The Gift of Fire Chapter Four


by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Four
The Right Little Thing

THERE IS A STORY ABOUT THE importance of self-knowledge in the Fourth Gospel, but I think it is traditionally misunderstood because of certain disorders of the belly, some feelings that are little examined because they are generally thought to be simply “right.” One of the those feelings, of course, is that Jesus ought not to be included in the company of those who were merely Great Teachers, such as Socrates and Confucius. They were all proponents of self-knowledge, of course, but Jesus…. Well, he may have thought self-knowledge a good thing, but he really set his sights far higher, we say, and had some greater sort of knowledge in mind. And, since many will assert that that knowledge is not truly a work of the mind, but of something else, you could probably get yourself in a great deal of trouble in some company by saying that Jesus was a supremely educated man who undertook to lead others in the paths of education. But I will have to take that risk, and say further that he urged an education that begins, and ends, in self-knowledge.

He was surely a stern teacher, who knew when to rebuke the ignorance of self. What’s wrong with you people? he said. When the wind blows from the South, you know that the day will be hot; and when it blows from the East, you know enough to prepare for the coming storm. So how come you can’t read the signs in yourselves? And in the famous story of the woman caught in adultery, known even to unbelievers, he can be seen setting the model for that enterprise that we now find so necessary and so difficult: Teaching the Children to Think.

What a strange and wonderful story that is. Behold their dire approach, the righteous men who have caught a naughty girl in the very act, a posse of vigilantes, we usually think. And up to cunning tricks as well, for we see them setting a trap for Jesus. All right, Mister Master, what about this? You know the Law, and you know what has to be done in this case just as well as we do. So how are you going to wriggle out of this one, with all your sweet talk of forgiveness and mercy? What a poser. And isn’t it just like them, those unregenerate, stiff-necked Pharisees?

But wait. Is it the mind or the belly that paints that portrait? Are they not citizens doing what they do believe, and what all their society presumably believes, their civic duty as well as their religious duty? Are they not charged with the deed they intend, just as we are charged, both by law and whatever we mean by morality, to report our knowledge of crime? And do they not respect that charge, as we do, finding it both worthy and necessary for the orderly life of us all? Therefore, whether adultery can be accounted a crime or not according to our law, is not the point; it is the obedience to law that matters.

Do we see those men as cruel vigilantes because we are good democrats, on the side of the woman, weak and alone against the forces of repression? Because they are old-fashioned traditionalists, dogmatic and benighted, and sex-ist as well, having obviously neglected to bring a certain other culprit with them? Because we don’t choose to observe our own laws against such things as adultery, having come to consider them vestiges of a primitive moral system that we have given up, just as we have given up slavery? Do we think them devious, because we are on the side of Jesus, and we presume that they are not? And, most important of all, do we try to answer such questions by listening to our feelings, or by considering the evidence?

The only evidence we have is in the story, and there is no hint in it that Jesus makes any such judgment of the men who ask him what they ought to do. Nonchalantly, almost as though shrugging, he seems to say, Fine, go ahead. I do know the Law as well as you do. But since you are men who say that you want to know what is right, just be sure that he who throws that first stone is one who knows that he is in the right, and that there is no wrongness in him. I, being pedantic, and thus cagey, by profession, talk about wrongness, but he said it right out–without sin.

The religionists of our time would produce so many candidates who would fight for the privilege of throwing that first stone that they would have to raffle it off, thus, as a happy side-effect of righteousness, raising a substantial amount of money for the doing of God’s work. But those supposed vigilantes, those rigid dogmatists, those vindictive and self-righteous taunters of a good man, did no such thing. They thought about it, and they dropped their stones, and they went away.

But that isn’t exactly true. It is only a “manner of speaking,” and manners of speaking, of which there are more than we can count, have a way of deluding the mind. I said that “they” thought about it, but, of course, they didn’t. He did. That one right there. And he did too. The man to the left. And that one. And that one. They did not form a committee. They did not hold a meeting. They did not discuss it, considering options and calling for testimony as to opposing points of view, hoping to discover some compromise more or less satisfactory to all parties concerned.

Each one, all alone, considered himself, and nothing but himself. In an act that has come to be thought of as selfish, each one looked into his own goodness without any consideration for the goodness of others, or for their badness either. Each one “minded” his own business, which is to say that each one put his mind to work on himself, seeking his own betterment. And each one found it, and became better.

