THE GIFT OF FIRE
by Richard Mitchell
Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
THE STRANGE POWER THAT WE call imagination is at once a form of thinking and a useful aid to more thinking. Imagination can be understood as at once a kind of intelligence and a kind of poetry, which we ordinarily think of as something not at all intellectual but “creative.” A bad mistake. Poetry and intelligence have one tremendous power in common. Each is a way of discovering, and of revealing, that things very different from each other are also like each other, and that similar things are very different from each other. Metaphor is in the heart of each, some way of language that can treat a city seen at dawn in the distance as though it were a sleeping creature and a girl as though she were a rose.
It is mind that does such things, of course, and if that way of understanding is to be called creative, then we might better understand human “creativity” not as some unaccountable and maybe emotional urge within, but as thinking. As such, it is remarkably useful in the mind’s work of knowing itself.
My mind to me, a kingdom is, says the poet. Well, that’s nice. It is hardly one of the great, sonorous lines of mighty verse, but it does stay in the mind. And we can think about it, which might be better than “appreciating” it, whatever that might mean. It would be fun to have the poet here, to ask him some questions about his curious assertion, and even to consider whether or not he has gone a bit too far. Can it be that what he says is simply a truthful description of some might and majesty, or is he perhaps boasting a little about his independent, sensitive, poetic mind? And, an even more important question: Is he doing his proper duty as a poet, and casting light on some universal by example of the particular, or is he just “expressing himself”?
So, your mind is a kingdom, eh? What sort of a kingdom is it? Are the borders open or jealously guarded? Do the citizens rejoice in their king, his just laws, and his kind governance, or do they have to console themselves with the thought that someday they will get to die and escape all this? Are the king’s officers arrogant or cordial in the execution of their duties? Do they take bribes?
And how about the politics of your little kingdom? Is there a perpetual feud going on between the conservatives and the liberals? Is the king himself the king of all, or is he the leader of one of the factions? Is he in secure possession of his throne, or is he beset by pretenders? Is there any danger of revolution? Which side would you be on?
A poet, of course, would probably find such questions diverting, and worth some playful consideration. No, no, this one would probably say, the borders of my land are welcoming and open. Merchants and princes and sages bring treasures from afar. The land is thus full of beauty and light, which the king loves more than power and might. And I do suspect that he meant, by the word “kingdom,” some immense combination of a well-tended park and a well-stocked museum, probably not caring much about that one essential which makes one kingdom one sort of place, and another, quite a different sort of place. And that is Politics.
Aristotle held, and Plato too, and many others, that the highest and most important study to which we could devote ourselves is the thoughtful consideration of politics. An extraordinarily dreary prospect for most of us, who suppose that it is Politics that we see in action in election campaigns, and in all the unseemly scramble for office and power. But that is not at all what ancient thinkers meant by the word. For them, Politics, this time with the capital, was the study of “polity,” the consideration of questions about the art and nature of virtuous governing, and the inquiry into the possibility of a just state. It was not really about what we call the government, except insofar as this or that government might serve as an example, but about governing, and it was not confined to considerations of the state and its workings, but gave itself also to considering the just governing of anything or anyone. It was thus yet another way of self-knowledge, for the self is, just as much as the state, a place, and even a community, and it may, just like the state, be governed well or ill.
While it looks tame, a schoolteacher’s work can also be dangerous. A professor is, supposedly, one who “professes” something, who holds something both true and worthy, not merely correct and useful. The act of professing, therefore, arises at least partly from a condition that might correctly be called “loyalty,” and it is presumably out of the recognition that something deserves loyalty that a professor has chosen to profess. Thus, the special sin that always lies in wait for those who profess is treachery, the withdrawal of loyalty from that to which it had once been freely granted, and granted neither out of sentiment nor practicality, but out of recognition of merit.
None of that is mentioned, of course, in the oath taken by professors as they enter into their callings, because there is no such oath. Professors do not even, like physicians, promise aloud and in public that they will “first of all, do no harm.” Thus it is that there is not, among professors, a great central theme to which all, whatever their special corners of interest, have given thoughtful and willing assent, as there is among physicians the great theme of healing. In the lack of any public oath, it seems only decent for a professor to devise and utter a private one, and its first clause might well be, for it will apply equally to professors of philosophy and professors of media management, “Primum, non mentior.” First of all, to tell no lies. For just as surely as harm is the very opposite of healing, and thus the physician’s veriest adversary, the lie is the very opposite of what the professor is given to seek. Truth. Of course, for those who do not admit the existence of Truth, there is no lying, and they would have to devise some other oath. Or do without.
