On this day…23 June

On 23 June 1668 Giambattista Vico was born.

The eighteenth-century Italian philosopher and rhetorician Giambattista Vico was born in Naples on 23 June 1668. The theory of history that Vico proposed in his best-known work, Scienza nuova (New Science, 1725), was of importance to Joyce in the composition of Finnegans Wake.

Vico’s New Science (different editions of which were published in his lifetime) was a history of civil society and proposed a theory of civilisation based on cycles of development and decay. Each cycle had three ages – a divine age, a heroic age, and a human age – and each age was characterised by a linguistic trope. The final age was followed by a ricorso, a return to or recurrence of the first phase of the cycle. Vico doesn’t make it clear whether these cycles are circular in nature (starting and finishing at the same point) or whether they are spiral (each cycle building on the last one).

Joyce’s use of Vico’s ideas is not systematic. As usual, Joyce takes the bits he wants and transforms them to suit his own creative ends. However, the four-part division of Finnegans Wake reflects Vico’s three ages followed by a ricorso (a return or recurrence) that brings us “by a commodius vicus of recirculation” back to the beginning again.

The thunderclap found on the first page of Finnegans Wake also has its origins in Vico. The giants that roam the world in Vico’s divine age are frightened by thunder, attributing it not to a natural phenomenon but to something supernatural: the gods. This drives them to seek shelter in caves, the beginning of human settlement. Settlement brings with it other necessities, like marriage and the burial of the dead.

The final age, the human age, is characterised by the barbarism of reflection and individuals thinking only for themselves without any concern for society as a whole. This in turn results in a return to primitivism and a return to or recurrence (ricorso) of the beginning of the cycle.

Vico is now considered to be an important influence on the philosophy of history. He was the first to propose the idea that people thought differently in different historical periods, and that we cannot judge earlier civilisations by the yardstick of our own ways of thinking. Incidentally, he was also one of the first to suggest that Homer was not one poet but many. The wisdom in Homer’s works, according to Vico, is not that of a particular moment (the moment in which Homer lived) but is a distillation of the wisdom of a people over a long period of time.

Vico was Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Naples. He died in 1744.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Vico, Giambattista: New Science – Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, translated by David Marsh, with an Introduction by Anthony Grafton, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1999.

Verene, Donald Philip: Knowledge of Things Human and Divine – Vico’s New Science and Finnegans Wake, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.