In this vexatious life, it is not at all uncommon to meet people who call themselves “educators.” They swarm. There seem to be millions and millions of them, so many, in fact, that it is nothing short of astonishing that there is anyone left uneducated on the face of Earth. If there were that many orthodontists, you would have to make your way deep into the jungles of Mindanao to find buck teeth. The next time you meet a person who calls himself an educator, ask him this: So, whom have you educated lately? Make sure he gives you their names and addresses.

If you had asked that question of Jesus, as the stone-carriers went their ways, he could have answered, although he probably wouldn’t have. He would rather have seen you as the smart-alec taunter, and would have found the “right little thing” to say that would cause in you what he had caused in the departing men. If I knew what right little thing he would have said, I would tell you, but I don’t. I am not an educator.

But I do know that those men went away educated, “led out” of some captivity, and thinking. And I do know that what Jesus did that day is True Teaching, not asserting, not arguing, not convincing, not demonstrating, not cajoling or threatening, not role-modeling or relating. Just plain teaching. He provided those men with what I have come to think of as an “occasion of education,” an irresistible impulse to thoughtfulness, and probably the very sort of thing suggested by the poet who said that “the words of the wise are as goads.” They get you moving. And that suggests another question that you might want to put to an educator: When do you educate?

You may have recognized the book that I quoted earlier, the one in which we are given credit for having forsworn cannibalism. About that argument, I can find nothing good to say, but the title of that book is a splendid example of the occasion of education. It is called Missile Envy. In that, the author has found one of those right little things to say. It enforces a thought-provoking image–ostensibly grown men, beribboned and bedecked, panting after the bigger and better, fearful lest others have bigger and better. It applies equally as well to missiles as to spears, or even stones, for that title, quite unlike the silly arguments of the passage quoted, points through and beyond particulars to a universal principle by which we see some dark connection between war and lubriciousness, some prurient quality in violence, and by which we are also led to examination of ourselves and our own aggressions and desires for revenge, suddenly and newly revealed as nasty, childish, and shameful. If we could all be impelled to drop our stones, it would be not by the force of the book’s argument, but by its title. But that would also require, of course, that we think about it, and about ourselves.

If it is education that is brought about in the would-be stone-throwers, and that might be brought about in us even by just the right little thing, education must have some attributes that we don’t ordinarily grant it. For one thing, it is not a “rank,” like citizenship or captaincy. It is an inward event, like joy or surprise. It would seem more correct to say, education has sometimes happened to me, than, I am educated. That would also reflect the fact that education is usually temporary, and who is brought to it just now, and in this context, may fall out of it tomorrow, or forget all about it when his belly growls. Thus it can be, for instance, that a highly trained and skillful expert can also be foolish, and utterly uneducated.

And, by token of those same attributes, it seems reasonable to understand education as a possible habit, or propensity, at least, maybe a leaning, an inclination of the mind to notice what the world surely provides–unintended occasions of education. To such a habit, there would have to be added, of course, the habit of looking, of paying attention, and that in itself might well be included in an understanding of education.

Of all the attributes of such a condition, however, there is one that easily escapes our notice, and that will not easily win approval. The condition of the men who chose not to throw their stones was entirely inward, personal and private. What each had come to know, however briefly and incompletely, was himself. And the act by which he had come to that knowledge was done by himself, and could not have been done by another for him. The place where that deed was done is a place where only the self can go–the private contemplative life of the solitary mind. The fact that it is perfectly possible for human beings to live out life without ever going to that inner place, and not the fact that human beings have different mental endowments, is the single greatest impediment to a true education. To that impediment we add another when we disapprove, as socially irresponsible, those who turn inward rather than outward.

Education is neither a social virtue nor a particularly sociable one. In the case of the men in the story, in fact, it brought them to an act that has to be called, changing whatever particulars might need changing, antisocial. They have rejected what their society recognizes not only as a social obligation but as an absolute requirement of religious belief, thus making themselves heretics as well as criminals. They have walked away not only from the criminal, of whose guilt there is no question, but from the Law. They have taken it unto themselves to decide what is right and what is wrong, completely disregarding the opinion of others and the supposed needs of a civilized order. So what are they? Are they heroes or rogues, autonomous men, however briefly, or anarchists?