I do hold, for instance, that in the readings that I study and consider with my students, there is Truth, the continual search for the truest possible understandings of how it is with us humans. All good books are, whatever else they may be, the recorded work of some mind trying to take the grasp of itself, trying to bring into order the random and accidental universe of experience, and thus to find meaning. And to tell it, but to tell it not as a problem’s solution may be told, not as a “moral” or a bottom line, but as a grand metaphor, whose very boundaries are marked not by barriers but by signposts pointing outward and beyond.
Any truthful literature will admit: No, this is not life itself, it is only a serious sort of game, but it is like life, and the mind that plays here is like yours, and this vision is what you too can see, and consider, and find worthy, and by which you may know yourself better. For this book is about you. Every truthful and thoughtful book is about you, every story is yours.
My outbursts of treachery occur when I come to believe, or pretend that I believe, that literature is all a lie. Those so-called Great Books come to seem the highly specialized productions of exceedingly few people, elegant exercises of the elite, having nothing to do with humanity in general. I begin to imagine the little-suspected existence among us of the Great Mind Club, an outfit even more exclusive than Mensa, whose members are truly a race apart, not like us and whose conversations we can, at best, overhear, but into whose lives and minds, integrally united in a way that mine seems never to be, we can not truly enter. And their quaint notions of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful seem the stuff of elfin fantasies and dreams, charming whimsies for the idle hour between productive labor and sleep.
In those times, my students, although entirely innocent, seem to provide some new evidence to contradict the deepest theme not only of all literature but of all concerted and deliberate thoughtfulness, which is that the temporary and particular are always outward and visible signs of whatever is permanent and universal. There are times–I suspect every teacher knows them–when I can not for the life of me detect in some of my students any hint whatsoever of the permanent and universal. They seem to me not what they truly are, the legitimate sons and daughters–and heirs as well–of all the great and nourishing spirits from the time of the astonishing painters of the walls of caves right down to yesterday. They seem, rather, some new life form, with no past, recently come among us, and utterly without those qualities that humanity has always supposed to be its essentials, the unique qualities by which a person is a person, not only not another sort of creature, but not any other person either.
They seem to find no beauty in the Beautiful, and Truth and Goodness do not especially interest them. They give no sign of a desire to know. They seem not to have dreamed of even the possibility of actually examining and judging the life that they live. And, should they glimpse it, the prospect does not please them. It is as though they were synthetic, the dish-cultured product of some secret laboratory operated by demented bioengineers.
Straightaway I grow cynical and negligent, thinking of Saint Anthony preaching to the fishes, and pitying myself all the more to remember that the fishes did at least listen to the Saint, and even approve his words, for a while. It is a disgusting and childish condition, and I have, at last, learned to recover from it and do better work by bringing my students into some consideration of the topic that seems so dreary, stale, and even tacky–Politics. Thus, I recover my loyalty through seeking in them the permanent and universal, and always finding it. They truly are, and by nature, it seems, political, carrying in the minds that seem so empty the very ideas of good and virtuous government to which the ancients urged us all to attend.
Plato seems to have concluded that the idea of Justice is not one that we have to learn, but that we have it by Nature. As evidence, we can cite the fact that even little children can tell the difference between fairness and unfairness, and are quick to point it out, however privately. I’m not entirely convinced by that fact, because I’m not sure that it is a fact. It seems to me rather that little children, just like you and me, are very good at detecting only certain cases of Injustice, and have a way of not noticing it when they don’t happen to think themselves its victims. If there is something innate in us, therefore, I am inclined to suspect that it is not our recognition of Justice for what it is, but our incessant wanting, which is very quiet when satisfied but noisy when thwarted. No matter. I do not, in order to do my work, have to answer that ancient question as to whether anything at all can be innate in us. By the time I look for the idea of Justice in my students, it is there. That will do.
Even a mistaken complaint against Injustice is an appeal to principle. No one says, Your treatment of me is wrong because I don’t like it. Everyone calls upon some “higher power,” which finds that treatment wrong in itself; whether anyone likes it or not. Someday, someone will say, What you propose to do in my case is surely well-intended and would please me a lot, but I must ask you to refrain, for it would not be just. Diogenes will blow out his lamp and go home to bed. Nevertheless, the latter complaint is alive and well in the former, and who makes the one can be led to see Reason in the other. When my students notice unfairness I notice that they are human, and hope returns, and loyalty with it, for I know that any one of them could, just could, send Diogenes home someday.
