The Gift of Fire Chapter Three


by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Three
The Land of We All

ONE OF THE FIRST FACTS about thinking seems too obvious to be worth mentioning, but, it isn’t always obvious, and we often behave as though it weren’t a fact. Only a person can think. I don’t mean by that to point out that trees and rocks can’t think, but to say, rather, that even if trees and rocks could think, only a tree or a rock could think. Thinking can not be done corporately. Nations and committees can’t think. That is not only because they have no brains, but because they have no selves, no centers, no souls, if you like. Millions and millions of persons may hold the same thought, or conviction or suspicion, but each and every person of those millions must hold it all alone. And that it truly is the same thought in all of them, the very same thought, each must guess of all the others, for into each other’s minds we can not get. All I can ever know of what you think is your testimony, which may well be as inexpert or self-interested as mine often is. Every thinker is unique, since every person is unique.

From a certain point of view, thinking is preposterous behavior, and astonishing. If its appearance among us is truly the result of some evolutionary “save-the-species” development, it is clearly one of Nature’s great mistakes, for it, and it alone, has made of us the only species not only able to destroy itself, but very likely to destroy itself. Of course, I might have that wrong if it is really in Nature’s great plan to save all the other species by planting in the most dangerous one a lethal seed, but that requires in Nature a low cunning which seems beneath her. In any case, however, it is perfectly clear that other creatures do very well indeed without thinking, without seeking the meaning of their deeds, without making and testing propositions, and without reading or writing. All such acts, and countless related ones, from the point of view of all the rest of the universe that we know of, must be accounted nothing but “unnatural.”

In thinking about thinking, and in thinking about anything, for that matter, it is always useful to think about something else instead. Give some thought to the playing of the violin. Imagine that some great team of skilled researchers has given itself to, and at last accomplished, a study of violin-playing, a detailed and comprehensive description of absolutely everything that is happening in a human being who is playing the violin. Their work has been tremendous, and their findings occupy a whole shelf, maybe a whole wing, for their considerations begin at least at the submolecular level of neural signals, and reach, at the far end of some unimaginably long line, all those things that we vaguely point to when we talk about the imagination and understanding of the artist. And all such things the researchers have weighed and measure and counted.

Imagine now the immensely distant future, when we have ceased on the Earth, and when there are no singers, no songs, and no violin-playing. Visitors from another world arrive, and find some few remnants, among them, the great exhaustive study of violin-playing, complete with pictures and charts and tables of figures, to say nothing of ear-witness accounts of the feat itself. Will they not be astonished and reach pretty much the same conclusion that even you and I would reach should we be able to read such a study? Will they not say: This is too much. Any fool can see that the playing of the violin is simply impossible.

When such a task is seen in all of its details, it takes on the look not only of the impossible, but even of the unnatural. To one who considers all of the great and harmonious workings of Nature, the deep and continual principles that inform them, all that might be called not only Order but even The Order, nothing could seem more contrary and unlikely than that a person should bring forth ravishing beauty from a dinky wooden box.

But in fact, as anyone can see, that is only one of countless unlikely things that persons do. And thinking is another such. If the great study of violin-playing would fill a whole wing, the great study of thinking would need a few libraries all to itself. But it can be done. And–an even more startling fact–it can be done by a person who can also play the violin.

Playing the violin or writing a poem are special ways of paying attention. They are acts at once small and great. Although only one person can commit them, they require orderly marshallings of countless and diverse forces, something like the great landing of armies in Normandy, but incalculably bigger and more complicated. And such a comparison leads to another important clue in thinking about thinking. Playing the violin, and thinking, and landing in Normandy are indubitably human accomplishments, for better or worse, in either case. But they are accomplishments very different in nature, for while human beings, and only human beings, can achieve them all, only an individual person can achieve the playing and the thinking, both of which are the more difficult, and complicated, and unlikely. The great study of the invasion can in fact be written, and even read. It was. But the great study of violin-playing will never be done.

