Kierkegaard, Irony, Narrative, and the Ethics of Literature

My latest post at the group blog NewAPPS

This is in part a followup to a post from two weeks ago on irony. Irony is the object of Kierkegaard’s first major work, The Concept of Irony, and then disappears from view as a direct object of discussion in Kierkegaard’s writings. That is not to say that irony disappears from Kierkegaard, but the criticisms of Romantic Irony in The Concept of Irony give an indication of why Kierkegaard did not want to take irony as a maor theme, which is that the Romantic understanding (referring to the Jena Romantics in the last few years of the 18th century)

of irony leads towards a self-destructive subjectivity. The irony cannot be understood as just belonging in literary texts, including Socratic dialogues, but must be thought of as the way in which the subject communicates itself. As a matter of the history of ideas, this is to some degree a reference to the way that the Romantic Ironists were drawing on Fichte’s ideas of subjectivity in the first two editions of the Wissenschaftslehre (often, but misleadingly, known in English as The Science of Knowledge).

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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

Vico and the Nineteenth Century 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.

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Vico sets up a way of thinking about literature as embedded in the tension between a supposedly divine aristocracy and and cyclopean plebeians, which is certainly how Vico regards the plebeians at the beginning of the heroic (Homeric) stage of history . So the tensions in the novel since Cervantes that Vico should lead us to appreciate are those between: upper and lower classes; different levels of status and power in general; customs from the past and new laws; the divine and the bestial within humans; the poetic and the true in language; diverse individuality and national unity; unstable passion and abstract thought .

Stendhal’s portrait of Restoration France, after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, in The Red and the Black [183o], is one of the core novels in defining the genre.  It draws attention to the ways in which the novel can both provide a moral-sentimental critique of the cruelties of the old upper class, the remnants of hero-barbarians of the time, and promotes new heroes who maybe be more contemptuous of the mores of the people, more egotistical and impulsively violent, more passionate and imaginative than the ruling class, so that some qualities of the ‘heroes’ are attached to outsider upstarts like Stendhal’s hero, Julien Sorel. So the Red and the Black is not some exemplary proof of the correctness of a Viconian schema, but an example of how forces In Vico’s account both structure and destabilise Stendhal’s novel.

Putting the example of The Red and the Black in context, he expansion of the novel as a form coincides with national consciousness, and Stendhal was concerned with the tension between backward royalism and national emancipation. The accompanying element  of aristocratic disdain for a commercial and plebeian world, a disdain that tends to be associated with passionate generosity in , cuts across the background assumption that the aristocratic privileges of Restoration Europe rest on mediocre cloning to old forms. T


he element of stimulus to nationalism, as in Walter Scott’s novels of  England and Scotland during recent upheavals and in the Medieval past, always containing some nostalgia for the lost world of the Middle Ages and the Scottish Highlands before they were fully incorporated into the British state following the failed Jacobite Uprising of 1745. That is novels such as Ivanhoe, Heart of Midloathian and Waverley, which influence the European novel and that nationalism of European peoples. That is it influenced a new politics which in significant part rested on nostalgia for a pure and traditional time.  

That situation of an ambiguous even paradoxical unity between the desire for lost tradition and a politics new in history, finds some explanation in the way that Vico seems the Homeric epics as the expression and construction of  national Greek identity through a nostalgia for a lost age before the Greek Dark Age of the early part of the first millennium BCE. Of course Greek nation state was created in antiquity, but Homer fostered a common consciousness which enabled gatherings of Greeks at the Olympic games, a common resort to the Delphic Oracle, and some degree of unity against Persia during two attempted invasions by that empire, followed by a rather late form of unity against Macedonian domination, which only led to allying with Rome and becoming part of that empire, but was  in its fragmentary way an indication of the power of literature as memory on new political structures.

