The Gift of Fire Chapter Six


by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Six
Children and Fish

ABOUT A CENTURY AGO, a certain Edward Bellamy wrote a visionary novel about the distant future, about our time, in fact. It was called Looking Backward, and it was the first of all best-sellers in this land. I find it silly and boring, for most of it is made up of little lectures on social betterment delivered by a wise mentor who universally and uncritically approves of everything that his society is doing. But no matter, for in that book there are about four pages of inestimable worth. The mentor, who is called Dr. Leete, explains the principles upon which that society has grounded its understanding of the term education, and proceeds to enumerate certain “rights” that it has granted its citizens in regard to education.

The first of them is the right to enjoy life as fully as possible. That means, among other things, the right to have those powers that provide some access both to the works of the mind that can delight and illuminate, and to the working of the mind, which does the same. Dr. Leete would say of us that leaving people in that condition in which they can neither know nor govern themselves is a violation of their rights, and an outrage.

If that is the right to be educated, the second is the right to live among other educated people, for the former is generally the root of unhappiness in the lack of the latter. If, between the minded and the unminded, there is the equivalent of class struggle, there will be perpetual contempt and animosity on both sides, leaving the members of neither able to enjoy life fully.

The third right, and the one that most especially interests me here, is even more shocking and portentous than the first two, for it is one of those rights assigned specifically not to all, but only to a certain group, and thus sounds suspiciously like a privilege rather than a right. It is the right of children to be reared by educated parents. It is not an idea that could ever take hold among us, for it would surely lead to riot and civic discord, but, since we often mean by “education” nothing more than some supposedly acceptable indoctrination, it seems also an idea that should not be allowed to take hold among us.

But it is a truly and usefully provocative idea. Can there be a greater misfortune than to be reared by silly and self-indulgent parents, parents who have no inklings either of self-knowledge or self-government? If children of such parents ever reach those powers, will it not be by sheer, and unlikely, luck? We can look around our world and identify them very easily, the children of children. They are in a condition as desperate as that of the children of the House of Atreus. “Doom, like a black wave out of the West, rises over them.” In Dr. Leete’s scheme of things, they are, while utterly without guilt of their own, a disaster that must inevitably strike us all, depriving us of the first two rights, and making the good life impossible for everyone, and they are themselves incapable of finding that life.

But “incapable” is not the best word. “Incapacitated” would be better. It is not because of what they are that they can not hope for self-knowledge and self-government, but because of what has been done to them. And because of what has not been done in their presence. Education is not something that one person does to another. Like the stone-carriers, we have to do it in ourselves, one by one. Their teacher did not wait to measure their intelligence quotients or cognitive modalities, or devise some test of their listening skills; he simply did what was right. He did not excuse himself from the task of teaching them on the ground of their “learning disabilities.” If we could send Jesus a new and utterly unteachable pack of stone-carriers, it could only be because we had incapacitated in them the native ability to seek the good. To do that–can it really be done?–would be simply to make of a human being something less than human.

We give no noticeable thought as to how we might, deliberately and by underlying principle rather than pragmatic detail, take the greatest possible care to avoid making something less than human of human beings. And if we were to make that consideration into a goal of schooling, we would engender nothing but hosts of people who want to form a committee that will draw up the guidelines for a tentative plan of action to be submitted for approval to a commission that will go to work on the assignment of research grants to institutes that will devise timetables and flowcharts to facilitate the establishment of an agency with an agenda for the drafting of recommended legislation to be presented to an appropriate committee. That may not help.

I, however, can help, provided that I think not of going out to make the world a better place, but only of going in to make the world a better place. Out there, I have little chance, I think. A number of others have failed. Many of them were more skillful and influential than I. Like the stone-carriers, I am a legal grown-up, and a frequent child. That is the child that I am given, before all others, to rear. In those terms it is possible to reach a fairly practical, everyday understanding of what Socrates meant by the examined life; it is nothing but the rearing of the child that I am, and the deliberate doing, in his presence, of the right thing. Perhaps someday I will become able to make the world a better place, but that can hardly be expected in one who can not rear wisely that one who is most utterly and completely his own child.

Consider, therefore, the rearing of children. Consider it even if you imagine that you do not have any children. Do not bother to try to count the various current theories as to how this is best done, and don’t even think of all the old theories that we now, if only for a while, find bunk. In fact, don’t even think of “the rearing of children.” There is no such thing. “Children” can not be reared. To do some rearing, you need a child. Everyone has at least one. Imagine that you are that parent, and that you intend to rear that child.

