its medieval revival, which Vico associates with the incorrect assumption that ‘natural’ law is already present in the earliest human communities. He makes no distinction between natural law and social contract as Hobbes is included with natural law thinkers alongside Hugo Grotius, John Selden and Samuel Pufendorf. Vico expresses the desirability of a middle way between determinism and chance in history in terms of an ancient contrast between Stoicism and Epicureanism. Hobbes is identified as a modern Epicurean. Determinism seems applicable to Descartes, who advocates a Stoic leaning ethics. Despite the ancient contrast invoked, Vico seems to largely refer to two different version of modern natural philosophy, as they may enter the legal and historical thought of his time. Descartes is given both credit and blame for founding a science of nature which does not engage with history and cannot serve as the foundation of historical knowledge. Vico aims to develop a science of institutions created by the human mind.  

There is no evidence of direct influence on the Enlightenment thinkers mentioned above. There are possibilities that Shafesbury, Montesquieu and Rousseau became aware of Vico during time in Italy and it is known that J.G. Hamann had a copy of the New Science, spreading knowledge of Vico’s name at least to other German thinkers. However, direct references to Vico amongst major thinkers and scholars come first in F.A. Wolf (1807), the central figure in Homer studies of the time and then S.T. Coleridge in 1825 according to his letters, (Fisch 1943), so only towards the end of his life and writing career.  The understanding of Homer from a Viconian point of view came more from Italy at this time though, as demonstrated in M. Cesarotti’s reaction to Wolf Prolegomena to Homer (1985), which itself  does draw on the New Science (Grafton — Most — Zetzel 1985, 26). Cesarotti himself left a deep mark on philology, translation and literary work in Italy, so adding his own transmission of Vico in Italian culture to Wolf’s reaction to Vico as an important moment in Vico’s legacy. 

There was no complete translation of the New Science until Jules Michelet translated it into French in 1827. Michelet was one of the major historians and historical thinkers of the time, so this is evidence that Vico conditioned historical thinking in the nineteenth century, to some degree. Marx showed some familiarity with Vico in letters and the major figures of nineteenth and early twentieth century Italian culture certainly had some familiarity with Vico. Benedetto Croce, one of the most influential philosophers of his time wrote a book on Vico (1913), translated into English by R.G. Collingwood, himself a major presence in Idealist aesthetics and philosophy of history. Vico emerges as a major influence on French thought in the 1890s when Georges Sorel published “Etude sur Vico” (1896), so entering into the thought of the major theorist of revolution before Lenin, the author of Reflections on Violence, whose influence permeated revolutionary thought on the fascist right and anarcho-syndicalist left, reaching into the Marxism of Walter Benjamin and Antonio Gramsci. Vico’s influence has reached deep into the development of literary studies through Erich Auerbach (1948). Auerbach’s engagement with Vico was followed up by Edward Said and Hayden White (1978). Further discussion of Vico’s place in literary studies can be found in chapter two of Philosophy of the Novel (Stocker 2018). Vico’s place in culture and thought since the twentieth century has its most influential location in the novels of James Joyce. Vico is briefly mentioned in Ulysses and the whole structure of reference to the Odyssey, in the construction of historical parallels between modern Dublin and the Bronze Age Mediterranean is very reminiscent of the approach to Homer in the New Science. The importance of Vico for Joyce, and the historicising philosophy within his literature,  is confirmed by Finnegans Wake and Samuel Beckett’s commentary (1939) on the part of Finnegans Wake first published as Work in Progress. The relation between a Viconian approach to Homer and a historical philosophy has its more directly philosophical equivalent in the work Max Horkheimer, by himself and in collaboration with Theodor Adorno. In ‘Vico and Mythology’ (in Horkheimer 1993), Horkheimer refers to Vico’s importance for philosophy of history, philology and social science (375-376). In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer together with Adorno, develops a view of Odysseus as the first bourgeois hero, which does correspond with Vico’s view of Odysseus in the Odyssey as closer to the world of law, commerce and rationality than Achilles is in the Iliad. 

