The Gift of Fire Chapter Seven


by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Seven
The Perils of Petronilla

HERE IS AN ENTERTAINING and instructive story about the rearing of children, those in us as well as those out there, and about goodness and happiness, and how they can be known.

Saint Peter, the tale tells, had an only and much beloved daughter named Petronilla. Peter knew all too well the wicked ways of the world, and the terrible temptations it had to offer, especially to attractive young girls. He wanted, as we all do, to keep his daughter safe, lest she fall into any badness, and thus, I suppose, also to keep her happy, for badness is a notorious provider of unhappiness.

He was a man of considerable and very unusual powers, so he brought upon the girl a deep slumber, almost like that of death itself. And so she slept her young years away, safe from the world and its wickedness. Peter’s friends, however, knew only that the girl was always unconscious, like one deathly ill.

One day, when some of them came to visit and chat with the great man, one of them said:

Peter, we find one thing hard to understand. We have seen you work wonders with the sick and even those at the very door of death. How is it then, that you seem to be able to do nothing for your own child, your lovely daughter, who lies as one dead in the next room, and has so lain for years?

Ah, my friends, said Peter, you misunderstand. Petronilla is not sick at all. She sleeps, and I have provided her the safe haven of that sleep. Thus she will escape that which so threatens and often undoes even the best of mortals, the corrupting influence of this world and its ways. She is far from sick; she is well in virtue, and sleeps exactly as I want her to sleep. Here, let me show you that what I say is true.

And he called the girl to awaken. And she awoke. Come, said her father, and meet my friends. Bring them food and drink, that we may be joyful together. And she brought them food and drink, and Saint Peter’s friends found the girl just as he had said, pure and good and gracious in every way, and uncorrupted by the world. And when she had done all that was asked of her, her father sent her back to bed. Sleep now, Petronilla, he said. And she slept.

That’s one of my favorite stories. It provokes endless thought, all of it fruitful, but unfortunately a bit facetious. We don’t educate children that way anymore, but we have gone to the opposite and equally ludicrous extreme. We don’t let them get any sleep at all. Even as tiny tykes, they are led to worry about any and every great social issue from abortion to nuclear war, and cajoled into believing that they have done something about such matters once they have expressed themselves. Their geography books require them to speculate as to what they would do to put an end to poverty in South America, and their civics books call on them to imagine a solution to the problem of toxic waste which requires nothing more than the miraculous appearance of some currently unknown technology. They are thus led to believe first of all that great human mysteries can be boiled down into something very much like a train problem, and thereafter that anyone at all, whatever the depth of his ignorance, can make the world a better place by relating well to others and muddling through. The condition of children thus deluded is, of course, very different from that of Petronilla, but it isn’t any better.

The story of Petronilla, obviously apocryphal but once popular among the faithful, is a clue to a great and influential event of our history that goes unmentioned in our texts. When, exactly, it befell us all, I don’t know, but by simple logic I do know that it must have happened.

There was a time, and we can easily see it in the five or six centuries that run roughly from the time of Socrates to the time of Epictetus, when the idea of education was very simple, and the supposed consequences of education, tremendous. With us, it is the other way around. The process of education is tremendously complicated and technical, filled with requirements for this and that, competencies and all their presumed measurements, degrees and diplomas, professional standards, approved and accepted bodies of information, and whole catalogs full of other details. And, at the end of the great, epic journey of education, in which not a few will spend as much as a quarter of a century, you should be able to do something, one something.

Epictetus, who could neither read nor write, supposed that education was an inner condition, easily–if temporarily–reached, in nothing more than an afternoon of thoughtful discourse, but a condition by virtue of which one could do everything that living requires, and do it well. How naive he seems, by contrast with any college’s typical summer reading list for incoming freshmen. If so, it was because he shared the idea of education that was destroyed in that momentous and unnoticed historical event, the enforced separation of Goodness and Knowledge.

The two were once understood as one and the same condition, a condition that was also to be called Happiness. The three were held as intimately related as the sides of the famous right triangle, whose designation as “right” is not an accident. Somewhere, sometime, perhaps by the action of some joint committee, those ideas were cut apart and portioned out. On the one side, one faction chose Knowledge for its special kingdom, and granted Goodness to the other faction. The Knowledge people and the Goodness people made a pact, promising not to meddle in each other’s business, and decided also to split Happiness down the middle, putting into the hands of the Knowledge people Happiness (and success) in this world, and into the hands of the Goodness people Happiness (and success) in another world. The meeting probably took a long time, centuries perhaps, but its plans and proposals were very successful. To this day, we do believe that Knowledge and Goodness are not only separate but very different things, and that Happiness comes in two brands, one of them easily measured, and the other, well, less easily measured, but a really great thing, if there is such a thing. (That’s why the Knowledge people are just now way out in front of the Goodness people; the latter can only promise, but the former can actually deliver.)