I do not mean by that the fact that they have adopted, willy-nilly, this or that party affiliation, although they usually have. I mean something deeper, the impulse that perhaps brings us all so naturally to join this or that party of opinion, by which we intend, however inarticulately or ineffectively, or even mistakenly, to serve nothing less than Justice. And my students, even the most lazy and self-indulgent–I might better say especially the most lazy and self-indulgent–are interested in Justice. They are more than interested; they are for it. They know that it is good, and Injustice, bad. That knowledge is the root of Politics and of our concerns with goodness in government, both the outer government of the state and the inner government of the mind.
All I have to do so that they will know themselves as inquirers into Justice, is to have them read Antigone. When they have done that, I ask them whether they remember especially any certain line or passage. It’s a gamble, but I usually win, and not by luck, but because I know that they are interested in Justice, and for it. And the passage that someone can always be counted on to choose is the one in which Haemon is dismissed by his father, Creon the king, as too young to question the wisdom of his elders. But if I happen to be right, answers the son, what does my age matter? That, every student, of whatever persuasion, or color, or I.Q., or previous condition of ignorance, understands. That may be only a first step, but it is the step that must be taken first. Refinements can come later.
Literature is always about Justice, about truth and falsehood, about harm and healing. It is always about the transactions between persons, which are the only possible dwelling places of Justice and Injustice. There is no more Injustice in earthquakes than there is Justice in sunny skies, for Justice comes of choosing, and there must be a chooser. Literature is about persons choosing, or failing to choose, or not knowing how or why to choose, and about the world that such persons make, and in which other persons must live. Every book is a portrayal of a kingdom, a system of related persons living in a land whose borders are the first and last pages. That land has its Politics.
That is why some wandering around in the kingdoms of literature is essential to a true education. It has nothing to do with “culture,” with the presumed social advantages that accrue to those who can recognize, or even use in just the right place, a line from The Taming of the Shrew. And it is not for the sake of “appreciating” the great works, which, in practice, can mean nothing more than feeling, or claiming to feel, some traditionally approved sentiment in the presence of Goethe and Flaubert. And it is useful as a ticket of admission to our “common heritage” only if that common heritage is understood not as the library of this or that historical tradition or culture, but as the permanent reservoir of everything that makes us all human, in all times, and in all places.
The difference between that literature most suitable for “children,” whatever that might mean, and that most suitable for “grown-ups,” whom we will be able to identify once we have identified the children, is this: Children learn what they most need to know from happy stories of the birth of kings, and grown-ups learn again and again what they most need to remember from sad stories of the death of kings. The birth of the king is the coming into the world of Justice, and the death of the king is its passing. In the birth of the king, children recognize the Right, and in his death, grown-ups recognize the Wrong, and, having been children, know where to look for the return of the Right.
Everybody remembers the famous story of the Princess and the Frog, and its happy outcome. Give yourself a little test on that story. It is not a test of “intelligence.” Who was it that brought about that happy outcome, and how? It was not the frog, who is, after all, strictly speaking, a monster, a monster pro tem, to be sure, but still a monster. It was not the princess, who is, after all, a child, a child pro tem, to be sure, but still a child. It was the only grown-up in the tale, who is not only the father of the princess, but the king. And a just king.
When the princess returns to the table, saying that there was no one at the door, her father knows that she is lying. He requires of her the truth, and then says:
Listen, young lady, your rank gives you not privileges but responsibilities. To be royal is to be “right.” A false princess is no princess at all. We do not break our given word. We do not abandon those who helped us in our need. Do you now go down to the door and let that frog in and treat him as you ought.
And the result is that on the very next day, the princess, now a queen, goes off with a king, newly reborn out of unnatural monstrosity, to rule in her own land. And that, all the stories tell us, the stories for children and the stories for grown-ups as well, is the goal of this life–to rule in one’s own land. It is the goal of education as well, and equally the goal set for us by Prometheus, for to rule in one’s own land can mean, for each and every one of us, nothing different from the mind’s grasp of itself as the informer and the director of the will.
There is an important difference between that story and a story that we looked at earlier. The king assumes that the princess is nothing but a child, and must be taught by precept; Jesus assumes that the accusers are the strangely double creatures that most of us are, children here and there and now and then, but also, if in moments only, grown-ups who can be taught by a very different process, and a process that has, significantly, no convenient name among us, and which I have had to call, for lack of a more descriptive term, the “occasion of education.”
