The Gift of Fire Chapter Eleven


by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Eleven
The World of No One At All

FEARS SHOUT EVEN LOUDER than appetites. In one way, it is good for us that fear blots out thought and turns us into its robots. In emergencies, nothing is more useful than utterly unthinking fear, which turns on automatic and instantaneous responses, and the person in whom acute fear does not have that effect will not last long on the roads. But fear does not limit itself to immediate physical emergencies, and imagination easily provides it nourishment by picturing an endless anthology of all the bad things that can happen to us, as well as those that surely will happen to us. Even in quiet reflection, fear scrambles thought.

So it is that we are inclined to reject as simply preposterous a notion of Epictetus which holds that nothing bad can happen to a good person. We have plenty of evidence to the contrary, ranging from flat tires and toothaches at one end of the scale to death and destruction at the other.

Toothaches and flat tires some of us may actually escape, but not death and destruction. Death and destruction, however, which are the natural destinies of all creatures and things, are not the killers and destroyers, and it is a strange understanding of the world by which we think the former as “bad” as the latter. Stranger still, we actually take comfort from believing that, since we are regularly victims of what we call bad, then we must be the good, and the innocent. To be stricken with a lethal disease, therefore, is to be persecuted by an implacable and irresistible tyrant, and the sufferer wins not only sympathy, but moral approbation, as the aggrieved party in an unfair proceeding. He seems, all guiltless, to have been condemned. Therefore, he must be the just party to this transaction. That a “bad thing” has happened to him, proves him one of the “good people.” It is as though sickness and every other condition of suffering were a vast prison, in which every single prisoner has been given a bum rap, unjustly accused, unlawfully convicted, and sentenced to death.

In what passes for an age of pragmatic materialism, that is a remarkably superstitious view of the natural world. There is no “progress” in the mind that moves from the belief that the trees and rivers have certain intentions, to the belief that viruses and molecules have intentions. Nor is that mind any the better for admitting, as most will, that it “knows,” of course, that a virus has no intention, but that it nevertheless still feels as though that were so. That’s what the belly says.

Epictetus was doing no more than reaffirming, simply and literally, a very old idea. He could see no sense at all in presuming the existence of goodness or badness where there was no intention, no will. He knew that people fell sick and died, and that they maimed and killed each other routinely, either in the name of the Law or out of it. He was not a childish dreamer who imagined that the “good,” if only they believed something or other with all their hearts, would somehow be magically protected from the natural processes in the world and in themselves. He knew, and anyone can, through nothing more than a little reflection, that it comes to pass with the good exactly as it comes to pass with the bad. Chance and the world happen to them all. And it is the same, whether we imagine that the world includes inordinately touchy gods who take revenge for affront, or implacable diseases lying in wait for those who don’t eat enough fiber.

But I suspect that for Epictetus the question was not how to escape the gods or the diseases; it was rather, how to remain a good person when stricken by either, as we all must be in one way or another. To be sick, or to suffer, is inevitable; but to become bitter and vindictive in sickness and suffering, and to surrender to irrationality, supposing yourself the innocent and virtuous victim of the evil intentions of the world, is not inevitable. The appropriate answer to the question, Why me? is the other question, Why not me? Those who can ask the first, must have already devised some answer to the second, however unconsciously and incoherently. It is the most important implication of Epictetus’ strange assertion that a good person would know better than to devise that answer, an answer that would have to be irrational, setting the deviser above or beyond the natural order in which life takes place.

The curious proposition of Epictetus can be easily understood in the simplest of examples. I find myself once again in the tollbooth line, the shortest one, into which I have audaciously and cunningly found my way, and actually escaped, this time, serious injury or even death, while also, this time, failing to visit either on other drivers. I am, of course, going somewhere. My mission, unlike that of the woman ahead of me, is important. Much, much will depend on my timely arrival at my important destination, where those who await me will be able to do nothing, nothing at all, without me. I have already asked the usual question, Why me? Now I am busy trying to provide a convincing answer to the neat question, Why not me? I have made and accepted my own version of the natural order of things, and actually supposed a universe that has, or damn well ought to have, my convenience in mind. And there she sits, pawing, all in vain, through eighteen pounds of purse. Harm is being done. Notice that I have cleverly put this in the passive, a traditional and convenient way of suggesting that there can be a deed without a doer, and harm without a harmer.

