Vico’s Prescient Evolutionary Model for Homer

1. Prophet of Modern Oral-Evolutionary Theories

In this essay, I shall be examining the cultural and historical theories of Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), as he applies them to Homer. I shall focus particularly on the daring arguments through which Vico constructs a detailed scientific answer to the so-called “Homeric Question.” He elaborates most fully upon this “revelation” in Book III of Principi di Scienza Nuova d’intorno alla comune natura delle nazioni, known simply as la Scienza Nuova (final version, 1744). Book III of this work is entitled “Discovery of the True Homer” (“Discoverta del vero Omero”). Here, Vico proposes that there has always been an oral-evolutionary mechanism operating in the transmission of Homer. In Vico’s time, when “Homer” was cognitively a literary phenomenon, any notion that the associated poetic corpus was more accurately understood as the telos of a tradition predating literacy could only have been considered revolutionary—to the point of being eccentric. This aspect of Vico’s opus largely explains his intellectual isolation, as well as his constantly frustrated attempts to enhance his own reputation among other Enlightenment thinkers.

Vico’s work is more than theoretical. He verifies his theories by using, inter alia, his own experience of having heard, as a boy, the so-called “Rinaldi singers,” cantastorie (“singers of tales”) who performed on the docks of Naples. In naming his Book III “Discovery of the True Homer,” he virtually guarantees that “Homer” will in the future be treated by most truly incisive scholars as a tradition, rather than as a kind of metonym (or, more accurately, a persona). For the Rinaldi singers were post-Greco-Roman descendants of the archaic Greek aoidoi (as portrayed, e.g., in the Odyssey by Demodokos and Phemios).

Yet in other places, it is clear that Vico’s overall view of European cultural development does not let him argue against the notion of Homer as literature. When he posits archaic “scenes of recitation” (here, I am playing upon the diction of the Deconstructionists, “scenes of writing”), Vico is neither denying the authenticity of nor denigrating Homer the iconic historian who forged the literary/cultural continuum between Greece and Italy. [1] His dual conception of a figure called “Homer” as both an illiterate functionary participating in a succession within an incalculably ancient tradition and a famous author should remind us that despite the control over Homer that contemporary studies of “comparative oral poetics” have exerted, many scholars with sterling credentials can still be found conceiving of “Homer” primarily as arrangements of graphemes rather than of phonemes.

This dualistic approach toward Homer in Vico’s works, in which he seeks to use both contemporary instances and an auctoritas preserving the Greek origins of Roman institutions, was, in my estimation, the original “scientific” exposition of the “Homeric Question,” which eventually led to the Parry-Lord Hypothesis—in the Kierkegaardian sense of muliggjørelse, a “making possible.” I refer specifically to the global oral stage of the preservation of epic throughout countless generations, who were working in many separate places from a basic pan-cultural narrative. The universality with which Vico’s basic paradigm can be applied demands that one adopt a concept of poiēsis that “staves off,” as it were, the necessity of establishing a fixed text. For epic is, in its very nature, changeable (i.e., “evolutionary”).

My inspiration for this study has come from the enthusiasm that Gregory Nagy, Francis Jones Professor of Classics at Harvard University, has shared with me over several years regarding Vico’s insights into the true nature of Homeric transmission. Within Homeric studies, Vico’s appeal for Nagy—and for most Vico specialists, as well—resides in the Neapolitan’s visionary realization, throughout most of his writings on the subject, that the common image of the “blind singer,” as it has come down through the European tradition, is a distortion. Prior to Vico’s time, the image of “Homer” for the most part represented one supreme, universally lionized, yet existentially elusive, “oral poet” who left to posterity a pair of epic masterpieces that were eventually transformed into “texts.” Homer “the author” even provides models for “his” own identity in the Odyssey, where “he creates” scenes in which Phemios and Demodockos are iconic blind singers (aiodoi) whose function is to entertain at an Ithacan and a Phaiakian banquet, respectively. Their geographical and narratological dispersion is a sēma of the pre-literary Panhellenic distribution of kléos. This foundational word, expeditiously rendered as “glory” or “fame,” more accurately designates the song that the archaic Greek heroes aspire to be worthy of having sung about them in perpetuity. I propose that kléos applies equally to the singers themselves. Indeed, this is the direction Nagy takes in Chapter 1 of The Best of the Achaeans:

Though Nagy does not use the word kléos specifically here, he clearly presents Demodokos as representing a “medium of performance” being passed along from one generation of singers to the next. This evolutionary movement would seem to entail the supposition that some singers over the generations are renowned for their superiority to most singers. A term one can reasonably apply to this principle is kléos. That Demodokos has been “groomed” to be a superior singer reminds us of the superiority of certain gúslars, like Avdo Međedović and Ćor Huso, whom A. B. Lord singles out in Singer of Tales. Though a relative few have heard them in person, we have all heard that they were extraordinary. If we accept this as a working principle, then, I argue, kléos by extension can describe the aspirations of those who have, over the centuries, set themselves the task of preserving the literary Homer.

