Vico’s Prescient Evolutionary Model for Homer

3. Book III: Vico’s “Empirical” Homer(s)

Again, Book III represents the polemical fulcrum of Vico’s response to The Homeric Question. Its specific raison d’être is the promise he has made (primarily in “The Idea of the Work”) that through the anti-Cartesian method of his “new science” he wil argue that behind the received Homeric icon—the synchronic, historical, majestically authoritative figure depicted throughout the classical corpus—has lain hidden (ignotus latebat, as it were) all along an archaic succession of illiterate, peripatetic caratteri (archetypes), among whose empirical indicators is the Neapolitan cantastorie. Despite this “scientific” perspective, the problem of interpreting Vico’s treatment of Homer in Book III resembles that concerning Pope. The basic issue is whether, compared with other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theorists (in particular, talented classical philologists like Bentley, Kuster, and Wolf), Vico was “equipped” to address the Homeric Question in the first place. It is a largely a matter of assessing his place in Neapolitan intellectual life. As I have stressed, he has been portrayed overwhelmingly as an outsider and latecomer. Joseph Mali says,

Vico’s so-called “Discovery of the True Homer”… could have [fomented] a major change had it been made known to wider and higher circles of scholars. When Friedrich August Wolf published his Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795, in which he established a similar theory (on independent and much superior scholarship), Vico’s thesis was still virtually unknown. In fact Vico himself reaches momentous conclusions only in the latest stages of his work and life. [1]

Mali further argues that the typical picture of Vico as a prophetic voice has perhaps given him more credit than he deserves:

Mali evidently has in mind studies such as the collection of lectures given at Columbia University’s Casa Italiana in 1976 and published under the title Vico and Contemporary Thought. [3] In any event, his claim that Vico’s work on Homer was “virtually unknown” invites scrutiny because it misrepresents several things. While it is true that Vico had a lot of anxiety about his place in the European intellectual community, he was by no means as “isolated” as he thought he was. Bear in mind that his ideas on Homer were a matter of public record (at least in an embryonic form) as early as 1725, in what is known as the First New Science. As he elaborated his paradigm toward its final 1744 manifestation, it did receive attention, however critical, from the audience he was seeking to impress. That Wolf felt a need to generate a critical response to the contents of Book III at all indicates that Vico’s ideas were well enough known to have attracted the great German philologist’s academic bile. Wolf’s attitude toward Vico’s presumptuousness shows that Wolf’s “independent and much superior scholarship” has actually seduced Mali into making the error of believing that Vico ever intended to compete with European philologists on their own terms. An overview of Vico’s opus reveals that the most prominent objects of his intellectual envy were not the likes of Bentley or Wolf but rather Newton and the European social contract theorists, such as Hobbes, Locke, and von Pufendorf. From this perspective, the portrayal in §877–§878 of itinerant rhapsodes carrying forth la favola volgare for the benefit of future generations is emblematically a narrative “platform” that in the Scienza Nuova would eventually make manifest why codified, written Roman law (originally embodied, for Vico in the Twelve Tables) became necessary in the first place. This movement in Vico’s discourse from “the preliterate” to “the literate” provides a completely reasonable basis for the interpretation that the apparent disparity between the “Homer” of Book III and the one of Books II, IV, and V is not really a disparity or an inconsistency, but rather a shift Vico explores in order to reify his own favola / mūthos [4] explaining how and why European culture evolved in the direction it did.

In accordance with Pompa’s more generous view presented above, I respond to Mali by maintaining that “la Discoverta del vero Omero” does initiate current paradigms in major respects. At other junctures in his book, Mali grudgingly agrees. Qualifying his original statement that Vico’s reputation as a “forerunner” is merely “legendary,” he later writes:

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.

