Vico’s Prescient Evolutionary Model for Homer

6. Is There a Latent Jurisprudential Paradigm in Vico’s Homer?

Much Vico scholarship has been dedicated to analyzing Homer as ancillary to Vico’s larger purpose, and up to this point I have taken this perspective. But why not try a more oblique hermeneutical tack? Why not entertain the idea that Vico’s paradigm for Homer can be fruitfully explicated through his obsession to be recognized as a master-theorist of jurisprudence?

Ever since the concept of oral-formulaic composition has dominated our understanding of “the true Homer,” the empirical fact of a gradual conversion from an active oral tradition into the written mímēsis of one has been a problem. The impression one gets from surveying the scholarship is of the loss of the tekhnē of oral composition-in-performance. This tableau, evolving into the memorization and epideixis of Homer as “scripture” (cf. Nagy’s Period 5), is somehow equivalent to the “loss of Eden”; the literary Homer is consequently “post-Lapsarian.” The polarization of competing “Homers”—the aoidós trained within a not-fully-recoverable tradition to exercise creative license within a form versus the rhapsôidós—would seem both to explain and justify Vico’s ambivalence concerning Homer. Given his notorious passion to become widely recognized as a legal scholar, nothing could have had a greater influence over Vico’s ambivalence than Neapolitan jurisprudential customs.

To address this perspective, I rely now on John D. Schaeffer’s analysis of legal argument in Naples in Vico’s time. Schaeffer has observed that ambiguity was the form argumentation commonly took in Neapolitan intellectual circles:

In Vico’s Naples, contradictions and oppositions lived in constant dynamic balance. [The result was] … a sediment formed by a sequence of different political, social, and legal formations, each superimposed on the other but not displacing or even controlling its predecessors … [T]he new philosophy of the Enlightenment was reaching Naples and being discussed in salons and informally organized groups of intellectuals. These discussions were not merely speculative, for Naples was the scene of a confrontation between the Enlightenment philosophy and social practice.

Schaeffer observes two particular things about Neapolitan intellectual circles that pertain to my study: the “intense orality” of the culture and the centrality of context to legal discourse in Naples; hence it was also necessarily dialectical in the core sense of the Greek dialégesthai, “to carry on a back-and-forth discussion,” rather than depending on codified statutory law, as in other parts of Italy:

Schaeffer does not address Vico’s interest in The Homeric Question. Nonetheless, when he writes of this Neapolitan legal oral performative culture that prevailed before 1703 as “a sediment formed by a sequence of different political, social, and legal formations,” his metaphor virtually calls forth Nagy’s five-stage Homeric paradigm, which hypothesizes a persistent “multiformity” (Albert Lord’s term), even during periods of predominant crystallization and fixation (cf. Nagy’s Periods 4 and 5) that have culminated in the canonical Homer. To support this comparison, I again cite a passage I quoted earlier from Nagy’s Homeric Questions concerning the mythic interpretation of lawgivers throughout the Greco-Roman continuum:

Notice also that Nagy’s point about the centrality of mythically based “customary law” (nómos) in Ancient Greece and Rome bears a wonderful affinity with Pompa’s assessment of Vico’s far-sighted perspective on Homer’s “multeity-in-unity”: “Vico … [concludes] that the Iliad and the Odyssey are products of different historical societies.” [5] On the ground assumption that Vico was driven by an unflagging desire to be recognized as a jurisprudential theorist on a par with Grotius and von Pufendorf, Schaeffer’s background information provides a basis for reinterpreting Vico’s embedding of “The Homeric Question” in the Scienza Nuova as a dominant cultural Tendenz. The autochthonous Neapolitan dependence on oral argument provides a verum/factum proof clarifying the otherwise rather fuzzy issue of why Vico feels the need to make Homer part of a work nominally applying science to history. Vico’s preliterate rapsòdi are “made possible” as archetypes, not only of the Neapolitan cantastorie, but also of the Neapolitan togati, who, like Nagy’s archaic creators of Homeric song, took pride in composing and orally performing ex tempore. The function of the togato was to use the forensic tekhnē he had learned after years of apprenticeship to apply pertinent unwritten law (a specialized form of the favola, if you will) to specific cases. Thus a successful togato not only had to be creative and resourceful, like polumētis Odysseus, but ideally possessed a memory worthy of Demodokos or Phemios. Schaeffer remarks:

