Use the following persistent identifier: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BerryS.Vicos_Prescient_Evolutionary_Model_for_Homer.2016.
3. Book III: Vico’s “Empirical” Homer(s)
Mali further argues that the typical picture of Vico as a prophetic voice has perhaps given him more credit than he deserves:
The nagging conundrum that emerges from this widely accepted generality is: how far can we reasonably claim that Vico actually goes in the direction of the Parry-Lord Hypothesis? Here, it is propitious to repeat the mitigating proviso: Vico’s widely accepted ignorance of Greek, French, and English means that he depends on the authority of both his contemporary epistēmē and Latin writers for his concept of Homer. The irony of this dependence is twofold. First, he claims to have a new, superior understanding of Homer, even though he was not a “philologist” in the sense that Bentley was. Flowing from this irony is an overarching one: the polemical basis of Vico’s “new science” is only nominally scientific, since he relies throughout the work on (1) earlier (predominantly classical) sources, and (2) “principles” of history that are unsupported empirically. In other words, though the very target of his basic critique in the Scienza Nuova is Cartesian a priori epistemology, Vico’s historical model is obviously not, from a modern scientific perspective, a valid a posteriori corrective because it depends almost exclusively on the testimony of “trusted” authorities, notably Vergil, Horace, Cicero, Longinus, and Plutarch.
Carrying Mazzotta’s phrase “bringing to light” to Vico’s own terminus ad quem exposes the apocalyptic basis of his grand argument in the Scienza Nuova. Mazzotta himself indicates this; he starts the passage quoted just above with the etymology for discoverta derived from classical sources, but shifts in mid-observation toward the path Vico himself pursues. I agree with Mazzotta; one must always understand Vico’s discoverta as “revelation,” a simultaneous exergasía (expansion via rhetoric) of the cognate “discovery.” Doing so conveys Vico’s underlying theme that the true carattere (here to be understood in the cognate sense) of an age must be “uncovered,” that it does not yield its secrets up to those who are not willing to analyze from within an historical context. Thus, Vico’s interest is ultimately epistemological. In this vein, Isaiah Berlin has observed that
Reconstructing lost cultural artifacts and values through the “power of the imagination” (cf. the importance to Kant’s aesthetics of the Einbildungskraft) is the seminal goal that sets Vico’s project apart from earlier approaches to Homer. As does the Parry-Lord Hypothesis, Vico’s treatise operates on the ground assumption that the environment in which “Homer” created was a “song-culture.” The crucial thing to recognize is that Vico intends in Book III to move gradually backward, prior to a “Homer” conceived as an individual creative genius from whom we have received a “text,” and argue for a “song-culture” that produced a diachronic line of singers whose chief function is to fulfill the aim of perpetuating cultural Memory. To use an appropriately expansive simile, as Venus lifts Aeneas off the battlefield so that he might eventually found Rome (an incident Vergil himself appropriates and “re-contextualizes” from the Iliad, in which Aphrodite whisks Paris away from the fray to Helen’s bedchamber), so this revolutionary paradigm plucks Vico right out of the “Quarrel” so that he may found the study of Homer as a cultural phenomenon. Consider the affinity of this design with Nagy’s:
In the context of Nagy’s “(re-)composition-in-performance” model, Wilamowitz’s compliment to Vico is backhanded. Its very impetus is what Wilamowitz strongly implies to be the relative scholarly ineptitude of the Neapolitans, whom he treats as having possessed textual “treasures,” which they were ill equipped or unworthy to appreciate.
