The Gift of Fire Chapter Ten


by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Ten

WHEN YOU USE THE POWER OF Reason as strictly as you can to make judgments about the voice of the world, some unsettling things can happen to you. Consider the frightening results of a little experiment in thinking that anyone can perform:

The dramatic power of the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman is not great. Although the punishment she faces is indeed lethal, her crime seems trivial. She is not a monster of depravity. We have reached an interesting and useful understanding of that story, but is it the understanding we might have reached if we had been able to share the supposed moral outrage of her would-be executioners? If her crime had been truly monstrous, would we still be ready to conclude that Jesus had brought those men out of a bad condition and into a good one?

Suppose the culprit were not merely a self-indulgent woman, but a different sort of criminal, one who arouses in us no sympathetic sentiment whatsoever. An Adolf Eichmann, perhaps, of whom we will not say that he merely succumbed, as we all might, to a natural human weakness. Ought Jesus to deal with his case as he did with the woman? Will we be pleased with the end of the tale, when the accusers drop their stones and walk away, having become better? Will we still believe them bettered? And whether they are better or not, can we still suppose that justice has been done when this culprit is let off with nothing more than advice?

I imagine now, that, having heard of my deliberations in these matters, Jesus, troubled as to whether he may have set a bad example, and hoping to do better, comes to me seeking understanding.

How shall I, from now on, he will ask, learn to find the mark that must lie somewhere along the line that runs from a silly and self-indulgent woman at one end to Adolf Eichmann at the other? At what point should I put aside the business of awakening the accusers and take up instead the business of the accusers?

Or should I, he asks, simply withdraw, saying to the accusers: Who am I to tell you what is right? And saying that, don’t I also say, Seek some other to tell you what is right? If that is what you would recommend, then I must point out that it is exactly what I did. To each man I said: Ask yourself that question, and be advised by the one authority that has no other axe to grind but yours. Is there some better authority to whom I should have sent them? Do you have some suggestions as to who that other should be?

So I explain that, in sense that goes deeper even than the customs and the laws, a “criminal” is one who does harm. I talk about harm, the various degrees of harm, and even different kinds of harm–physical harm and psychological harm; harm that lasts, and harm that goes away; harm that sometimes actually helps, and harm that never helps; harm in a good cause, and harm in a bad cause. In the original case, Jesus has himself done no harm. Indeed, he has made the accusers better than they were, and may even have done some good for the accused, beyond saving her life, although she wasn’t all that bad to begin with. She hadn’t really done much harm, I guess. But if the culprit were Eichmann, who did harm beyond our powers to believe, although believe it we must, then Jesus would do a terrible thing indeed, not only to turn aside his accusers, but to say thereafter, Doth no man accuse thee? Neither do I. Go, and sin no more.

At the same time, though, I know that I am also talking about that mark on the line that runs from one culprit to the other. That mark is now all the harder to find, too, for I have made it dependent on all those marks by which the various sorts of harm, which can be told from one another only by finding some other obscure marks along another line. If I am to instruct Jesus, for instance, in distinguishing between harm done in a good cause and harm done in a bad one, is he not likely to ask for some way of finding a certain mark along the line that runs from one cause to the other? And will he remind me, as Plato does, that everybody always thinks that his cause is good. No one says, Aha! I will now do some evil in a bad cause.

Is there any point, Jesus asks, sounding more and more like Socrates, in asking whether a cause is good or bad? A cause is not a person, that it can will its deeds. And if the ends do not justify the means, neither do they condemn them. No matter what the cause, bravery is bravery, and cowardice, cowardice. Can I truly judge of deeds by judging, instead, of the cause in which they were done?

His questions make me wary. Suppose, for instance, that I am so frightened by the prospect of the next great war that I insist that there can be no justification whatsoever for warfare, and that the harm it will certainly do is utterly out of proportion to the supposed and merely possible good of any “good cause” in which it might be done. Few will accuse me of irrationality for that view. But I have already put it to Jesus that there is some cause, in this case the punishment of Eichmann, in which we must do harm, if we are to be just. And still there are few who will accuse me of irrationality, but Jesus will be one of them.

And what of the stone-carriers, he asks, Must I do harm to them, in the name of a good cause? Before, I brought them into some goodness. Must I now, because the cause is great, leave them in some badness?