It is an obvious but simple distinction–though rarely made–that there are some things that we can do because we are humanity, and some things that we can do because we are persons, and that there is some radical and absolute difference between the two classes of things. They do not overlap. A person can no more invade Normandy than an army can play the violin. Furthermore, while the deeds that pertain to humanity are frequently very large and very visible, so that we can all see just how stupendous they are, and the deeds that pertain to persons seem very small and are often utterly invisible; it takes only a little redirection to conclude that the latter are far greater accomplishments than the former, beggaring description and final analysis, and, at last, unlikely.

But the deeds of humanity are given, in our minds, a superiority over the deeds of persons. By contrast with the waging of war, the playing of the violin seems immensely less important, a trifle, in fact. It is an interesting opinion, for its validity depends entirely on what meaning we are to take from the word “important.” It isn’t true, of course, that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and I don’t know what meaning I would take from the fact if he had, but if Oistrakh had fiddled through the siege of Leningrad, as Dame Myra played Mozart through the Blitz, I would see a person doing one sort of thing and humanity doing another sort of thing, and I would wonder about what I might learn to mean by the word important.

About this I don’t have to wonder: Dame Myra, or Oistrakh, or perhaps even Nero, for all I know, could also have wondered about what they might mean by the word important, but humanity could not. Humanity does not wonder. Only a person can wonder. And the list is very long of verbs that can be added to the words “Only a person… .” If you will make yourself such a list of verbs, and then another of the verbs that go with “Only humanity can…” you will discover a lot of things to wonder about, and one of the more important ones will be the meaning that you might learn to assign to the word important.

While it may well be that few persons ever happen to notice and consider the strange and unique powers that they have as persons, and not as humanity, including the power to decide what important should mean, I suspect that we all have some inkling of that strange state of affairs. That is why we are warned in schools–well, maybe in some schools–against what is generally called “generalization.” Generalizations often name many minds and then go on to speak as though they were a mind. Right from the start, they speak of what is not, for the Italians can not believe one thing and the Belgians another. Only a person can believe or think–or feel, for that matter. And when we undertake to talk about what is not, we are in danger of falling into nonsense and talking rubbish.

But the warning against generalization is ordinarily provided not for intellectual reasons but for social reasons. It is certainly true that vague generalization provides an easy way to insult lots of people all at once without having to prove anything, but it also provides an easy way to praise or flatter lots of people all at once without having to prove anything. If I say that Jews are stingy, I will be accused first of some social depravity, and only thereafter, and rarely, too, of intellectual disorder. Furthermore, my intellectual disorder, speaking as though Jews were an agent who could be stingy, will be at least partially excused should I back off a bit and say, to what will surely be general assent, Well, some Jews are stingy. Who can deny it? Some Eskimos are also stingy. I will not be required to specify a percentage.

Having corrected myself socially, I will not be required to correct myself intellectually. And I will suffer no correction at all if I say that Jews are diligent and productive. Now, I am OK, and listeners will nod approvingly. Nor will I be required to say, even approximately, how many Jews are diligent and productive, or which ones.

In one of the worlds in which I live, the World of We All, the first assertion is a Bad Thing, and the second a Good Thing. But in another world in which I also live, the world where the mind does its work, the two statements are perfectly equal in value, and their value is zero. They are worthless statements. It is not sufficient to condemn them as generalizations, for that condemnation is really an exoneration as well. The most we require of a generalization is that it be toned down. Come on, now, they can’t all be stingy. And when we declaw our generalizations, we suppose that we have come out of the Wrong and into the Right. But we have only come out of one worthlessness and into another.

There are several ways by which to detect a worthless statement. One of them is making it into its opposite, and considering the statement and its supposed negation side by side. The opposite of a worthless statement is always worthless. If we test the proposition that fat men are jolly by asserting also that fat men are morose, we do not notice that light has been shed on the ordinarily expectable disposition of fat men. Neither proposition suggests any possibility of verification or of falsification. We can not ask, If the first were true, what else would be true? We can not look for evidence for the support of the one or the other, because we can not find, in the world, the real subject of either sentence, as we could if the subject were something like a cannonball dropped from a leaning tower, or a certain fat man well known to us. We can not find “fat men.” At what weight will we set our definition? Will we omit some men who fall short by three ounces? Will we include those who were three ounces too skinny in the morning but somehow manage to satisfy us as fat after lunch? And what will we do about jolly, and morose? Or stingy and productive, for that matter? Where will we set their limits? How closely will we be able to measure them?