As Mazzotta points out, the most transparent source of the isolation legend is arguably Vico himself. His “feelings” in turn derive reinforcement from pathetic anecdotes: his being seen near the end of his life wandering the streets of Naples alone, avoiding eye-contact with those to whom he had sent copies of his work; or sending a copy to Newton but never getting a response. (These romanticized legends evoke for me the anecdote Charles Lamb tells about another genius who was unappreciated in his day, Coleridge, languishing at Highgate under the onus of laudanam addiction, and hence in the care of Dr. Gilman, muttering about the importance of making a distinction between “sumject and omject.”) Also, Mazzotta is right to observe that it is quite inaccurate to think of Vico’s Naples as some kind of intellectual backwater.  I only disagree with him when he suggests that Vico’s frame of reference is somehow “belated” (or “from the last century,” as he says). All of the people Mazzotta lists above were still influencing the general controversy that was taking place throughout Europe. Anthony Grafton has characterized Vico’s access to these ideas with a colorful simile: “When he listened in on the great debates of his time from his post in lively but distant Naples, he resembled a country telephone operator trying to eavesdrop on a crackling party line.”  While this image accurately portrays Vico’s personal sense of remoteness and exclusion, there is one particular aspect of the Scienza Nuova that contradicts it: an informed reading very often reveals correspondences between Vico’s language and that of other of his contemporaries. Vico seems to have seen himself as constructing a system that would simultaneously incorporate and criticize their principal ideas, especially those of Descartes.
Later critics have not contested Croce on the early inception and enduring sincerity of Vico’s anti-Cartesian passion. In the “Translator’s Introduction” to the English version of Vico’s Inaugural Oration De nostri temporis studiorum ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time), delivered 1708 and published in 1709, Elio Gianturco reinforces this argument that Descartes’ contempt for the humanities lies at the very core of Vico’s notion of knowledge. Gianturco observes that “Vico’s anti-Cartesianism first appears in the De nostri, in a form which is as sharp-edged as it is “clear and distinct” (a Cartesian anti-Cartesianism, so to speak).”  Vico would have much appreciated Gianturco’s recognition through his pleonasm that “clear and distinct” intuitively applies more readily to empiricist (i.e., phenomenological, scientific, a posteriori) epistemologies, such as those of Vico and Aristotle, than to rationalist (i.e., geometrical, mathematical, a priori) systems, such as those of Descartes and Plato. Gianturco connects Vico’s attitude with Aristotelian terminology through Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning:
Gianturco’s note on this statement establishes its Aristotelian pedigree:
In the spirit of this quite accurate observation, they render an important semantic triage:
As Bergin and Frisch have put it here, the difference seems more than a little counter-intuitive, since the consideration of evidence (facts) in the direction of “truth” (albeit provisional) applies, from a modern perspective, more aptly to “science” than to “conscience.” The final aim of science is indeed to discover “universal and eternal principles,” but this teleology presupposes the intermediate consideration of data, which is exactly what Vico believes he is doing on a grand scale. It seems to me that what Bergin and Frisch are actually getting at requires one to lay emphasis on their first definition of conscienza—“consciousness,” referring to the primal collective awareness that led humans to organize their cultures. This element of Vico’s paradigm is an example of the appeal to fantasia that Isaiah Berlin underscores. On the other hand, scienza refers to a method for studying the development of conscienza. Thus I basically concur with the translators’ conclusion:
I demur from this understanding in one respect. For Vico, scienza in this sense of “method for acquiring knowledge” does not apply to God, since one of His existential attributes (to use part of St. Anselm’s old argument, which I suspect Vico knew and accepted) is omniscience. A more accurate way to understand how Vico uses scienza is as a compulsory response to Newton and Locke as empiricist “role models,” if you will, as well as a rejection of ultra-rationalist Cartesianism. For Vico, Descartes’ famed “method” was unsatisfactory precisely because he thought it was—by its very skepsis regarding anything observed through the senses—devoid of information that could be useful to historical analysis. Thus he conceived of his true quest in the Scienza Nuova as being to assemble the sort of array of data that Descartes’ a priori principles could not address. In sum, Vico hoped to create a “new science” of cultural history that would have the same intellectual weight as Newton’s “natural philosophy.” I do not think it a distortion to say that Croce shares this basic view.