If we cannot properly call Vico a “scientist” in our sense, how is it that he successfully, albeit nominally, moves from received authority to original insight on the Homeric Question? The answer, I believe, is by remaining vigilant about Vico’s self-conscious use of etymology to “uncover” the “original genius” of language. Giuseppe Mazzotta has explained the importance of Vico’s diction in the title of Book III:

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 arguing for similarity here, I add that it would be wrong to think of Vico’s strikingly “modern” objective as some kind of eccentric glance aside from his greater plan in the work. His “Idea of the Work” and the accompanying frontispiece make it clear that understanding “the true Homer” means having a good grasp of his “new science” as a whole. To begin to do so, we must take Isaiah Berlin’s observation about the operation of fantasia in Vico’s panorama to heart. From the perspective of the whole Scienza Nuova, imagining a preliterate culture with wandering bards, as Vico asks us to do in Book III, makes Homer a kind of linchpin that holds his anthropology together. Nonetheless, there is one unavoidable, paradoxical, and even troublesome obstacle within his putative clinamen, or self-conscious “swerve” from convention. This tension is a symptom of the pressure to establish his own reputation that one can sense throughout Vico’s work. The commonplace has been that Vico was genuinely isolated, and a “hermeneutics of isolation” has received strong support from many influential critics. Let us, for example, again consider the opinion of a most respected interpreter: Wilamowitz. His lone mention of Vico in the History of Classical Scholarship is as follows:

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.

Concerning this notion that early eighteenth-century Naples was “isolated,” and that consequently Vico’s insights were somehow “born of ignorance,” Mazzotta is a contrarian:

In spite of the steady attention Vico lavishes on the intellectual debates and institutions of his own time, the most common image of Vico is that of a scholar who all his life stayed out of touch with the historical and political realities of his day. The telling sign that he was basically removed, as is widely supposed [my emphasis], from the windstorms of the eighteenth century, which engender the entanglements of modern thought, is to be found in the peculiar bent of the New Science … [, which] evokes and is vitally engaged with the intellectual challenges debated a century earlier by the likes of Bacon and other founders of modern thought, such as Machiavelli, Descartes, Galileo, and Hobbes … It is also believed that because Vico lived in Naples, a city which Gramsci inaccurately called “un angolino morto della stora” (loosely meaning “a dead end of history”), Vico could only have written a work that evades its immediate historical reality. Feeling, as he did, that he was a stranger in his own native city, Vico replaces the commitment to the politics of the day by the radical project of making the New Science a text that pries into the elusive darkness of mythical and distant origins of humanity and thereby drafts the shifty forms of human consciousness. It must be stressed that Vico’s turn to the archeology of the mind and its spectral constructions was never understood—nor could it ever have been understood—as a nostalgia for edenic origins. Rather, it was justly hailed as the consequence of Vico’s discovery and introduction of a new tool of thought into the eighteenth-century landscape of ideas. The new conceptual tool, which would account for the ways the world has been and is likely to be in the future, is history. [11]

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. [
12] 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.” [13] 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.

The nexus between Vico’s dissatisfaction with Cartesianism and his reliance on language, literature, and history intimates why his works take the forms they do. It has been proposed that Descartes’ a priori epistemology is virtually the raison d’être of the Scienza Nuova. Benedetto Croce has written:

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).” [
15] 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:

[A]s for topics, which Bacon respected, which was the main staple of rhetorical studies, and which the seventeenth-century schools had installed as the queen of the realm of the “probable,” Vico felt that Descartes had completely undermined topics with his theory of clear and distinct perception.

Gianturco’s note on this statement establishes its Aristotelian pedigree:

In light of the Cartesian position that rejects historical precedent and artistic discourse as epistemological distractions, one can interpret Vico’s “counter-project,” if you will, as an attempt to reverse the Rationalist tide by writing on subjects that display knowledge that Descartes has explicitly rejected. (This interpretation, by the way, works in favor of Mark Lilla, who has argued, quite against the common wisdom of today’s critics, that Vico is actually an “anti-modernist.”) I have digressed to argue for Vico’s awareness of European philosophical discourse and for his anti-Cartesian determination to seek an empirical basis for “knowledge” in order to establish a basis for understanding the influence of language theory on his views of antiquity. His penchant for “anthropological etymology,” so to speak, has (rather silently) blurred his concept of scienza. In the “Introduction” to their translation, Bergin and Frisch have this to say about the interplay of Latin and Italian in the Scienza Nuova:

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:

[To Vico,] scienza of the world of nature, in the strict sense, is … reserved for God, who made it. But scienza of the world of nations, the civil world, the world of institutions, is possible for men, because men have made it and its principles or causes “are therefore to be found within the modifications of our human mind” [§331]. [F3]

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.

