THE GIFT OF FIRE
by Richard Mitchell
The Gift of Fire
I WENT TO TALK TO THE MENSANS. The members of Mensa are the smartest people in America, and I was intimidated. I was afraid that they might catch me in a circular argument or a lexigraphical fallacy. I was afraid that they would rise up, right in the middle of the pathetic little lecture I had thought up for them, and demolish my silly little premises, and then go, not storming, but laughing, from the room, to hold high converse among themselves, not even offering me any coffee and doughnuts.
The speech was meant to be the opener of a small convention, and scheduled to take place right after breakfast. I got there early, and was sent to join the Mensans in a room on the fourth floor, in an upper room, where they were standing around having coffee and doughnuts. I was relieved of at least one of my fears. But they were all watching television, and no one said anything to me. I stood around for a while and went back downstairs, where the brisk young woman who had sent me upstairs told me that I would have to understand that Mensans never did anything on schedule, and that I would have to wait till they came down, Soon, maybe.
I sat in the lobby and read some of the Mensan handouts that I found on the floor near the sofa. One of them was a sample test. To become a Mensan, you have to get high grades on some tests, and what I was reading was a kind of prep for those tests. It had some very interesting questions. One of them asked which diagram of a group of six would be generated by taking diagram C and subjecting it to whatever operations had transformed diagram A into diagram B. Or maybe it was the other way around. There was a very good train question, whose details I can’t recall, but it had all the classical attributes of train questions–train A and train B leaving at different times from points C and D, moving at rates E and F, and meeting, at last, at the mysterious point X where ships also, I suppose, pass in the night. It really took me back. But the question I liked best of all went something like this:
Bob and Carol and Alice and Ted all took the Mensa test. Bob scored higher than Alice, who scored ten points lower than Ted. Ted’s score added to Carol’s score and then divided by the difference between Bob’s score and Alice’s score was either twenty points more or twelve points less than the average of all four scores. Which of the four made it into Mensa?
Well, I may have forgotten some of the less important details. But it was a great question.
I had planned to start my talk to the Mensans with some mention of Prometheus, and to quote a little from Aeschylus. It was the passage in which Prometheus, about to be chained down for quite a long time, makes a little recitation of the things he has done for humanity, and in which he does not mention at all what we usually think of–the gift of fire. He speaks instead of such powers as those of language and number, and, most important of all, the mind’s grasp of itself, in Locke’s words. It is the ability not only to think, but to think about thinking. Before humanity had that, Prometheus says, humans lived a random and aimless life, “all blindly floundering on from day to day.” I knew that the Mensans were people interested in their minds, as people should be, and I thought that I might encourage them in that interest, and, at the same time, give due praise to the great minds of the past who understood long ago that the mind’s grasp of itself is what alone makes possible the examined life, and thus the good life.
So I imagined myself in conversation with Prometheus, who had come back to find out what we mortals had managed to do with the astounding powers that he had given to us alone of all creatures.
How fortunate I am to run into you, he began, for I see by your rumpled clothing and your knitted brow that you must be in the mind business.
I’m honored to meet you, Sir, I replied, and I will confess that I am in the mind business, for I do no heavy lifting. Would you care to have some coffee and doughnuts with the Mensans?
Not just now, thank you. I have come, I must admit, not for social reasons, but on business. Long, long ago I gave you all the power of the mind’s grasp of itself, the fire by which you may burn and glow like no other mortal creature. That got me into a lot of trouble at first, of course, but since my release I’ve had long, long ages of time in which to wonder whether or not I had done the right thing. I have grown so curious, in fact, that I have now undertaken, as you see, a journey whose enormousness you can not imagine, and only for the purpose of finding out to what good uses you have put my gift.
Aha, I said, you have come not only to the right man, but to the right place, and also at the right time. There must be something to that Divine Guidance business. As it happens, I hold here in my hand the answer that you seek.
What have we done, you ask. Just listen to this. Imagine a train leaving point A and moving toward point B at the rate of C. Imagine now another train moving from B to A at rate D, having set forth on its journey E minutes after the departure of the first train. Would you believe it if I told you that we–well, some of us–are able to figure out where and when those trains will meet? So how’s that for mind business?
He looks at me steadily for a moment. He clears his throat. I begin to feel that I have not yet fully stated our case. I rush into the silence with six diagrams.
And look at this, just look at this. You see these diagrams? Now this little one over here was made by doing something or other, maybe a little twisting or turning this way or that, to this other little diagram. Now, and this is the beauty part, one of these six diagrams down here got to be the way it is because the very same things, the twisting and turning stuff, you know, were done to this little diagram. Pretty neat, eh? Now suppose I were to tell you that we–well, some of us–by the power of the mind alone, can say exactly which of these little…
At this point, Prometheus silently rises and begins to walk off. I get the impression, probably through Divine Guidance, that he is going to go back and chain himself to the rock for another long sentence.