Behind Stone’s observation is an implicit comparison that derives from the difference between divine and human ways of knowing. For Vico, knowing something prior to its sensible form is a capacity that is solely divine. Conversely, human knowledge consists of organizing and understanding things already made or accomplished. This is the epistemological bias of a historian, legal scholar, and filólogo who is not interested in Cartesian geometrical abstraction. The same bias stimulates Aristotle’s point-by-point critique in the Politics of Plato’s “three waves, ” as they would shape the ideal polis. I reiterate that, in spite of what Vico himself may have believed, it is wrong to think of his theories as based on the kind of evidence yielded up by scientific evidence, per se. What he presents as “support data” are, as often as not, appeals to authority and tacit entreaties for his audience to accept his broad proto-sociological premises. An excellent example is this claim:
There is Patroclus, whose words had weight as a God he were;
There lieth mine own dear son. (Odyssey 3.109–111)
Nagy argues that the mūthos of Homer as an oral poet does not disappear with the production of transcripts; neither is there an end to “(re-)composition-in-performance.” Rather, the production of texts by the Peisistratidai allows the State to control this mūthos. To create a metaphor from the terminology of linguistics, [compose, write] is a conceptual minimal pair that reflects the transition from Period 2 to Period 3. The idea of the Peisistratean recension as metaphoric appeals to Nagy:
Vico’s ambiguity in §879 reflects a similar belief in “process.” Moreover, the entry is a conclusion drawn from, inter alia, this earlier cluster of remarks:
Vico also looks forward to the following observations about the Panathenaic rhapsode (Period) by Nagy:
Note that if we set Nagy’s opinion here against Vico’s at §855, we see that both of them postulate that performance through memory alone, without written aids, remained in practice at the Panathenaia. The problem in arguing for full Vichian visionary insight on this point is his blatantly jumbled chronology, which may also explain his use of the conditional (“if” / “then”). A major consequence of this reluctance to let go of the “oral evolutionary model” at §879 is that he hereafter drops the problem of intrusion that a written record presents, and resumes speaking of Homer as a Panathenaic phenomenon. In a passage extending from §881 to §888, he sums things up:
The “critics” to whom Vico refers are pretty obviously those who faulted Homer in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries for lack of decorum, or “elevation.” As a received notion, this has a “writerly” quality that is contrary to Vico’s anthropological interests. To stress how crucial this matter of elevation was considered at the time to interpreting Homer, I resume my Vico-Pope comparison.
Nileus son of Aglaia [and of the king Charopos],
Nileus the most beautiful man [who came to Ilion.]
Shankman observes that Aristotle is using Homer here as an example of oratorical technique—in this case, asyndeton.  He quotes Aristotle’s explanation at length:
This long, detailed entry is of note for two reasons. First, the mention of Dacier supports my interpretation that the Scienza Nuova represents as much a contribution to the Quarrel as an attempt to break from it. Far more compelling is that this paragraph exhibits, perhaps more vividly than in any other in the Scienza Nuova, Vico’s entrapment by the oral-versus-written dilemma. To illustrate this, I begin by quoting from Andrea Battistini’s note to §856 in his edition of Vico’s Opere:
The sources of Battistini’s conjecture here consist of literature produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the Neapolitan cantastorie, a social niche quite felicitously translated as “singer of tales,” which in turn obviously brings to mind the fieldwork of Albert Lord. Moreover, there are several notable semantic resonances between Battistini’s characterizations and key concepts I have been discussing. To begin with, there is his word “tecniche,” “techniques,” which as a manifest cognate, corresponds etymologically with the idea that the archetype (carattere) of the oral poet, the aoidós > rhapsôidós, has received a tekhnē as part of a pan-cultural heritage. Accordingly, Battistini observes that these cantastorie were “diffusi.” I emphasize that in describing an oral poetic model, this word carries some ambiguity. In Battistini’s context, the cantastorie were “diffuse” in the sense of “numerous,” rather than in the sense both Nagy and, properly speaking, Vico himself mean of representing a pan-cultural tradition. (I cite again Vico’s detail at §878 that “Omero” was actually a “class” of rapsòdi who made a meager living wandering “per le città della Grecia”—“throughout the cities of Greece”) I think Battistini is leaving it to be understood that the “Rinaldi singers” were by and large a phenomenon confined to Naples. Such provinciality is an essential part of what Croce is trying to convey when he indirectly explicates §856:
Vico uses much the same critical vocabulary to describe the evolutionary aftermath of oral poesis that I have striven thus far to associate with Pope’s and Swift’s understandings of Homer’s misguided, misprising interpreters: commentatori; leggono e spiegano. Vico’s word parafrasi, which he has essentially interpolated, reminds one of the tendency Albert Lord noted for writing to curtail creativity and thus the evolutionary process among the gúslars. Vico is being thoroughly consistent with the elements of the Quarrel and with himself, as when he ends his observations upon the beginning of the oral-evolutionary model by putting a picture in our minds of the ascoltatori volgari.