The issue of the novel as national in a way which is both aristocratic nostalgic and bourgeois democratic will be explored later with regard to Georg Lukács’ more Marxist phase, particularly in The Historical Novel (1969). For modern nationalism, Manzoni’s The Betrothed in Vico’s Italy, was a historic novel on the Scott model, usually held to be part of the cultural background to the Risorgimento. Manzoni was familiar with Vico, one of many full circles that appear when thinking of how to use Vico in discussing the novel, in that the practitioners of the novel sometimes had some familiarity with Vico that helped shape their fictions. Vico did not only analyse the novel without intending do, he also shaped the future of the novel.

More on the philosophy and literature theme coming soon

More Historical Ambiguity in Vico as Background to the Emergence of the Novel in a Human World

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.

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The most basic aspect of the understanding of the history of civil institutions in the New Science is the three stage structure of history, which could also be said to be a four stage history, appropriately for a book that both creatively and frustratingly keeps pushing at the limits of its own declared structure. The first stage is the divine world of pre-urban communities of those who have left forests that cover the Earth. They are giants whose communities are loosely composed of family communities with no more than token central authority.

Vico is alluding to the idea that the earliest communities emerged from the forests after Genesis style floods, before which there were the kind of human communities described in Genesis, before the time of Noah. That of course suggests another stage other than the given four in a first history before great floods, but Vico has little to say about that. Apart from referring to the way history started, or restarted, after the great floods, Vico is thinking of the next beginning of history, which was western and central Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west.

How the Eastern Roman Empire fits in, which became known as the Byzantine Empire, though it is more properly known as Romania (land of the Romans), and survived for another 1000 years, or as a major state maybe for another 700 years, past the mid-fifth century collapse in the west  is  not at all clear, but again the oddities are a part of Vico’s creativity. Anyway, the ‘barbarian’ invaders of the west seem to be taken as analogues for the pre-urban ur-communities, but that would rely only fit at all with relation to communities still in the German forests, and that is maybe what Vico means.

The emergence of states initially under the leadership of the German invaders in the Iberian peninsula, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria, and in more fleeting way north Africa brings those regions in a world of hero-aristocrats. The initial appearance of the hero-aristocrats in the first cycle of history is associated by Vico with the kings and heroes of Homer, and that association is at the centre of the New Science. He also regards the History of Rome by Titus Livius Patavinus (Livy) as a source on the heroic age, and thereby equates the Rome of the early kings and the early patrician phase of the republic, with the kingdoms of Mycenaean Greece. Again the reader is left with a sense of anachronism (in the original meaning) and again it works remarkably well for thinking about the historical stage in which very militaristic aristocrats dominate states, and regard the lower classes, as close to animals or as internal enemies.

The next stage is the democratic-human age, which is approached largely through the more democratic phases of the Greek and Roman republics. Carthage is also mentioned and that is one reason for not thinking of Vico as just an advocate of the centrality of Graeco-Roman antiquity, though he can lean in that direction. The human age itself divides into two phases, which is source of the three or four dilemma in counting Vico’s stages. The human age achieves democratic institutions, but the gatherings of citizens become disorderly and riven between factions. That s why a human monarchy appears, which of course makes Vico confusing to the new reader, for the reason that he refers to kings from the divine and barbaric age, though he thinks of these as having limited power on behalf of the very disordered class of heroic nobles, all convinced of their connection with the gods, along with the absolute importance of hanging onto land and privilege, in relation to each other, the plebeians, and external enemies.

The human kings are more absolute and more concerned with the rights of all and the harmony of the community. They resolves fights about the meanings of laws between patricians and plebeians, and factions with those groups, through a very contextual and flexible activity as judges. The model clearly is the Roman Emperors, who were the supreme judicial authority and were indeed sometimes extremely diligent in resolving the legal claims of citizens high and low. Returning to the second cycle of history, Vico thinks of the knights of the middle ages as like the Homeric heroes, with city saints reviving the religious distinctions of pagan antiquity between the gods of different communities.