Wait, wait, I call after him, now heading through the door and out into the street. Let me tell you about Bob and Carol and Alice and Ted! They all took this test, you see, and… and…
But Prometheus is gone. I begin to wonder whether the nature of his gift is such that he can take it back. I begin to suspect that he has taken it back. My mind is losing the grasp of itself. All I can think of is Bob and Alice and Carol and Ted drawing little diagrams while traveling on a train from point A to point B at the rate of C.
What should we mean by “intelligence”? I think it is important to ask the question in just that way–What should we mean? This seems to me an essential rule of thought, that when we talk about things that do not simply appear to us as a part of the world, we take on a grave responsibility to each other and to ourselves. Such things as intelligence and love and patience are possible only where there is a person. We do not find them lying around so that we can weigh and measure them, so there truly is no such thing as deciding whether love is the “true” kind or some other. We can, of course, mean anything we please by such terms, and just as easily mean one thing today and another tomorrow. In the best possible world, we probably would know better than to talk about such things at all, and we probably wouldn’t have to. However, if the mind is to take the grasp of itself, and if we are to instruct ourselves in the art of taking that grasp, we must end up talking about things like intelligence. And love. And patience. And whatever else “exists,” in some strange way, because persons exist.
Is it by the very same power that we can, in one case, conclude that it is better to suffer an injustice than to do one, and, on the other, discover which of six diagrams was generated by what process? Do we use the same faculty to consider whether patience can and should be cultivated and to tell where the trains will meet?
My questions, I know, seem to imply that we don’t use the same power or faculty in all of those cases, but I truly don’t know that. Whatever it is by which we do such things, it is not a fish that I can show you so that you might check what I have said about it, and I do not want to pretend that it is a fish, and speak of it as something that we all can see and measure. For when people do pretend that it is a fish, some strange things happen.
Let me rephrase a question just a little bit. Which will be detected by an intelligence test: the ability to make some rationally demonstrable conclusion as to whether suffering injustice is better than inflicting it, or the ability to tell where the trains will meet? Is it possible that we might meet some person who does indeed give himself to consider whether patience is a fixed or a changeable attribute, but can not for the life of him tell you which diagram was made from which? And one more question: How did the makers of the intelligence test come to “know” what intelligence is, that they can devise ways to measure it, and then pronounce its worth in numbers?
In detail, I can not answer. In principle, I can. They made certain choices. They made them, probably, for what they deemed very practical reasons, but with consequences that are not best described as merely practical. They have given the rest of us ideas, of which we may not even be thoughtfully aware, and by which we may, and often do, make choices of our own. We choose, for instance, every bit as much in families as in schools, how to train the minds of children, and which children to subject to which form of training, in accordance with some packaged and delivered ideas about intelligence. On the basis of those decisions, we commit acts, acts that have consequences in the very deepest centers of persons. That is a perilous business.
And that is why I ask: What should we mean by intelligence? It is not a question of fact, for there is no fact; it is a moral question. There is “shouldness” in it.
The word “intelligence” comes from two Latin words, inter and legere, which, put together, suggest the act of one who looks around among different things and makes choices, gathering some and leaving others. That is a portrayal of a mental activity very different from figuring out where the trains meet, but also an act that is a little bit like discovering the right diagram. But only a little bit. The idea of intelligence includes not only the choosing, but the chooser, an agent who chooses to choose. But when you choose the right diagram, you are not truly doing your own choosing. You are walking in someone else’s footprints, and the “rightness” of your choice is in having done what someone else has already done.
There is a special case of thinking that is called problem-solving. Solving a problem is not the same thing as understanding a principle. It is, however, the sort of thinking that we have come to accept as the mark of intelligence, and the thinking that some people seem to like a lot. Somebody chose that understanding. Not one somebody, of course, but many somebodies, and I deceive myself and you if I say that “we” have either chosen it or that we have come to adopt it. Certain people did all that. Haphazardly. And now we live by it. We fashion our schools to match it, and measure their “products” by its yardstick. And thus we will win the disapproval of Prometheus and then perhaps even the loss of his gift.
I think I may lead myself into confusion if I accept without thinking Locke’s name for the gift of Prometheus–“the mind’s grasp of itself.” There is no such thing as the mind; where there is mind there is a mind. It is not the mind that my mind might be able to grasp, but only my mind. I will not be able to take the grasp of your mind, nor you of mine, and for that we are both properly grateful. Some things are better kept private. When I do set out to take the grasp of my mind, I must find myself walking into unknown, and perhaps very dangerous, territory, where no one has ever gone before. I can find models of that journey, and accounts of other such journeys in other minds, but I can not find that journey. I end up doing, therefore, what is absolutely unique to me, and what, should I not do it, can not be done.
But when I solve Mensan problems, that is not the case. There, I will be doing what others have done. But those are, of course, problems that seem fake, somehow. Somebody cooked them up to be problems. They are a kind of game, a trivial pursuit. There is something to be learned in such a practice, of course, some habits of consistency and attentiveness, but in those who have learned those habits from earlier problems, the industrious solution of later problems, more of the same, seems a bit childish. The great charm of problem-solving lies in tackling the problems that have not been solved, which is to say, the problems that have never before arisen.