Schaeffer’s characterization of the togato brings to mind all three major Achaean heroes. Besides Odysseus, there are Achilles, the native Thracian (mercenary?) who leads the Myrmidons against the Trojans on behalf of the Achaeans, and Agamemnon, whom the Homeric poet gives the epithet ánax andrôn “king of men,” and who leads the expedition against Troy not only because he is the brother of Helen’s husband Menelaus, but also because he has the most ships under his command. I propose that in these figures Vico has available Homeric caratteri for both the condottiere and the barone of early eighteenth-century Naples.

My extrapolation gains force if one considers the etiological and etymological aspects of Vico’s use of the Greco-Roman continuum. As evidence, I present these two adjacent paragraphs from Book IV and ask my reader to consider them in the light of Schaeffer’s epitome for Neapolitan courtroom argumentation—“ritual combat”:

§962. It has not been believed that the first barbarians practiced dueling, because no record of it has come down to us. But it passes our understanding how the Homeric Cyclopes, in whom Plato recognizes the earliest family fathers in the state of nature, can have endured being wronged, to say nothing of showing humanity in the matter. Certainly Aristotle [269] tells us that in the earliest commonwealths, not to speak of the still earlier state of the families, there were no laws to right wrongs and punish offenses suffered by private citizens (as we have just proved was the case in the ancient Roman commonwealth [repubblica]); and therefore Aristotle also tells us, as cited in the same place, that this was the custom of barbarous peoples, for, as we noted in that connection, peoples are barbarous in their beginnings because they are not yet chastened by laws.

§963. However, there are two great vestiges of such duels, one from Greek and one from Roman history, showing that the peoples must have begun their wars (called duella by the ancient Latins), with combats between the offended individuals, even if they were kings, waged in the presence of their respective peoples, who wish to publicly to defend or avenge their offenses. In this fashion certainly the Trojan War began with the combat of Menelaus and Paris (the former the wronged husband and the latter the seducer of his wife, Helen); and when the duel was indecisive the Greeks and Trojans proceeded to wage war with each other. And we have already noted the same custom among the Latin nations in the war between the Romans and the Albans, which was effectively settled by the combat between the three Horatii and the three Curiati, one of whom must have abducted Horatia. In such armed judgments right was measured by the fortune of victory. This was the counsel of divine providence, to the end that, among barbarous peoples with little capacity for reason and no understanding of right, wars might not breed further wars, and that they might must have some notion of the justice or injustice of men from the favor or disfavor of the gods: even as the Gentiles scorned the saintly Job when he had fallen from his royal estate because God was against him. And on the same principle in the returned barbarian times the barbarous custom was to cut off the hand of the loser, however just his cause.

§962 merits detailed examination, based in large part on Vico’s rather surprising reliance on the Turkish-born geographer and historian Strabo (64/63 BCE–ca. 24 CE), who wrote a 17-volume Geographia in Greek (this reliance, incidentally, further counter-indicating, any notion that Vico’s knowledge of Greek was deficient). The immediate source of Vico’s claim in §962 regarding the Cyclopes is not Plato, but Strabo. In fact, Vico refers to Strabo’s own reference to Plato’s telling of the Cyclopes mūthos (Laws 3.677ff.) quite early in the Scienza Nuova, in Book I, “Establishment of Principles”:

§296. In Strabo, there is a golden passage of Plato saying that, after the local Ogygian and Deucalionian floods, men dwelt in caves in the mountains; and he identifies these first men with the Cyclopes, in occasionally whom elsewhere he recognizes the first family fathers of the world. Later they dwelt on the mountain sides, and he sees them represented by Dardanus, the builder of Pergamum which later became the citadel of Troy. Finally they came down to the plains; this he sees represented by Ilus, by whom Troy was moved onto the plain near the sea, and from whom it took the name of Ilium. [my emphasis]

The early appearance and propaedeutic tenor of this paragraph demonstrate how important it is for Vico’s reader to maintain a good memory for the mūthoi he narrates in the course of his global argument. Here he painstakingly links a foundational mūthos of Greek civilization—“the idea of the work,” so to speak— that, as the auctoritas Plato recognizes, the “first fathers of the world” were not truly human, but were instead the anthropophage Cyclopes (referring mainly to Odyssey 9.287–312). From this state these proto-human creatures evolved to become mountain-dwellers, and from there, apparently without significant intermediary mutation, to the human subjects of Homeric poetry, though Vico does not seem to want the issue of nomadic blind poets to intrude at this crucial moment in his etiology. A significant element of this mūthos/favola is Vico’s association of civilization (more particularly, agriculture) with a downward and outward topographical shift. [
7] In the wake of the five-stage process Nagy describes, the “written auctoritas Homer” initiates his epic, the Iliad, through a weirdly modern lógos, seeking in the “Exordium,” at line 8, a first cause for the events he will be narrating: “Who among the gods was it who set the two of them [i.e., Achilleus and Agamemnon] against each other in a quarrel?”

The truly striking aspect of Vico’s appropriation is the context within which the Cyclopes reference occurs. I quote Strabo at length:

The “squinty-eyed” Greco-Roman historian Strabo ignotus latet behind Vico’s Cyclopes reference, which is supposedly to the philosopher-auctoritas Plato, the late-coming literary Homer-substitute. Strabo’s model for the development of civilization is remarkably similar to Vico’s in the Scienza Nuova: it is tripartite; it is “simple and wild” in the beginning; it moves from the mountains to the lowlands (reminding us once again, almost chillingly, of Vergil’s lines from Aeneid 8.321–322: is genus indocile ac dispersum montibus altis / composuit legesque dedit); it flourishes after the waters of the Flood have subsided, a motif which occurs in both the Hebraic and Hellenic traditions. Strabo continues in a strikingly Vichian mode:

One might speak equally of a fourth and fifth stage, or even more, but last of all that on the sea-coast and in the islands, when men were finally released from all such fear; for the greater or less courage they took in approaching the sea would indicate several different stages of civilisation and manners, first as in the case of the qualities of goodness and wildness, which in some way further served as a foundation for the milder qualities in the second stage. But in the second stage also there is a difference to be noted, I mean between the rustic and semi-rustic and civilised qualities; and, beginning with these last qualities, the gradual assumption of new names ended in the polite and highest culture, in accordance with the change of manners for the better along with the changes in places of abode and in modes of life. Now these differences, according to Plato, are suggested by the poet, who sets forth as an example of the first stage of civilisation the life of the Cyclopes, who lived on uncultivated fruits and occupied the mountain-tops, living in caves: “but all these things,” he says, “grow unsown and unploughed” for them … “And they have no assemblies for council, nor appointed laws, but they dwell on the tops of high mountains in hollow caves, and each is lawgiver to his children and his wives.” And as an example of the second stage, the life in the time of Dardanus, who “founded Dardania; for not yet had sacred Ilios been built to be a city of mortal men, but they were living on the foot-hills of many-fountained Ida.” And of the third stage, the life in the plains in the time of Ilus; for he is the traditional founder of Ilium, and it was from him that the city took its name. [9]