After making the argument for Vico’s role as a thinker who conditions all the intellectual approaches now brought into classical philology and as an influential interpreter of Homer, it is time to move onto Vico’s own readings of Homer, together with related comments on Virgil, starting with an outline of his general approach and Homer’s place in it. He explains the importance of Homer in the very beginning of the New Science:

The same ray [divine providence] is reflected from the breast of metaphysics onto the statue of Homer, the first gentile author who has come down to us. For metaphysic, which has been formed from the beginning according to a history of human ideas from the commencing of truly human thinking among the gentiles, has enabled us finally to descend into the crude minds of the first founders of the gentile nations, all robust sense and vast imagination. They had only the bare potentiality, and that torpid and stupid, of using the human mind and reason. From that very cause the the beginnings of poetry, not only different from but contrary to those which have been hitherto imagined, are found to lie in the beginning of poetic wisdom, which have from that same cause hitherto been hidden from us. 

(NS 6/Vico 1975, 5-6)

In the New Science, Vico offered an alternative to Descartes philosophy, which he believed was necessary for sciences of the human mind, that is knowledge of human ideas and institutions. Vico claimed this alternative was rooted in the philosophy of Descartes’ contemporary, the English philosopher Francis Bacon, but does little to explain how this works. Descartes focused on knowledge of nature and certainty in this knowledge, based on the immediacy and strength of ideas in our mind. Vico argued that there had to be knowledge of human institutions and that Descartes’ own criterion for certainty in knowledge, the strength of ideas in the mind, suggest more certainty in the historical knowledge of human institutions, because such institutions are creations of the mind. 

The new science of human institutions is a science of the repetition, recourse of the history of nations. That is the cycle of history which has gone through an original stage and a repetition. The original historical cycle goes from the earliest antiquity to the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. The cycle of repetition goes from the German ‘barbarian’ kingdoms which replaced Roman power in the west in the fifth century to Vico’s own time. Each cycle goes through three stages,  though this could be seen as four stages. The first stage is of the age of gods, of the earliest states under the power of patriarchal petty kings claiming divine status. The equivalent in the second cycle is the kings of Germanic tribes. The second second stage is the age of heroes, which is the age of Homer. In this stage, states are city republics governed by a military aristocracy claiming descent from the gods and to be a long way above the bestial common people. The equivalent in the second cycle is the age of knights in the middle ages. The third stage is the human age of rule of law according to reason. The equivalent in the second cycle is the development of modern European states since the late middles ages. This can be divided between two sub-ages, or maybe into two full ages giving a total of four. There is democratic sub-age in which the people rule through city assemblies as in Greece, Rome, and Phoenician cities. The equivalent in the second cycle is the medieval city dominated by guilds, sometimes accompanied by a city assembly. Following this, there is a monarchical sub-age in which the monarch ends the power of aristocratic factions, making and enforcing laws for the public good. The equivalent of this in the second cycle are the absolute monarchs of early modern and Enlightenment Europe. 

Vico’s main focus within this account of history is the role of Homer in providing a key to the first cycle of history, along with some more limited discussion of Virgil’s prolongation and transformation of Homeric epic in the Aeneid . The focus on Homer has at least one oddity in that Vico was primarily a Latinist and seems to have very limited competence in ancient Greek compared with Latin, so one of the most important figures in the interpretation of ancient Greek literature was probably relying to some degree on Latin or Italian translation. He refers to the heroes and gods through Latin names rather than Greek names, so that Odysseus appears as Ulysses. Here, the Greek names are used as the natural way to refer to the Homeric world.  Despite his linguistic limitation, art least in comparison with his grasp of Latin, Vico’s focus on Homer is deep and profoundly suggestive.

