The Gift of Fire Chapter Nine


by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Nine
Home Rule

THERE ARE SUCH NOURISHING and reasonable, and even obvious, ways of describing and understanding education, and then pursuing it, that some strange species of credit must be given to our schoolers, who have ingeniously concocted countless other ways that are debilitating, silly, and unlikely. Then, having made themselves an unlovely idol, and bowing down before it, they have licensed themselves as nothing but “realistic” in its service, as though it were simply part of the world, and not of their own making. So too, somebody’s notion of intelligence is granted the rank of “reality” and the power to bind us all.

But education, like intelligence, is not a thing in the world, and what it “is” is, truly, nothing more than a “manner of speaking.” It is what we say it is, and what we say it is comes not from a process that might be called “discovery,” but from invention. We make it. Accordingly, you do not have to listen to anybody else. You can say for yourself what education is, and what you say is not subject to the judgment of those who say something else, but only to the judgment of Reason. If they say something else by the power of demonstrable Reason, then you should pay attention, but otherwise, they are talking rubbish, and deserve no attention at all. The first and most obvious understanding of education comes from the fact that anyone who can not tell Reason from rubbish is not yet in a condition to know that he can not tell Reason from rubbish, a disability which, you would suppose, can hardly be one of those put forth as education. But it is.

For your own purposes, and for the sake of Petronilla, which is really the same thing, consider the consequences of adopting, as an understanding of education, the ability to tell rubbish from Reason. Nothing more. Nothing but the power, and the propensity, to discover that a statement is worthless, or a term without meaning, or a proposition absurd. That would also be the power to make statements that are not worthless, and propositions that make demonstrable sense. That seems little enough to ask, although a moment’s reflection will suggest that it is far more than it looks, and perhaps far more than we can imagine. But consider also the alternative of your adoption of such an understanding of education. Would you be willing to hold, as it seems to me that our general understanding of education does in fact hold, that the condition called “education” does not require the ability to tell rubbish from Reason, but only some powers by which to get along in the world?

From Epictetus, we can take another possible understanding of education. It is power over the inner world, the ability to know and judge the self and to do something about it. It is not, therefore, the same as whatever it is that gives us power over the outer world, the stubborn public world of Nature and Necessity. The two powers neither preclude each other nor include each other. In any mind, either may exist alone, both may exist, and, of course, in any mind, both may be absent.

The two powers are not exactly equal counterparts, however, for the power over the inner world can make judgment of the power over the outer world. By the latter, we can do something; by the former, we can decide whether we should do what we can do.

Should we, in fact, destroy most of the world and its people, future generations might say of us:

They did what they could. They did anything and everything they could. They seem to have had no way of knowing, and were not especially interested in asking, whether they should do whatever they could.

The ability to know and judge the self may seem a rather minimal, and, to some, even a selfish and antisocial definition of education, but imagine instead some understanding of education from which it is excluded. Such an understanding is what is stuck in our heads by popular beliefs about schooling. Out of it, we suppose that a brain surgeon–why is it always brain surgeons?–is educated. And we suppose the same, but without expecting to pay as much for it, of our teachers and professors, especially of those who have stuck us with the idea that education is the power to work change in the outer world of Nature and Necessity. And then we say that it is all those overeducated theorists and physicists who are going to blow us all up.

And then there is the understanding of education with which I began, education as that which makes us able to be good. Able. A disarming proposition. Who can be against the ability to be good? Granted, the ability is only that, and easily permits us to imagine someone who is perfectly capable of being good but would rather not. Nevertheless, there is nothing “mere” about the ability, for without it there is no hope of goodness at all.

Those three views of education all hang together. Indeed, they are only slightly different views of the same quality or power. Not one of them could exist without the others. He who has no reliable way of telling rubbish from Reason can have no knowledge of the self that he is to judge and control, by which judgment, and only by which judgment, he is able to choose the better over the worse. It will not only be the voice of the world that deceives him; his own voice will deceive him. As to his own beliefs and propositions, which may not even be his own, but only his recitations of what the world says, he will not be able to tell rubbish from Reason. That condition, however, need not hinder his effectiveness in bringing about changes in the outer world. He may be perfectly capable of what is nowadays called “excellence,” which is the new name for a particularly visible combination of efficiency and success, a high and measurable degree of effectiveness in problem-solving. It has to do with such things as the marketing of blow dryers, in which sort of enterprise the words “better” and “worse” have not the same meanings as they had for the men who didn’t throw stones.