Nagy’s interest is in establishing a clear demarcation between phases of “(re-)composition” and of oral “fixity” prior to the introduction of transcripts. In §856, by contrast, Vico is keen to compare “rhapsodic” poetry with other generic forms on the basis of cultural function.
Vico the aspiring denizen of cultural history sees Homer the assiduously “evaluated” text as an obstacle to grasping his far greater cultural significance. Thus his instrumentation of Homer in his general theories supports Leon Pompa’s view that Vico conceived “Homer” as providing an invaluable record of “communal modes of thought.” In reflection, we are also struck at how closely Levine’s formulation here mimes—unintentionally, we suppose—the language of Swift’s satire with the phrase “a mountain of critical commentary and controversial remarks, marginalia, footnotes, appendices, and indexes,” hence working still further backward toward its origin in Pope’s “Preface.”
If we strip away from this OCD summary the linguistic, archeological, and geographical data that we have acquired since Vico, we are left with a general understanding that is arrestingly similar to the one Vico expresses in the Scienza Nuova about the differences between the epics. Both accounts say that the Iliad is older; both note that while the Iliad reflects cultural agitation, the Odyssey is about the process of civilization. It could be argued against my comparison that Vico’s observations are self-evident. I counter that they are more than that; Vico links the difference with the contrasting character (carattere) traits of Achilles and Odysseus. Vico and the OCD both compress the oral Homeric poetic tradition into one literate representative. We can only assume that the author of the OCD article does this because of space limitations. The counter-evidence is that the OCD also refers to continued controversy over “Homer’s” geographical origin, as if this were still a bona fide issue. From an ontological viewpoint, the best way to interpret the OCD’s contemporary example of a more or less syncopated set of literary “Homers” is to admit the “oral versus written” dilemma has yet to be resolved. Vico’s description of “Homer” in §877–§878 thus seems uncannily “authoritative.” The irony is that, ultimately, Vico’s auctoritas on this issue comes not from fledgling archaeology, etymology, or even the comparative empirical model of the cantastorie, but from the classical corpus:
In sum, the biographer/historian Plutarch, in his Life of Lycurgus, echoed Cicero’s “scattered about,” and the intuitive textual scholar Bentley observed that the Homeric poems were not “gathered together” until the Peisistratean recension. Vico’s own intuitive understanding that the Rinaldi singers and the classical corpus are combined evidence for the verum/factum of a Homeric “tradition” represents a true advancement from those iterative positions. Vico’s new perspective was made possible by a combination of his stronger fantasia and weaker scholarship. Yet ironically, his defiantly anti-Cartesian reliance on history and literature as represented by the classical corpus in a sense make him more “ancient” than “modern,” more of a “scripsist” than an “oralist” in his orientation.
Verene is right to emphasize that Vico is taking advantage of the native, as it were, Dantean force of favola / favolsi that the academic mito would not have conveyed. His position is especially compatible with my central thesis that Vico’s Homer theory as expounded in Book III portrays an oral tradition (cf. my title-page quotations). Yet arguably Marsh’s lexis mūthos has two advantages. First, it connects Vico directly with Homer, as exemplified in this pleonasm from Odyssey 11.561,ἵν᾽ ἔπος καὶ μῦθον ἀκούσῃς, “that you may hear (my) speech and narrative.” Let it be duly noted that Liddell and Scott’s examples almost all connect mūthos with some form of the spoken word; also, the entry specifies that mūthos is attested earlier than its eventual literary semantic “competitor” lógos. Even Aristotle’s use of mūthos in the Poetics (1447a.8) to mean something like “making a finely wrought story” or “a successful plot” emphasizes poíēsis as a re-telling rather than a writing.