These paragraphs encapsulate a conspicuous number of the major themes in the Scienza Nuova. In §962 there is an indirect reference to the oral-versus-written dilemma. Its subject is whether dueling as a method of adjudicating grievances could have preceded the establishment of written law. The immediate obscurity of Vico’s position requires us to pause. To begin with, he states that it has heretofore been thought impossible to assume the practice of an institutionalized custom if there is no written record of it. This supposedly standard position only makes sense, however, if we assume an automatic connection between some form of elementary retributive law and literacy. In my view, when Vico says “but it passes our understanding how the Homeric Cyclopes … can have endured being wronged,” he is denying the necessity of such a connection. Rather, Vico’s implication is that the custom of dueling to settle the kind of matter that would later be subject to a statutory remedy could well have existed, and even thrived, far prior to a written record of it. Note that in this paragraph Vico begins with Homer specifically to drive his point home; he wants his reader to remember his observation in the “Idea of the Work” at §23 that Homer “left none of his poems in writing.” Vico associates this element of the Homeric narrative with the construct he has explicated that pagan/barbarian societies consisted of gentes, or clans, and credits Plato, on the testimony of Book 8 of Strabo, with an early natural law theory based on his reading of the Cyclopes tale. He then moves on to demonstrate how familial structures developed into “commonwealths.” I interpret Vico’s word repubblica, “commonwealth” as reaching after the Aristotelian concept of the pólis. [10]

The very necessity of making the Iliad and the Odyssey into “texts” that can be analyzed as “literature” has ramifications that are not imminently apparent. As we have seen, the oral-formulaic paradigm in its broadest form is that the cultures that generated and transmitted the mūthoi that make up the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as the lost epos now represented by the Epic Cycle) were able to maintain a body of “epic” material for thousands of years before writing. Ancillary to this tenet is that oral and written versions of “formulaic behavior,” if you will, often exist side by side within the same relatively confined cultural environment, as we recall from Albert Lord’s revised assessment of the relationship between the performances of the gúslars and the availability of “songbooks.” In the meantime, Barbara Graziosi’s apparent contentment with the premise that rhapsôidós ultimately encompasses both “stitcher-together of song” and “holder of the recitation staff [rhabdós]” further attests to the elusive nature of the process through which “the oral” eventually became “the written.” As much as I am convinced that Gregory Nagy’s version of the paradigm best accounts for the evidence, I also believe that there are aspects of “Homer” as a transmitted narrative unity that “recomposition-in-performance” still does not empirically address. I note that Milman Parry originally had hoped to study the singers of the Kirghiz region of Central Asia. When Soviet authorities refused to extend him permission, Parry was forced to move to what was essentially his second choice, the South Slavic gúslars. The reason why the Central Asian singers were Parry’s first choice might well have been that their songs are long, in the fashion of the Homeric epics. The songs of the gúslars, by contrast, are typically short, self-contained narratives—episodes forming parts of larger historical conflicts—that could be performed at “one hearing,” in coffeehouses and other places where audiences naturally gathered. Is it a distortion to say that the aspect of Homeric epic that Parry and Lord were originally most anxious to test was the capacity of the singers to “re-compose” from a mnemonic repository of thousands of lines? This interpretation of the Parry-Lord Hypothesis is problematic because it detracts from one of the seminal propositions of Nagy’s model, which makes the “verse” (or in “written” terms, the individual dactylic hexameter) the formative unit of poiēsis. This focus on the individual line rather than the sweeping scope of the epic in its entirety makes me think of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” which provides guidelines for the short story as a genre:

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting—and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe” (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit—in other words, to the excitement or elevation—again, in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect—this, with one proviso—that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.

I must make two points here. The first is that even though this essay is supposedly Poe’s response to a letter from Charles Dickens (the very embodiment of the methodical artificer of works of epic proportion), the example of the novel form Poe uses is Robinson Crusoe. I think Poe chose this example because it exhibits the rambling, picaresque mūthos (“plot,” in Aristotle’s terms) characteristic of early European novels; it “demand[s] no unity.” Any extended literary form is inexorably subject to the danger of losing intensity.