Vico both locates the Iliad and the Odyssey in the heroic age, and suggests the poems incorporate material from the divine and human ages. For Vico this is part of a view of the composition of the epics as a slow collective process over time. There is no Homer, except as a name for the collective achievement of bards from all round the Greek world. The Iliad precedes the Odyssey in Vico’s account and was composed in northeastern Greece. The Odyssey  was sung and written later in southwestern Greece. In Vico’s view the Iliad must be earlier, because the Odyssey refers to travel round the Mediterranean world as far west as Italy and as far south as Egypt, in Odysseus’ ten year journey home. Troy is close to the ancient Greek world from the earliest times, when Greek states still confined to the territory of the modern Greek state. Poetry referring to western Anatolia does not require much travel from the Greek homeland compared with Odysseus’ journey right round the eastern Mediterranean. 

In his comparisons of the Homeric world with the second cycle of history, Cola di Rienzo, a popular hero of fourteenth century factional politics in Rome, is presented as a new Odysseus. A barbarian but one whose intelligence has developed beyond the level of Achilles. Dante features as the modern Homer and Virgil, not an unusual point of view, but in the context in which Tuscan literature, so Boccacio and Petrarch as well as Dante, is held up as the model of a transition from heroic barbarism to law governed humanity in Europe. According to Vico, and he is not alone on this point, the hero of the Iliad, Achilles is impulsive and lacking in judgement compared with Odysseus, who is the wily intelligent Greek hero in the Iliad, and is even more of a man of judgement in the Odyssey. For Vico, Odysseus is still often childish and barbaric in the Odyssey, examples include tear and his resort to wine to sooth his pain at the loss of his friends from the Trojan war.  But we can see that the Odyssey incorporates material from the human age, when we consider the luxury Odysseus sees in the palace of the Phaeacians and the islands of Circe and Calypso, which could only come from an age of trade in which peaceful commerce has replaced wars of wealth extraction. Vico even hints at the decadent phase in the human age, when he suggests these luxuries are like those of the most famously debauched Roman emperors. 

For Vico, we can see the material in the Odyssey from the age of gods when we consider the islands of the Cyclops in Odyssey IX (NS 338/Vico 1975, 100), particularly that of Polyphemus who ate some of Odysseus’ men and brought down a curse from Poseidon on him. Then passage which introduces the Cyclops also emphasises the necessity of combining the philologians and the philosophers; which in this context means ancient literature and early modern theorists of natural law. The Cyclops live in caves so preceding even the earliest urban communities. They come from an early extreme patriarchal power of early humans in their caves over their families and dependents, which is the first step towards the god-kings of the divine age who rule over the earliest towns. The Cyclops represent a state of nature missing from Hobbes, Grotius and Selden (313/92, 329/95) who project the laws of their time onto natural humanity. Grotius, Hobbes and Pufendorf (NS 338/Vico 1975, 100) are said to refer to early forms of human life from the stage of the Cyclops, but do not recognise the reality of the time

Vico finds a source for knowledge of the institutions of the heroic world, as the history of the world, within Iliad XVIII, in Achilles shield ‘the history of the world described by the same Homer as depicted on the shield of Achilles’ (NS 681/Vico 1975 258) . The shield made by Hephaestus/Vulcan which replaces the shield lost when Patroclus wears Achilles’ armour and is killed by Hector, depicts the society of the heroic age and its institutions, according to Vico. The two cities depict the heroic age separation between a warrior aristocracy, which claims divine origins, and a common people the ‘heroes’ define as bestial. In this context, the distinction is between marriage with full ceremonies for the heroes and natural marriage for their dependents (NS 683-686/Vico 1975, 258-259). It is certainly described as a remarkably rich depiction of the Homeric world and this pictorial depiction is the model for Vico’s written discourse. The images on the shield provide the model for the written analysis of heroic society. It is an impossible picture in that it moves, hinting perhaps at the tension between the historical axis and the institutional axis of Vico’s own thought. 