Vico embraced the empirical very early and held on to it tenaciously. As Harold Stone has remarked:

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:

§879 … Homer composed the Iliad in his youth, that is, when Greece was young and consequently seething with sublime passions, such as pride, wrath, and lust for vengeance [e.g., Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon and his kinetic rage at Patroklos’ death], passions which do not tolerate dissimulation but which love magnanimity [e.g., acceding to Priam’s supplications by returning Hektor’s body]; and hence this Greece admires Achilles, the hero of violence. But he wrote the Odyssey in his old age, that is, when the spirits of Greece had been somewhat cooled by reflection [viz., the Odyssean epithet polúmēthis], which is the mother of prudence, so that it admired Ulysses, the hero of wisdom.

Vico seems at first to be speaking of one actual individual, whom we call Homer, advancing through a single lifetime. But his phrase “spirits of Greece” expands the passage of time to generations; “Homer” becomes a metonym for the cultural niche that poets occupied in Archaic Greece. In other words, “Homer’s” two poems reflect the evolution of Hellenic culture from, as it were, the primitive to the civilized. Yet one must hesitate to credit him immediately with a new anthropological vision here. With no acknowledgment, he has patently derived his picture of Homer in §879 from Longinus’ third-century CE On the Sublime (9.12–13):

It is clear from many indications that the Odyssey was his second subject. A special proof is the fact that he introduces in that poem remnants of the adventures before Ilium as episodes, so to say, of the Trojan War. And indeed, he there renders a tribute of mourning and lamentation to his heroes as though he were carrying out a long-cherished purpose. In fact, the Odyssey is simply an epilogue to the Iliad:—

There lieth Ajax the warrior wight, Achilles is there,
There is Patroclus, whose words had weight as a God he were;
There lieth mine own dear son. (Odyssey 3.109–111)

It is for the same reason, I suppose, that he has made the whole structure of the Iliad, which was written at the height of his inspiration, full of action and conflict, while the Odyssey for the most part consists of narrative, as is characteristic of old age. Accordingly, in the Odyssey Homer may be likened to a sinking sun, whose grandeur remains without its intensity. He does not in the Odyssey maintain so high a pitch as in those poems of Ilium. His sublimities are not evenly sustained and free from the liability to sink; there is not the same profusion of accumulated passions, nor the supple and oratorical style, packed with images drawn from real life. You seem to see henceforth the ebb and flow of greatness, and a fancy roving in the fabulous and incredible, as though the ocean were withdrawing into itself and was being laid bare within its own confines. [trans. W. Rhys Roberts]

I believe there is a plausible way to exonerate Vico of being a plagiarist in §879. One need only focus on Vico’s circumlocution of what Longinus is, in contrast, promoting. Longinus’ “Homer” is a long-since individualized writer whose powers are as subject to decline as any other author’s. This emphasis may even have been the origin of Pope’s admiration for Homer’s prodigious selectivity in the matter of appropriating dialects for ad hoc metrical uses. On the other hand, Vico avoids “wrote” at the top of §879. Using “composed” instead allows our inference that the individual epics are separate, orally produced (diachronic) repositories of character and cultural values. From this perspective, §879 takes a received mūthos about Homer and shapes it to fit the wider historical télos of his work. The question is whether in §879 Vico is being bold, scholarly (via the paradoxical device of displaying silenter his knowledge of the Greek authority Longinus), or merely inconsistent? Does the phrase “he wrote the Odyssey” refer to a culmination, like Nagy’s Period 5? After all, elsewhere he has presented Homer as a peripatetic oral bard. Is “Homer composed” best charitably excused as a lapsus calami? As it turns out, if it is a “lapse,” it is pardonable, since it has yet another source in late antiquity, which reinforces Longinus. The circa fourth-century CE corpus known as “Pseudo-Herodotus” is another source of the phrase “Homer wrote.” The story goes that Homer was originally a kalós (Aristotle’s word from the opening of the Poetics , which is often accurately translated as “successful”) literary poet, but due to advancing eye-disease he was eventually reduced to poverty and to reciting his poetry in the marketplace. This mūthos almost comically reverses the usual one that moves from “the oral” to “the written.” Whether Vico actually knew pseudo-Herodotus is arguable, given his supposedly faulty Greek; pseudo-Herodotus is, moreover (and as one would expect of a writer once thought to be Herodotus), in Ionian Greek rather than Attic. The important thing is that it was the source of Homeric lore that Vico obviously assimilated.