Those important words do need some examination. Knowledge. Goodness. Happiness. And the examination of words needs some examination itself.

Philosophy, in our time, has become a very difficult study. There is quite a lot of it, and much of it is very hard to understand indeed. It is surely an important and powerful enterprise of our species–the making of philosophy–and it surely has upon us all effects of which we are not aware. I stand in awe not only of philosophers, but of professors of philosophy, for their sheer learning is tremendous, and they are habitually attentive to many little things that would help any one of us in the search for the mind’s grasp of itself–the careful definition of terms, for instance.

But I have this one complaint against them, a complaint that I finally learned to express from C. S. Lewis, a man not accurately described as a philosopher, but only as a thinker. He tells the story of his own youthful embarrassment when, in conversation with friends, dons like himself, he referred to philosophy as a “subject.” His friends looked away, as though pretending not to have noticed a luncheon companion slurping his soup. One of them, after a silence, reminded Lewis that for Plato, philosophy was not a subject, but a “way.” Better yet, The Way.

But, the technical and mechanical requirements of schooling being what they are, the professors of philosophy, if not many of the philosophers themselves, have brought us to the belief that philosophy is indeed a subject, and not an easy one at that. And that leaves us in the belief that, if philosophy is, in fact, also a way, it is a difficult path, not only to walk, but even to find. Nowadays, it is a broad and inviting boulevard that leads us into the kind of Goodness claimed for religious belief, and were Jesus to return among us he would find it more appropriate to say, not of faith, but of philosophy, that straight is the gate, and narrow the way, and few there be that enter therein.

That’s too bad. It gives us the impression that we can not for and by ourselves know the Good. It takes professional experts to do that. And when, and if, we do consult the professional experts, and what a big job that is, we discover that they do agree that the search for the Good is a highly technical enterprise suitable only for those with great knowledge, intelligence, skill, and practice in rigidly strict thinking and logical argumentation; but as to the Good, they do not agree. This leads us either to abandon the search and settle, without being certain why, on one authority rather than another, or to conclude, comfortably and conveniently, that the Good is an illusion anyway, that everything is relative after all, and it doesn’t matter so long as you’ve got your health, which is diligently being looked after by a special branch of the very successful Knowledge faction.

How different philosophy was in an earlier time, before it became the private property of schools. People sat around and talked, but they talked not as we so often talk, at random, and by recitation. They did know and use one little trick, and that was the trick of paying attention to what is said, and equal attention to searching out the meaning of what is said. And “the meaning” of what is said they understood in a very interesting way. The meaning of what is said is what can and must be said about what is said.

We have a good example of that meaning of meaning in our earlier consideration of slavery, for instance. If we want to make sense when we talk about slavery, we will have to know what we mean by the term. Lacking that knowledge, we can’t truly say whether we have in fact given it up, or even whether, as the assertion held, that slavery is in fact “antithetical to civilization,” whatever that may mean. So now we must talk. That is truly the only way. We are looking for statements. We can easily begin with the statements that we can now make, but ahead of us, as we make statements and then make statements about our statements, there lie statements that we are not able to make just now. We don’t know them. The path has not yet been trodden out that far.

We can easily begin by saying things about slavery, and the laws and customs related to it, as a political, economic, and social institution. We can ask whether slavery as an outward and visible condition is related in any way to inner and less visible attributes in people, people who are slaves, people who are masters, people who want to be slaves, people who want to be masters. And about those attributes, we can make statements. We can make statements about the outward practice of enslavement, the enslavement of others, and ask whether there might be some inward analogy to that practice, some form of self-enslavement, perhaps to passions, perhaps to unquestioned beliefs.