His questions bring me into that deep discomfort of which Socrates spoke. I am unsure of everything. I would rather not stay around to hear the argument out. I would prefer to go to a ball game. And ball games, like all their uncountable equivalents, if taken in strong enough and continual doses, provide the hope of never falling into such discomfort. I would like to wash my hands of the whole business and just live. I would like to rule my own little kingdom, and keep it simple, and not be bothered by questions that have an unsettling look of “the ultimate” about them. When the time comes to do harm, or to refrain from doing harm, well, presuming that I can control myself at all, I’ll just try to figure something out. Besides, there already are all sorts of answers to such questions. You could look them up. And a fat lot of good they have done us in all these thousands of years, so that we can still bother ourselves with them. As to advising Jesus as to how to handle the Eichmann case, I’ll just forget the whole business.

But, having suffered at least partial and occasional education, I find myself just as troubled by forgetting the whole business as by remembering it. I can not forget utterly that wretched Petronilla, the child who lives in me, and whose rearing seems not only my obligation, but my natural obligation, far stronger even than a legal or social obligation. I also have in my little kingdom a certain nagging counselor, who seems to have appointed himself Petronilla’s advocate. He keeps asking questions that do not smell of the ultimate, and can not be dismissed out of hand as beyond my powers to answer.

He insists upon asking, Which would you say, O King, is the better parent and most likely to consider whether harm might ever be remedial, one who gives thought or one who does not give thought to the difference between Eichmann and the woman taken in adultery? What king, he asks, is the more likely to rule well in his own country, he who bothers his head as to the distinction of the good cause from the bad, or he who goes to the ball game?

Unfortunately, those questions are not at all hard to answer. Indeed, of their answers I must say that I know them, and not merely that I am informed of them.

Accordingly, I know better than to say, Listen, many have already considered such questions, and their conclusions are easily found; when I have need of them, I’ll look them up, and, somehow or other, choose among them as to which is wisdom and which is not.

He would surely say, And who then, O King, would be ruling in this little country of yours, when you choose to follow the counsel of this one or that of a host of foreign advisors?

To that I would have to answer, I will still be ruling, for it will be I who chooses.

And he will ask, How, O King, will you know to make that choice wisely unless you have given thoughtful consideration to some principle by which to distinguish between good causes and bad causes, which will also be a principle by which to distinguish between the better and the worse, and to distinguish among the many answers in your collection of foreign sages?

Here is a truth that most teachers will not tell you, even if they know it: Good training is a continual friend and a solace; it helps you now, and assures you of help in the future. Good education is a continual pain in the neck, and assures you always of more of the same. When training is not called forth into service, it lies quietly in its place. Neither the accountant nor the chemist nor even the tuner of engines is vexed by thoughtful doubting right in the middle of the ball game by the murmurings of his skill. But any one of them, all unmolested by an obedient training, may notice, even at the ball game, that he has not tried to understand something that he knows he should try to understand, and be vexed. Training is a good dog, a constant companion and an utterly loyal and devoted friend, and everyone should have one. Education is a nagging counselor. And, I am convinced, everyone does have one. It happens, however, that some nagging counselors have grown strong by a certain kind of nourishment. Others are weak and puny, even infantile, having never been nourished at all.

What becomes of one who is not nourished at all, and does he fare any better if he is wrongly nourished, like a child fed on cookies and pop? Who has been the counselor’s parent, to make of him the worthy parent of the child who dwells in the same kingdom? If it is the counselor’s job to keep the king on the right path, who is the king who keeps him on track?

Here in my kingdom, everyone seems to be an immigrant. And some of them seem more correctly understood not as immigrants in good faith, looking to make new lives in a new land, but as covert agents of a foreign power living in deep cover. Some of those, once I think to seek them out, are easy to spot. They are voices from the world, all the sentiments and prejudices who crossed these borders in my childhood, and will continue to arrive and find homes so long as that childhood persists in me. They are the proponents of all those learnings that we have lately come to distinguish as -isms of all kinds, who cause in me responses so automatic that I am always in danger of deciding that “automatic” is the same as “natural.” For that reason, they all seem to carry licenses of authority, and some of them look so official that I seem to have appointed them a National Commission and given them the name of “conscience.”

Anyone who undertakes a program of self-government must sooner or later deal with the unpleasant possibility that what culture and tradition celebrate as conscience may not in fact be the same sort of advisor as the wise and nagging counselor who asks hard questions.