Nagy’s analysis of the Homeric evolution toward textuality—that is, from Period 2 to Period 3—provides a means for interpreting Vico’s ambivalence as a theoretical advance. In Homeric Questions, he writes:

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:

§854. The Pisistratids also ordered that from that time onward that poems should be sung by the rhapsodes at the Panathenaic festivals, as Cicero writes in his On The Nature of The Gods … [sic; On the Orator] and Aelian also [Various History 8.2], who is followed on this point by [his editor, Johann] Scheffer.

§855. But the Pisistratids were expelled from Athens only a few years earlier than the Tarquins were from Rome. So, if we assume that Homer lived as late as the time of Numa, a long period must still have ensued after the Pisistratids during which the rhapsodes continued to preserve his poems by memory. This tradition takes away all credit from the other[,] according to which it was at the time of the Pisistratids that Aristarchus purged, divided, and arranged the poems of Homer, for that could not have been done without vulgar [i.e., widely understood] writing, and so from then on there would have been no need of rhapsodes to sing the several parts of them from memory.

It is misleading to think of these references to the “Peisistratean recension” as central to Vico’s implementation of Homer in his historical paradigm; rather, they demonstrate once again his anxious desire to display the range and depth of his scholarship to his own putative, frustratingly distant, Continental audience. In light of this motive, it is almost sad that §855 exposes an error concerning the actual sequence of events: the Aristarchan redaction at Alexandria took place three centuries after the rule of the Peisistratidai. Yet the important thing to see about Vico’s ruminations is that he is trying very hard to maintain a discrimination between the oral and the written. In so doing, he is stunningly ahead of the general “Ancients and Moderns” Homeric paradigm. The underlined segments in §855 highlight two correspondences with modern theories. For one thing, Vico makes the a priori assumption that the invention of writing terminates the need for preservation based on memory, thus anticipating A. B. Lord’s empirically based generalization about performance in the South Slavic song-culture:

Vico also looks forward to the following observations about the Panathenaic rhapsode (Period) by Nagy:

The rhapsode Ion performs Homer not only on such major occasions as the competitions taking place at the festival of the Panathenaia. He also performs Homer on less formal occasions such as the convivial but competitive encounter dramatized in Plato’s dialogue Ion, where we see the rhapsode being challenged by Socrates to perform a given selection from the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey.

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:

§881–§888. [I]t was from the northeastern part of Greece that the Homer came who sang of the Trojan War, which took place in his country, and … it was from the southwestern part of Greece that the Homer came who sang of Ulysses, whose kingdom was in that region … Thus Homer, lost in the crowd of Greek peoples, is justified against all the accusations leveled at him by the critics, and particularly [against those made] on account of his … base sentences, … vulgar customs, … crude comparisons, … local idioms, … licenses in meter, … variations in dialect.

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.