To most people, those understandings of education seem at once lofty and insipid, idealistic and impractical, however “noble.” And that is precisely because they do not include problem-solving. If Western culture had had such understandings of education for the last two thousand years, would we now be flying through the air at twice the speed of sound? Would we be sending men to pick up rocks on the moon? Would we have conquered polio and diphtheria? Would we have air conditioners and blenders? Or even matches? Would we have, as the author of Missile Envy asserts, “the secret of atomic energy locked in our heads forever”?

I don’t know the answers to such questions. Nobody knows them. Some questions are interesting and important because of the answers to which they lead, and others are interesting and important because of what they say about those who ask them. The questions above are of the second kind. To ask them at all, we have to make some astonishing assumptions.

They are all asked in the Land of We All. Only out of a great delusion would I say, We have learned how to send men to pick up rocks on the moon. No such thing is true. We have not. Somebody has, to be sure, but not “we.” We have not wiped out polio, nor have we learned the secret of atomic energy. A few of us, and a very few of us, have done all such things. Unless I remember that, I am continually subject to the delusion that tells me that I am somehow “better” and more “advanced” than my very distant ancestors who painted pictures on the walls of caves, and just because I happen to be a member of we.

Ah, I say, those poor, ignorant savages. They could paint, all right, no one denies that, even Picasso said so, but what is painting? It’s some sort of gift, I guess, and they were lucky to have it. But could they even do so simple a thing as make fire? No. They had to find it, and then preserve it carefully. I, on the other hand, to name only the very least of my accomplishments, can make fire just like that! Whenever I please. I can, with a tiny movement of a finger, bring light into a dark place, and the very images and voices of distant sportscasters right into the room where I sit. Even these trifling powers, to say nothing at all of internal combustion and refrigeration, bear witness to the progress that comes of problem-solving, and to the betterment of all humanity.

But I am deluded. I can not make fire any better than the cave painter of twenty thousand years ago. Indeed, I can not make fire at all, having failed that requirement of Cub Scouting along with the tying of the sheepshank. What I can do is strike a match, but I can not even claim to strike a match any better than he would have struck a match, had he had one. I can not make a match any more than he could have made a match. I can flip a light switch no better than he could have, but I can not make the enormous system that makes the light switch work, or even any small part of it, although I may sometimes be able to rewire the switch without stabbing myself with a screwdriver. I can buy my ticket and board a plane, and I can pay my taxes toward the work of those few who can send men to the moon to pick up rocks, and who do have the secret of atomic energy in their heads, but that’s it. I am, in every one of the “great advancements of mankind,” as we understand them, a sort of passenger, a freeloader at that. I have not been a party to any one of them. I am along for the ride. And, while I gladly take whatever “profit” comes from the work of a very few, I must also take whatever “loss” may just as often come from that work. And the same is true of almost everybody else, including those very few who do all such things. The one who has the secret of atomic energy locked in his head does not have all of the secret. He needs some other very few. Nor can he wipe out diphtheria, nor make fire.

What is there that he can do any more than I, or any more than our common ancestor who painted the walls of the caves? What is there that all three of us can do equally well, or ill? Leaving aside the particulars–the secret of atomic energy on the one hand, and the secret of yellow ochre on the other, neither of which I happen to share–what is the difference by virtue of which I suppose myself somehow “advanced” beyond some “worse” condition in the cave painter?

The details, I admit, seem important. I would prefer not to trade lives with the cave painter, although I’m not sure how much that means, for I would prefer not to trade lives with anybody. I am likely to live longer. I like that. But I have not understood any principle, except for my liking of it, by which to know that a long life is better than a short one, or even by which to decide what long and short might mean in that context. I am vexed by wanting a life that is at least “long enough,” but by not being able to say what it ought to be long enough for. The cave painter may have had the same vexation.

I have certain comforts that the cave painter did not have. I will–perhaps–suffer less pain, unless it is one of the disadvantages of a longer life that it provides more time for the possibility of pain. And it does occur to me that, as I sit here in no pain at all, some not inconsiderable number of my contemporaries are suffering every bit as much pain as any ancient cave painter ever suffered, and asking themselves exactly what principle it is by which a long life is thought better than a short life. And of fear, the same is true. Indeed, if there really are people who live in active and continual fear of the threatened nuclear holocaust, a fear of a particularly modern kind, do they also suppose that “we” represent some sort of “improvement” over our ancestors and that our lives are, in any deeply important sense, better?

