In 1744, the year of his death, the Italian philosopher and rhetorician Giambattista Vico published the final edition to his magnum opus The New Science – one that greatly elaborated his thoughts on history, political philosophy, epistemology, and his revolutionary insight into the “Homer” question. Alas, Vico and his opus as a whole suffered neglect, and a towering intellect received, instead of attention or consideration, a dusty corner at the bottom of the shelves of bookstores.
In time, however, Vico and his New Science became more and more important, and more and more recognized as an original and important account in the many genres that compose the corpus known as philosophy. Scholars and philosophers such as Jules Michelet and R.G. Collingwood appreciated the fact that Vico, although he spent a great deal of his sketchy professional life as a university professor, was one of the great autodidacts in human history, supplementing his boyhood education with long hours reading Latin and modern philosophical texts.
Autodidacts are rare in any given society. Although one may mention Lincoln or Churchill as examples of those without any means or getting into university (Lincoln was too poor, and Churchill could never master the ancient languages then needed to pass an examination), it is important to realize that not all members of any society has either the means, or the inclination, to learn the fruits that their civilizations provide them.
Mostly, from my own experience, it comes from the lack of education that any student garners from the public school system before they enter university. I was one of the lucky few that had, especially in my high school years, truly amazing teachers who wished to give their students the desire to learn more than what was either being taught or discussed in the class. Unfortunately, not all teachers are like this (nobody’s perfect, after all;) and some students are too poor to attend university, even with the so-called “free tuition program” in place.
Thus, a great many students who want to learn the ethics of Immanuel Kant, the political philosophy of Aristotle, or the basic structures of their own governmental framework are thus deprived of the chance of becoming fully informed and intellectually able members of our democratic society. The dream of Aristotle and James Bryce, about a fully informed citizenry approaching the voting booth with deeply thought out opinions and with a wealth of historical, philosophical, and institutional knowledge ready to pop out of their brains when it comes to be ready to select their candidates, is thus not to be fulfilled.
This dream will undoubtedly seem idealistic to the cynical, and undoubtedly doubtful by the undoubtedly doubtful. It may be countered, however, that without education no one can have the know-how even as to how to properly sign their own name, or know what is being said by any of the competing candidates running for political office. “Why does that matter?” asks the cynic. It matters because a single rashly cast vote in a tumultuous election taking place during a tumultuous time can tip the scales between authoritarian tyranny or peace and prosperity. Although the chance of this happening is nill, it must be remembered that in certain countries a single vote can either give a government a majority or a minority, an authoritarian despot or a libertarian Jack-a-dandy.
Although not all are willing to learn their countries history or the political science/ philosophy behind their various governmental institutions, a great many are deprived of such an opportunity by being denied the chance to have a full university education. It isn’t that being deprived of sitting for hours at a time, your backside becoming increasingly numb and nimble, deprives one of really learning anything important- such are what books provide. It is that nothing beats the ability to have a well-meaning and well thought out dialogue with another person who has the same interests or conflicting opinions as yourself. Such cannot be gotten from books.