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. It exchanges the tyranny of an ill-disposed monarch for the tyranny of an ignorant hoi poloi."
"And that troubles you? Interest in politics is always an excuse for not thinking."
"It does trouble me. Deeply. In spite of your warning."
"How so? Please be specific."
"I have been wondering whether democracy is the end or apex of political evolution."
"Yes, I see. That is a troubling thought. And by 'evolution' do you mean progress?" he asked.
"I don't know whether to believe in progress. But I cannot help thinking that each time a civilization rises and falls, the civilizations that come later are different, and perhaps better off in some way, because they can learn from the earlier ones. So the replay of events in history is not identical with the ideal and eternal pattern. It evolves. At the very least it accumulates."
"Describe the pattern. I am not certain I understand." It did not seem to me that the Old Man was patronizing me, but there was something about him that had always irritated me. Saying he did not understand seemed more an indictment of my capacity to make myself clear than of his own powers to grasp difficult thoughts. I continued,
"The various nations and cities and civilizations are born, they rise, they flourish for a time, they decline, they all fall. And it is the same for people."
"I see. Yes. Most men cannot part with the belief that each person's future is fixed from his very birth, but that some things happen differently from what has been foretold--through the impostures of those who describe what they do not know, and that this destroys the credit of a science, clear testimonies to which have been given both by past ages and by our own."
This was a remarkable thing the Old Man had said, although vaguely familiar to me.
"Necessity and chance," I mumbled to myself.
"Yes, of course; the currency of those who trade in prophecy. Are you a trader?"
"No," I said, "only a spectator."
"And what have you witnessed that brings you to these sublime thoughts?"
"You will think I'm quite mad if I tell you."
"There are worse things than madness," he said. "What?"
"Barbarism is worse."
"And what is barbarism?" I inquired.
"It comes down to a kind of impiety that constitutes nothing less than rebellion. To take divine things and treat them as if they were of human origin; to live as if one has made himself--and all else that is good, or noble, or worthy; that is barbarism. May heaven preserve us from it."
"That is how the tyrant lives, is it not?"
"Yes, and if the people be the tyrant, then it is how the people live. It is far better to be mad."
"I see. Then I need not worry too much if you think me mad; I should only fear that you may think me barbarous."
"If you fear that I will think you barbarous, you have already shown me that you are not. As for your madness, I should like to hear it. Give me a speech about it; I will listen."
"All right, but if I make a speech, you must make one also," I replied.
"That seems an admirable swap. Speeches, I suppose, are the money of spectators. But I shall return you only a fair price. Speak well if you want anything of value for your trouble."
"How shall I speak well?"
"Speak prudently. Do not neglect that which is particular to your account before you generalize. Give me what is certain and known about the life of man before drawing me up to the heavens in a chariot of words," he said.
"I will do my best."
"That is all one can require of a man. I will not interrupt."
"My madness, then, seems to be caught in a vacillation like the one you mentioned earlier--between the conviction that things on the whole happen for inexorable reasons, and the feeling that I may act as I please and am able to pursue the occasions of fortune to my own advantage. My speech begins with the observation that Homer said, in essence, all that the Hellenes later lived out. That Dante...