According to Vico, though the Odyssey refers to a later more rational age than the Iliad, both the Iliad and the Odyssey refer to a world of unstable emotions. Menelaus reacted to Helen leaving him with Paris, in an extreme way by taking part in the Greek war against Troy ‘though on Helen’s account he stirs all Greece to war against Troy’ (NS 709/Vico 1975, 268), which is the backdrop to the Iliad, but in the Iliad, he appears indifferent to the thought of Paris’ intimacy with Helen. He can only react in the moment to jealousy so that it has disappeared by the time he arrives outside the walls of Troy, where ‘he does not show, throughout that whole long and great war, the slightest sign of amorous distress or jealousy of Paris, who has robbed him of her and is enjoying her’ (NS 709/Vico 1975, 268). 

In the Odyssey VIII, Odysseus laughs though generally feeling grief at his exile and wanderings, something Vico does not feel is appropriate to a civilised human: ‘The constancy, moreover which is developed and fixed by the study of the wisdom of the philosophers, could not have depicted gods and heroes of such instability’ (NS 786/Vico 1975 303). The gods in the epics are below the level of gods as understood in more rational times. They appear on  the battlefield of Troy and heroes can harm them, as when Diomedes injures Ares and Aphrodite in Iliad V (NS 781/Vico 1975, 301). 

Odysseus is associated with the poisoning of arrows in Odyssey Book I, which Vico cannot imagine in a fully civilised leader, ‘the inhuman custom (so contrary to what the writers on the natural law of the gentes claimed to have been eternally practiced among the gentes)’ (NS 781/Vico 1975 302). Achilles’ anger with Agamemnon at the beginning of the Iliad is also evidence of the primitive nature of the heroes ‘both of them kings calling each other dogs, as servants in popular comedies would scarcely do nowadays’ (NS 782/Vico 1975 782). 

The games of Patroclus’ funeral in Iliad XXIII show the origin of the Olympic Games: ‘Achilles caused to be played almost all the kinds of games that were played later in the Olympics when Greek civilisation was at its height’, giving an example of how the heroic age portrayed in extends into the human age of classical Greece, as it contains the earliest seeds of the human world. Elements are already present in the heroic world as the necessary starting point for the emergence of the human world.  

Vico discusses Hades in Greek myth, but not Homer and Virgil’s Aeneid in ‘Poetic Cosmography’ section of New Science II. The boundaries of Hades in Virgil show the understanding of carefully defined borders, ‘the earth was associated by the theological poets with the guarding of the boundaries’ (NS 722/Vico 1975 274) as essential to the state in Rome, along with the beginnings of the genealogies of the Roman aristocracy, ‘[h]ere he [Aeneas] beholds his ancestors and those who are to come after him (for on the religion of the graves, called the underworld by the poets, were founded the first genealogies)’ (NS 721/Vico 1975 274)  so that Hades in epic is a way of understanding the importance of territorial definition and definitions of lines of inheritance in establishing a Roman state on the basis of strong geographical horizontal boundaries and strong vertical social boundaries to define the aristocracy which dominates the state.  The omission of Homer is surprising, but it appears that Vico would have regarded Odysseus’ descent in Odyssey XI, as less significant in defining a state. There is presumably a contrast of Virgil’s account in Aeneid VI with the more chaotic circumstances of ancient Greece, divided between many states often at war with each other and a barbaric aristocracy. Vico does not make his views about the relative places of Homer and Virgil in the development of historical stages, but implicitly he finds Virgil closer to the clear definitions of the human age than Homer is. Vico associates the growth of the Roman state with an interest in territorial measurement and precise boundaries (NS 722/Vico 1975 274). 

Vico does not just refer to the social world through Homer, but to how perceptions of  reality appear though poetry. An example is the passage in Odyssey IV in which Proteus appears constantly changing in shape (NS 688/Vico 1975,260-261). Vico ridicules attempts to discern a proto-philosophy of a primal substance in this story: 

Scholars have also held that the poets meant first matter in the fable of Proteus […] But the scholars thus made sublime learning out of what was doltishness and simplicity on the part of the first men who thought from the various modifications of their own shapes and gestures that there must be man in the water, forever changing into different shapes. 