Such problems are almost always related to technology, and their solutions seem wondrous to us not because they come from newly devised powers of the mind, but always because they provide some new thing in the world. In that respect, microwave relay stations and eggbeaters are similar, both wonders. The most important difference between them is that Attila the Hun would have given you Asia Minor for the latter, but nothing at all for the former.
There is a sense in which the unsolved problem, even the problem that has yet to appear to us, is already “solved.” You can provide your own easy example of the fact by making up your own train problem, using whatever numbers please you. You don’t have to stick to trains. Airplanes or ox carts will do as well. What you now have is a “new” problem, a never-before solved problem. But, of course, its solution does exist. Although you can not make it just now, there is a statement that you will be able to make once you have made the statements that lead to it. That’s how any problem is solved, however complicated, and however long.
Problem-solving is a wonderful device, and fun, but it ought to be kept in its place. The best way to do that is through a careful use of language. When I say that I have a problem, my first thought should be to consider as well as I can whether it truly is a problem. As to the meeting of the trains, I have little doubt. When I consider the problem of rearing children sanely and decently, or the problem of making ends meet, I become uneasy. And when it comes to World Peace and the Brotherhood of All Mankind, I am frightened, frightened of what will happen to us if we imagine that such grand hopes are to be realized by the process of problem-solving. In such matters, can the pertinent facts be known? Can anyone know when he has them all? Can they be tested and found as “true” as those given in train problems, or even in the most elaborate and complicated possible versions of train problems?
Where human beings are concerned, can we ever have all the facts? Can we ever know that we do, or that we don’t? If we imagine that human dilemmas can be unraveled by that sort of thinking that problem-solving represents, are we not likely to run into something more vexing than problems?
That social and moral human “problems” have proved insoluble for the whole history of our species up to now, is not the least bit surprising, and it is exactly by the gift of Prometheus that we can know that. When we consider and question, and come to have some understanding of the process of problem-solving and its necessary attributes, we are not solving a problem. We are understanding. A mind is taking some grasp of itself. Because it is a mind, its understanding will be its understanding, not the understanding, and what it understands, however more or less, will be itself and its work, not the mind and its work. Not even another mind and its work. As to your mind, I do suspect that mine can make some pretty good guesses, even theories, but they are guesses and theories.
Problem-solving is something that we can also do by the gift of Prometheus. Understanding is the thing that we can do by that gift. The light of problem-solving is like the light of the moon, a reflection of some greater light. And when we single out the skills of problem-solving and give them the name of intelligence, we make a choice between the moon and the sun, and run the danger of putting out our own fires.
There is, in all of those dilemmas and mysteries that arise from the unfathomables of our humanity, a hauntingly familiar quality, as though we were all doing everything again and again. Thus it was, for instance, that Freud could conclude that Sophocles was not just right, but still right, perhaps always right. And it is to help us understand not the quaint beliefs of primitive and unscientific people, but, quite simply, ourselves–at any time, and in any place.
As fire is given in the myth, fire is given again and again in each of us, as it must once have been given to creatures who by its power became human. Like the species, we have all lived out of an impenetrable antiquity into the now. Every one of us must awaken out of sleep and come into the light of self-mindedness. And when self-mindedness arises, when the mind first comes to consider itself and knows that it considers itself, it is in language. It seems that the propensity for language and the propensity for self-mindedness are the same thing, which is, really, not sufficiently distinguished by the word “propensity.” “Destiny” seems better. We are the creatures who are destined to think and to know themselves, and that is the gift of Prometheus.
Nobody knows when all that happened, but everybody who knows anything can see that it must have happened. Every single one of us lives again the astonishing and utterly unaccountable history of the coming into this world of the truly human. And we do it, for there is no other way, one by one. It is not humanity that comes into the grasp of the mind. It is a person that comes into the grasp of that person’s mind. Information and examples I can take, in that degree to which I am literate, curious, and attentive, from countless other persons, most of them long dead but still speaking to me, but I must discover thoughtfulness for and in myself and come to understand for the first time what I have never understood before and what no one else can understand for me, any more than he might nourish me by his eating or refresh me by his sleep.
Nevertheless, while no one else can nourish me, I will never be nourished by those who are not themselves nourished, never brought into thoughtfulness unless others have gone there before me. This is, I think, a great mystery, and the most powerful suggestion I know that two seemingly contradictory possibilities are both true: that the individual person is the root and dwelling place of all that is truly human, and that society is the root and dwelling place of all that is truly human. Unless, of course, there really was a Prometheus, who started the whole business, out of nothing.
But if there was, he has obviously gone away and left us to what we must call, lacking better knowledge, our own devices. And our own devices are pretty good. As persons, we do make society, and as society, we do make persons. The enterprise of education is entangled in that paradox, and it is the proper business of everybody both to nourish and to be nourished, both to take the grasp of his own mind and to provide for others the power to do the same. It is for that reason that we properly connect the idea of education with the rearing of children. As to which of us are truly the children, we really have no clear idea, but we do know that there are children among us, and that something should be done about them. If we knew exactly what that was, and who the children were, there could be education.