What, exactly, do we mean by conscience, and, even more important, what exactly could we choose to mean by conscience? It is surely not a thing out there in the world, but rather a something here inside, like intelligence. It is an idea, an idea that we can work on, changing it or enlarging it, or even, as the history of anyone will sadly tell, distorting it into a remarkably convenient set of rationalizations. “Always let your conscience be your guide” is advice of doubtful value. Conscience must be, among other things, a list of sayings, an anthology of quotations and precepts. Where did they come from, and who first wrote them on my empty slate, and why? Have they been tested for sense and consistency, so that, by doing such a test for myself, I might confirm them and truly adopt them as though they were indeed the result of my own thoughtfulness? Up to now, I have adopted them only as the nightingale adopts the cuckoo; they were dropped in my nest. I imagined them “mine.” They all came to me in some personal equivalent of a prehistoric age, like admonitory dreams in the long sleep of Petronilla. When I awoke, an event that I can not remember, there they were, and I could only have thought them a part of me.

If a true education is the process that makes us able to be good, and if obedience to conscience is all that we need to be good, then education is nothing more than the inculcation of the collected sayings of conscience. That inculcation will be all the more effective if those sayings are recited in the ears of sleeping children. They thus become, to every awakening child, a body of ancient lore, for there is no more distant past than the past within, beyond the reach of examination, and long, long out of mind. The unexamined sentiments, beliefs, and precepts that flavor all my thinking have been around in me forever, for this life is all the forever that I can possibly know. But they all came, in the beginning, from somewhere else. They are not natives. I have to suspect that a thoughtful examination will lead to the naturalization of some, and the deportation of others, and that the business of a true education is to be able to discover which are which.

Home Rule in one’s own kingdom can not truly come from the expulsion of all foreign agents. With, perhaps, one very puzzling exception, every agent in my kingdom is a foreign agent. Each one is somebody from outside, because, except for the one somebody who is just plain me, there is no place else to come from. They can not truly be deported, however reprehensible and disruptive, for that would require nothing less than self-inflicted, seductive and deliberate amnesia. The men who didn’t throw their stones did not merely disregard the law by which they took them up, and they certainly did not deport it; they annulled it. They governed that which had governed them. This is why self-government is such a tremendous undertaking, and one to whose mere beginnings a whole life might easily be devoted. It is a task thrust upon an infant king, who must rear himself and come to govern all those much older and stronger inhabitants of his land whose natural tendency is to govern the king. That it can be done in any degree at all is truly a wonder, which is why we have come to see it as nothing less than the gift of a god.

A prudent king will do all that he can to understand the inhabitants of his land. He needs somebody like a Madison, to write his own version of the tenth Federalist Paper, which considers the problem of factionalism in a constitutional republic. How shall government go well, when parties with opposing interests and desires are all citizens who merit representation? How will small parties be protected from the greater power of large parties, and, most important of all, what will become of the republic should some faction grow large enough to constitute a majority? If we don’t trouble ourselves much with such questions anymore, it is because we usually suppose that the Constitution Madison was defending has provided the answers, but also that we suppose, quite wrongly, that “faction” is just another word for a group of people who want pretty much the same thing. But that wasn’t exactly what Madison had in mind, any more than Plato, who spoke of faction as the root of all social disorder and catastrophe.

He was thinking of opinion clubs which, by the nature of their opinions, simply can not compromise. We might best see his meaning by thinking of Palestinians and Israelis, or Indians and Pakistanis, or even northern Irish and southern Irish. Between one man who claims that God says A, and another who claims that God says B, there is no road that leads to a middle ground, nor is there any hope of rational argument and demonstration that may bring the one to agree with the other. If there are disputants who are willing to kill each other over that disagreement, then they will kill each other forever, and in perfectly good conscience at that.

Such factions cause quite enough trouble out there in the world, where I can do nothing at all about them, but their internal equivalents cause just as much trouble right here in me, where I ought to be able to do something about them, and don’t. What I have just said reveals a factional disagreement in my own kingdom.

I have one counselor who says, Listen, you are what you are because of powers and influences not of your choosing and beyond your control. You have to learn to live with that.

Then there is another, who says, Well, let’s not quarrel as to whether you are, right here and now, the product of outside influences. Indeed, how could that be very far from the truth? But are you not also, as of now, one who sees that he is a product of outside influences, and has thus separated himself in some sense from them, as the seer must be separate from the seen, and has thus constituted himself an inside influence? Therefore, while it would be only decent and humane to excuse all your past vice and folly as utterly beyond your poor power to control, your future vice and folly will have to be seen as failings to which you contribute as an inside influence.

And to this the first responds, Bunk. That “seer” is an illusion, a rationalization. There is no self at all, but only what nature and nurture have written.

What compromise can they strike, these counselors who are also leaders of populous factions? One of them is made up of fears, and the other of hopes. They are not exactly the same as people who claim to know what God says, but they are like them in a very important way. The difference is in detail, not in principle. They can not be shown either right or wrong by Reason. They can not be converted, nor can they be ignored, for they are forever scuffling in the streets, like the Montagues and Capulets, although they will by no means be reconciled in the end. My best hope must be that they can be governed.