Professor Nagy has said to me, “I find Vico so intuitive.” In this vein, he has written:

Nagy thinks along the same lines as Isaiah Berlin, who heads his chapter titled “The Philosophical Ideas of Giambattista Vico” from his great study Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder (Princeton, 2000) with an 1830 quotation from the French social philosopher Pierre-Simon Ballanche: “Singulière destinée que celle de cet homme! Lui qui fut si intuitif, il sort du tombeau lorsqu’il n’a plus rien à nous dire” (p. 21), which I translate: “What a unique destiny for this man! He was so intuitive, yet he emerges from the grave at a time when he has nothing more to tell us.” [
4] Berlin expresses perhaps the major critical conundrum regarding Vico when he quotes Ballanche, the underestimated French Romantic critic and prophet, trying to pull the rug out from under Vico, the underachieving Italian “pre-Romantic” prophet. Such a characterization of “belatedness” (Harold Bloom’s term), which tacitly acknowledges the discovery of his work in Romantic Age Europe nearly a century after his death, demonstrates how soon Vico’s original Cassandra-like reception became a part of his legacy.

Nagy’s contributions are a distinguished part of a lineage that extends back to the pioneering research of Milman Parry and Nagy’s own mentor, Albert B. Lord; and the font of their empirical studies goes back still further to Ferdinand de Saussure’s vital temporal dichotomy. Nagy has expressed his debt as follows:

In accordance with tendencies Parry and Lord discovered among the South Slavic gúslars, Nagy strives throughout his work to emphasize the fluidity of composition that oral transmission affords, a dynamic that changes once a particular performance is recorded and disseminated. Nagy prefers “reciters” to “singers.” He has remarked:

Just as the Homeric testimony about the performance of epic by singers at feasts belies the synchronic reality of the performance of epic by rhapsodes at festivals, so also the Homeric testimony about the singer’s singing to the accompaniment of the lyre belies synchronic reality of the rhapsode’s reciting without any accompaniment at all.

He provides concrete support for his position in the following note:

In keeping with his loyalty to the sociolinguistic lineage Saussure initiated in Cours de linguistique générale, [
7] Nagy sees the issue as one of cultural memory:

If we interpret Nagy’s paradigm in Saussurean terms, the singing of epic is the “diachronic” langue, or the language of cultural memory, while the recitations of the rhapsodes are the “synchronic” parole, or “state-of-affairs,” as it had evolved at the point of a specific performance. Thus Nagy’s model is both evolutionary and hermeneutic. This model also stresses that what we have as “Homer” is the end-product, as it were, of a complex tradition that began in “the dark backward and abysm of time,” to quote the Bard’s Miranda. It entails the idea that the stasis that inevitably came with literacy was itself manipulated along the way by heads of state (legendarily, the sixth-century Athenian tyrant Peisistratos and his sons) and scholars (most notably those associated with the Alexandrian Library). Nagy’s evolutionary model identifies five “periods”:

(1) a relatively most fluid period, with no written texts, extending from the early second millennium into the middle of the eighth century in the first millennium BCE.

(2) a more formative “Panhellenic” period, still with no written texts, from the middle of the eighth century to the middle of the sixth BCE.

(3) a definitive period, centralized in Athens, with potential texts in the sense of transcripts, at any of several points from the middle of the sixth century BCE to the later part of the fourth BCE; this period starts with the reform of Homeric performance traditions in Athens during the régime of the Peisistratidai.

(4) a standardizing period, with texts in the form of transcripts or even scripts, from the later part of the fourth century to the middle of second BCE; this period starts with the reform of Homeric performance traditions in Athens during the régime of Demetrius of Phalerum, which lasted from 317 to 307 BCE.

In order to place this thesis at the center of my overall argument, I immediately juxtapose a summary that Vico interpolates as an appendix between Books III and IV of la Scienza Nuova:

Vico’s summation contains several elements that anticipate today’s paradigms. By no means do I claim that the contiguity between Vico and Nagy is exact. Yet Vico’s “theological poets, … heroes … [who] sang true and austere fables” clearly describes an irretrievably archaic, illiterate age in which poems were transmitted orally, in a state leading toward Panhellenic dissemination. Furthermore, note that Vico’s language anticipates—dare one even say preformulates?—that of the “creator” of Ossian, James Macpherson, who fooled no less a scientist than Goethe. I suggest that as his tacit evidence, Vico is referring here to what are for him philologically empirical entities, the most obvious one being Achilles in his capacity of aoidós, as described in Scroll IX of the Iliad, as well as Demodokos and Phemios in the Odyssey. Interestingly, in §905 Vico differentiates the heroes themselves from later personages he calls “heroic poets” who, in the process of retelling the original m thoi, “altered and corrupted” them. “Corrupted” is a value judgment connected with Vico’s ancillary yet crucial premise that European acculturation involved a kind of downward spiral, represented semiotically by words he applies both to Homeric characters and early states of Greco-Roman culture, e.g., “vulgar,” “barbarian,” and “primitive.”

