The Gift of Fire Chapter One


by Richard Mitchell

Chapter One
Who is Socrates,
Now That We Need Him?

WHEN BENJAMIN FRANKLIN was hardly more than a boy, but clearly a comer, he decided to achieve moral perfection. As guides in this enterprise, he chose Jesus and Socrates. One of his self-assigned rules for daily behavior was nothing more than this: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

I suspect that few would disagree. Even most militant atheists admire Jesus, while assuming, of course, that they admire him for the right reasons. Even those who have no philosophy and want none admire Socrates, although exactly why, they can not say. And very few, I think, would tell the young Franklin that he ought to have made some different choices: Alexander, for instance, or Francis Bacon.

Jesus, just now, has no shortage of would-be imitators, although they do seem to disagree among themselves as to how he ought to be imitated. But the imitators of Socrates, if any there be, are hard to find. For one thing, if they are more or less accurately imitating him, they will not organize themselves into Socrates clubs and pronounce their views. If we want to talk with them, we will have to seek them out; and, unless we ourselves become, to some degree at least, imitators of Socrates, we will not know enough to want to seek them out. Indeed, unless we are sufficiently his imitators, we might only know enough not to want to seek him out, for some of those who sought Socrates out found reason to wish that they hadn’t. Unlike Jesus, or, to be more accurate, unlike the Jesus whom many imagine, Socrates often brought not the Good News, but the Bad.

Nevertheless, people do from time to time come to know enough about Socrates to be drawn into his company, and to agree, with rare exceptions, that it would indeed be a good thing to imitate him. The stern poet-philosopher Nietzsche was one of those exceptions, for he believed, and quite correctly, that reasonable discourse was the weapon with which the weak might defeat the strong, but most of us often do think of ourselves as weak rather than strong, and what seemed a bad thing to Nietzsche seems a good thing to us. However, when we do try to imitate Socrates, we discover that it isn’t as easy, and as readily possible to millions, as the imitation of Jesus is said to be.

So we make this interesting distinction: We decide that the imitation of Jesus lies in one Realm, and the imitation of Socrates in quite another, The name of the first, we can not easily say, but the name of the second is pretty obviously “mind.” Even the most ardent imitators of Jesus seldom think of themselves as imitating the work of his mind, but of, well, something else, the spirit, perhaps, or the feelings, or some other faculty hard to name. But those who would imitate Socrates know that they must do some work in the mind, in the understanding, in the intellect, perhaps even in the formidable “intelligence” of the educational psychologists, beyond whose boundaries we can no more go than we can teach ourselves to jump tall buildings. We may apparently follow Jesus simply by feeling one thing rather than another, but the yoke of Socrates is not easy, and his burden not light, nor does he suffer little children to come unto him.

And we say that, while it would be truly splendid to imitate his example, it really can’t be done as a general rule for ordinary life. Very few of us are as smart as Socrates, after all, and the smartest of us are already very busy in computers and astrophysics. Socrates appeared once and only once among us, and the chances of his coming again are very slim. We may hold him up as a shining example, of course, but as a distant star, not a candle in the window of home. He is one in billions. So we must, it seems, resign ourselves to living not the examined life but the unexamined life, responding to the suggestions of environment and the inescapable power of genetic endowment and toilet training.

Nevertheless, millions and millions of us contemplate no serious difficulty at all in imitating the example of Jesus, who, as it happens, is also held to be one in billions. We do not say, Ah well, a Jesus comes but once among us, and we lesser folk must content ourselves with remembering, once in a while, some word or deed of his, and trying, although without any hope of truly and fully succeeding, to speak as he might have spoken, to think as he might have thought, and to do as he might have done. Sometimes, to be sure, provided that we do in fact understand him correctly, which is by no means always certain, we might come near the mark. But it is childish and idealistic to imagine that we can, especially in this busiest and most technically demanding of worlds, plainly and simply live as Jesus lived. No, we do not make those reservations, but suppose rather that, in the case of this one life among billions, we can launch ourselves, all at once, and as if by magic, into the Way in which he walked. And this is because we imagine that the Way of Socrates is barricaded by the wall of an intelligence test, and the Way of Jesus is not, that the regularly examined life requires a lot of hard mental labor, and that the good life is as natural and automatic as the singing of the birds.

