Classics Mythology Philosophy

Understanding Greek Literature and Philosophy with Giambattista Vico

The little-known Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico is incredibly important for a proper framework to understanding the Greek classics: sublime violence before love and rationality is where civilization begins.

Accepting sublime violence as the starting point, Hesiod’s Theogony reflects the old cosmos of the Greeks: cruel, dark, and violent. It is governed by lust and destruction. Just read the poem to understand this.

Homer, Hesiod’s great rival, begins the transformation to “poetic metaphysics” in The Iliad. Homer’s cosmos still has the violent gods, but his heroes are humans. Their heroic actions are found in love (Achilles, Patroclus, Priam, Hector, and Odysseus if we keep the continuity of the Homeric storyline).

The Homer of The Odyssey continues the evolution of the Homeric cosmos with Odysseus. Wily as he is, The Odyssey marries cunning with compassion, rationality with love, to bring our hero home to his family.

Homer’s poetic metaphysics displaces Hesiod’s sublime metaphysics, the cosmos of love triumphs over the cosmos of violence. This story reaches its apex in Aeschylus and The Oresteia.

The Greek tragedians are wrestling with the ramification of the post-Homeric world, a cosmos of hope found in love, but find this world shattered by The Persian War and eventually the Peloponnesian War.

With the Homeric cosmos in decline, the Greek poets turn their attention to dike: to justice. The poets, in dramatic form, give birth to philosophy.

Sophoclean justice is premised on the family. Euripidean justice is rooted in compassion and pity.

The birth of comedy and satire in the Greek poetic tradition scoffs at the plausibility of the poetic cosmos. Aristophanes is a reactionary, as Leo Strauss points out, seeking a return to the old cosmos of violence while satirizing Athenian hypocrisy.

The Greek literary tradition proves itself incapable of providing a stable metaphysics for understanding our place in the cosmos. The eclipse of the Greek literary tradition leaves the cosmos in ruin—until Plato shows up.

Plato, who wanted to be a dramatist, takes up the challenge of dealing with the question of the Divine, cosmos, and man. Philosophy supersedes the failure of poetry (in Plato’s mind), hence Plato’s seeming negativity to the poets.

In Plato, through Vico’s eyes, we achieve the proper birth of metaphysics divorced from sublime poetry. In Plato, a cosmos of ordered justice through reason finally emerges.

Platonic and post-Platonic philosophy therefore moves us down the path of rationality, leading to materialism (Epicureanism) and cosmic oneness (Stoicism). Reason triumphs over love.

Greek rationality, however, the idea of reason being superior to love, fails. Christianity emerges and offers the synthesis of reason and love as united together; thus the Greek literary and philosophical tradition gets “smuggled” into Christianity.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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