The project of Vico’s New Science is a confusing and idiosyncratic one, but it is one for which the role of Homer and his true identity Vico takes as central. To better present Vico’s arguments, I’ll clarify the context in which Vico’s answer to the Homeric Question arises. Understanding its context in The New Science as a whole is important to understanding the language he uses to set forth that argument itself.
The New Science intends to provide a grand systematic account of humanity’s earliest cultural, political, linguistic and religious developments. Vico’s main method for reaching conclusions about these developments is a close examination of our oldest extant mythology, literature and language. For Vico the stories and languages of our ancestors contain really determinate hints that show us the specific phases through which mankind must have stepped in its journey to the present. Since, for Vico, “there has come down to us no writer more ancient than Homer,” Vico wants to use the Homeric poems to demonstrate determinate truths about the very early age during which they were composed, an age which is very important for Vico’s overall account.
In the earliest pages of the introductory “Idea of the Work,” Vico tells us that he intends to show that we have misunderstood the inheritance of the ancient poetic tradition, and Homer’s place within it. For Vico,
the beginnings of poetry [are] not only different from but contrary to those which have been hitherto imagined, are found to lie in the beginnings of poetic wisdom, which have from the same cause been hitherto hidden from us. This poetic wisdom, the knowledge of the theological poets, was unquestionably the first wisdom of the world for the gentiles. The statue of Homer [on the work’s frontispiece – see above] signifies the discovery of the true Homer… Unknown until now, he has held hidden from us the true institutions of the fabulous time among the nations, and much more so those of the dark time which all had despaired of knowing… (6)
Vico would like to use Homer as a paradigm case of “poetic wisdom.” To do so, he must prove that Homer’s poems signify more than just the thoughts of one poet and his particular vision. He must show that Homer’s poems are culturally representative. Once we come to see Homer as representative in this manner, “the two poems of Homer [can be] found to be two great treasure houses of discoveries of the natural law of the gentes among the still barbarous Greeks” (7). This is where his answer to the Homeric Question becomes important. To Vico, for the Iliad and the Odyssey to be the sort of culturally significant source of meaning which can serve as “treasure houses of discoveries,” he thinks that he must demonstrate that these poems were not written by one well-refined and literate man, in one place and time, but instead, he thinks he must demonstrate that they were collectively composed and transmitted by a “vulgar tradition.” Of course, we might think Vico could still use Homer’s poems to demonstrate cultural trends, regardless of their authorship, but the important point for us is that Vico does not see things this way: to him, the resolution of the Homeric Question, the “discovery of the true Homer” is a necessary step in the process which allows us to see Homer’s “poetic wisdom” as significant.
Vico cites either the Iliad or the Odyssey over one hundred times in Books I and II of The New Science, the section of the book that sets forth Vico’s most important arguments about our early cultural history. After using Homer as a “treasure house” of “poetic wisdom” over the 300 pages of Books I and II, in Book III – “Discovery of the True Homer” – he sets forth his argument that he thinks is necessary to demonstrate Homer’s relevance. One might think that if Homer’s identity is of such importance to the argument of Book II, that he would lay out this argument initially, but he does not do so. Instead, Book III seeks to explain the relevance of the Homeric evidence Vico has already set forth in great quantity. And when Vico, at long last, finally does begin to explain “The Discovery of the True Homer,” things are again a bit idiosyncratic and obscure. We find Book III cast as a refutation of what Vico takes to be the conventional view of Homer, a view he attributes to Plato:
Although our demonstration in the preceding book that poetic wisdom was the vulgar wisdom of the peoples of Greece… should carry as a necessary consequence that the wisdom of Homer was not at all different in kind, yet, as Plato left firmly fixed the opinion that Homer was endowed with sublime esoteric wisdom (and all the other philosophers have followed in his train, with Plutarch foremost, writing an entire book on the matter), we shall here examine particularly if Homer was ever a philosopher (301).
Vico therefore finds himself impelled to prove that Homer was no “philosopher” of “esoteric wisdom,” and in so doing, he takes to rebutting the unitarist answer to the Homeric Question. Instead of esoteric philosophical wisdom, for Vico, Homer is the embodiment of “vulgar wisdom.”
Vico cites a smattering of philological, grammatical and historical proof of the notion of collective, oral authorship of the Homeric poems. The argument is not presented in all that persuasive of a form – it barely even cites proof for most of its allegations, and asserts many of its points dogmatically. Still, it’s a curious and provocatively worded account, one that echoes contemporary scholarship (even if it lacks argumentative rigor).
