April 16, 1997

From Gerald R. Lucas

Vico’s Homer

Giambattista Vico, in his imaginative search for the true Homer, uses the language of reason combined with creative speculation and inductive hypothesizing. Homer, for Vico, is a metaphor for the citizens of ancient Greece. He did not exist as a man, but as a much more powerful entity who lived in the cultural consciousness of the entire nation. Homer himself became a myth—a integral myth for the emergence of Greek polity, poetry, and philosophy.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Apotheosis of Homer, 1827.jpg

Vico suggests that Homer was the codifier of Greek culture. Homer, according to Vico, lived about 460 years, encompassing the time when marriage laid the foundation for Greek civility to when philosophers inserted philosophy into the texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey [901]. There could not have been a single man named Homer that could have written the entirety of Greek philosophy, poetry, and social institutions [897]. Yet, opines Vico, since Homer is considered the father of poetry, is venerated by the Greek philosophers, and is representative of all aspects of Greek decorum, he must be a product of the culture that came before and after.

Yet Homer, the idea of the poet, does not contain “sublime esoteric wisdom” like the later philosophers, but “base sentences, vulgar customs, crude comparisons, local idioms, licenses in meter, variations in dialect” and makes men into gods and gods into men [787, 883-8, 893-6]. Vico cites Achilles as a poor choice for a hero who should encompass sublime esoteric wisdom [786]. Also, the fact that many Greek cities claim the honor of having birthed Homer and the variety of dialects used in his epics, Vico interprets as evidence of his non-existence as a single person [788]. Additionally, Vico suggests that the Homeric epics, because they contain elements that do not fit into any one age—games, painting, writing, luxury and pomp, clothing, et cetera—that the poems “were composed and complied by various hands through successive ages” [804].

Vico’s language throughout The New Science, and particularly in “Discovery of the True Homer,” is very rational, yet his exploration remains faithful to the methodology he outlined previously. He starts with the particular, Homer, and fits him into the development of the gentile nation of Greece. In examining the history of Greece and attempting to fit the particular into the general, Vico speculates about the age in which Homer lived and his birthplace. Yet, since the two poems encompass what seems to be the entirety of Greek culture for about 500 years, he concludes that Homer himself was a fable constructed by a nation to codify its culture, poetry, and philosophy.

The true Homer, to Vico, is an institution. Homer’s “sublimity is inseparable from popularity,” and this popularity “first created heroic characters for themselves” from imagined universals; these ideas are products of poetic metaphysics [809]. In an effort to remember history and orient itself within nature, the culture narrates, in heroic language, its common history “enlarging particulars in imagination” [816]. It creates, via the poetic metaphysics, fables that explain nature without reflection, or a “lie that under every aspect has the appearance of the truth” [891]. These fables, then, become the remembered history of a gentile culture. This remembered history, in the form of the Iliad and the Odyssey, were written by its personification: Homer.

So the poet Homer used memory in three different ways to illuminate the history of Greece: “memory when it remembers things, imagination when it alters or imitates them, and invention when it gives them a new turn or puts them into proper arrangement and relationship” [819]. History, then, for Vico, is a bunch of fables that are compiled by poets, and represent the foundation for a modern culture.