But harm, real harm, truly is done; a badness has been brought into being. And there is an agent of harm; a person who could choose either to do it or not, has done it. I am the agent. There is no other possible agent in sight. The changeless woman is, in this case, as utterly without intentions as the rain that might fall before I reach that stupendously important destination. Should that happen, will I blame the rain, and fume at the Great Order of Things, which is obviously against me? In this context, of course, such a reaction seems preposterous, even ludicrous, in fact, hardly to be believed. But an honest inventory of the past compels me to notice that I have, quite contrary to what seems just now nothing but simple good sense, occasionally done such a thing. Others have, too, I think. How strange.

The event, perhaps, is trivial; the condition it brings is not. It is supremely important. It is a temporary destruction of a person, and, for all I know, a harbinger of a permanent destruction, a lifelong absence of self-rule. (Can such a condition be possible?) If I fail to take it seriously because of the supposed triviality of the event, which I have already taken seriously enough to bring about my own derangement, Epictetus will surely ask me how I intend to measure events, so that I will know which are worth the effort of self-rule, and which may be shrugged off as no big deal. He will also ask me exactly how I intend to instruct Petronilla in this matter, so that she too, like me, will be perfectly capable of thoughtful self-government in the great matters but practical enough not to waste her mental energies on the small. My answers would be, well, certainly entertaining, provided, of course that I made any at all, which would depend on whether I judged the questions themselves a great matter or no big deal. If I am truly to answer Epictetus, and not simply to declaim against him, I can answer only in Reason, only in reasonable conversation, in rationally measurable sayings, in quietly asking and answering in turn.

There is no secret in the art of distinguishing between the better and the worse. The consideration of the questions of goodness and badness is no more mysterious than the consideration of the square of the hypotenuse. Talking about Goodness, the crime that Socrates promised to commit every day, requires no faculty that you and I do not possess by Nature. It requires no special knowledge that only a special few can claim, and no official licensing. It depends not at all on the authority of others, who are all nothing more, or less, than other parties to the conversation, and all of whose sayings are subject to the same rational testing as ours, and whose worth is not in the mouth that utters them, but in that mind that can test them. Nor is the rational consideration of questions of goodness and badness dependent in any way upon feelings, except insofar as such a consideration may be impossible in the presence of certain feelings, as my self-government at the tollbooth is impossible because of what is not only a feeling, but equally a desire to have that feeling–a not uncommon perversity.

That perversity seems to me one of the great mysteries of human behavior. Why is it that I can so often discover, in looking carefully at what I have done, that I have clearly wanted to be irrational? Especially in anger or desperation, I can see, by stepping back only a little way from the “front” of myself, the public display, that I have found in deeds and events exactly the excuse I was looking for to put on a display of anger or desperation. Evidence, both the evidence of the daily world, and, even more conclusively, the evidence of thoughtful literature, suggests that this perversity is not unique to me. It is, indeed, general. That fact has often been taken to support the convenient belief that “man” is, deep down where it really counts, an irrational creature, whose momentary outbursts of rationality are aberrations from the normal. It is another face of the belief that Socrates is a freak, a marvelous and admirable freak, but a freak nevertheless. Those who take that view, whether through serious thought of their own or merely because they have often heard it said, are naturally scornful of those who believe, or seem to believe, in the “perfectibility of man.” Between the two parties, there is incessant disagreement, and their quarrel certainly has about it the look of either/or, so that those who have joined neither party are nagged by the thought that they will eventually, if they want to understand how it is with us, have to take one side or the other. That is bunk. It is a quarrel, on both sides, made entirely of worthless statements in the World of We All.

There is no such reality as “how it is with us,” any more than there is some reality in which “we” have given up slavery. Must I conclude, fuming in the tollbooth line, whether man–or, in this case, woman–is truly a rational creature, who might someday reach the perfection of a truly rational life? “Man” is just a tricky way of saying we. It is not my job either to make man perfectly rational or to figure out whether that can ever be done. It is my job to be rational, and I have no doubt at all that I have that power–sometimes. I am not appointed to decide, for now and for always, whether the omniscience of God, if there is such a thing, is an absolute impediment to the free will of man, if there is such a thing. If I set aside the task of my own self-government until that happy day when “man” shall have learned it, I will continue to do harm for quite a long time. I will also continue to imagine that the world is a place in which bad things, great and small, befall good and innocent people–especially me.

The sense of persecution, or of just plain bad luck, that many people carry through life is really a twisted testimony to their inklings of rationality. He who supposes that the deck is stacked, must begin by supposing that there is a deck, an order of things, and one that can actually be either a right order or a wrong order. By “wrong” and “right,” to be sure, he means wrong or right for him, by which he also means, usually, wrong or right for the fulfillment of his desires or the alleviation of his fears.