The understanding of philosophy that I can best fathom is the one provided by a character in one of Plato’s dialogues, the Theatatus. It is a certain Theodorus, a genial old mathematician, who defines philosophy, without intending anything grand and complicated, as the habit of “quietly asking and answering in turn.” That “quietly” is very important. Thinking is a conversation, not a confrontation, and it proceeds by argument, which is not anything like a quarrel. It is typical of factionaries, and of the factionaries in me, the dissolved beliefs and prejudices, the voices of tradition and authority, and the conclusions of my own disorderly thinking, that they are not quiet. They behave like peace marchers and gun collectors whose parades have unfortunately collided. They shout and interrupt. They “ask” only in some peculiar sense, for their asking is a challenge rather than a search for understanding. To their questions, they do not truly expect new answers. And they “answer” not by walking along the line of the question, but by breaking it. They do not wait their turns, but interrupt whenever they feel like it, for feeling is to them the great enabling principle that justice would be in the well-governed self.

I once paid attention to a priest who was being interviewed on television. He was asked whether he himself was willing to “condemn” the violent tactics of the IRA. His answer was remarkable:

How can we, he said, bring ourselves to condemn the violence of a few individuals unless we first condemn the official and much greater violence of mighty nations? How can we call “evil” the terrorism of some men, until we have denounced as evil the hideous and inhuman terrorism of the arms race, far more threatening than the bombs of the IRA? He spoke solemnly and sincerely, a deep pain in his look. His questioner was satisfied. He paused a long moment, reverently, and went on to talk about the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The discussion was over.

I wondered a lot about that priest’s inner kingdom. What voices were shouting in him, and which had fallen silent? Where was his nagging counselor, or for that matter, the official nagging counselor of his persuasion–Aquinas, who held that there was only one Reason, and that it pertained to all that we could know? Mine, had I made such an answer, would at least have asked me about the strange fact that when asked what judgment I had made, I answered by talking about some judgment that we could not make, as though I were somehow licensed to speak for every person in the world. Most of all, my counselor would ask some reconsideration of my truly astonishing contradiction. I can easily imagine the conversation that would follow, the quietly asking and answering in turn for which television does not have time.

You have just said, have you not, that anyone who would condemn the violent tactics of a few individuals would first have to pass a test, a test that would require some prior condemnation of other violent tactics?

Well, yes, that is what I have said.

Did you also intend to give the impression that you yourself had already passed that test, that you were indeed ready to condemn what you describe as the greater evil? Or are you disqualifying yourself as one who would condemn the lesser because you have not condemned the greater?

I must admit, nay, affirm, that I have condemned the greater evil, and I can hardly imagine how Reason might demonstrate me wrong in doing that.

So you have passed the test. Why don’t you just go ahead and condemn that “lesser evil”?

What can I say to that, except to admit that I hadn’t been making sense. So my questioner would want to consider further the possibility that I had been irrational not by oversight, but because certain voices in me were shouting.

In itself the irrationality was quite outrageous, but all the more so because it was committed in what seemed a studied pretense of rationality. It was worded as though it were logic. You ask me if I can say Y? Well, no one can say Y without having said X. I do, of course, say X, but I will still not say Y, thus suggesting that saying Y is not enough to bring me to say X, and revealing that something else must be necessary for the saying of X, and that the relationship between X and Y is not quite as direct and “logical” as I have implied. But it did sound logical, didn’t it? What was the need of such pretense? What factions required it?

Orwell provided us a memorable understanding in saying that the strange language of government grew out of the need of government continually to “defend the indefensible.” That makes us comfortable, because “government” is somebody else, and we think ourselves unindicted by Orwell’s fine phrase. But I too am government. Whatever nonsense I may talk comes straight from my throne. It is an enunciation of nothing less than “policy,” some internal principle by which I work, and which dictates not only my deeds, but my thoughts and my words, which are also deeds.

My counselor would surely ask me just who is making the policy in this little kingdom. Is it one certain brand of Irishness, perhaps? Can it be Catholicism? Is it some homegrown version of the one or the other, some private misunderstanding of special ethnic or religious beliefs, traditions and customs? Is it perhaps much simpler? Some desire to make friends and influence people, or some fear of offending certain people? Surely, in a mind that can take the grasp of itself, such an astonishing, and apparently deliberate, crime against your own mind must rise from somewhere deep in the belly, from the demanding voices of those who do not quietly ask and answer in turn, but shout, and will neither ask nor answer, but only proclaim.