The question can be put another way: As they disappear from our sight, are they better men or worse? Have they reached some power that they lacked, and given themselves to its use, thus making themselves better men? And is that power not a power of the mind, rather than the power of some other imaginable faculty?

I think those questions might be a bit misleading. They do imply that men who were formerly “bad” became “good” through the use of their minds, but if education and rationality really have the force that I think to find in them, the case is not quite that simple. If education is what makes us “able to be good,” as I have said earlier, the change in the stone carriers must be seen not as a passage from bad to good, but as a growth into the ability to be good. They do not come on the scene as bad men, but only as men who don’t know, not as wicked, but as ignorant. Jesus doesn’t make them good; they have to do that for themselves. He makes them able.

What was it, then, that had made them unable? The power that they discover in the story is surely wonderful, but it is neither miraculous nor unusual. It is a power that we all nod at, when we hear of it, for we all have it, and even use it once in a while, although often under duress. Self-knowledge may be good to have, but whenever I get a flash of it, I find myself hoping that no one else knows what I have just come to know. But we do recognize it for what it is, and recognize it as essentially human, one of the things that make us different. Surely, those men could have found self-knowledge all by themselves? Why hadn’t they? Why did they have to come to Jesus at all?

There is an annoying answer to that question. It has to be something like what we call “faith,” a belief, or a collection of beliefs, simply accepted as true and either left unexamined, or of such a nature as to permit no examination, which is to say, made up of worthless statements. Faith is not only religious, it is also social and traditional. The men who came with stones were what we would call “adjusted” to the world of ideas and understandings in which they lived. They were normal. While it turned out that they lacked some very important knowledge, they were not short of information. Far from it, they knew the very letter of the law. Nor were they in any doubt as to the spirit of the law. I can not help thinking of some character in a novel of William Dean Howells who says that it is, of course, possible to be a Christian and still be a good man, but that it is much harder that way. It does seem that it is because of their sincere religiousness, which purrs in the belly, that the would-be stone-throwers have not been able to be good. That seems a bit shocking but not really any more shocking than a secular equivalent–that it is because of another purr, their public-spirited and dutiful citizenship, that they can not be good.

Although many of us seem to have misunderstood, or even deliberately misconstrued, the nature of education for a very long time, that nature is still recognized in some corner of almost every mind. Our folklore to this day includes the suspicion that education is disruptive, threatening, and all too likely to drive out traditional ideas, values, and beliefs, all of which are granted writs of righteousness by virtue not only of their longevity but equally of their general acceptance. Education is thought the root and also the nourishment of skepticism, the disorder that separates the child from the parent, and even the seed of revolution, which will cancel the very writs of righteousness as though they had never been legitimate. And it is all true.

So how are the stone-carriers different from any other pack of vigilantes? The answer is easy: They have judged only themselves, and only upon themselves have they passed sentence. Considering that, I find an extraordinary and unexpected (and also quite unintended) power in the question of the rebukers–What would happen if everyone were to do as you have done? What indeed? I do not know, but it is certainly a tantalizing thought.

Whatever those consequences might be, however, I suspect that we do not have to worry about them very much. The voice of the world is very loud, and easily drowns out the small voice that is in a single person, who is, in any case, only a person, and not humanity, which is thought so much more significant. And the belly purrs when we heed the voice of the world, doing our duty and playing our parts in the great scheme of what everybody knows to be right, at least more or less. What the accusers came to notice and consider, when a true teacher told them the right little thing, was that their bellies were purring. And the question that they asked of themselves was whether their bellies should be purring. Because they felt right, doing both their civic and religious duties, did that mean that they were right? In each case, each man must have said something like this: As to whether the deed I contemplate is in itself good, which question seems strangely to imply the possibility of a deed with a doer, I am not going to judge. As to whether I am good, and should do this deed, I can and will judge. And I’m not, and I shouldn’t, and I won’t.

As they went away, however, I think that their bellies were not purring. I have had moments of self-knowledge that certainly made me better, but never one that made me feel better. So much for the sweetness of Reason.

Now let’s try a little experiment in thinking, some consideration of what “we” will have to do if we want to give up war. Giving up war is not entirely unlike the truly extraordinary achievement of the men who came to throw stones. If they did it, why can’t we?