What do you want her to be like? I suspect that you want her to be good and to be happy. I suspect also that you want her to be successful, too, and not only because she might then be able to support you in your old age, but because success is obviously better than failure, and more likely to provide happiness. Thus, you will want her to be industrious, but not obsessed with work, and effective. You might also want her to be someone who will someday be able to rear her own child as wisely as you reared her.

All of those aims at least sound realistic. They seem to be things that you can do something about. Some other possible aims, however, are not realistic. While you would surely like her to be smart and pretty, she may be neither of those things. She may not even be tall and thin. You can, of course, and almost certainly will, have her teeth straightened and keep her clean, but that is about as far as you can go in making changes in what might be called a certain and fixed portion of the endowment with which she came into this world. It will be useful to you, in your task of wise child-rearing, to be mindful of what can be brought about and what can’t. Let us call, for convenience, that which can not be changed by the name of Necessity. Whatever it is, it is. The best we can do is to hope that there isn’t too much of it, and that what there is of it does not preclude such things as goodness and happiness, or even whatever we mean by success.

So we consider what you can do. Let’s start with seeing to it that she is good. Of what does that quality consist? How does one be good? Are certain deeds good and others bad by nature? Are we good or bad by temperament or genetic endowment? Are good and bad relative conditions, like rich and poor, providing some broad middle ground of the mostly OK? Don’t answer those questions. Ask this one first: Have they already been answered?

Of course. A million times, but not in a million ways. The answers to such questions come in just a few standard brands, but they all have certain things in common. The answerers have traditionally imagined that goodness itself comes in at least two standard brands. It is out of one sort of goodness that a child refrains from throwing grapefruit around in the supermarket, and out of another that she habitually tells the truth. You will, I am sure, want her to have as much as possible of each, but I am just as sure that you will prize the latter somewhat more than the former. Naturally. But why do I suppose that preference “natural”? Is it really?

For just a while, forget the little girl. She will wait. Ask yourself that question again. Is it indeed natural that the one sort of goodness is more to be prized than the other? That question would not appear on an intelligence test, and its answer, if it has one, would not be like the solution of a problem, not a “correctness” like the meeting place of the trains. It would lack the quality of public verifiability, which is surely an essential attribute of solutions. That is actually good news, not bad, for even if you haven’t mastered the trick of choosing the right diagram, even if you don’t give a hoot as to the destinies of Bob and Alice and Carol and Ted, you are nevertheless the one and only power that we know of in the universe that can give thought to its own thought, a mind with the gift of fire. So stop reading for a few minutes and answer the question: Is it natural to prefer that goodness which impels truthfulness to that which impels acceptable behavior?


I presume that you have made your answer. (Such answers, unlike the solutions of problems, seem best described as “made” rather than discovered.) Your answer is a good one. I am perfectly safe in saying that. Any answer to such a question is better than no answer; and one who is willing to rest content with no answer at all, or without even asking the question, shouldn’t be allowed near children anyway. Who wants a child to be “good” ought to have some idea what he means by that, and some idea as to how to have some idea. Children reared out of thoughtlessness are in danger.

My answer went something like this: I remembered Socrates talking about the difference between being good and seeming good. It is obviously possible that the outward appearance of goodness is a sign of inward goodness, but it is just as possible that it is not. As to which is which, experience is a remarkably poor teacher. So I imagined some rearer of a child who actually did prefer the goodness of social acceptability to the inner goodness of truthfulness, who said, in effect, I care not at all what she is like inwardly, but only what the world imagines that she must be like inwardly. I will see to it that she behaves impeccably both in supermarkets and salons, a practice which, it must be admitted, is not always possible to those who are truthful by habit and intent. From that, I went to wondering what I might call such a would-be rearer of children, asking also whether I would want to give him charge of one of mine. I decided against it. I went further, and found in him something that I had to call perversity, a twist, a disorder that seemed to make of him something not entirely human, and thus, unnatural. So I concluded, roughly but readily, that if it is unnatural to prefer the goodness of social acceptability to the goodness of truthfulness, then the contrary condition might well be deemed “natural.” My answer raises, I know, swarms of other questions, but it is an answer, and I made it. If my answer has brought about some revisions in your answer–good. If it brings about, now that I can look at it, some revisions in itself, good. If I could know yours, I would surely be able to improve mine, and that would be good. And, so far at least, we have not had to consult Dr. Spock. Also good.

But what, exactly, do we know? We know this: That wanting a child to be good is not enough to bring her to that condition, and that we had better know what we mean by “good.” We even have to know which good is the better, and, if there seem to be many sorts of good, which is the best–for which most parents cross their fingers and hope.