Nevertheless, he is right in principle. There is a deck, and it is stacked. But decks don’t stack themselves. It takes a cheater to do that, and there is no cheater in the natural order of things, a fact that is demonstrated not merely by the findings of science but simply by the possibility of science, which could not exist at all if someone were able to fool around with Mother Nature. If the complainer’s deck is stacked, some person has stacked it. It is because I have stacked my own deck, making trumps of all my desires, that I do not notice the irrationality of my expectation that the tollbooth lanes will open at my coming. Like just about anyone else, I want my road open. When I find it closed, whether by a woman without exact change, or by sickness and the threat of death itself, what I find is perfectly natural, and neither bad nor good. It is what I do to myself in such adversities that can be either bad or good.

There is another, and better, way to think about what I have called the World of No One at All. It was also known, in earlier times, as Necessity. Ancient thinkers did indeed mean by that term some of what we mean, all that is summed up in our recognition of the fact that we do have to eat and sleep. But they seem to have meant something more, the fact that the world does have to be the world that it is, that all things are subject to principles, by which they are what they are, and by which they also become, inevitably, what they become. In that understanding, there is no possibility of escape from Necessity, of course, but, even more important, there is no good to be taken or supposed in the escape from Necessity. Far from it, for the dream of escape from Necessity, of special dispensation from the order of the world, is a lie about the world. When I fume in the tollbooth line, I am not a good person to whom a bad thing is happening. I am a liar who is getting what he deserves.

Many pages ago, I made a dismal list of many, but surely not all, of the “bad” things that will surely happen to Petronilla, and, given only enough life, to any child. It was not out of some especially gloomy cast of mind that I chose those disasters, but only out of common knowledge. And out of the same, I could equally have made a very cheerful list of “good” things that will befall, given only enough life, the child whose rearing has fallen to me, and any child. While chance may share them out in varying measures, all of those conditions are, like eating and sleeping, nothing but Necessity. They are not exactly “what happens” in the world, for the world knows neither joy nor grief, but they are what happens in persons because of what happens in the world.

I do not have the power to see to it that no harm or unhappiness befalls Petronilla. Neither do I have, as Saint Peter is said to have had, the power to put her to sleep. She will have to live in the world, and take what comes. In misery, what will she do to herself? Will she add to her misery the injury of making herself bitter or vindictive? Will she compound disappointment and loss with vain imaginings, supposing the world her foe, and mistaking her desires and appetites for the justice which has been denied her? Or will she–and this is the true alternative to all those unhappy possibilities–learn to make sense?

Sense can be made. Indeed, it must be made, and made by a person, for it does not simply appear in the world. With the making of sense in mind, it may be that one of the most important powers that I can nourish in any Petronilla is the power of language, and the habit of thoughtful attention to language. Consider my wily passive at the tollbooth. It is a way of speaking that allows me to think what I want to think. Another way of speaking would show me that I am thinking nonsense. If I had used an active verb, saying that somebody is doing harm, I would have seen at once the need for identifying that somebody. And I would have been led to myself. That habitual passive now seems remarkably convenient for those times in which I prefer not to understand.

There are also many words that we customarily use for that very purpose–the prevention of understanding. If I think myself the victim of persecution, I have made an invisible passive. Any sensible person would ask me, Just who is it who persecutes you? Where there is persecution, which argues the existence of intention and will, there must be a persecutor. Where there is oppression or deprivation, there must be an oppressor or a depriver. Where such agents are not to be found, there it must be the case that I am not persecuted, oppressed, or deprived, but something else. What is that something else? Is it mere Necessity? Is it something that I myself am doing, all unwittingly?

But, while such thinking might prevent me from being a fool, it does not have to make me a simpleton. I have, and I think everyone has, incontrovertible evidence that some persons do sometimes persecute, deprive, and oppress. Where is such evidence found? While I may have my suspicions of other persons, of course, simple reasoning requires me to admit that I can not know the wills and intentions of others, but only speculate about them. They are not in my experience, as my own will and intention would be, if only I would consider them carefully. The incontrovertible evidence that I do have, therefore, comes from my knowledge that I sometimes persecute, deprive, and oppress, combined with what seems a fairly safe belief that I can hardly be the only person on the face of Earth who does such things. Some others may do likewise. But who, exactly? And why?

I don’t mean to answer those questions. They can be answered only in particular cases. But if Petronilla had the inclination and power to ask those questions in particular cases, the answers might be very useful both for the health of her mind and the alleviation of needless misery. And should the questions prove unanswerable, that fact itself brings some new realization into her mind. When she can not answer them, she can say–privately, thank goodness–Maybe I am not making sense when I talk to myself.