But there was at least one man who held, and who seems to have demonstrated in a very convincing fashion, that Socrates was not at all special, that he was, indeed, just as ignorant as the rest of us. We can not dismiss him as a political enemy or an envious detractor, or even as a more “advanced” philosopher who had the advantage of modern information to which Socrates had no access. It was Socrates himself who made that demonstration. And, although Plato is surely the most humorous and ironic of philosophers, it is just not possible to read Socrates’ Apology as a witty trick at the jury’s expense. It is a sober autobiography. Socrates explains that he has simply spent his life in trying to discover what the god could have meant in saying, by an astonishing oracle, that Socrates of Athens was the wisest of men. Socrates had discovered, as he had expected, that he knew nothing, but also that the same was true of everybody else. The oracle meant, in effect, that the wisest of men was just as unwise as all other men. But we seem to be fundamentalists about the oracle. There is a curious contradiction in us when we say that Socrates is an inimitable one in billions because of the power of his mind, and thus deny the power of his mind to judge truly as to whether he was an inimitable one in billions. Our minds, which are not up to the work of imitating him, are nevertheless quite strong enough to overrule him. Strange.

In old age, Franklin admitted that his plan for the achievement of moral perfection had not entirely succeeded, and that he had not, after all, been able perfectly to imitate either Jesus or Socrates. But he did not say that such imitations would have been impossible, or excuse himself from them on the grounds that they would have been impractical or unrealistic, or even, as the modern mind seems very likely to say, that they would have been counterproductive and little conducive to success. He says that, all in all, while he was but an occasional imitator, even so he had thus lived a better and a happier life than he would have otherwise had. And I do suspect that Socrates himself might have said much the same, for he, too, was surely an occasional imitator of Socrates.

The Socrates we have in the dialogues of Plato simply must be a “perfected” Socrates, a masterpiece every bit as much artistic as philosophical. I have lived, and so have you, in this world, which is the very same world in which Socrates lived. Only its temporary particulars have changed. He did, if only when Plato wasn’t around, or perhaps before Plato was around, worry about money. He quarreled with his wife, and fell out of patience with his children. He spoke, and even acted, without considering the full meaning and probable consequences of his words and deeds. He even, if only once or twice, saw Reason clearly and completely, and went ahead and listened to Appetite instead. And once in a while, from time to time, he lost his grip on that “cheerful and temperate disposition” without which neither the young nor the old, neither the rich nor the poor, can hope for that decent and thoughtful life of self-government that is properly called Happiness. And such outrageous and unconventional charges I can bring–as can you–against Socrates or anyone, with calm assurance, for Socrates was just a man. To do such things, as he himself very well knew, was merely human.

So now I can see before me one of those persons whom I call, in a very strange manner of speaking, “my” students. There she sits, as close to the back of the classroom as possible. She is blowing bubbles with her gum, and not without skill. She intends to be a schoolteacher. She has read, in their entirety, two books, one about some very frightening and mysterious happenings in a modest suburban house on Long Island, and the other about excellence. I now have reason to hope that she has been reading Emerson, and she probably has. She is not a shirker, but, at least usually, as much a person of serious intent as one should be at her age and in her condition. Her understanding of Emerson is not perfect, but neither is mine. The essay she has been reading, I have read many times, and every time with the realization that my understanding of it, up to now, of course, has not been perfect.

I know this as surely as I know that Socrates was once exasperated by a yapping dog: Someday, perhaps this day, when I have explained some difficult proposition’s exploration by Emerson, that young woman, or somebody else very much like her, will raise her hand and ask the question, and ask it just as Socrates asked, out of what she knows to be her ignorance, and her desire not to be ignorant. And her question will remind me that I am ignorant, and that I didn’t know it, and that I do not want to be.

