Vico’s Prescient Evolutionary Model for Homer

2. Vico’s Homeric Ékphrasis

What, exactly, is Vico hoping to accomplish by including his perspective on the Homeric Question in his historical argument in the Scienza Nuova? At first blush, the subject of Homer does not fit that naturally within his greater forensic framework (cf. Aristotle’s ideal, as he expresses it in the opening of the Poetics, 1447a10: legômen … kata phusin, “let us discourse … in accordance with nature”). That this component does not appear until Book III, after he has put forward other major parts of his theory, surprises the reader; it seems like an anomaly, despite references to Homer that Vico makes in the preliminary “Principles” section. In Books I and II, he has already established a Weltanschauung predicated on certain ideas that do not depend at all on “re-evaluating” Homer per se.

To explore this problem, I now consider the Scienza Nuova’s ecphrastic “trigger,” to invoke Penelope Wilson’s metaphor. She uses this term, to characterize the (ostensibly) unenthusiastic reaction that early eighteenth-century English audiences had to Pope’s rendition of the Iliad. She contends that Pope’s seeming to ignore the Greek and, as it were, to paraphrase Homer produced a generally unfavorable reception:

It is an oddity of literary history that in giving voice so consummately in some ways to the “group-consciousness of an age” [quoting E. M. W. Tilyard] Pope’s version of Homer quickly becomes a trigger for its own stylistic rejection, and for a movement variously back to the Greek (for those who could manage it), to the literal, or to Chapman. [1]

Pope’s crisis becomes Vico’s opportunity. His “new science” is bundled up within gradual “improvements” to his ur-text, the 1725 edition. Pope the professional poet had made the decision to “Englysshe” Homer to the tastes of the general reading public, forgoing scrupulous attention to the Greek, of he which he did not have a true philologist’s command. [

Vico the historian (who was also ostensibly ignorant of Greek—see below) seeks to establish a basis for asserting the historical existence of a heretofore legendary bard. In other words, this is Vico’s opportunity to establish a reputation in the European scientific community. His “trigger” is his argument for a historical carattere, a pan-European bardic type.

Vico did not get the position; nonetheless, the proto-form of the Scienza Nuova persisted. Verene comments:

Homer remained integral when Vico altered the thrust of his system to de-emphasize law and refocus on European cultural history. He commissioned an engraving for the dipintura of the 1725 edition, which he hoped would establish the scope of his argument before he elaborated it. As a precedent, he cited an ancient text:

Quale Cebete tebano fece delle morali, tale noi qui diamo a vedere una Tavola delle cose civili, la quale serva al leggitore per concepire l’idea di quest’opera avanti di leggerla, e per ridurla più facilmente a memoria, con tal aiuto che gli somministri la fantasia, dopo di averla letta.

§1. As Cebes the Theban made a table of moral institutions, we offer here one of civil institutions. We hope it may serve to give the reader some conception of the work before he reads it, and, with such aid as imagination may afford, to call it back to mind after he has read it.

Superficially, Vico is establishing that his work will set out in a carefully rationalistic form the history of, in his parlance, “gentile” social practices. Vico makes use of a double entente, since “table” (tavola) can also be translated by the French cognate tableau, in the sense of “picture.” Giuseppe Mazzotta has noted that, as innovative as the device may seem, it has substantial precedents:

To interpret the iconography justly, one should supplement Mazzotta’s reference to Vico’s awareness of the emblematic “convention” with the observation that the frontispiece and its accompanying explanation represent Vico’s effort to show that he was familiar with the new instruments archeology and textual criticism (philology) that were revolutionizing classical scholarship; as Joseph Levine comments:

The frontispiece represents more than an attempt to link it with late Renaissance philosophy. Vico also has created a propaedeutic vehicle from which he can perform an ékphrasis—i.e., an aetiological narrative of an ad hoc yet nominally familiar set of icons. The obvious fons et origo of this device is Homer’s own ékphrasis: Achilles’ Shield at Iliad 18.410–617. But one must not stop here, for, true to his habitual simultaneous dependence on the modes of antiquity and involvement in the Quarrel, Vico’s referential strategy places him in the mainstream that began with late Renaissance aesthetics, and serves as a springboard for his goal of developing a Scienza Nuova. Homer’s own central importance in this ékphrasis is plain. Vico states:

Lo stesso raggio si risparge da petto della metafisica nella statua d’Omero, primo autore della gentilità che ci sia pervenuto, perché, in forza della metafisica (la quale si è fatta da capo sopra una storia dell’idee umane, da che cominciaron tal’uomini a umanamente pensare), si è da noi finalmente disceso nelle menti balorde de’ primi fondatori delle nazioni gentili, tutti robustissimi sensi e vastissime fantasie; e—per questo istesso che non avevan altro che la sola facultà, e pur tutta stordita e stupida, di poter usare l’umana mente e ragione—da quelli che se ne sono finor pensati si truovano tutti contrari, nonché diversi, i princìpi della poesia dentro i finora, per quest’istesse cagioni, nascosti principi della sapienza poetica, o sia la scienza de’ poeti teologi, la quale senza contrasto fu la prima sapienza del mondo per gli gentili.

§6. The same ray [that is, the all-illuminating ray of Providence] is reflected from the breast of metaphysic onto the statue of Homer, the first pagan [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 pagans [gentili], has enabled us finally to descend into the crude minds of the first founders of the pagan nations, all robust sense and vast imagination [fantasie]. They had only the bare potentiality, and that torpid and stupid, of using the human mind and reason. From that very cause the beginnings of poetry, not only different from but contrary to those which have been hitherto imagined, are found to lie in the beginnings of poetic wisdom, which have from that same cause been hitherto hidden from us. This poetic wisdom, the knowledge of the theological poets, was unquestionably the first wisdom of the world for the pagans.

Vico minces no words about his low opinion of Homer’s heroes. That he was, in this particular, a child of the same epistēmē [
7] as Pope is brought home by the criticism made commonly in Pope’s own day that his Iliad translation was too polished. At all events, the progression Vico is trying to make from the “torpid and stupid” Homeric characters to the “theological poets” is, by contrast, quite obscure at this point.

Possibly the most meaningful (and, to my mind, the funniest) detail in the engraving is the cracked base, which Vico explains thus:

§6 … The statue of Homer on a cracked base signifies the discovery [discoverta, here clearly indicating a revelation] of the true Homer. (In the first edition of the New Science … we sensed it but did not understand it. In the present edition it is fully set forth after due consideration …) Unknown until now, he has held hidden from us the true institutions of the fabulous time among the nations, and much more so those out of the dark time that all had despaired of knowing, [cf. Pope’s characterization of Homeric language, “if there be sometimes a Darkness”] and consequently the first true origins of the institutions of the historic time.

In this little narrative, Vico at one stroke hits upon both the linguistic and the “found object” aspects of the Homeric Question. He makes Homer integral to the “evolutionary model” that serves as the foundation for his theory of history. The connection is sealed at the section’s end when Vico drops a clue to his ulterior purpose, introducing the “three ages,” through which his arguments eventually became so thoroughly cannibalized by more than a few literati not known for their philosophical acumen, e.g., Hugo and Joyce:

… [S]ono gli tre tempi del mondo, che Marco Terenzio Varrone ci lasciò scritto (lo più dotto scrittore delle romane antichità) nella sua grand’opera intitolata Rerum divinarum et humanarum, che si è perduta.

§6 … These are the three times of the world that Marcus Terentius Varro, the most learned writer on Roman antiquities, recorded for us in his great work entitled [The Antiquities] of Divine and Human Institutions …, which has been lost. [Scienza Nuova, 5–6]

Even now, Vico does not wish to stray far from firmly established modes of explication, as his Varro reference reflects. Until recently, I had accepted the consensus of Vichian scholarship that this ékphrasis represented a thoroughly original stroke of genius in which Vico seized upon a worn device and applied it to a purpose that was wholly unique at the time. The particular detail that reinforced this conception was the cracked base of Homer’s statue in the engraving, which I had been interpreting as Vico’s sēma indicating that the general view of who Homer was had hitherto been defective. Then I encountered this comment by Levine:

[Madame Anne Lefèvre Dacier (1651?–1720)] turned to the archaeological evidence that proclaimed Homer’s reputation in antiquity: some ancient medals, a tabula iliaca recently described by Raffaele Fabretti, … and most important, the Apotheosis of Homer, a marble relief discovered in the seventeenth century, now in the British Museum. She was especially pleased with the latter…, which she had engraved as an illustration, though she left off Zeus and the muses. On the whole she was content to follow the recent explication of the figures by Gisbertus Cuperus, a Dutchman who had identified most of the figures, except that she questioned his reading of the two little animals at the base of Homer’s Throne, which Cuperus thought must be the mice of the Batrachomyomachia … Madame Dacier preferred to believe that they were really two rats gnawing away at Homer’s reputation: “those vile Authors, who must not be able to attain any Reputation themselves, have endeavor’d to revenge that Contempt upon such Works as are in greatest Esteem, and who, whilst Time and the Whole Earth are crowning Homer, have made it their Business to cry him down (Iliad, 1.29)” [Quoted from L’Iliade d’Homère traduite en français, avec des remarques (Paris, 1711), trans. J. Ozell, The Iliad of Homer, 5 vols. (London, 1712)]. Madame Dacier did not like to mince words; her life of Homer concluded with several more pages of invective against those who had presumed to challenge the verdict of the ages. [9]

Two thoughts come to mind here. The first is that the impetus of this comment was an archaeological find. Such representations were only now becoming available; further “concretization” of Homer that occurred with the discoveries of, e.g., Robert Wood and Heinrich Schliemann, would cause the focus of the Homeric Question to shift from whether Homer was superior to the Moderns to issues of facticity. As it was, these new ecphrastic mimēsēs were widely put to use as historical proof. Levine writes in a footnote concerning the Fabretti tabula iliaca: “[Such bas-reliefs] were pictorial representations of the Trojan War probably devised in antiquity for the use of schoolboys.” [
10] Such connection between illustration and the education of youth is especially relevant to understanding Vico, given his great passion for maintaining high standards in teaching.

The rhetorical similarity between Dacier’s gnawing rats and Vico’s cracked base is too glaring to ignore. Yet Vico’s disinterest in making much of a formal discursive reference to “the Quarrel” per se creates the impression that he sees himself as moving beyond it. It is not, I think, unfair to conclude that the frontispiece to Scienza Nuovais is ultimately derivative rather than innovative.

Still referring to his frontispiece, Vico gets around to what I contend is one of his most momentous assertions about Homer:

§23. The table [“tablet” is better] shows only the first letters of the alphabet and lies facing the statue of Homer. For the letters, as Greek tradition tells us of Greek letters, were not all invented at one time; at least they cannot all have been invented by Homer’s time, for we know that he left none of his poems in writing.

I believe that this fragment of Vico’s ékphrasis is central for understanding the complexities of his concept of Homer in relation to his larger historical perspective. To start with, his anxiety concerning his Continental reputation determines the flow of his rhetoric. Thus he demonstrates right away that he knows the Kadmos mu ̄ thos and its relation to the development of Greek literacy. [
11] We are struck, however, by his subsequent abandonment of the alphabetic issue. His real purpose in this entry seems to be to emphasize that the need for an alphabet developed only gradually. In the engraving there are few letters because they do not apply to an oral poet; after all, “Homer left none of his poems in writing.” I suggest that Vico is referring in §23 to two Homeric “states-of-affairs,” one corresponding to Nagy’s Periods 1 and 2, and the other a transition in the direction of Period 3. This passage is strong evidence that Vico’s occasional “Homer wrote” is best interpreted as more than a lapsus calami. Rather, I argue, it reflects his belief in an evolution of “Homer” from a social functionary in “the obscure period which all had despaired of knowing” (§6) to a context corresponding (temporally, that is) with Nagy’s Periods 1 and 2, to an indispensable historical resource with the cohesion and auctoritas “Homer” enjoyed in Periods 4–5, and in post-classical Europe.