Consider the finger-crossers, hoping for the best. It can be out of only one condition that they do that, the very condition out of which we have just come, a tiny step or two–ignorance. It is because they don’t know what the best is that they have to hope for it, and can find no way to pursue it. And they face the sad certainty that, should the best in fact come to pass, they wouldn’t be able to recognize it. They would be in like predicament as to the worst. We do not know what the best is either, but we do know that one “goodness” may be better than another goodness. That is something. And we know also that we are able to discover whether one goodness is better than another. And that is a big something.

Because of what you know, you are going to have some difficulties in the rearing of that child, difficulties perhaps never dreamed of by those who don’t know what you know. It is simply a fact that the two goodnesses at issue do, and not infrequently, collide with each other in a terrible crash. Which to follow, and when? How to learn that delicate art? And how–an even more difficult question–how to teach it to a child in whom there is yet no power of discourse, no familiarity with the abstract or with principle, no mind’s grasp of itself?

When Socrates made his preposterous defense to the jury that was going to convict him no matter what he said, he warned the jurors that, should they make the mistake of setting him free, he intended to embark at once on a career of recidivism. I will surely commit, every day, he said, the crime of which I am accused, which is nothing other than talking about goodness. We imagine, because Socrates has been rehabilitated by most of Western thought, that the jurors who weren’t vindictive must have been simply confused, and supposed that what Socrates called “talking about goodness” was really something else. How, after all, could anyone who had come to, and rested in, his senses object to talking about goodness?

But I suspect that those jurors who weren’t out for revenge had, nevertheless, some pretty strong reasons for finding that practice dangerous to the health of the body politic. I suspect also that some of them–how lucky we are that they are gone–might find the same of your considerations as to which sort of goodness is the better, and why. What ordinarily masquerades as “talking about goodness” is really nothing more than the recitation of precepts, perhaps with footnotes. Which precepts are recited will depend on that party of the reciter, who is, more often than not, an “expert” in goodness. Usually with a license. From his party.

Our trouble in noticing this comes from the preposition. When we talk “about” fish, and keep strictly to the subject, not talking at all about ourselves and how we feel about fish, we are stuck with a reality that has nothing to do with us. Fish are fish. About fish, we can make demonstrably true or false statements. No matter what we say, the fish remain what they are. When Socrates described his crime as talking about goodness, he meant a different kind of “about.” It is an about not of description but of discovery, not of prescription but of predication, whose limits are not dictated by a reality that has nothing to do with us, but by a reality that has everything to do with us, and is what it is only because and when we make it. In fish there is no good or bad, no fair or foul, no right or wrong. In us, the case is otherwise.

Those who talk about goodness, therefore, are indeed something of a danger to the peace and health of the body politic. They are asking what goodness is, in spite of having been told a thousand times, and whether they might discover and understand it for themselves, and in their own minds, in spite of the popular belief of every body politic in our time that goodness is not the proper business of the intellect, but of feelings and beliefs, and, of course, the proper business of a few highly trained specialists.

There is, in fact, some threat to the tranquility of society in talking about anything except fish. As long as we stick to fish, or to any of countless equivalents in the world as provided to us, we are very unlikely to fall out with one another and come to blows. But the world as provided to us is not the world, for there is also the mind-made world, which is not subject to the test of hard experience that can force us to agree as to fish. We can’t even come to agreement, and probably shouldn’t, as to how far one’s “family” extends, or as to the meaning and purpose of banking, to say nothing of intelligence–or goodness. That is good, for it permits us to make such conceptions, and to remake them. But it also permits us to make and remake them wisely or foolishly, and to be either blessed or stuck with them.

Goodness is not fish. In thinking how to rear a child, therefore, your talking about goodness is truly a way of considering whether you are blessed or burdened with the ideas about goodness that you happen to hold, for whatever reasons. If we suppose, for instance, that intelligence is measurable by the skill of problem-solving, are we blessed or burdened with that idea? If intelligence were a thing that exists on its own, like a fish, there would be no point in asking such a question. But it isn’t. We do not have to settle for it. We make it, and live with what we make.

Children, also, are not fish. There are many ways to define children, and the silliest possible one is the one that we usually use. Age. But, in asking yourself how to talk about goodness with the little girl you hope to rear wisely, and realizing that she has not yet found the grasp of her own mind, you have already come up with a far better definition. To understand that children are those under the age of eighteen is an idea that we are stuck with. We do need some such arrangement for the sake of ordering affairs in the body politic. But you need not be stuck with it. If you should prefer to understand that children are those human beings who have not yet found the grasp of their own minds, then the task you have given yourself, that task of rearing a child wisely and well, is suddenly transformed from indoctrination to education, in its truest sense, and made not only possible but even likely–provided, to be sure, one little prerequisite, which is that you are not a child, that you have come into the grasp of your mind.