Thinking is talking to oneself. I can not think outside of my mind, or in anything other than my mind. The mind’s work in thinking is a continual conversation, an asking and answering, which is why it is a good idea to talk to yourself as much as possible. If you’d rather not do it aloud, you might at least try to move your lips. The same is true of reading. There is no advantage to be taken from reading or thinking quickly, and often much harm. We are, after all, bodies, and it is, in spite of some suggestions in Plato, not easy to conclude that we can ever know anything that didn’t first come to us in the flesh, in experience. Words and statements have a puzzling double life; they must live in the mouth before they can live in the mind. Thus it is that our own thinking has a puzzling double life.

There is in thinking a quality that I do not mean to call “sexual,” but which nevertheless seems very like the process of sexual reproduction. From the point of view of the species, if a species could have a point of view, the great advantage of sexual reproduction is the endless variety of possibilities to which it leads. Every creature born of sex is absolutely new and unique. Our thinking, on the other hand, is often amoebic, born only of itself. If it is to be continually renewed, it needs new seed. If we think only the thoughts that are customary to us, and listen only to the words of those who are “of our mind,” we are little likely to find refreshment and renewal in our minds, and thus all too likely to suppose that we have come to the end of all deliberations that we have to make.

Although it often seems that some people live entirely by accident or at whim, following now this influence or that appetite, it is simply not possible to live a random or disorderly life any more than water can run downhill by any but the shortest path. That random, “blindly floundering” life out of which Prometheus led us is simply the life of unknowing animals. Now that we are minded animals, our floundering has a different quality. There is always some order, some principle at work in all human deeds, and some new seed of thought being sown in us whether we know it or not. Should the governing principle of one’s life be the satisfaction of desire, or the service of some belief, the result is the same–a governed life, to be sure, but a life whose governor does not live in the kingdom he governs. Anybody at all can engender thought in me by whetting my appetite, and arousing not only my habitual desires, but also novel desires, and all the more alluring for their novelty.

Many can bring me into or out of this or that belief. Like everyone else–I might better say, like every other child–I know what I want, and I believe what I believe. What I do not always know is whether I should want what I want, and whether what I believe makes sense. And into that condition I must fall unless I have some understanding of what I might mean by my “knowing.” If I am stuck in that condition, not even knowing that I am stuck in that condition, then my fervent partisanship in any company of belief whatsoever is not, as I might well pronounce it, a Great Affirmation of Meaning and Purpose. It is no less an accident of history than my blood type, and has no more meaning or purpose than my social security number. Thus, in the search for new seed, Christians should listen for a while to Marx or Hume, and Marxists should spend some time with Thomas a Kempis or Marcus Aurelius.

But Petronilla, who is my child and me at the same time, is not, and should not be, either a Christian or a Marxist, or any other kind of -ist. She is a child. To be an -ist of any sort may be suitable to a mind that has already taken the grasp of itself and reached the determinations of Reason possible to such a mind, but I suspect that such a mind is not likely to find an acceptable -ism. Jesus himself, in the story of the would-be stone-throwers, led those men both to lead and to follow not an -ism, but themselves. He called forth in them the willing of grown-ups, not the willingness of a child.

His words were to them the seed of a new birth of thought, and the parent of any child is put by nature in the role that Jesus plays in that story. I do not mean to suggest by that, or depend on, any religious belief, but only nature. Parent is parent, and child is child. They are given to each other in a perfectly natural process, and that perfectly natural process has an analog in a larger but equally natural process, the provision of the seed of thought.

This is the great value of literacy, that by its power our parents long dead can speak to us, and we can listen to them. And if they do not seem to answer when we ask, it may be only because we have not turned the page. And this is the great value of a thoughtful parent, or any other true teacher in any other guise–that he has turned many pages.

When my Petronilla, or the Petronilla in me, is truly oppressed, truly the victim of a person’s ill will, I will at least be able to offer to her consideration, if I have turned the pages and listened, what some of my many parents have offered to mine. How better could I begin, for instance, than by telling her, in whatever terms best suit her condition, what Marcus Aurelius had to say? “When anyone does you a wrong, set yourself at once to consider what was the point of view, good or bad, that led him wrong. As soon as you perceive it, you will be sorry for him, not surprised or angry.”

If I had leaned out the window and shouted obscenities at the woman in the tollbooth line, which of us would surely have already been made a worse person, and which would still have some chance of avoiding that badness? Which of us is pitiable? Which of us stands in greater need of some help, of some wise parent, of some occasion of education? Such questions are not at all too hard for a child to consider. Of that, too, I have incontrovertible proof, the hard evidence of experience, for I am the child in the tollbooth line who now considers them.