The literature of chivalry is equated with Homer and Livy, Le Chanson de Roland serving as the main example. A more human age then merges as kings consolidate powers over independent minded knights and aristocrats, launch wars against Muslims in Iberia and the Middle East, and revive Roman law. The last aspect is a process which relies on the survival of some understanding of Roman law in Italy, which Vico acknowledges, but not the role of the second Rome in Constantinople, where Justinşan decreed the greatest gathering and codification of Roman law. How all this fits into the cycles of history, and apparent apocalyptic end of history in the fifth century is not discussed much, but presumably should lead us to think of each cycle leaving traces for the next cycle, rather than terminating in complete annihilation.

The consequence of the new knowledge and development of Roman law is more clearly defined rights, known more widely, for all, which are enforced with increasing energy and power by kings. Again another problem with the stages emerges as Vico does not have much to say about the human-democratic phases as distinct from what should be the later stage of kings who can claim to be democratic-human in inspiration, though making solo decisions. One of those who might be of interest to him as a human-democratic leader is Cola di Rienzo, the popular Roman leader of the fourteenth century, however, Vico dismisses hşm as barbaric and childish. Anyway the urban politics of traders, bankers, and guilds in the Middle Ages is presumably what Vico thinks of as the democratic pre-monarchical phase of the second historical cycle.

He might be thinking of the polities of Florence and other Italian city states in Machiavelli’s time, particularly as Machiavelli had a positive view of the role of the plebeians in Roman republican history, largely based on his interpretation of Livy in the Dicourses on the First Decalogue of Titus Livius. Of course Vico was not likely to say anything that could be taken as praise of Machiavelli’s political thought, living under the Naples branch of the Inquisition, as well as depending on patronage of members of he church hierarchy. In any case, this seems a bit late, since Vico associates the rise of ‘human kings’ with the crusades to the Holy Lands beginning in the eleventh century, though he could also be referring to the Reconquista in Iberia, which had its first, if small, success shortly after the eighth century Moorish invasion. So the space for the repeated human democracy before the human-democratic monarchs seems to vanish. Vico was living under an absolute monarchy in Naples and was perhaps very wary publishing anything, which might be taken to hint at an alternative democratic tradition to the monarchical tradition, in Europe since the Middle Ages. The urban politics of city state, and even cities within kingdoms since these other had some kind of corporate self-management is I propose the second human-democratic world, though as ever the chronology and succession of stages is full of overlaps and ambiguities.

More on the philosophy and literature theme coming soon

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.

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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

Philosophy of the Novel: Vico’s Influence and Method

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 

This post is continuous from the last post 

Vico’s influence has not only been on thinkers about aesthetics, history, politics, and society, but also to some major novelists, including Fyodor Dostoevsky in the nineteenth century and James Joyce in the twentieth century, a topic that will return in chapter 10 with regard to Joyce’s novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. That influence on literature means that sometimes literary criticism influenced by Vico is looking at texts themselves influenced by Vico.

On the literary critical side, the German literary critic Erich Aeurbach, best known for Mimesis. The importance of his work on the novel makes him the basis of chapter nine of the this book, so as with the very last chapter, Vico will return through the topic of his influence.  Other examples of Vico’s influence on the philosophical and theoretical aspects of the humanities include  Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and historian of discourse, who will be referred to later, did not refer to Vico much directly, but the direct references are very rich in implication, and suggest much indirect reference. His brief comments on Joyce are an example of a Vico influenced theorist who discusses a Vico influenced novelist. Edward Said, himself affected by both Auerbach and Foucault, addressed Vico’s place for literary and cultural thought, and he will be considered as a successor figure to Auerbach in chapter nine. Hans-Georg Gadamer discusses Vico in his major work Truth and Method. Jacques Derrida makes brief reference to Vico in Of Grammatology, and wrote a couple of essays on Joyce again giving us the circle of philosophy and literature that arises from a philosopher influenced by Vico, himself influenced by Homer, who comments on a Vico influenced novelist, particularly in the case of Joyce who was deeply engaged with Homer in Ulysses. Again given their importance for aesthetic and literary critical thinking, they will be considered later, partly with reference to their approach to Vico.