If we substitute for Poe’s associated concepts of “short story” and “poem” (which are both manifestly brief in contrast to the novel) Nagy’s concept of “micro-narratives,” Poe’s “one sitting” criterion becomes quite relevant to epic. Indeed, his phrase can actually gloss problems associated with the Homeric epic such as “rhapsody” and “stitcher-together.” Ironically, the Parry-Lord Hypothesis seems to apply least well to the first sine qua non for epic considered as a written genre: its length. For it is not primarily length that distinguishes the “composition in performance” of oral epic, but rather, as nearly every scholar of the subject agrees, spontaneous creativity within a formulaic matrix. From the latter perspective, South Slavic gúslars provide a perfect modern model for hypothesizing on the nature of the performance of Homer, as is clear to anyone who has had the opportunity to hear the recordings and view the films of the gúslars that are in the Milman Parry Collection in Widener Library at Harvard. With no little paradox, there is an “anti-epic” quality about these performances: viewing them, one is struck by the rapidity with which the “lines” go by.

The notion of a mutual exclusivity between the oral and written Homers appears not only in Vico, but throughout contemporary Homeric scholarship. Given the intercession of textuality between us and the oral performance of epic, I would propose a cognitive approach, adapted in principle from perceptual psychology. The Danish psychologist Edward Rubin is associated with the phenomenon of perception called figure-ground alternation, which seeks to demonstrate that certain patterns presented to the visual field that have two different interpretations cannot be perceived both ways at once. My argument is that Lord’s oxymoronic term “oral literature” essentially recognizes an analogical form of “figure ground alternation.” In the meantime, this phenomenon has been transferred to the sphere of communication theory by—most prominently, perhaps—Marshall McLuhan with his familiar principle that “the medium is the message.” As he has written:

In a sense, the oral and written states of Homeric epic are cognitively incompatible. One may express this exclusivity problem as a thought experiment. I challenge my reader to deny that, try as one may, it is impossible to conceive both a diachronic, Panhellenic tekhnē and a text at the same time, despite one’s awareness that both forms have existed. This is a major source of disagreement about Homer.


[ back ] 1. Note Schaeffer’s appropriation here of his dissertation director Walter J. Ong’s paradigmatic word, which Ong typically opposes with “literacy,” intending to describe the development of culture that led to the technological “progress” of European culture that writing “made possible” and that eventually evolved into print media.

[ back ] 2. J. D. Schaeffer, Sensus Communis: Vico, Rhetoric, and the Limits of Relativism (Durham, NC, 1990), 35.

[ back ] 3. Schaeffer, Sensus Communis (n. 2 above), 47.

[ back ] 4. Nagy, Homeric Questions, 74.

[ back ] 5. Pompa, New Science (Chapter 1, n. 13 above), 139.

[ back ] 6. Schaeffer, Sensus Communis, 50.

[ back ] 7. Even earlier in the “Establishment of Principles,” Vico cites Strabo to establish a triple correspondence among geography, linguistic development, and cultural primacy:

§71. When Strabo judges … that Attica, because of its rocky soil, could not attract foreigners to come and live there, he does so in order to support the further assertion that the Attic dialect is one of the first among the native dialects of Greece. [my emphasis]

[ back ] 8. The Geography of Strabo, trans. L. Jones (London, 1917), 13.1.25; 47–48.

[ back ] 9. Geography of Strabo (n. 8 above), 13.1.25; 47–48.

[ back ] 10. Bergrin and Frisch note that in their translation “Repubblica is uniformly rendered ‘commonwealth’ to avoid the misleading associations of ‘republic’ in English” (p. ix). A further interesting gloss on Vico’s usage emerges when we remember that we call Plato’s most famous dialogue the Republic because that is how Cicero rendered Plato’s Peri politeia, which can in turn be reasonably translated as On the Elements of the Polis.

[ back ] 11. McLuhan and McLuhan, Laws of Media (Chapter 4, n. 21 above), 475.