I probably give less thought than I should to the question of whether the world exists, but I often consider the question of when it exists. When I am there in class, considering that young woman’s question before me, that is the world. Socrates exists. As though she were Socrates, this blower of bubbles asks the question. She has never thought out or named “undefined terms,” “unbounded categories,” or “unexamined propositions.” She can not say that a likeness should be noted where only difference was presumed, or a difference where only a likeness. But she can ask as though she had considered such things. And in that moment, in the world that then and there exists, who is the teacher and who the student? Who is Socrates?

If I have any good sense at all, will I not give her question as much thoughtful consideration as I would have given to the same question had it come from Socrates himself? And for two reasons, both of them splendid?

Rather than effectively dismissing Socrates when we suppose that we praise him as “one in billions,” we might do better to attend to our words as though we were poets, looking always deeper into and through them. We could thus also say that Socrates is one who is truly in billions, the most powerful confirmation that we have of what is, after all, not merely an individual but a generally human possibility–the mind’s ability to behold and consider itself and its works. That power is probably unavailable to infants and lunatics, but, in the absence of some such special impediment, who can be without it? Can it be that some of us are empty, and without that power which is the sign of humanity? My bubble-blower certainly is not, and she is real. I have seen her often. And in that moment when she is Socrates, I may well be seeing the first moment of thoughtfulness in her life. Education, real education, and not just the elaborate contraption that is better understood as “schooling,” can be nothing but the nourishment of such moments.


I imagine some well-informed and largely wise visitor from another world who comes to Earth to study us. He begins by choosing two people at random, and, since time and place are of no importance to him, but only the single fact of humanity, he chooses Socrates and me, leaving aside for the moment every other human being. He begins with an understanding of the single but tremendous attribute that distinguishes us both from all other creatures of Earth. We are capable of Reason. Capable. We can know ourselves, unlike the foxes and the oaks, and can know that we know ourselves. He knows that while we have appetites and urges just like all the other creatures, we have the astonishing power of seeing them not simply as the necessary attributes of what we are, but as separate from us in a strange way, so that we can hold them at arm’s length, turning them this way and that, and make judgment of them, and even put them aside, saying, Yes, that is “me,” in a way, but, when I choose, it is just a thing, not truly me, but only mine. He sees, in short, what “human” means in “human beings.”

And then he considers the specimens he has chosen, Socrates and me. He measures that degree to which they conform to what “human” means in “human beings.” With those superior extraterrestrial powers that imagination grants him, he will easily discover:

That I have notions, certain “sayings” in my mind, that flatly contradict one another; believing, for instance, that I can choose for myself the path of my life while blaming other people for the difficulty of the path. With Socrates, this is not the case.

That my mind is full of ideas that are truly nothing more than words, and that as to the meaning of the words I have no clear and constant idea, behaving today as though “justice” were one thing, and tomorrow as though it were another. That, while wanting to be happy and good, I have no clear ideas by which I might distinguish, or might even want to distinguish, happiness from pleasure, and goodness from social acceptability. With Socrates, this is not the case.

That I usually believe what I believe not because I have tested and found it coherent and consistent, and harmonious with evidence, but because it is also believed by the right people, people like me, and because it pleases me. And that furthermore, I live and act and speak as though my believing were no different from my knowing. With Socrates, this is not the case.

That I put myself forth as one who can direct and govern the minds, the inner lives, of others, that, in fact, I make my living as one who can do that, but that my own actions are governed, more often than not, by desire or whim. With Socrates, this is not the case.

That I seem to have a great need for things, and think myself somehow treated unjustly by an insufficiency of them, and that this insufficiency, which seems strangely to persist even after I get hold of the thing whose necessity I have most recently noted, prevents in me that cheerful and temperate disposition to which I deem myself entitled. With Socrates, this is not the case.

That I seem to know what I want, but that I have no way of figuring out whether I should want what I want, and that, indeed, it does not occur to me that I should be able to figure that out. With Socrates, this is not the case.