In the beginning of the New Science, ‘Idea of the Work’, Vico sets up his claims about  the beginnings of civil institutions and his own approach to studying them, through commentary on a  picture, that serves as a frontispiece to the book.  Here Vico refers to a lady with winged temples. The temples here means the upper part of the two sides of the head. This lady stands on a sphere which is the world of nature and she is ‘metaphysics’.

Metaphysic looks at God with ecstasy and stands above the order of natural institutions, that is the world of nature. It is through nature that philosophers have previously  observed God. Vico is signalling that his position is that of the lady who is metaphysics, and that he is making a new start in philosophy by referring to legal institutions rather than nature. Metaphysics looks at the world of human minds in observing God. God’s providence is applied to the world of human spirits which is the civil world, world of nations. That is the metaphysical world. The world of nations comprises institutions symbolised by hieroglyphs at the bottom of the picture.

It is important for Vico that the jewel worn by metaphysic is convex (curves so that light spread out from it) and not flat. A flat jewel symbolises the private illumination from intellectual and moral institutions which has been the basis of previous philosophy. The convex jewel symbolises metaphysics which knows that knowledge of God’s providence comes through public moral institutions and civil customs which are the basis of the existence and continuity of nations. The ray from God reflected from the jewel worn by metaphysics goes down to a statue of Homer, referred to by Vico as the first gentile author, that is the first author other than the authors of the Hebrew Bible. So Vico’s commentary on an image includes an explanation of why Homeric epic is at the centre of the understanding of human institutions.

Vico does not have much to say directly  visual communication for most of the book, except in the sense that he thinks ‘divine’ and ‘heroic’ languages have a visual element. Divine language is also the language of the gentes (first communities) and is mute, communicating through objects and signs (New Science, section 32) The divine stage of history for Vico is period between early humans leaving the forest and creating communities, but before they create cities. He thinks of it as a community of patriarchal families, which are themselves really despotic little kingdoms in loose aggregation. His models for this include Polyphemos and the other Cyclopes in The Odyssey, and underling that is probably some interest in the passages in the Politics where Aristotle refers to a kind of bare existence and the pre-civilised life of the cyclopes. However, Vico’s examples of divine language don’t always seem to fit this, as when he frequently refers to Egyptian hieroglyphics (New Science, section 32).

More on this topic coming soon

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

Thoughts on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: Horror, Kingship, Hospitality and Lucretius

The picture of human existence in Agamemnon, is of suffering. It is suggested that humans only become wise through suffering, but even more darkly that human happiness leads to disaster and downfall. The idea of a following a middle course of avoiding extremes appears, and idea particularly associated with Aristotle among ancient thinkers, but the idea is present throughout antique philosophy and culture that self-restraint and moderation are at the heart of happiness, the good life and ethics. Good fortune seems to lead to bad fortune, as it seems inevitable that humans will make bad decisions so that good fortune will become the instrument of bad fortune. Good fortune, at the extreme, may attract the malevolent interest of divine forces, which always wish to keep things within proportion and are even jealous of greatness. There is a suggestion that to be a king necessarily attracts that divine jealousy. Those who live in palaces will be noticed by divine forces and punished for standing out too much. Aeschylus is writing at a time when there are no kings in Athens, and the Greeks generally  have adopted some kind of sharing as power in most cases.  For Aristotle a good king has something divine about him, a man of really exceptional goodness would be like a god and would have to be king. By the time Aristotle is writing the Macedonian monarchy, with which he was associated, has established hegemony over Greece, including Athens. Aeschylus died before the birth of Philip II who established that Macedonian monarchy. It is useful to remember that Aristotle’s own comments on Greek tragedy are separated from the time of the great tragedies. The tragedies themselves refer to an even bigger gap in time, the gap between classical Greece, and Bronze Age Greece, or Mycenaean palace civilisation. Between Bronze Age Greece and Classical Greece there is the Greek Dark Ages and Archaic Greece, which produced the Homeric epics, to which the tragedians refer. So the tragedians use this lost age to approach issues of a world which no longer exists, but also in someway that are present in classical antiquity. One message of the time is that concentration of power in one person, or in one family leads to disaster.