(NS 688/Vico 1975, 260-261)   

Vico claim this reflects the early experience of humans seeing a reflection in water.  This is a speculative interpretation, but it also provides an early example of an anthropological approach to myth, seeking to discover the social conditions and belief system behind the appearance of myth in poetry . The decoding of rationality behind myth goes back to antiquity itself, as can be seen in Plato’s Phaedrus, but in Vico it is becoming a systematic approach to poetics and myth in which a kind of poetics of experience is used to interpret Homer along with the use of Homer as evidence of a way of thinking. That is there is a form of hermeneutic circle in which Vico builds up an interpretation of Homer through interpretation of the world surrounding Homeric epic and interprets this world through Homeric poetry. In this way, Vico anticipates later poetic phenomenology, philosophical anthropology and mythical-anthropological interpretation of literature, including antique texts.

Vico sees evidence that the Homeric epics extend into the human age, or at least early anticipations of it in references to luxury goods in the Odyssey and more occasionally the Iliad. The appearance of such goods, even in very mythic circumstances, is taken as evidence of trade relations presuming itself a level of social and economic development beyond the accumulation of wealth through plunder typical of the heroes. Vico itemises these instances in ‘The True Homer’ section of the New Science III. This includes the funeral games mentioned above, but as these do not in themselves refer to luxury, they just anticipate later competitive athletic culture, they are an exception to the discussion of luxury. Examples of luxury include the gardens, banquets and palace of Alcinous, King of the Phacians in Odyssey VII (NS 795/Vico 1975, 306). Vico sees evidence of trade with the Phoenicians, the early instigators of Mediterranean trade, in linen that appears in Odyssey XIX and a garment belonging to Penelope in Odyssey XVIII. Vico considers the latter to be: ‘An invention worthy of the effeminacy of our day!’ (NS 796/Vico 1975, 306). This gendered concern with decadent luxury is in tension with Vico’s general tendency to applaud the human age, so we should consider an underlying longing for the heroic age as playing a role in the structure of his thought. 

Priam’s cedar chariot in Iliad XXIV, used to drive towards Achilles’ tent (NS 797/Vico 1975, 306), is given as another example of human age luxury, which is not associated with femininity, but further examples continue the association of commerce and luxury with femininity. The cedar in Priam’s chariot appears again in the perfume in the cave of Calypso in Odyssey V (NS 

797/Vico 1975, 306). The theme of the semi-divine women who delay Odysseus’ journey home with erotic entrapment continues with references to the luxury of Circe’s bath in Odyssey X (NS 798/ Vico 1975, 306). Vico goes so far as to suggest this exceeds the luxury of the first century Roman Emperor Nero and the third century Emperor Heliogabalus, both notorious for alleged cruelty and luxurious decadence. Vico here betrays not only discomfort with the ‘feminine’ and associated decadence, but a general ambiguity about the relative merits of the heroic and human ages. Mostly Vico refers to the advantages of a world of reason, law and humanity, but there is also an admiration for the strength and passion of the heroic age, which produces poetry of a kind impossible in the human age. The theme of discomfort with supposedly feminised men continues with references to Iliad III and XI, where Diomedes and Hector criticise Paris for caring for his hair like a woman (NS 800/Vico 1975, 307). 

Vico adds a more literary argument to his case for saying that Homeric poetry comes at the end of the heroic age and therefore overlaps with the early moments of the emergence of the human age. This comes out of looking at a remark in Horace’s Ars Poetica, advising writers to take their characters from Homer (NS 806/Vico 1975, 308-309), which Vico takes as evidence that Homeric poetry comes at a third and final stage of the heroic age, where all that appears in Greek tragedy and comedy already has some reality, and what was ‘true narration’ has become ‘altered and corrupted’ over two stages (NS 808/Vico 1975, 310). 