Vico’s treatment of Homer in Book III as an oral poet, however, invites a modification, because it de-emphasizes the Homeric function of historical authority that prevails throughout Book II. Thus for Book III, if we gloss “corrupted” with a more analytic definition such as “mutated through an inevitable process of distribution and consequent re-formation,” Vico’s perspective resembles Nagy’s first two periods quite closely. Observe that in Vico’s scheme here “Homer” is not a starting-point for epic, but rather represents an intermediary stage in the transmission process. This perspective is very modern, indeed. In my view, it really sets Vico apart from his contemporaries. Two restrictions on this pioneering aspect of Vico’s model apply. The first is that his ideas on Homer cannot truly be considered to be based on the Greek, since he apparently knew Homer mainly through the Medieval Latin translations of spurious accounts of the Trojan War by the first-century CE Greek authors Dares and Dictys. This limitation on his conception of Homer goes far to explain why he tries so hard to supersede the debate that was taking place in Europe, which concentrated on Homer’s literary merits vis-à-vis those of the “Moderns.” To look at it a positive way, Vico’s lack of interest in a Homeric “text” per se separates him from such figures as Richard Bentley and Alexander Pope, ironically freeing him to move in the direction of considering the “epic singer” as a cultural phenomenon.

A second caveat to the notion that Vico’s ideas prefigure modern paradigms concerns the irony that his revolutionary treatment of Homer does not follow from the “Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns,” but is simultaneous with it. Joseph Mali has alluded to this element in Vico’s work, observing that “the contest … between the professors and the priests [concerning Vico’s posthumous reputation] was similar to the one in which Vico himself participated, that between the Ancients and Moderns over Homer.” [11] The present study explores this aspect of the Scienza Nuova, which as Mali epitomizes it here, is manifest but general, as the very platform of Vico’s originality. Consider, for example, this assessment from Kirsti Simonsuuri:

Simonsuuri is right to say that Vico’s work signals a shift in focus from contests over literary superiority to anthropological issues. In a curious way, it all amounts to a kind of “renaming.” Between 1690 and 1795, the focus of the polemic in Europe shifted from a general Quarrel over whether Homer was somehow “purer” than, say, Shakespeare or Descartes, to the Question of whether there ever really was one “Homer” and what kind of primitive society might have produced such a type. Later, I present other opinions echoing this view, which (as is implicit from my linking of Vico and Nagy) I basically share. The caveat is that it is a mistake to draw too sharp a line between Vico and his contemporaries.

The consensus has been that Vico’s conception of Homer as it appears primarily in Book III of the Scienza Nuova stands apart from the “Quarrel,” in that he promulgated it to serve grander, more original purposes. Clearly influenced by Vico’s own arguments (principally in the Autobiografia and the Scienza Nuova), scholars have generally shown him the courtesy of approving his strategy of using his copious ideas on Homer as evidence supporting his historical theories. An outstanding example of this perspective is Leon Pompa’s detailed analysis. While claiming that Vico fundamentally conceived of Homer as a philosopher, Pompa states as follows about the poet’s place in the work’s overall argument:

Here Pompa’s assertions about Vico’s understanding of Homer suggest a general affinity with the Parry-Lord Hypothesis. The first is that, properly understood, “Homer” is not to be thought of as an individual, but rather as the record of “communal modes of thought and attitude which are the products of the history of its own institutional developments”; he thus echoes Simonsuuri’s phrase “collective mind.” Pompa’s synopsis of Vico could well have served to introduce Nagy’s five-stage model. Following from this hermeneutic formulation is his corollary point that Vico realized the Iliad and the Odyssey are most accurately conceived of as temporally separate linguistico-cultural products, and that hence, each epic as we have it is the “end-result” of a separate set of performances by a separate set of performers. This conclusion, too, harmonizes with Nagy’s framework. Pompa’s intermediate assertion that Vico’s theory differentiates unequivocally between “Homer and the rhapsodes” is the least defensible on the ambiguous evidence. Nevertheless, if we accept the idea that Vico does make such a distinction implicitly, it would fall right in with Nagy’s framework.