The ethics in the tragedies is partly one of avoiding pollution. Clytemnestra creates a pollution that has to be expelled from the community when she murders her husband. Her polluting act is itself a response to an earlier polluting act, Agamemnon sacrificing their daughter. That Clytemnestra is acting out of revenge is not regarded as an extenuating factor in the play. There must  be some sympathy created in the audience, but as the audience was  mostly if not entirely male, there must be a predominant fear and hatred of the woman who pollutes her family and her community by murdering her husband. Her act serves divine vengeance but demands an act of vengeance itself, which the play indicates will come from Orestes, the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. Her adultery with Aegisthus who plans to seize the throne increases the revulsion for the original audience. Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter is itself presented as criminal and polluting, even as madness.There is a complete loss of the general moderation apparently endorsed by Aeschylus. Again, his act serves divine purposes but is in no way excused by that. There is background to that act of madness in the preceding murderous violence within the House of Atreus and the crime of the Trojan prince in seducing the wife of King Menelaus. That is an example of the good fortune which leads to bad fortune, since Menelaus’ happiness with Helen is doomed to be replaced  by the devastation of her departure . There is the suggestion that the greatest good fortune must come from crime, and so must be polluting with catastrophic consequences. If not the crime of that person, then the crime of an ancestor which in this case is Atreus, father of Menelaus and Agamemnon.  The form of tragedy is to show how excess happiness comes from polluting crime and leads to downfall. Clytemnestra’s happiness at killing Agamemnon is just an extreme example of this. These errors of judgement which are so intense they are acts of madness are compared with the failure to understand nature, like the shepherd who looks after a lion cub unit the cub becomes a full grown lion that attacks the shepherd.

The reason for launching a huge navy to take a Greek army to Troy is the breach of laws of hospitality and friendship committed by Paris when he seduced Helen and took her to Troy. The bonds of hospitality and friendship are of extreme importance in the societies of the time of Aeschylus. Friendship is a major aspect of ethics for Aristotle, though in this he is abstracting from customary codes which we can see in the Homeric epics, where hospitality and friendship are among the deep issues. Troy shares the guilt of Paris, because King Priam shelters both him and Helen. The breach of hospitality and friendship, including familial ties, is at issue when Agamemnon returns to his palace in Argos to be murdered by his cousin, who has become the lover of this wife. The Paris-Helen adulterous coupling has been replaced by Aegisthus-Clytemnestra. Agamemnon finds himself the victim of inhospitality in his own home which has become a hostile place in his absence. Clytemnestra appears to offer the most extreme hospitality, treating him like a Persian king (an anachronism since Persians do not appear in the Homeric world). The play rests on the destruction of royal families, containing the suggestion that all kings are by nature of the role excessive, going beyond bounds, so inviting some kind of divine attack. Agamemnon is presented as a consultative law abiding king, so maybe a resisting excess. Clytemnestra’s attempted transformation of him in absolutist king is part of his destruction. The message seems to be that kingship is an excessive form of power, perhaps mitigated by respect for law and consultation, but definitely ripe for destruction when it goes beyond those bounds.

The destruction of the king is part of  vision of human life. The destruction has a dream like aspect, foreseen by Cassandra (the salve woman and prophetess from Troy) whose visions mingle the slaying of Agamemnon, Atreus murdering the sons of Thyestes, and the total violence of the fall of Troy, which consumes everyone including babies. The chorus early on suggests that life becomes vague, something like a dream in old age. Menelaus is reported to have such a state after his loss of Helen. Human existence stands on an abyss of horror which emerges in the dream like vision of the old, the grief stricken and those who communicate with the gods.