For Vico, the Homeric world is already a struggle between Enlightenment and poetic imagination. Poetic imagination is divine and natural in the singular concrete force of words and poetic images. The poetic world is already a departure from the earliest stage of humanity wondering in forests after great floods. At this point humanity is hardly separate from the natural world and is unaware of the divine world. The divine world and language appear simultaneously when the early giants experience thunderstorms. The sound with which they naturally react is the origin of the world Jove and all words in all communities for all equivalent divine figures. This sets the scene for the Homeric world. The separation from nature rests on simultaneous awareness of the divine and of language, resting on a moment in nature. Homeric poetry is a step beyond that into a human rationality, so into Enlightenment. The first full Enlightenment is implicitly the Athens of Plato. Homeric poetry is enlightened, that is separate from nature and the divine in creating a world of linguistic articulation and representation. This is not possible for humanity before language, and not even for the first kind of language, which precedes the gathering of humans in dry areas as refugees from floods. Myth itself is a way in which humans separate themselves from nature and pure divine force. Vico’s reading of Homer gives a model for epic poetry as a way of interpreting ‘heroic’ societies and and as a model of the constant movement in writing interpretation between poetic force and rational enlightenment. A sociology of literature emerges which is also a sociology of knowledge. 

The poetry of Homer is that of imaginative universals (NS 460/Vico 1975, 154) in which one thing, perhaps a divinity, stands for a whole class of things. This is the stage which precedes the abstract universals of Athenian philosophy. The growth of abstract reason is part of the growth of law and the human world, but means the loss of the power of imagination expressed in the most forceful poetry. Vico’s interpretation of Homer is so important to his philosophy of history and society that he puts Homer in the frontispiece of key visual images at the opening of the New Science. There is an ambiguity here in the presentation of Homer, which is an ambiguity in Vico’s thought. If Homer represents ‘divine providence’ reflected from metaphysics as the ‘poetic wisdom’ that emerges from  ‘robust sense and vast imagination’ (NS 6/ Vico 1975, 6) then Homeric poetry is poetic wisdom containing sense and imagination for all time. It comes from the point of view of the founders of the gentile nations, that is the non-Jewish nations which were not guided directly by God in antiquity, but remains the poetic, imaginative and sense oriented version of providence, of universal intelligence and the cycle of history for all time. The basic knowledge of early history comes from this poetry. 

Even given the growth of archaeological evidence since Vico’s time, this remains something relevant to our understanding of Mycenaean Greece. It is not just relevant to that, but also Hittite Anatolia (Bachvarova 2016), Iron Age Greece and very likely earlier Bronze Age Greece, if not earlier. The portrait of the Cyclops, which for Vico is the model for understanding of divine monarchies that is the first states, could contain traces of memory of Neolithic communities, that is the first agricultural communities. It certainly seems to refer to something preceding the Bronze Age, the taming of horses (therefore the Indo-European expansion into Europe)  and palace civilisation. Even cutting out this last point as speculation, Homeric epic is undoubtedly composed over a long period from the late Bronze Age to the Archaic Age, at least for a period of about 350 years in which Greece underwent a Bronze Age peak with a written language, a ‘dark age’ with no written records, and a new Iron Age literacy. 

Vico offers Homeric epic as a key to understanding a transition from Divine through Heroic to Human ages, corresponding to the movement from the earliest stratified priestly communities to the republics of Greece and Rome at the time when popular assemblies had significant power, which is also a transition from autarchic rural communities to widespread trade and commerce. This has not just disappeared from the human world, but could come again in a new cycle of history. The imagination and sense, which Vico mentions, cannot just vanish from the human world, it must be part of the human world. The human world must be able to reflect on it. 