Did the cave painter dream of me as I do of him? Did he say, Someday, my descendants will not have to lead the short, nasty, and brutish life that has fallen to my lot. Someday, they will fly through the air at great speed to attend sales conventions in distant cities, which I, alas, can not do, and buy their yellow ochre in neat little tubes. Their teeth will not rot and fall out, and most of their children will live. I, in my bad time, must struggle daily against not just hunger, but starvation, suffering pains and fears that they will never know.

The only differences between his life and mine that I can be sure of are details and particulars, differences of the outer world that now changes so quickly, and, in his time probably seemed a permanent reality. What differences can I suppose in the inner world, the world of the mind? What does his Petronilla face that mine does not, aside from the particulars? That question I am willing to answer, because I know, and you do too, what is sure to befall in every life, provided only, by a troubling sort of irony, that it is a life that is “long enough.”

These things lie in wait for Petronilla, any Petronilla ever born: Pain. Vexation. Disappointment. Anger. Humiliation. Loss. Sorrow. Fear. Sickness. Bewilderment. Grief. Death. The list is partial. For me, and you, and for the cave painter alike, they are all certain. Only the details will be different. In the grip of those certainties, I will take no more advantage from my ability to fly through the air than the cave painter will take disadvantage from his inability to fly through the air, and in no important way will I be able to think myself “advanced” beyond him.

I have to confess that, in the years I have spent as a schoolteacher, I have learned much more from my students than they have from me. While that will surely sound like a feigned humility, it isn’t feigned, and it isn’t humility either. If it is a less than worthy thing to say, it is because it exhibits my presumption that I am more able to learn than my students. In any case, the same things happen to them and to me. We’re all there. We all read and hear the same words. But the same things don’t always happen in them and in me.

We often read, for such is the proper business of literature, works that deal with Happiness, with our search for it, with our loss of it, even with our finding of it. My students are keenly interested in Happiness. They want it and seek it, without being ashamed of either, for they deem the wanting and the seeking legitimate, by which they mean, Good. They are not impressed by intellectual speculations as to whether and when we should be happy. While they have been led to believe that the point of life is to make the world a better place for other people, most of them not yet born, they do not truly believe that their own deliberate choice of the life of contentious altruism will actually have that effect. They are, it seems to me, wiser than I. They would not need, as Alyosha did, and as I do, the gentle encouragement of Father Zossima, who reminds us that Happiness is our proper destiny, and that we ought not to be ashamed of wanting it, or feel guilty for finding it. And those same students prove themselves wiser still when they sometimes decide to reject Happiness.

In the study of literature, discussions of Happiness and its worth are inevitable. I find, whenever I can, an opportunity to offer the students perpetual Happiness. Suppose, I say, it were in my power, or someone’s power, to grant that. Suppose there were a pill. Swallow it, and never again know a moment’s unhappiness. Would you take it?

There really are some rewards in the schoolteacher business. One of mine is the fact that no one, even when pressed and cajoled, has ever said Yes to that question. On the day when someone does, I will have to conclude that I have at last found the one human being on the face of the Earth for whom there is no hope of education. But I do not expect that.

They can all easily see, especially fresh from the reading with which I have loaded the dice, that the goodness of Happiness is related to the appropriateness of Happiness, and that Happiness where Happiness is not in order, is a bad thing, not a good one. They know, having been spared no more than anyone else, that they will suffer misery again, but they know too that misery will someday be in order, and that one who is happy when misery is in order is not quite human. And they know that Creon the king is wretched at the end of the story, stricken by nothing less than terminal misery, and that his condition is nevertheless truly a good one, for he has become better. Nor do they see him as merely punished, properly chastised for his earlier disorder. They see him as improved, sane where he was mad, just where he was unjust. They see that his unhappiness is in order, and that it is the natural consequence of his earlier monstrosity, which was a neglect of order, and the substitution of his private desire for the rational Justice to which a just king is supposed to be a voluntary servant.

I am writing to you, obviously, as though I knew that you knew Sophocles’ Antigone. I don’t know that, of course. But I write thus anyway for two reasons. If you don’t know Antigone, you do know an equivalent. The same story is in Lear. Every classical tragedy is an equivalent, and so is every serious book. They are all about deeds in order and deeds out of order, and the great and terrible power by which order reestablishes itself, bringing the tragedy that is also a cleansing, and replacing some condition that was wrong with another that is right. So, even if you don’t know the story, you know the story.

