Academic journal article Humanitas

The River: A Vichian Dialogue on Humanistic Education

Academic journal article Humanitas

The River: A Vichian Dialogue on Humanistic Education

Article excerpt

I went down yesterday to the River. I was walking along the park where today the barge will be landing after the ritual marriage of the King and Maid of Cotton. They had put on this festival for a hundred years at least, and indeed, the cotton cooperates most every year, and the people prosper. The quiet of the park gave little indication of the throngs that would soon fill the banks in drunken revelry. But the workers were still constructing the platform for the orchestra, and cleaning the cannon in Confederate Park for the noisy part in the 1812 Overture.

Feeling a distance from the place and time, I had been pondering the ideal eternal history, the course that the nations run, as committed to paper in the old Italian's big book about a new science. The day was cool and comfortable for May, and portended a not unremarkable charm, something like an augury. The Old Man was relaxing on a bench with the sun to his back and the River before him. I watched as his eyes followed a sizable branch floating gracefully downstream, but then I noticed that he looked out across the River to the west, with penetrating, deep-set eyes that seemed to see past all of Arkansas and Oklahoma and the high plains, until one would almost have believed that he could, somehow, from that vantage see the Great Divide itself, or beyond. I was intrigued, but not quite emboldened enough to ask after his vision.

"May I sit?" I asked.

"By all means. That's why it's here." He patted the bench.

We watched the River in silence for a quarter of an hour. In the periphery of my vision I studied his manner this day--queer, as always, but invitingly so. At length he opened a shabby little bag on the ground beside him, removed a half-empty bottle of Pinot Grigio and an irregular portion of cheese, and in the most meticulous and refined way, set about enjoying them. Another part of an hour was passed in this way, as I watched without watching. Having seen thus to his repast, the Old Man replaced the wine and cheese and took a small, ancient, and well-worn volume from his pocket. He set about leisurely reading it. I could see that the title was De Jure Belli ac Pacis. This piqued my curiosity, as I am sure you will understand. What was here? Such heady topics upon such a fine spring day?

"Pardon me. I don't mean to disturb your reading..." but he cut me off before I could say more.

"Not to worry. I have read this book before, and the words of the living have a more admirable efficacy--in the springtime, on a Friday. What has come clear to you since last we met?"

"I have been shaking a fist at the heavens and nothing has come clear. Not one thing."

"Were you not just thinking about something I said to you many years ago?"

"Was I? I think you have me at an advantage."

"What were you thinking about before you sat down?"

There was nothing at all worrisome about the Old Man's question, and since he seemed today to prefer cat and mouse to a regular conversation, I decided quickly to follow his lead. "I was feeling a distance from this time and place, and thinking about the rise and fall of civilizations. Did you say something about that?"

"I did, and have not found cause to regret it yet, but perhaps I shall. That will be up to you. What, specifically, were you thinking?"

"If you already know, why do you ask?" I took up the game.

"Oblige me, if you would be so kind." He flattened his "i's" and managed to lengthen the words themselves to two full-bodied syllables each, either in observance of the local accent, or in imitation of mine.

"I was thinking about tyrants."

"Yes, go on."

"Plato once said that democracy succeeds in avoiding the greatest evil only at the cost of losing the capacity to achieve the greatest good. Yet, for all a democracy gives up, it does not avoid tyranny. …

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