Homeric poetry is repeated as a stage of history in Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy. More recently James Joyce performed a repetition of  Homer and Vico in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, so that Vico’s arguments for a grand pattern of repetition has inspired its own repetition along with another repetition of Homer. Vico’s own interpretation of Homer looks for evidence of historical stages and historical progress. This partly reflects an Enlightenment separation of literate law governed and commercial societies from barbarism, savagery, myth and the concrete use of language. Like other Enlightenment thinkers, Vico has a sense of the nearness of an earlier age lacking in law and the moderation of commercial societies. For Hume and Smith, this is an awareness of the clannish Highland Scots, held down by the British state after 1745. For Smith, it is sometimes closer to the existence of a civilised state as when he fears the monarchical militarist French as enemies of the republican commercial Dutch. The equivalent in Vico is the uneducated Italian peasant ‘our stubborn peasants, who yield to every reasonable argument put to them, but, because their powers of reflection are weak, as soon as the argument which has moved them leaves their minds, return at once to their original purpose’ (NS 708, Vico 1975, 267)  who could from an earlier age than the time of human monarchies he celebrates. Again, there is a closer danger mingled with civilisation in the aristocratic republics of Venice and German imperial cities (NS 29/Vico 1975, 19). The aristocratic republic, dates back to the age of  heroes, the time of Homer. Enlightenment thinkers may see barbarians as invigorating. That is Montesquieu’s view of the German invasion of Roman lands during the disintegration of the western Roman Empire. 

The need to take something from an earlier age, or at least find an equivalent for it, is another tendency within Enlightenment. Smith hoped that in his time education could replace the military participation of all citizens as a way of giving unity to a commercial society. Rousseau looked back to Ancient Sparta and Rome, without their foundation in slavery. Kant feared the loss of vitality in law governed communities. As Gadamer points out in Truth and Method (1989), Enlightenment itself tends to produce a fascination with what is not Enlightenment, with myth now turned into a power preceding Enlightenment and threatening it. Vico’s view of the return of the earliest stages of human development is more apocalyptic than the other Enlightenment thinkers, maybe with the exception of Adam Ferguson who shares Vico’s basic assumption that history is cyclical. For Vico, return of the divine age, savagery in other Enlightenment thinkers is the collapse of law governed communities into a state of constant violence and disorder. The human age of law and rationality progressively loses its capacity to hold down force, or exclude it, as law supersedes the use of force. In Vico’s case, the myth separated from reason will return in the most absolute and violent way. The fascination with Homer follows from this, since this is the myth which gets us as close as possible to the apocalypse of the return of the divine age. The Homeric epics refer to the later heroic age, but that itself contains traces of the divine age, and is as close as it is possible to get to writing from and on the divine age. Homer’s myth is the opposite of Vico’s own rationalism, a claim to extend the insights of Francis Bacon into the history of human institutions, doing for the knowledge of these institutions what Descartes did for knowledge of nature. It is also infecting Vico’s rationalism since it is the model of knowledge of human institutions. This knowledge must be historical for Vico, it must look at origins so the imaginative universals of Homer are the source of Vico’s own thought about history.

For Vico, in the imaginative universals of Homeric poetry, ‘as Achilles connotes an idea of valour common to all strong men, or Odysseus an idea of prudence common to all wise men’ (NS 403/Vico 1975, 128). His own science is an exploration of the value of heroic valour compared with rational prudence, in which rational prudence necessarily conquers the brutality of heroic valour, but collapses in an explosion of violence, because it lacks the vitality of heroic virtue. Vico’s ‘science’ is itself the application of heroic violence in its elevation of Homer and its insistence on a Homeric template for history. As well as a battle of courage to win acceptance for a new idea of history, it is also a journey of prudent rationality as Vico works out the details and the coherence of this task, which creates a new myth unifying all myths and a new science unifying all human sciences. Myth and reason, courage and prudence, Achilles and Odysseus, heroic and human, poetry and science are all pairs of joined together opposites cohering and destroying each other according to the moment. The return home is a new spiralling moment of history in which the reading of Homer is forever repeated and renewed.


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