As Steven Shankman has detailed, the controversy over Pope’s translation of the Iliad focused in part upon whether the poet was justified in gratuitously “smoothing” the very flaws Vico enumerates in the passage above. Shankman presents the problem in terms of genre, as one of “oral and written styles.” He uses as background material the point Aristotle makes at Rhetioric 3.12 about the function of repetition in oratory. First, Aristotle cites this example of what he calls “dramatic delivery,” from Iliad 2:

Nileus from Syme [led the balanced vessels],
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. [
27] He quotes Aristotle’s explanation at length:

As is evidenced by his translation of skiagraphía as “rough sketch,” rather than “scene-painting,” Shankman interprets Aristotle as meaning that the difference between “oral” and “written” is a matter of, as it were, detail. This translation goes right along with Aristotle’s distinctions in the various purposes of the various forms of argument, with written forms applying to the closest reasoning. Yet there are two subtleties in this passage that “rough sketch” doesn’t bring out. The first is the incongruence with modern sensibilities of associating Homer with any affective purpose other than purely to induce hēdonē, “pleasure” (though this was common in antiquity, as Plato’s criticisms of Homer used as a moral authority exemplify). The second is Aristotle’s premise that “scene-painting” (a tekhnē Aristotle enjoys comparing with tragedy and epic in the Poetics) is a matter of the speaker’s physical distance from the audience. Aristotle thus associates the gathering of crowds with memorized recitation, [29] rather than the reading of “present” texts; furthermore, his model entails a progression from one to the other. Vico distinguishes Homer from Hesiod in remarkably similar terms. In a lengthy passage, he endeavors to account for the difference between oral and literary epic:

§856. By this reasoning [i.e., that the invention of writing made the rhapsodes obsolete], Hesiod, who left his works in writing, would have to be placed after the Pisistratids, since we have no authority for supposing that he was preserved by the memory of the rhapsodes as Homer was, though the vain diligence of the chronologists has placed him thirty years before Homer. Like the Homeric rhapsodes, however, were the cyclic poets, who preserved all the fabulous history of Greece from the origins of their gods down to the return of Ulysses to Ithaca. These cyclic poets, so called from kyklos, circle, could have been no other than simple men who would sing the fables to the common people gathered in a circle around them on festive days. This circle is precisely the one alluded to by Horace in his Art of Poetry in the phrase vilem patulumque orbem, “the base and large circle,” concerning which Dacier is not at all satisfied with the commentators who assert that Horace here means long episodes or digressions. And perhaps the reason for this dissatisfaction is this: that it is not necessary that an episode in a plot be base simply because it is long … [I]n our present passage Horace, having advised the tragic poets to take their arguments from the poems of Homer, runs into the difficulty that in that case they would not be poets [in the sense of creators], since their plots would be those invented by Homer. So Horace answers them that the epic stories of Homer will become tragic plots of their own if they will bear three things in mind. The first is to refrain from making idle paraphrases, in the way we still see men read the Orlando furioso or the [Orlando] innamorato or some other rhymed romance to the “base and large circles” of idle people on feast days, and, after reciting each stanza, explain it to them in prose with more words. The second is not to be faithful translators. The third and last is not to be servile imitators, but, adhering to the characters that Homer attributes to his heroes, to bring forth from them new sentiments, speeches, and actions in conformity with them; thus on the same subjects they will be new poets in the style of Homer. So, in the same passage, Horace speaks of a “cyclical poet” as a trivial marketplace poet. Authors of this sort are ordinarily called kyklia epe, enkykliioi, and sometimes kyklos without qualification, as Gerard Langhaine observes in his preface to Dionysius Longinus. [Here is evidence that Vico was not entirely “Greekless”!] So in this way it may be that Hesiod, who contains the fables of all the gods, is earlier than Homer.

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:

One cannot at all exclude the possibility that the techniques of the improvisatori, who were so diffuse in the Settecento, had suggested Homer’s poetry to Vico, who was always disposed to using the comparative method as an interpretive starting point.