The killing of Agamemnon is preceded by Clytemnestra treating him as a very exalted king, which disturbs Agamemnon since he thinks that exaltation makes him like a Persian king, not a Greek king who follows law and consults his people. He is a model of kingship from that point of view, though the play at least once indicates that his murder of his daughter did not even serve the purpose it was supposed to satisfy of bringing a wind to take the Greek ships to Troy, something to be achieved by a sacrifice to Artemis. Towards the end of the pay, this act is presented as done to appease the superstition of his men and not as a cruel necessity imposed by the gods. It may be this passage that Lucretius is thinking of in On Nature when he refers to overcoming the superstitious fear that led to the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

Philosophical Beginnings of Early Modern Literature

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

If we look at the emergence of modern literature in France and Britain, we could just as much talk about its origins in works of philosophy, and moral commentary, as in the historical development of literary genres.

Does any ‘purely’ literary figure contribute more to the emergence of French literature than Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère? A case could be put for Rabelais, but in any case we cannot talk about French literature without talking about these philosophers and moralists. In the case of la Rochefoucauld, we could even see the relations between moral reflections and literature through his private relationship with Madame de La Fayette and his friendship with Madame de Sévigné. The most significant thing is that we can see a big contribution in La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims towards literary style and towards an informal theory of the passions which establishes the themes of French literature.

Literature and philosophy seem less obviously entwined in Britain, if critics put Shakespeare in a philosophical context, they tend to bring in Montaigne. But let us consider the following.

The contribution made to English style by Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke.

The sense in Bacon and Hobbes the existence of the arts depends on the existence of sovereignty, law and the state.

Bacon’s use of utopian fiction in New Atlantis. Bacon’s emphasis on an orientation of the self towards the truth in nature and away from distracting idols. That seems to lead in the direction of an anti-rhetorical abstract philosophical language, but it is also the story of a dramatic struggle of the self with distraction. There is a historical and personal account of the orientation necessary for nature to reveal itself. That account includes the supremacy of law, instituted by a state.

For Hobbes, the existence of the arts depends on the existence of the covenant and the artificial man of the state. He believes in the truth of pure reasoning, but finds it necessary to resort to rhetoric to communicate his truths (as Quentin Skinner has pointed out at considerable length). The covenant and the artificial man is explain in the picture of the giant man made up of smaller people, and discussion of personation in drama and law.

In Hume, Smith and Burke we get theories of taste which incorporate permanent physiological sensation and changeable sociable agreement. Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, has a rhythm governed by the moves from sensation to sociability and back again. Hume offers a theory of the mind as passions, and a theory of taste in which passions are understood as physiological and as formed by the evolution of social agreement. These ambiguities about sensation and sociability enter into Smith’s discussion of taste, of moral sentiments and his discussion of natural and non-natural order in the development of different forms of wealth (as I discussed in a post of 16th August 2009). These are ambiguities about the sentiments, how they affect each other and how they are affected by the external social and natural worlds. Al very germane to the literature of the time.

We might look at early modern British philosophy, as more than the establishment of an epistemological tradition, theories about how ideas of things relate to sensations of things and those things themselves, in which Locke on knowledge of physical is the defining discussion. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but there is a lot to be said for considering other frames, and placing Locke himself in that frame.

Link: Philosophy and Literature Podcast

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

‘Philosophy and Literature’ with Lanier Anderson on Philosophy Talk presented by Ken Taylor and John Perry. Ken Taylor and John Perry of Stanford University are regular presenters of podcasts on Philosophy Talk which are also broadcast on Sunday mornings by the San Francisco Unified School District radio station KALW.

In this podcast from 9th August 2009, they take a very user friendly approach to discussing links between philosophy and literature. The podcast starts with the Monty Python sketch in which someone comments on Thomas Hardy writing a novel like a sporting event. Amongst a lot of informality and jokes, Taylor and Perry have a conversation with Anderson about philosophy as literature and literature as philosophy. The user friendly emphasis does break down the topic in to some clear points, which I find very helpful even after many years of thinking about philosophy and literature. The topics that come up are literature as mental simulation, literature as pretense, how we can have emotional reactions to pretense, imagining ourselves as characters, the psychology of morality including the psychology of evil, philosophical communication through genres like dialogue and aphorism, humans as narrating creatures, how philosophy now is less literary than a lot of the philosophical classics.