My other reason is this: I am also thinking about a story that we all know, but that no one of us knows. For I do suspect that our distant ancestor, the cave painter, knew just such a story, and that he heard it often, and, in his turn, told it often to his Petronilla. Whether she grew up in the habit of discussing it, I don’t know. I doubt it. Among the particulars in which our time is indeed different from hers is the fact that we have found the free time in which to sit around discussing, and have, perhaps, brought ourselves into the need of discussing, which is the only recourse of those who don’t understand. Nevertheless, I am ready to guess that that prehistoric Petronilla would be remarkably like my students in some very important way.

And in some trivial ways, too. Petronilla would not be able to locate the Atlantic Ocean or the Rocky Mountains on a map. Likewise, some of my students. Petronilla would know of no principle by which to figure out whether the Protestant Reformation came before or after the American Revolution. Likewise, some of my students. Petronilla would be baffled, and even amazed, by the proposition that in any collection of randomly chosen numbers there will always be an underlying principle by which the next logical number will be generated. Likewise, some of my students. Petronilla will suppose that if two men assert exactly opposite propositions, that one of them must be right and the other wrong. Likewise, some of my students. Petronilla will not know how to find the area of a rectangle. Likewise, some of my students. However, like all of my students, Petronilla will know that Creon is a bad man at the beginning of the story and a good man at the end. She will have heard his story before, and found in it the echo of what she knew without knowing that she knew it.

She will, thus, like my students, be able to make a truly kingly judgment. It is a royal act to put aside natural desire and to decide that some condition that we don’t want might nevertheless be a truly better condition than one that pleases us. It is not the act of a child who is governed by appetite, but the act of a grown-up who can govern appetite. It requires a knowledge of what is in order and what is not. And it brings into order, if only for a while, the inner world that is the mind. It is surely the power that Prometheus had in mind to give us.

It seems to me that no human being born was standing behind the door when that gift was handed out. I conclude that from the fact that I have never encountered a student so mindless as to want the perpetual happiness pill. If the thoughtful life, which alone deserves the name of true education, calls for the ability to distinguish Reason from rubbish, the ability to know and judge the self and to do something about it, and the ability to distinguish the better from the worse, then I have never found a student who was not a candidate for the thoughtful life. It seems to be the ability, the likelihood, the propensity, the wiring, as it were, that makes human beings human beings.

It is the popular view, of course, that everyone can be “educated” in something or other and to some degree or other. By that, we mean that some can aspire to brain surgery–there it is again–and others to accountancy or automobile repair. But all of these “meanings” are related not to what is the same in all of us, but to the countless and accidental attributes that are different in all of us. In all of us, mind is mind. Education does not provide the mind with newly invented powers; it is possible only because certain powers are in the mind from the start. I’m tempted to say, and will say, that it is, like language, which grows out of a power that is there from the start, not just possible, but inevitable.

But, again like language, it can be stunted, so that some Petronilla here and there can always be found in whom the power of language is small, and in whom the power of the mind is accordingly small. Although it is not routinely understood in this way, thought is talk. What we think, like what we know, or imagine that we know, exists in the form of sayings. And sayings about our sayings. When the power of saying is small, the power of thinking is small. An obvious example is visible in the simple fact that of those things for which we have no words, we can not think. If our words are few, we can say little. And if our words are mostly the words of communication, those words that name publicly visible things and events, then we can make sayings that are mostly ways of pointing to something. We have not the words to make sayings about our sayings. And, even more important, we have not the words with which to make sayings about the sayings that others say to us.

I am, like you or Petronilla, considerably outnumbered by others. Their massed voices are loud, and every one of them is, and has to be, a foreign influence in my own kingdom. To which of them shall I attend, and why? Which of them have I heeded, without testing and considering them, and performing on them what might be called acts of education, looking to distinguish between rubbish and Reason, and between better and worse? How can I rule in my own kingdom without having done that?

The practice of Reason is the secret of home rule, but it would be an imprudent king who neglected foreign policy and the defense of the realm. Every border is threatened by wandering bands and smugglers, and agents provocateurs, and single spies, and thoroughly regimented armies as well; and the higher his tower, the farther a king can see. I think that Epictetus was right, and that true education, which he called philosophy, has power only within, but that is also the power to understand and judge whatever comes in from the world outside. True education is not an adjustment to the world, but a defense against the world, and those who would have it must know the world as best they can. Fortunately, true education is also the best possible way of knowing the world for what it is.