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:

Croce’s analysis has a paradoxical element. He emphasizes that Vico’s citation of Horace points to a merely analogical connection between the uilem patulumque and the Rinaldi singers. Yet the “observation that they differed little” surely makes them more than analogous. Whatever the implications of Croce’s interpretation, the subtlety of the comparison Battistini posits between the cantastorie and Homer is that the former originated in the Settecento. What he omits is that the very term “Rinaldi” (more properly, in my opinion, “Rinaldo”) refers to a character in a written epic, Orlando Furioso. Hence, ironically enough, the “Rinaldo” phenomenon moves in the opposite direction from that of the first stages of Nagy’s oral-evolutionary model: in §856, as elsewhere in Book III, Vico transfers his putative empirical template for “Homer” from “the written” back to “the oral.” This movement anticipates his “cloning” of the literary Homer to create a plausible set of multiple errant rapsòdi in §877–§878. It would, however, be a misrepresentation to leave matters at that, as the simultaneous alternate way to interpret §856 is as yet another example of Vico’s dependence on classical sources. Vico’s use of authority here could be seen uncharitably as misguided. Particularly egregious are: (1) his confident assertion that Hesiod may have come before Homer; (2) his need to accommodate somehow in his paradigm the facticity of the “Peisistratean recension” (authority for which he elsewhere claims to have found in Cicero’s De natura deorum) and (3) his conveniently truncated quotation of lines 131–132 of Horace’s Ars Poetica, which is actually “si / non circa uilem patulumque moraberis orbem.” This last Vichian “error” merits special attention. Horace is really saying something like “if you [the poet] are not to feel yourself completely circumscribed (i.e., “hampered”] by the hackneyed bounds of the canon.” (Compare William Blake’s declaration “I must create my own System or be enslav’d by another Man’s.”) Vico’s misprision of Horace may be a matter of simple carelessness; but there is another more generous—and far more intriguing—possibility, which Croce’s scholium on this mistake indirectly suggests. A “Professor of Latin Eloquence” would hardly be likely to mistranslate Horace through incompetence. I suspect that what Vico is actually attempting is something that Kierkegaard would doubtless have approved. He has subjectively re-appropriated Horace’s “set” (uilem patulumque, “common bounds of the canon”), by taking advantage of the polysemous semantics that Latin’s relative lexical poverty makes possible, which fully accommodates in the context of §856 another “set” appropriate to his basic model for the oral poet: uilem patulumque, “rustic circle of auditors.” At the same time, he has remained consistent in his reliance on Greek and Latin authority. In Blakean terms, Vico has indeed “created a system” that posits a pre-literate culture of “poetic wisdom” as a precursor to philosophy, and which thus leads to modern European cultural forms. Moreover, he avoids what he consistently perceives to be the fundamental flaw in “Descartes’ criterion of self-evidence,” to hearken back to Croce’s insight. Vico does this by encouraging his readers, through his misprision of Horace, to accept the “Rinaldi” reference as historical proof that his model is empirically sound.

The obvious problem with this interpretation is that, as Croce’s qualified negatives may signal, the Scienza Nuova never makes explicit reference to the “Rinaldi” singers. Thus they have a status within Vico’s grand argument that is similar to that of the Trinity: they are “present” though “absent.” Yet there is evidence that Vico wants his audience to infer a real Homeric carattere, which would vindicate Croce’s assertion that Vico connects (in his unexpressed thought processes, at least) Homer, Horace, and the Rinaldi singers. At the University of Naples, an 1819 collection of Vico’s miscellaneous writings contains a commentary on Horace’s Ars Poetica 131, “si nec circa uilem patulumque moraberis orbem”:

Questo passo di Orazio tormenta tutti i commentatori, ma il suo vero senso è questo: “se non fai la parafrasi di Omero,” come quelli che leggono e spiegano a larghi cerchi di ascoltatori volgari. [my emphasis]

This passage from Horace torments all the commentators, but its true sense is this: “if you do not paraphrase Homer,” like those who interpret and explain at long remove from the [original illiterate] pagan [volgari] audiences.

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.

The context that Bentley’s portrait of Homer creates virtually replicates Vico’s language at §856: “simple men who would sing the fables to the common people gathered in a circle around them on festive days.” When we consider that this same man criticized Pope for his incompetency to render the Greek accurately, we have a semēion for why Bentley is a pivotal figure in the evolution of Homer theories. For here is a man with relatively strong credentials vis-à-vis “text” who nonetheless envisions an original scenario in which there were multiple oral “rhapsodes.” From our viewpoint, the (implicit!) connection Vico makes in §856 between Homer/Hesiod and the “Rinaldi” singers is not very “scientific”; once again, it relies too heavily on ancient authority and an appeal to similitude. Yet it has one feature that makes it “modern”: Vico differentiates Homer from Hesiod as an artist of memory, rather than literacy. I submit that this picture anticipates Periods 1 and 2 of Nagy’s model. Let me hasten to qualify this assertion, however, by stating that Vico does not replicate Nagy’s position. In Pindar’s Homer, Nagy writes:

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.

