Nestor, p. 8
[cf. Gabler 20: 21-26; 1922 24: 22-26]
Stephen is quizzing his class, who do not seem to have done their work in studying ancient history. While other boys in the classroom seem to know the answers to the questions Stephen is asking, he’s intent on grilling Armstrong, who has been paying more attention to his snack than to the lesson.
If Armstrong were allowed to speak for himself, and were not a literary character (with only a very few lines to give) he might ask why anyone should care about Pyrrhus, whoever he was. What difference will it ever make to him? What does history have to do with him at all? Stephen is all too aware of the effects of history in his classroom, Just as James Joyce is all too aware of the power of history as he wrote this episode in the heart of war-ravaged Europe in the summer of 1917.
Stephen thinks about Armstrong’s family, that they have another son in the navy, and that they live on Vico Road in Dalkey. Vico Road is a real road in Dalkey (Here is a lovely video of a man talking about living on that road, with beautiful pictures of the bay), but Joyce is really just giving a shout-out to one of his favorite philosophers of history, the Neapolitan Giambattista Vico. We will not go deep on Vico here, but suffice it to say that he saw the course of human history as consisting of inevitable cycles of the rise and fall of civilizations, and that the causes for the rise and fall of civilizations had to do with human behavior in complex systems, including religion and government, and not in broader metaphysical precepts. Armstrong’s obliviousness to history is part of the Viconian cyclical play.
And finally, his guess about what “Pyrrhus” is has to be one of the worst attempts to recover from being caught not paying attention ever. A pier. No credit for that answer.