We can even, by the amazing power of literacy, call upon the assistance of others, long dead. When we come to consider whether slavery is indeed antithetical to civilization, maybe Socrates will drop in to tell us his wonderful story about just that consideration. He called upon his friends to imagine a prosperous and respectable citizen living in comfort in a fine little estate in town, well and dutifully served by a large staff of competent and industrious slaves. How pleasant a life. How comfortable and secure he is in all that he possesses. And now imagine, he urged his friends, that somehow, by magic, the man and his estate, his wife and children, and all his goods, along with his faithful staff of slaves, are all transported into some distant and unknown land set down far, far away from all other human beings. And there, where there are no laws, no legislature, no guardians of the civil peace, no juries, no jails, what will come to pass with that man and all that he possesses? What sort of master will he be there, and who will govern whom, and according to what law?

Having made those statements, he might ask us whether we would like to use them in our own consideration of the true relationship of slavery to civilization. We would begin to find some new and perhaps surprising statements that can and must be made.

Whether of slavery, or of Happiness, or of any other idea at all, where will such a discussion end? Will it have what is called a bottom line? Will we be able to use its answer in a multiple-choice question, so that we can test whether someone has “learned” it? To expect such things is to confuse the search for meaning with the solution of a problem. There is no place where the trains cross. There is only the journey, and it has no end. The journey itself is the answer, and the best answer we can have.

If I can not manage to solve a train problem, you can help me out and tell me the answer. If you have the patience, you can also show me what I ought to have done to find the answer for myself, but when a train problem is “real,” not just cooked up as a game but a requirement for something that I have to do in the world, all I really need is that answer. Then I can do something. So, while there is also a “journey” in problem-solving, it is not a journey that I have to take for myself. In total and lifelong ignorance of all of the principles that make the internal combustion engine possible, I can drive a car.

In a thoughtful inquiry into meaning, everything is just the other way around. Unless I have made that journey by myself, the answer is of no use to me. It is no more than hearsay. When someone solves the problems involved in tunneling under a river, I can drive through the tunnel that he has built. But when he tells me the meaning of deeds, I have only his testimony. And even when I have inquired into the meaning of deeds, and reached some rational understanding, there is still no guarantee that I will be empowered to do something. I might be able, however, to be something that I was not before, but even that depends on my will to be something that I was not before.

Furthermore, it isn’t truly the journey that they have made. They have done, I would more correctly say, some journeying. They have not come to the end. There is no end. If there were an end to our consideration of slavery, there would have to be, way out there, some Last Statement, some sentence about which nothing further could be said. We have as much hope of finding the Last Statement as of finding the largest possible number.

Everybody knows that, of course; everybody knows that there is no “cash value,” as William James called it, in considering the meaning of ideas like slavery and Happiness. There is nothing we can get out and do after we have considered. There seems to be, therefore, nothing happening out in the world because of our considerations. It makes speculation seem vain, an esoteric exercise in cleverness that butters no bread. And many of us imagine, furthermore, that we can actually point to the “failure” of all such undertakings. Have they not been speculating and considering for thousands of years, those impractical thinkers, as to the Good, and endlessly exploring the distinction between the better and the worse? And what has come of it all? Do we now know what the Good is? Have they found for us the secret of telling right from wrong? Have they shown me, a parent who wants to rear a child in Knowledge, Goodness, and Happiness, what those things are, that I may ensure them unto her?

In other words, we complain because they have not solved any problems, and we are out of patience with them for having failed to do that which they never set out to do in the first place. They might stand on firmer ground than we, should they ask us what makes us think that the distinction between the better and the worse is in fact a “problem,” that they, or anyone, might solve it, might bring home the answer and bestow it upon all humanity. They might also ask us by what reasoning we have concluded that we can have it both ways, that in one breath we can say that those remote and lofty thinkers have not answered our questions as to the good, and, in another, we can boast that “we” have indeed become a “better” species, having virtuously given up such nasty habits as slavery and dueling and cannibalism.

A friend came to Epictetus to complain that philosophy was not doing him the good he had expected. How so, asked Epictetus. Well, you see, the friend said, I have this brother-in-law, a colossal pain, and a sponger as well as an idler. I try to put it to him that he is leading a meaningless life, and severely injuring his own soul–to say nothing of mine–and that he ought to shape up and get a job. But nothing I say convinces him. He always has some smart-alec answer. So I think I need a few more lessons in how to philosophize.