Gathering together the threads of my argument, I propose that in §856, §879, and §881–§888 Vico makes an extraordinary progression from a permutation of (pseudo-)Longinus to a harbinger of modern theories regarding the separate origins of the two epics. In so doing, he both engages the old Quarrel and presents a picture of a “Homer” or class of “Homers” who composed orally in performance.

There are two further points that emerge from this duality. Vico’s Homer is ultimately quite similar to Pope’s, especially as delineated in his Preface to the Iliad. A second point could be construed as diametrically opposed to the first. That is, the Discoverta as it unfolds in Book III could almost be considered a set of notes for a contemporary summary of theories about Homer. A case in point is this passage from the Oxford Classical Dictionary:

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:

§853. The Pisistratids, tyrants of Athens, divided and arranged the poems of Homer, or had them divided and arranged, into [two groups,] the Iliad and Odyssey. Hence we may understand what a confused mass of material [cf. “libros confusos”] they must have been before, when the difference we can observe between the styles of the two poems is infinite.

§854. The Pisistratids also ordered that from that time on the poems should be sung by the rhapsodes at the Panathenaic festivals, as Cicero writes in his On the Nature of the Gods [De natura deorum], and Aelian also …

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.


[ back ] 1. Mali, Rehabilitation of Myth (Chapter 1, n. 11 above), 190.

[ back ] 2. Mali, Rehabilitation of Myth, 1–2.

[ back ] 3. Ed. G. Tagliacozzo, M. Mooney, and D. P. Verene (Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1979).

[ back ] 4. In discriminating this pair of near synonyms, Verene’s opinion in his article “On Translating Vico” (17[1999]:85-107) is most enlightening. Of Marsh’s choice mythos (which I spell throughout this study as mūthos) over Bergin and Frisch’s cognate “fable” for Vico’s favola, Verene writes (p. 94):

Vico is not simply using “fable” as a conventional term in circulation in his day. He also is not just being latinate in his terminology. He is taking fable away from the rationalists—who see it as a term for superstition and falsehood, and from the Euhemerists, who claim fables to be embellishments of historical persons and events—and he is showing that fables are an original form of speech that combines logos and mythos. Above all, Vico is going against the Greek and Judeo-Christian understanding of mythos as fable or fiction, opposed to both logos and historia, for Vico also sees fables as the first histories. Fables are neither fictions nor the embellishment of historical figures. They are the forms or marks of the original mental language.

The Italian for mythos is mito, a word which does not appear in the New Science

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.

A second advantage of Marsh’s translation mūthos is that it links Vico with modern narrative theory, which owes the Scienza Nuova a great debt.

[ back ] 5. As for Homeric Greek, the consensus seems to be that Vico was quite deficient, that his actual knowledge of the Homeric text was confined to the Latin epitome of Dares and Dictys. But according to D. P. Verene, “Having studied Gester’s Rudiments, he [= Vico] would have had more than a passing knowledge of Greek” (Knowledge of Things Human and Divine: Vico’s New Science and Finnegans Wake [New Haven, 2004], 229n13). In personal correspondence with me, Professor Verene has indicated that in his early education, Vico had a Greek tutor. Verene’s use of the conditional mood reflects a general critical uncertainty as to just how much Greek Vico was capable of. There is still not a great deal of useful information on the subject.

Perhaps the most vexing problem that arises from the apparent tenuousness of Vico’s Greek is explaining how so much of his “original” thought can be attributed to a first-hand acquaintance with the unmediated Greek of the ancient authors. The even now indeterminable quality of Vico’s knowledge of Greek as opposed to Latin literature creates yet another field of ambivalence about the gap between what Vico would like to believe he knows and what he actually does know (cf. his famous verum / factum distinction). This issue becomes particularly important when one considers Vico’s penchant for amalgamating Greek and Roman mythology, and treating the result as if it were history.