And that, in short and in general, my mind, the thing that most makes us human, is not doing the steering of this life, but is usually being hustled along on a wild ride by the disorderly and conflicting commands of whole hosts of notions, appetites, hopes, and fears. With Socrates, this is not the case.

How could the alien enquirer help concluding that there is something “wrong” with me, and that the humanness that is indeed in me has been somehow “broken,” which he can clearly see by comparing me with Socrates? Must he not decide that Socrates is the normal human, and I the freak, the distortion of human nature?

When he pronounces me the freak, and Socrates the perfectly ordinary, normal human being, living quite obviously, as perhaps only an “alien” can see, by the power of that which most makes a human a human, shall I defend myself by appeal to the principle of majority rule? Shall I say: Well, after all, Socrates is only one human being, and all the others are more like me. Would I not prove myself all the more the freak by my dependence on such a preposterously irrelevant principle? If that visitor were rude, he might well point out that my ability to see, on the one hand, what is natural to human beings, and to claim, on the other, that its absence is only natural, and thus normal, is just the sort of reasoning that he would expect of a freak, whose very freakishness is seen in his inability to do what is simply natural to his species–that is, to make sense.

But Socrates would defend me. He would say, for this he said very often:

No, my young friend is not truly a freak. All that I can do, he can do; he just doesn’t do it. And if he doesn’t do it, it is because of something else that is natural to human beings, and just as human as the powers that you rightly find human in me. Before we awaken, we must sleep, and some of us sleep deeper and longer than others. It may be, that unless we are awakened by some help from other human beings, we sleep our lives away, and never come into those powers. But we can be awakened.

In that respect, my friend is not a freak. He might better be thought a sleepwalker, moving about in the world, and getting all sorts of things done, often on time, and sometimes very effectively indeed. But the very power of routine habit by which he can do all that has become the only government that he knows. And the voices of his desires are loud. He is just now not in a condition to give his full attention to any meaning that might be found in all that he does, or to consider carefully how to distinguish between the better and the worse. He might be thought a child, and a perfectly natural child, who lives still in that curious, glorious haze of youth, when only desire seems worthy of obedience, and when the mighty fact of the world that is so very “there” looms immeasurably larger than the fact of the self that is in that world. He might grow up, and it is the “mightness” in him that makes him truly human, however he may look like a freak just now. From time to time, we are all just such freaks, and mindless, for mindlessness is the great background of noise out of which some few certain sounds can be brought forth and harmonized as music.


I am often worried and vexed about the colossal social institution of “schooling,” of which I am a paid agent. My quarrels and complaint with schooling are beyond my counting, and also, I must admit, valid but trivial. Looming behind all of the silly things that we do in schools, and pass off as an “education” that would have startled Socrates, there is nothing less than a great, pervading spirit of dullness and tedium, of irksome but necessary labors directed completely toward the consolidation of the mundane through the accumulation of the trivial. In school, there is no solemnity, no reverence, no awe, no wonder. We not only fail to claim, but refuse to claim, and would be ashamed to claim that our proper business was with the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and that this business can be conducted not through arousing pleasant feelings, but through working the mind. Thus it is that education is exceedingly rare in schooling, and when it breaks out, it is as the result of some happy accident, an accident that might have befallen a prepared mind, or maybe any mind at all, just as readily in the streets as in the schools.

Education makes music out of the noise that fills life. And from the random and incessant background noise of what we suppose the “mind,” meaning really the appetites and sentiments, education weighs and considers, draws forth and arranges, unites the distant with the near, the familiar with the strange, and makes, by Reason, the harmonious music that is Reason. If we can know anything at all about How to Live, it is in Reason that we must seek it, for the only other possibility is to seek it outside of Reason, in the disorder of noise. I am convinced that Socrates is right, that anyone can make that search and decide, not what the Meaning and Purpose of Life is, but what the meaning and purpose of the searcher’s life should be, and thus to live better.