Vico begins his refutation of the alleged esoteric wisdom of Homer with a description of Homer’s language that echoes early reviews of Ulysses: “let us concede to Homer what certainly must be granted, that he had to conform to the quite vulgar feelings and hence the vulgar customs of the barbarous Greece of his day” (301). In Homer, Vico finds the “vulgar opinion… that Diomed can wound Venus and Mars,” a glorification of ”the inhuman custom.. of poisoning arrows…” a willingness to show “the villainies of the gods…” and an unabashed representation of “the sheer stupidity… of his captain, Agamemnon” (301-302).
In sum, Vico writes,
such crude, course, wild, savage, volatile, unreasonable or unreasonably obstinate, frivolous, and foolish customs can pertain only to men who are like children in the weakness of their minds, like women in the vigor of their imaginations, and like violent youths in the turbulence of their passions; when we must deny to Homer any kind of esoteric wisdom (304).
Just for fun, Compare this summary with H.G. Wells’ 1917 remarks on Joyce:
Mr. Joyce has a cloacal obsession. He would bring back into the general picture of life aspects which modern drainage and modern decorum have taken out of ordinary intercourse and conversation. Coarse, unfamiliar words are scattered about the book unpleasantly, and it may seem to many, needlessly. If the reader is squeamish upon these matters, then there is nothing for it but to shun this book.
For Vico, then, Homer’s poems are, first and foremost, vulgar profanity in the most literal sense: they are the non-sacred creations of ordinary people. Vico’s intention in so characterizing the Homeric poems is not to denigrate or disrespect them however – “this [vulgarity] does not make Homer any the less the father and prince of all sublime poets” (314).
Having established Homer’s vulgarity, Vico moves on to establish that the poems have multiple authors. First, he discusses the debate over Homer’s homeland. He points out that “almost all the cities of Greece claimed to be [Homer’s] birthplace” (304). He claims to adduce geographical evidence which “shows clearly that the Homer of the Odyssey was not the same as the Homer of the Iliad” (305). He also notes that there are many Homeric passages which illustrate inconsistencies of their date of composition, and “yet we do not see how to reconcile so many refined customs with the many wild and savage ones” (308). The only way to reconcile all of this is to adopt the mythic view – “we must suppose that the two poems were composed and compiled by various hands through successive ages” (308).
In addition to the Homeric poems’ representation of barbaric customs, confused geography and chronology, Vico also argues from formal aspects of the poems as well. Vico finds in Homer (as, again, critics of Joyce have found in Ulysses) “base sentences… crude comparisons… local idioms… licenses in meter… variations in dialect” (325-326). In spite of all these seemingly lesser qualities, however, Vico sees other virtues in the Homeric poems: “other pre-eminences fall to him which have been ascribed to him by all the masters of the part of poetry, declaring him incomparable in his wild and savage comparisons, in his cruel and fearful descriptions of battles and deaths, in his sentences filled with sublime passions, in the expressiveness and splendor of his style” (326-327).
Besides the substantive and formal traits Vico sees as establishing the vulgarity and collective authorship of the Homeric poems, he also sets forth an alternative account of their oral composition and transmission. The poems were begun by
the Homeric rhapsodes, who were vulgar men, each preserving by memory some part of the Homeric poems. Homer left none of his poems in writing… The rhapsodes went about the cities of Greece singing the books of Homer at the fairs and festivals, some singing one of them, others another. By the etymology of their name from the two words which compose it, rhapsodes were stitchers-together of songs, and these songs they must certainly have collected from none other than their own peoples. Simlarly, homeros is said to come from homou, together, and eirein, to link… This derivation … is natural and proper when applied to our Homer as a binder or compiler of fables (318).
After a long period of oral tradition, for Vico, these poems were eventually written down: “the Pisistratids, tyrants of Athens, divided and arranged the poems of Homer… The Pisistraids also ordered that from that time onward the poems should be sung by the rhapsodes at the Panathenaic festivals” (319).
“Homer” was a collective name used to refer to people who lived over a wide span of time in many different places. The Homeric poems display a preference for vulgarity over propriety. They show a chaotic marriage of different styles, with extravagant comparisons side-by-side with vulgar idioms. They were composed and transmitted orally, but then eventually committed to writing by political authorities for the purpose of the creation of a public myth. And so for Vico, Homer, the alleged earliest writer of our tradition, is instead “a purely ideal poet who never existed as a particular man in the world of nature” (323). Instead, “the Greek peoples were themselves Homer… our Homer truly lived on the lips and in the memories of the peoples of Greece” (324).