[ back ] 6. Mali, Rehabilitation of Myth, 197.

[ back ] 7. Mazzotta, New Map (Chapter 2, n. 5 above), 141.

[ back ] 8. I. Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder (Princeton, 2000), 11.

[ back ] 9. Nagy, Best of the Achaeans (Chapter 1, n. 2 above), 3.

[ back ] 10. U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, History of Classical Scholarship, trans. H. Lloyd-Jones (Baltimore, 1982), 100.

[ back ] 11. Mazzotta, New Map, 65–66.

[ back ] 12. For a study that establishes once and for all the intellectual energy and centrality that characterized Naples in Vico’s time, see H. S. Stone, Vico’s Cultural History: The Production and Transmission of Ideas in Naples, 1685–1750 (Leiden, 1997).

[ back ] 13. A. Grafton, “Introduction” to Giambattista Vico, New Science, trans. D. March (London, 1999), xxiii.

[ back ] 14. B. Croce, The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, trans. R. G. Collingwood (New York, 1964), 2.

[ back ] 15. E. Gianturco, “Translator’s Introduction” to Giambattista Vico, On the Study Methods of Our Time (Cornell, 1990), xv.

[ back ] 16. Gianturco, “Translator’s Introduction” (n. 15 above), xxxii.

[ back ] 17. Gianturco, “Translator’s Introduction,” xviii.

[ back ] 18. Notice that this dichotomy happens to replicate one that fundamentally distinguishes Platonic from Aristotelian epistemology. The motto of the Academy was “Let no one enter who is ignorant of geometry.” On the other hand, Aristotle’s epistemology depends heavily on linguistic analysis (one definition of to lógikon) and awareness of the primal origins of fourth-century cultural forms, both of which exhibit the patently un-Socratic trait of “profound erudition.” Precisely the same consistent antagonism exists between Descartes and Vico.

[ back ] 19. Gianturco, “Translator’s Introduction,” xxxi.

[ back ] 20. Bergin and Frisch, “Introduction” (Chapter 1, n. 10 above), A3.

[ back ] 21. Bergin and Frisch, “Introduction,” F1.

[ back ] 22. Stone, Vico’s Cultural History (n. 12 above), 180–181.

[ back ] 23. Nagy, Homeric Questions (Chapter 1, n. 8 above), 65.

[ back ] 24. Nagy, Homeric Questions, 70.

[ back ] 25. A. B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA, 1990), 20.

[ back ] 26. Nagy, Plato’s Rhapsody (Chapter 1, n. 5 above), 22–33.

[ back ] 27. In the strictest sense, “asyndeton” is a grammatical omission, as in “Veni, vidi, vici,” through which the orator-as-persuader rather surreptitiously avoids scrutiny by hurrying through the issue at hand. This is the emblem of both Caesar’s masterly Hemingwayesque prose and his political ambition in the De bello gallico. Note how Caesar’s use of this device is incidentally vindicated by Aristotle’s concept of employing Homer as distant auctoritas to sway “general audiences” while skirting forensic accountability.

[ back ] 28. S. Shankman, Pope’s “Iliad”: Homer in the Age of Passion (Princeton, 1983), 77.

[ back ] 29. In Aristotle’s context, one must think in terms of a rhētor, not a rhapsoidós.

[ back ] 30. Opere (Mondadori, 1990), 2:1701 (ad Scienza Nuova, libro III, sez. I, cap. VI, xvii [856]).

[ back ] 31. Croce, Philosophy (n. 14 above), 192.

[ back ] 32. Grafton, “Introduction” (n. 13 above), xxiv.

[ back ] 33. G. Nagy, Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore, 1990), 54–55.

[ back ] 34. Levine, Autonomy of History (Chapter 2, n. 6 above), 77.

[ back ] 35. M. M. Wilcock, “Homer,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1996), 718.