There is some disagreement over when this controversy actually started. I was surprised, for instance, to find Robert Fowler claiming the following:

The remainder of his article is a survey of current theories on how and when the Iliad and Odyssey may have been composed, transmitted, and “written down.” The “anticipations” Fowler mentions evidently include the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century arguments that form the backdrop of my own study, though he refers to them only elliptically. I point out that, contrary to Fowler’s implication, the “modern debate” began well before 1788, though admittedly in a rudimentary form. It actually had its roots in the Renaissance, and was “all the rage” by 1715–1720—the dates of the serial publication of Pope’s Iliad. I agree that the fresh availability in 1791 of a more “reliable” Homeric text (i.e., Venetus Marcianus Graecus 454) led to breakthroughs that would make modern theories “possible.”


[ back ] 1. One example suffices to illustrate what I mean. In Homer, Aeneas is a relatively minor Trojan. But Augustus sought literary validation of Hellenic origins for Roman culture, so Vergil gave Aeneas, a founder of Rome, the pietas of someone with far more gravitas (to use a currently popular political term) than the Homeric Aeneas possessed.

[ back ] 2. G. Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (Baltimore; rev. ed., 1999), 16.

[ back ] 3. G. Nagy, Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter (Cambridge, MA, 1974), 11.

[ back ] 4. Ballanche’s disdainful “il n’a rien plus à nous dire” may seem gratuitous, unless we remember that the historian Jules Michelet “imported” Vico into French literature with an abridged translation of the Scienza Nuova. It was published in 1824, three years before Victor Hugo’s Romantic play Cromwell. Hugo’s declaration in his ebulliently late-coming, doctrinaire “Préface” that “la poésie a trois âges” leaves no doubt that Michelet’s Vico impressed him.

[ back ] 5. Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens (Cambridge, MA, 2002), 3.

[ back ] 6. “Early Greek Views of Poets and Poetry,” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 1, ed. G. A. Kennedy (Cambridge, 1993), 6, with note. In making this distinction between reciting and singing, Nagy inadvertently gives his imprimatur to Walt Whitman, who in his great 1879 “Death of Lincoln” speech proclaimed: “Why, if the old Greeks had had this man, what trilogies of plays—what epics—would have been made out of him! How the rhapsodes would have recited him!” This word-choice is particularly significant coming from the author of “As I Ponder’d in silence,” from Leaves of Grass (1855), in which Whitman refers directly (in lines 8–11) to the Iliad:

What singest thou? it said;
Know’st thou not, there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?
And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers?

It is noteworthy that there is no definitive edition of Leaves of Grass, because Whitman continued to revise it for some time. I propose that this “open-endedness” is Whitman’s mímēsis of the special creative capacities of oral epic. He doubtless would have received Nagy’s concept of “(re-) composition in performance” most enthusiastically. Moreover, I juxtapose these two Whitman quotes as evidence that the “sing / recite” ambiguity is quite detectable in the Homeric reception history.

[ back ] 7. This book, published posthumously in 1916 by C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, is actually a compilation of lectures Saussure delivered at the University of Geneva between 1906 and 1911.

[ back ] 8. Nagy, “Early Greek Views” (n. 6 above), 7.

[ back ] 9. Plato’s Rhapsody (n. 5 above), 6. This chronology modifies the one Nagy presents in Homeric Quest ions (Austin, TX, 1996), 41ff. The inclusion of “scripts” and “scripture” in the more recent (2002) version emphasizes the rhapsodic, relatively fixed, “authoritative” quality of the Homeric “text” to which the Platonic Socrates reacts, notably in the Ion; Books Three and Ten of the Republic; and the references to “performance-as-relay” in the pseudo-Platonic Hipparchus.

[ back ] 10. The New Science of Giambattista Vico, trans. T. G. Bergin and M. H. Frisch (New York, 1988), 295. I shall be referring to this standard edition throughout. Hereafter, I shall not cite by the page; initial numbers refer to paragraphs. Except where indicated, I cite the translation verbatim.

[ back ] 11. J. Mali, The Rehabilitation of Myth: Vico’s ‘New Science’ (Cambridge, 1994), 267.

[ back ] 12. K. Simonsuuri, Homer’s Original Genius: Eighteenth-Century Notions of the Early Greek Epic, 1688–1798 (Cambridge, 1979), 90 (from chap. 7: “Vico’s Discovery of the True Homer”).

[ back ] 13. L. Pompa, Vico: A Study of the New Science, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1990), 139.

[ back ] 14. R. Fowler, “The Homeric Question,” in The Cambridge Companion to Homer, ed. R. Fowler (Cambridge, 2004), 220.