Here, a slight qualification will allow me to bring things together. At the very same time as §23 supports the idea that Vico possessed an intuitive general grasp of the mechanics of oral-evolutionary epic transmission, it also exposes how covertly dependent he is on “evidence” from the classical corpus. I quote from the opening of the polemical Against Apion (1.2.2) by the first-century CE Roman Josephus, who, like the Roman Plutarch, wrote in Greek:

It was … late, and with difficulty, that they [= the Greeks] came to know the letters they now use; for those who would advance their use of these letters to the greatest antiquity pretend that they learned them from the Phoenicians and from Cadmus; yet is nobody able to demonstrate that they have any writing preserved from that time, neither in their temples, nor in any other public monuments. This appears, because the time when those lived who went to the Trojan war, so many years afterward, is in great doubt, and great inquiry is made, whether the Greeks used their letters at that time; and the most prevailing opinion, and that nearest the truth, is, that their present way of using those letters was unknown at that time. However, there is not any writing which the Greeks agree to be genuine among them ancienter than Homer’s Poems, who must plainly be confessed later than the siege of Troy; nay, the report goes, that even he did not leave his poems in writing, but that their memory was preserved in songs, and they were put together afterward, and that this is the reason of such a number of variations as are found in them. [trans. Whiston]

I say “polemical” because the aitía—the rhetorical “cause”—of this piece is that Josephus is answering the Egyptian Apion by making the case that Jewish culture is older than Hellenic culture as a component of his larger argument that Jewish culture is not inferior to Egyptian culture. And in Book II, Vico acknowledges that his own source for Homer’s original illiteracy was the Hebrew historian Josephus:

§429. But the difficulty as to the manner of their origin was created by the scholars themselves, all of whom regarded the origin of letters as a separate question from that of the origin of languages, whereas the two were by nature conjoined. And they should have made out as much from the words for grammar and for characters. From the former, because grammar is defined as the art of speaking, yet grammata are letters, so that grammar should have been defined as the art of writing. So, indeed, it was defined by Aristotle, and so in fact it originally was; for, as will here be shown, all nations began to speak by writing, since all were originally mute. The word character, on the other hand, means idea, form, model, and certainly poetic characters came before those of articulate sounds. Josephus stoutly maintains, against the Greek grammarian Apion, that at the time of Homer the so-called vulgar letters had not yet been invented. Moreover, if these letters had been forms representing articulated sounds instead of being arbitrary signs, they would have been uniform among all nations, as the articulated sounds themselves are. But, giving up hope of knowing how languages and letters began, scholars have failed to learn that the first nations thought in poetic characters, spoke in fables, and wrote in hieroglyphics. These should have been the principles, which must by their nature be most certain, of philosophy in its study of human ideas and of philology in its study of human words.

Vico’s citation of Josephus (not to mention Aristotle) shows his typical confidence in auctoritas. One can take the analytical perspective that in outline Josephus’ version of history is commendably accurate. It is true, for example, that scholars have scant concrete evidence that the Kadmos mu ̄ thos (etiological narrative) refers to an actual Hellenic adaptation of a Phoenician (i.e., Semitic) sign-system, despite the high probability that this mu ̄ thos “compresses” a very early systemic contact between the Phoenicians and the Hellenes. Note, as well, that modern knowledge supports Josephus’ assertion that the first Hellenic sign-system was not an alphabet but a Mycenaean syllabary, and is found on clay tablets (cf. Vico’s “tavola” at §1, cited above) preserved by conflagration rather than on “temples or monuments.” It is also true that the first remaining extended examples of the use of the Greek alphabet are the Iliad and the Odyssey; this seems to be the basis of Barry F. Powell’s hypothesis that some “Adapter” created the Greek alphabet, on the spot, alone, expressly to record the Homeric poems (see my discussion of Powell below).

The ultimate Vichian “modernity” of Josephus’ analysis is yet more evidence that mitigates any impression that no palpable or durable consciousness of an evolutionary cultural flow from “the oral” to “the written” exists in antiquity. Since my concomitant purpose is to demonstrate that just such a consciousness also survived during the Quarrel as an inheritance from antiquity, I now feel justified in coming back to Vico by observing that one core idea from Josephus that happens to be highly congenial to one of Vico’s own core understandings in the Scienza Nuova is that in the flux of history the Hebrews are superior to the vagaries of gentile European culture ab initio. This affinity in turn explains why Vico at §23 sounds almost exactly like Josephus at 2.2.1:

for the letters, as Greek tradition tells us of Greek letters, were not all invented at one time; at least they cannot all have been invented by Homer’s time, for we know that he left none of his poems in writing.