Bad news, eh? I know just how you feel.

Understanding what I do think, and why I think it, and whether I should think it, is, at best, an occasional and fleeting condition. I would be delighted beyond describing, but utterly astonished as well, to meet anyone who was always secure in such understandings. I have no such hope. But if my mind, like any operating mind, can reach that condition once in a while, why is it that it so often doesn’t?

For an answer to that question, and for another valuable hint about the rearing of children, we can go to Aristotle. He provides an intriguing definition of “children,” a simple little idea whose implications are tremendous. Children, he said, are those who are completely governed by their appetites. He didn’t mean to insult them, as mere brute creatures. He meant only to name their nature. It is by nature that children are whatever it is that they are. And it is equally by nature that they become, or can become something other than what they were.

He is, if he is doing any judging at all, excusing children by saying that they are governed by their appetites. If that is so, then we can not say of children that they are “bad.” To be bad requires an act of the will, a knowing choice, and, strangely enough, self-government. Children can’t govern themselves. Not yet. By the same token, however, we can not say of them that they are “good.” To be good is not simply to refrain from being bad. It is an act, a willed and chosen act. I suppose, therefore, that he would not have found you or me either good or bad because of the act that we commit, but because of the choosing that informs it. If I do refrain from throwing grapefruit in the supermarket, it does not prove me good simply because I don’t happen to want to.

The rearing of children thus must begin at home. I mean really at home. In me. In anyone. In those times when I am governed by my appetites, I am the child who needs rearing. I am not able to talk about goodness, for my appetites have already done the talking, and told me that goodness is getting what I want.

Imagine what sort of a teacher I must be in that condition. If it is my appetite for admiration and self-esteem that has seized me, an appetite which we are strangely encouraged to arouse in each other, how likely am I to remember, as a teacher should always remember, that I am standing between my students and the light? I am not that light, and it is my job to open my students’ eyes to the light, not to the flash of my own cleverness. But which will I do? Would you want me, in that state, to rear your child?

Are we any less mindless if we depend on others to tell us what is good? How have those tellers escaped the regular recurrence of childhood that strikes you and me? I wish they would tell us not only what is good, but how they came to know that. If they have learned to take so firmly the grasp of their own minds that they can always recognize and disarm the insidious and amiable promptings of appetite, which they must have done to become experts on the good, I wish they would just give us the secret of that power, so that we too may become experts on the good. Then we could understand in principle the difference between the better and the worse, and those who now counsel us so assiduously would be spared the trouble of rating as good or bad all of the countless particulars of human action.

And while we are asking such questions of those who would counsel us, let us ask them as well of ourselves, who are also setting out as counselors of others, as those who would rear this little girl to be good and happy.

Many of those who counsel us as to goodness will say that it is not by the power of Reason that goodness can be understood. They do not agree, however, as to what power it is by which we can understand goodness. Some will say “character,” in some rough sense of the word, believing that some people are just inclined that way, others less so, and some few, in fact, are remarkably disinclined to goodness. Some will say that it is by example, a sort of subliminal experience, that we learn to be good or to be bad. Some will even say that it is out of the frustration of appetite that we do bad, and out of its satisfaction that we can afford to be good. Many will say that goodness is known by the conscience, an invisible table of laws that can somehow be generated in the mind, thus disputing themselves if they also say, as they tend to, that it is not by the mind that we can know the good. And many more will say that we can know the good by precept, by hearing and believing some Truth that is provided for us, and not by some power of our own, but by some power that is outside of us. And there are lots and lots of people who say all of those things, at one time or another, and lots more who don’t say anything at all. They just live.

I do not know which of them is right, or if any one of them is right. But I keep thinking of the square of the hypotenuse, and a strange kind of truth that can be known by Reason, and only by Reason. Example and experience will never show it. No instinct or hunch or deep feeling, however sincere, will lead me to believe it. No authority, no voice of this world or any other, however sonorous, will convince me by force. But when my reason has walked the path, which is the proof of it, I have pure knowledge that carries its own license, and not the badge of any interest. It may be that goodness can not be known by Reason, but I will be ready to accept that only after I have done all that Reason permits and found it wanting.

I won’t be able to do that until I manage to grow up. Child-rearing is not some special part of life, set aside for some temporary purpose and put aside at a certain age. It is the principal business of life, the search for the condition that is naturally promised for us by the fact of our life. And we must do it in ourselves, one by one.