Vico’s “Discovery of the True Homer”

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.

Vico’s Frontispiece to The New Science

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.

Plato pointing at the heavens

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).

Diomedes battles Ares – to Vico, clear evidence that Homer was no philosopher.

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).

Brian Cox as Agamemnon in 2004’s Troy – looking pretty vulgar if I do say so myself.

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).

Joyce with Sylvia Beach. Note “The Scandal of Ulysses” poster in background. It is a reproduction of a British sports newspaper’s cover.

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.

H. G. Wells

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).

A Greek rhapsode on a vase

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).

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5 Responses to Vico’s “Discovery of the True Homer”

  1. Nates says:

    Interesting. Does Vico specify where Plato says that Homer was “endowed with sublime esoteric wisdom”? It certainly doesn’t sound like the treatment of Homer in the Republic! Or maybe by “Plato” Vico means the collective Platonic tradition?

  2. Josh says:

    So I excerpted the above quotation about Plato, ellipsing out the reference. It says “… yet, as Plato [R. 598ff, 606f!] left firmly fixed the opinion that Homer was endowed with sublime esoteric wisdom…”

    According to my translation’s notes at the front, the brackets mean “inserted by the translators (or, in a few cases, by Vico’s editor, Nicolini)”). I’m not sure which sort of brackets these are.

    Again, according to the notes, the “!” means “Vico misremembers, misquotes, distorts or misrepresents the sources to whic he refers or on whic he is presumably relying. (This sign might have been used with great frequency, but we have forborne. We content ourselves with a general caveat in this place and a reference to Nicolini’s Commento storico for full particulars.”

    From both of those obscure notes, I deduce (perhaps falsely) that these Plato references are Nicolini’s. There would be no reason for the translators to have interpolated references to Plato which they themselves believed were inaccurate or misleading.

    Here are the excerpts cited (from the Republic Book X). I’ve made no attempt to parse them or understand their context: you know Plato better, so maybe you have some idea?

    Around 600 (presumably, 598ff):

    …is there any tradition of a war in Homer’s time that was well conducted by his command or counsel?” “None.” “Well, then, as might be expected of a man wise in practical affairs, are many and ingenious inventions1 for the arts and business of life reported of Homer as they are of Thales2 the Milesian and Anacharsis3 the Scythian?” “Nothing whatever of the sort.” “Well, then, if no public service is credited to him, is Homer reported while he lived to have been a guide in education to men who took pleasure in associating with him [600b] and transmitted to posterity a certain Homeric way of life4 just as Pythagoras5 was himself especially honored for this, and his successors, even to this day, denominating a certain way of life the Pythagorean,6 are distinguished among their contemporaries?” “No, nothing of this sort either is reported; for Creophylos,7 Socrates, the friend of Homer, would perhaps be even more ridiculous than his name8 as a representative of Homeric culture and education, if what is said about Homer is true. For the tradition is that Homer was completely neglected in his own lifetime by that friend of the flesh.” [600c]
    “Why, yes, that is the tradition,” said I; “but do you suppose, Glaucon, that, if Homer had really been able to educate men9 and make them better and had possessed not the art of imitation but real knowledge, he would not have acquired many companions and been honored and loved by them? But are we to believe that while Protagoras10 of Abdera and Prodicus11 of Ceos and many others are able by private teaching [600d] to impress upon their contemporaries the conviction that they will not be capable of governing their homes or the city12 unless they put them in charge of their education, and make themselves so beloved for this wisdom13 that their companions all but14 carry them about on their shoulders,15 yet, forsooth, that Homer’s contemporaries, if he had been able to help men to achieve excellence,16 would have suffered him or Hesiod to roam about rhapsodizing and would not have clung to them far rather than to their gold,17 and constrained them to dwell with them18 in their homes, [600e] or failing to persuade them, would themselves have escorted them wheresoever they went until they should have sufficiently imbibed their culture?” “What you say seems to me to be altogether true, Socrates,” he said. “Shall we, then, lay it down that all the poetic tribe, beginning with Homer,19 are imitators of images of excellence and of the other things that they ‘create,20’ and do not lay hold on truth?

    Here’s 606e-607a (there is no “606f”):

    “Then, Glaucon,” said I, “when you meet encomiasts of Homer who tell us that this poet has been the educator of Hellas,13 and that for the conduct and refinement14 of human life he is worthy of our study and devotion, and that we should order our entire lives by the guidance of this poet we must love1 and salute them as doing the best they can,2 and concede to them that Homer is the most poetic3 of poets and the first of tragedians,4 but we must know the truth, that we can admit no poetry into our city save only hymns to the gods and the praises of good men.5 For if you grant admission to the honeyed muse6 in lyric or epic, pleasure and pain will be lords of your city instead of law and that which shall from time to time have approved itself to the general reason as the best.” “Most true,” he said.

  3. Nates says:

    Yes, that sounds more typical of Plato’s opinion of Homer. After all, he wants him thrown out of the city! There are plenty of remarks like this in the Republic, both in the account of the guardians’ education (books 2+3) and in the final remarks on artistic representation (book 10). (However, my translation has fewer “forsooths” in it.)

    Nonetheless, I’m hesitant to call this a deception or misunderstanding on Vico’s part. He’s a softy soft, but not a con artist! In my earlier comment, I (somewhat flippantly) remarked that he might be referring to the broader Platonic tradition. Now I think this is probably right. The Neoplatonists, who were obsessed with reconciling the views of pretty much everyone–especially Plato and Aristotle–took the same tack with Plato and Homer. This is fully documented in Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition by Robert Lamberton. You can skim through it on Amazon or google books, and it seems clear that Plotinus and others took Homer to be a theologian or philosopher, expressing himself in allegorical form.

    In these later Platonists we find the first clear expression of the vaguely cult-like Esoteric tradition, which is brought by Augustine into Medieval thought, is carried on by early moderns such as Bruno, and finally arrives on the doorstep of our Vico. (By the way, there’s a wonderful fictional account of this tradition in John Crowley’s Aegypt series. This could be interesting companion-reading for your academic project.)

  4. Josh says:

    I think the ! turns out just to be the editors alerting us to the fact that there is no 606f. So you’re saying that Vico’s citation of the Republic isn’t all that on-point, but in the broader context of the cult-like Neoplatonists, it was logical that Vico would read Plato that way?

    Also Bruno – who is that? Bruno is really important in Finnegans Wake as well (and for Joyce throughout his life) but I don’t know anything about him.

  5. Nates says:

    Yeah, that’s basically the idea. I mean, I personally think it’s odd to refer to the views of Neo-Platonic thinkers writing almost a thousand years after Plato as “Plato’s views”, but it seems to fit with Vico’s approach. So: logical in that sense.

    Giordano Bruno was a fascinating guy. He was an early supporter of Copernicus, but he took it a step further, claiming the universe was infinitely extended. (Copernicus still had the fixed starts rotating together on an outer sphere.) He was also famous for his encyclopedic memory (and his secret system for memorizing things). He began as a monk, developed very philosophical (and heretical) readings of Christian thought, debated with scholars in Oxford (while possibly serving as a spy), worked with various alchemists, got arrested by the Church, and, after refusing to recant, was finally burned at the stake in Rome. (Last summer I saw his statue marking the spot in the Campo de’ Fiori.) For your purposes, Bruno is known for his highly allegorical, deliberately esoteric readings of pretty much everything.

    I’ve always wanted to find a way to include him in some of my early modern classes, but it’s hard to find a text that works for students.

    Anyway, this is another reason to grab a copy of Crowley’s Aegypt series, since Bruno is one of the major characters! (Especially in the first book, The Solitudes.)

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