What a risk he took. Suppose that those accusers had been completely and only children. Suppose they had been utterly under the control of their appetites, and incapable of self-government by any means; with no thoughtful grasp of their own minds, and unable to “talk about goodness,” to give thoughtful consideration as to what they believed, and as to whether they ought to believe it. Stones would have been thrown that day.
He sent them into their minds, each into his own kingdom, and told them to learn to bring it into order and to rule it, and not to be ruled by any foreign power. And each one declared independence. Each declaration of independence was a political act, committed after having asked and answered certain familiar questions. Who is competent to rule, and by virtue of what? How shall the realm live, by the force of feelings, or by the dictation of beliefs that can never rise to the rank of Knowledge, but take their strength from custom and tradition, and not from Reason? Who is to decide, in this land, what is the Good, and to live by it without regard to comfort or profit or the approval of the emissaries of other lands? Those are the questions that lead to the drawing up of a constitution, or the coronation of a just king, if one of those can be found.
In a person, there is a community, a society. There are many voices. They are all parts of the self, some immigrants from the world out there, and some the native-born, the remnants of earlier selves, which never go away. The little child I once was, I still may be at any moment, either delighting in some fresh wonder as though Beauty had appeared in the world for the first time, or whining for favor and pleasure. And then there’s that teenager, and his only slightly older alter ego who knows everything. The dramatis personae are countless, and, while few are on the stage in any given scene, they are all waiting, some of them panting, in the wings. They all hold the script, to say nothing of the plot, in the deepest contempt, barging on stage whenever they please. And, while the turmoil they cause is quite enough to make life, over and over again, into a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, far behind them there lurks the constant threat of the Great Idiot himself, skulking in the subbasements like the Phantom of the Opera, and waiting for his chance. You know him as well as I do. He is the one who suddenly appears at center stage and takes over completely when you discover a tarantula in the glove compartment. The Idiot is in charge when you fall into rage, or panic, or utterly into appetite.
Who can direct these actors? How shall these citizens be governed? If the land is to have order, and the plot, meaning, who is to be at once their author and king? Can their proper roles be found, and can they be brought to play them, so that each can contribute usefully both to the health of the body politic and to the theme of the piece? Will some of them just have to go, incurable sociopaths beyond all hope of rehabilitation? And who can send them away? After all, they can all claim to have been born here, and they all know that they have their rights.
Such a state of affairs makes a sad story indeed, and it is all the sadder because the king seems to be dead. There is no one in charge. Accident and happenstance spin the plot. It is as though my life were a story being written by no one, but also by anyone, or anything. It has no consistent theme, and not even a clearly identifiable main character. Which of this motley crew is me? Do I have a choice? Who is the chooser? What will the others say, and, even worse, what will they do next?
Those are all political questions, questions about government. That it happens to be my own government makes the answers not less important but actually more important than the equivalent answers for the land in which I live. A citizen who governs himself but poorly, to say nothing of a citizen who will not govern himself at all, lays upon his fellows not only the terrible burden of doing what he could do for himself but won’t, but also the temptation, often, indeed, the necessity, to resort to coercion and violence. In that degree to which I am unable to govern myself, I become to you exactly the opposite of the “occasion of education,” for you will be driven, in handling me, to choose something other than Reason.
And my self-government is more important than “the government” for another reason. About the latter, I can do almost nothing, and that “almost” is only a quibble. About the former, I can do something. Will I? Even about the willing, I can do something. Perhaps if I stop to think about some Petronilla, whose own powers of self-government will depend on mine, I might strengthen even my obstinate will. And if I go on to think about my own child, the whining brat that interrupts some of my best scenes and writes his own script by lung power alone, and remember that unless I can govern him all the rest of you will have to, and in a way that I may find as unpleasant as he will surely find it, I may suddenly discover that self-government and self-interest are sometimes happily served at once. That should make it easier.
All I need is a good king.
The examples of the world, however, will not provide one. The kings of this world are just like me, and perhaps even a bit worse off, owing, for kings, a surprising amount of obedience to all sorts of powers and pressures outside of themselves. Plato once took a job with a king, Dionysius of Syracuse, who had been his student. He wanted to test whether wise and just government could be established out there in the world. The result was bad. And poor Voltaire, even knowing what had happened to Plato, undertook to make the philosopher-king out of the amiable and enlightened Frederick the Great. The result was bad.
As to the government of the self, however, there is no shortage of models, not in the kings of the world, but in the kings of the mind. We have all seen them, and we can all recognize them for what they are.