But we, of course, are really a tremendous group of “I’s.” If we are to give up war, then I must be included, and that is all the more necessary if I want to go around and urge others to give up war. My best arguments would fall flat if it could be seen that I was willing to wage war in order to make other people give it up.

The heart of war, the principle by which it lives, is, of course, coercion. It is, in person, the desire that is expressed as policy in humanity, for those aims that we call “political” rather than personal are still desires that arise in the only place where desires can arise, in persons. When the persons who desire ethnic purity, for instance, are especially influential, and their followers thus numerous, we come to imagine that it is something “bigger” than a merely personal desire, but that bigness is an illusion created by numbers.

Whatever the particular cause of this or that war, its aim is to enforce something on others. If I don’t ordinarily use tanks and artillery to coerce others, but only those weapons at my disposal, the coercion is not mitigated into something less than coercion. And the weapons at my disposal are, for my purposes against you, say, just as effective as tanks and artillery. I can wheedle and cajole, I can storm or sulk, I can turn very clever indeed, and turn a fine phrase once in a while. And you may have some of those powers, too, and use them, if only to coerce me into abandoning my attempt to coerce you, for which, we should not forget, many will applaud you as a virtuous fighter against aggression, thus using one of the most telling arguments in favor of war.

Ah but, you may say, that is not truly war. Hostility, aggression, conflict, maybe, but not war. What then, I’ll ask, is the essential that I have missed, the thing that makes one aggression or conflict war, and another not war? Violence, you may well answer, and quickly (I suspect) modify that into “physical violence.” That too, you will modify, when we have to distinguish between football and such work as that of the police on the one hand, and what you want to mean by war on the other. You will have to move on to lethal and widespread violence against innocent and unconsenting persons, to say nothing of the general destruction of property and even some large portions of the face of the Earth. Thus, however, you will find yourself defining war in such an elaborate and detailed fashion that many of history’s most famous and consequential struggles will no longer deserve the name, and the supposed “wars” of prehistoric savages over mates and hunting grounds will have to be seen as nothing more than trivial squabbles.

As soon as we start measuring ideas like war by numbers or size, we give up hope of understanding them. If there is one slave, there is slavery. It takes only one persistent cannibal to ensure the continuation of cannibalism. Is there some number of warriors, or tanks, in whose lack war ceases to be war? When Arthur and Mordred are the last combatants on the field, has war given way to a family spat, or would it be better designated as a case of dueling?

And we also give up hope of understanding them when we try to define our ideas by their supposed consequences. War is that which causes death, and deaths beyond counting? What doesn’t? Everyone living will die, and every building now standing will fall down, and all that we know will pass away. War is that which brings misery and deprivation to millions? Do not millions live in misery and deprivation due to many things other than war? What is the difference between war and plague, between war and the mere passage of time that will bring an end to everything that is?

What else can it be but something in the heart, the intention to coerce, and the willing acceptance of coercion as a way of bringing about some result presumed good? No one ever fomented a war, or signed up to fight it, for what he knew to be evil purposes. Only in comic books. If the root of war is our belief that coercion is sometimes necessary and justifiable, coupled with the lessons of experience by which we know that coercion often succeeds very well indeed, and if the “good” remains among us a matter of one opinion as against another, one interest against another, one unverifiable belief against another, then it is very unlikely that “we” can give up war.

But you could give up war. And so could I. And that would mean that we would reject the use of coercion under any circumstances whatsoever, and, accordingly, abandon all claims to any “rightness” that can not be incontrovertibly demonstrated, like the square of the hypotenuse, to others. It would mean also that we restrict ourselves to committing only those deeds that pertain to a person, and refraining from those deeds that can pertain only to humanity.

I don’t think that would be a bad condition, but some are sure to say of it that it is not to the point. What good will it do, many would ask, if I give up war, and all those other people don’t? That won’t bring an end to war. Which is to say, of course, I am not the cause of war. It’s all those other people, whoever they might be, the ones who say that they are against war, but obviously don’t mean it.

I wouldn’t know what to say to that, of course, but I would have a very interesting question for you: What would become of us all, what would happen to civilization as we know it, if everyone did what you have decided that it would be useless to do?