Epictetus put it to him that philosophy–and he didn’t mean it as a “subject” in school–was bounded by the skin. It had no power over the world. It could bring about tremendous changes, but only inside. It was not with the brother-in-law that his unhappy friend was failing, but only with himself. It is not for the persuasion of others that one studies to be better, but for the sake of being better. Indeed, as a persuader of others, the brother-in-law was clearly the stronger, for he had easily done what the would-be improver had failed to do. He had brought about an unpleasant and unvirtuous condition in somebody else, and kept his own condition, whatever it might be, intact. And would the friend prefer, then, to learn, for the sake of making his brother-in-law better, the very arts and devices by which the brother-in-law had so easily managed to make him worse?

Meanwhile, back in her tiny bedroom, Petronilla sleeps. We are still determined to rear her with an eye to Knowledge, Goodness, and Happiness. We do not know for certain what those things are, and even if we did, we could not tell her. First of all, because she is asleep. All children are asleep, more or less, which suggests yet another way of defining children. But, and far more important, we could not tell her even if she were awake. In such matters, there is no telling. If there were, we wouldn’t have to trouble ourselves to think and consider. We could look it up. There is only the journeying. If she is to do that journeying, under our guidance, we will have to do it, and thus learn, not the path, or the destination, but journeying itself.

Listen now to the voices of three possible parents of Petronilla, any one of whom is also probable:

First Parent: I am in favor of Knowledge, Goodness, and Happiness, and I certainly do want them for my child. I am aware, however, that no one has been able to say exactly what those things are, and that by now it seems clear that no one ever will. It would be a waste of time and effort for me to pretend to bring all those considerations to a conclusion, so I will just have to hope for the best, and look around for some good examples or ideas that seem to work for somebody, and, of course, whenever possible, urge her to be good and learn things. I’ll also see what makes her happy and try to provide as much of it as possible, provided, of course, that it won’t also have the effect of making her bad, or, come to think of it, of keeping her in ignorance. Hmm. Maybe that won’t always be so easy. It looks as though I may have to do some guessing as I go along. Well, I am going to be very sincere, and I am going to try very hard to do the right thing, and maybe it will all work out for the best. There. That’s my plan.

Second Parent: I know what Goodness consists of, and I know that Happiness comes from being good. Frankly, I’m not at all sure that Knowledge has much to do with either. I know lots of very smart and well-informed people who seem to be less good than they ought to be just because of all that Knowledge, and who, furthermore, do not agree with me as to the nature of Goodness. I will simply see to it that this child does agree with me. I will just tell her.

Third Parent: Now that I think about it for a minute, I’m not at all sure that I have ever made any distinctions between Happiness and Pleasure, for instance. Or between Knowledge and Information. Should I rear this child as though there were no differences? And what about Goodness? Is that the same thing as Obedience? Or as Conformity? Wouldn’t that depend on what was to be obeyed, or conformed to? I suspect that I can never know for certain what any of those things actually are, but I do have to do something about deciding what, in this case, they ought to be. It’s a good thing the child is still asleep, because it looks as though I have some work to do before she wakes up and starts asking questions. I think I had better begin with talking to myself for a while. Maybe I’ll start with something that sounds particularly intriguing. Pleasure. I wonder, do I mean the same thing by Pleasure as I do by Happiness? Is Pleasure good, or is some Pleasure good and another bad? If I could decide which is which, what would I have, Knowledge or Information? Well, I can see that this is going to take a while. I’d better get to it.

It is not difficult to choose which parent you would prefer if you happened to be Petronilla. Is it any more difficult to choose which parent you would like to be?

Petronilla is in some danger. How will it come to pass with her if she has drawn the wrong parent? How likely is she to come some day into the grasp of her own mind, to wake up, if she is the child of the second parent, or even of the first parent? Will she not have to depend on luck alone?

Well, that’s the way it is, we all know. Lots of people just have to depend on luck. We can’t save them all. For one thing, we can’t even find them all. How can we know the hearts of all parents, and the measure of every child’s peril? Who are we to judge, and say of this one that he is the first parent, and of that one that he is the second parent? There is only one case in which you have the resources to make such a judgment. In yourself. If you have chosen the parent that you would rather be, consider now the parent that you are. If some of the details don’t exactly fit, change them. And, having done that, look around and see if you can find Petronilla. Unless you are astonishingly unusual, Petronilla is somewhere in you, sleeping soundly. Of that Petronilla, you can not say that she will just have to take her chances along with everybody else. If she never comes to take the grasp of her own mind, it will not be for lack of luck, but because you, who could have provided a design where the world can provide only happenstance, chose not to do that. You know her, and you know her parent, and you know what ought to be done.