Here, Vico reenacts (in Nagy’s Aristotelian understanding of mimēsis) Josephus’

there is not any writing which the Greeks agree to be genuine among them ancienter than Homer’s Poems, who must plainly be confessed later than the siege of Troy; nay, the report goes, that even he did not leave his poems in writing, but that their memory was preserved in songs.

Collectively, the texts from antiquity that Vico incorporates into his Book III Discoverta, represent a muliggjørelse, a “making possible” of the Homeric mūthos that resembles the one operating within the relationship between Lucian’s carattere of Homer and Vico’s proto-“oral-evolutionary” Homer as described in §877–§878. In both cases, the “singing Homers” must be “unearthed” from beneath mounds of textuality and auctoritas. At the same time, the question they both beg remains: if Vico’s main source is the classical corpus, how “real” is his anticipation of current Homeric paradigms for which we now credit him?


[ back ] 1. P. Wilson, “Homer and English Epic,” in Fowler, Cambridge Companion (Chapter 1, n. 14 above), 284.

[ back ] 2. It remains unclear exactly how Pope learned to read Homer in Greek. Since he was Catholic, he could not go to University. The usual story is that he learned Latin from his mother and aunt and Greek from “local priests.” If we are to believe the poet ipse, he basically taught himself the language, just as he did French and Italian. In a relatively late (1737) autobiographical couplet imitating lines from Horace’s Epistle 2.2, Pope identifies with his Roman precursor:

Bred up at home, full early I begun
To read in Greek the wrath of Peleus’ son.

Horace’s lines are:

Romae nutriri mihi contigit atque doceri
iratus Grais quantum nocuisset Achilles.

“It was my lot to be brought up at Rome and to be taught
How much harm irate Achilles did to the Greeks.”

[ back ] 3. D. P. Verene, The New Art of Autobiography: An Essay on the Life of Giambattista Vico Written by Himself (Oxford, 1991), 18.

[ back ] 4. Verene, New Art (n. 3 above), 19.

[ back ] 5. G. Mazzotta, A New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Princeton, 2014), 143.

[ back ] 6. J. Levine, The Autonomy of History: Truth and Method from Erasmus to Gibbon (Chicago, 1999), 79.

[ back ] 7. This word is arguably most closely associated with Michel Foucault as a redefinition of the Greek term. Elliptically, he writes: “… [L]’archéologie, s’adressant à l’espace générale du savoir, à ses configurations et au mode d’être des choses, définit des systèmes de simultanéité, ainsi que la série de mutations nécessaires et suffisantes pour circonscrire le seuil d’une positivité nouvelle” (Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines [Paris, 1966], 14). I translate: “… [A]rchaeology, as addressing the general field of knowledge [wisdom], its configurations, and the ontological forms of things, defines systems of simultaneity, as well as the series of mutations necessary and sufficient to constitute the threshold of a new phenomenological reality [i.e., a “positivity” in the sense construed by Auguste Compte].”

The Scienza Nuova, as most Vichian specialists have interpreted it, would seem very much to anticipate Foucault’s “archeology of knowledge” projects. I have supplied an alternative translation for Foucault’s savoir as “wisdom” to suggest an affinity with the subject of Book II of the Scienza Nuova, “The Wisdom [sapienza] of the Ancients.”

[ back ] 8. G. Vico, Opere di Giambattista Vico. Vol. 5: Principj di una scienza nuova d’intorno alla comune natura delle nazioni (Naples, 1859), 11.

[ back ] 9. Levine, Autonomy of History (n. 6 above), 138.

[ back ] 10. Levine, Autonomy of History, 86.

[ back ] 11. Vico possibly refers to this account in Herodotus:

[O]riginally the Greeks shaped their letters exactly like all the other Phoenicians, but afterwards, in the course of time, they changed by degrees their language [my emphasis], and together with it the form likewise of their characters (Histories 5.58).