Worthless statements can thus be understood as propositions that we simply can not use for thinking. They just don’t work. It is not because they are mysteries or concepts that transcend thought, like the nature and substance of the Holy Ghost, or circularity in the absence of circles, but because they do not rise to the level of thought, in which we find that we need to make meaningful statements about meaningful statements.

Worthless statements are a kind of social grace, except, of course, when they are a social disgrace. They have, in the work of the mind, the same value as, Well, it’s good to see you. How have you been? But, at their worst, which is where they usually roost, they are dangerous deceptions of the mind. They leave us, if we are not attentive, with the vague impression that we know something, when we don’t, thus providing us with the chance of going on to suppose that we know something else as a consequence of something that we don’t know. No good is likely to come of that, except by the happiest accident, and for harm to come of it requires no accident at all. This is especially true in that part of life which is social, for it is exactly there, where great masses of people are made into the subjects of propositions, that the worthless statement most flourishes, with predictable consequences.

I have been reading, over and over for a few years now, a piece I tore out of a newspaper. It is a quotation from a book, and it was printed alongside a review of the book, as an example of good work. The reviewer did not like the book. The author seems to be a decent and energetic woman who gave up a successful career as a physician to devote herself to what is perhaps an even higher calling. She is dismayed, as I am too, by the prospect, perhaps the likelihood, of an unimaginably destructive nuclear war. She now devotes her life to arousing others to the danger of the threat, and the book in question is part of her work to that end.

I am on her side. I suspect that I would like her. She is, in principle, saying a very fine thing: Come, let us reason together. This represents exactly that sort of education I think is the only true one, an education in Reason–that work of the mind by which we can, if it can be known, know the Good. And know the evil too, and see it for what it is, and turn away from it. If we can not save ourselves from nuclear destruction by the work of the mind, then our future will be just a matter of luck, and where war is concerned, we seem little likely to be lucky. But if it is the work of the mind that will save us, then the work of the mind badly done will destroy us, unless, again, we are lucky. Read now what she says and consider whether the mind’s work in this case be done well or ill:

It is true that we have the secret of atomic energy locked in our brains forever. But this does not mean that we can’t alter our behavior. Once we practiced slavery, cannibalism, and dueling; as we became more civilized, we learned that these forms of behavior were antithetical to society, so we stopped. Similarly, we can easily stop making nuclear weapons, and we can also stop fighting and killing each other.

In trying to keep your mind clear, it is always a good idea to be on the lookout for the pronoun “we.” If “fat men” make up a category too big and shapeless for us to say anything accurate about, we is clearly much larger, and, unfortunately, not at all shapeless. Except where some defined context limits it to exactly these or those of us, we has to be all of us. Every one. And people who make moral propositions have a way of talking about we, and making thus the same kind of worthless statement that I can make by talking about fat men.

And, because we is everybody, it is nobody. It is simply not a person, not a center of consciousness that can think and feel and do, and is therefore capable of no one of those acts named by the verbs that go with the statement “Only a person can…”

I am a bona fide member of we. So are you. About you I can not speak, but for myself I can say, and not at all to my shame, that I have never given up slavery. I have never even dreamed of it. If you are depending, for the sake of the survival of our species, on the fact that I have learned to alter my behavior and have thus forsworn slavery, then you are leaning on a weak reed, and the future of our species is not bright. Nor do I suspect for a minute that I am just one of the die-hards, still holding fast to the practice of slavery when almost everyone else has learned better. I rather suspect that, among we, there are actually billions like me, who have never given up slavery, having had, like me, no reason to do so, having never, just like me, practiced it in the first place. I suspect, furthermore, and the history of an especially bloody war leads me to that suspicion, that many who did give up slavery, did it not out of some moral reawakening, but under duress–that is to say, not as a result of what a person can do, but as a result of what humanity can do. Their giving up was an outer event, and not an inner act. And I have to wonder about the author of that passage. Did she have some inner reason to give up slavery? And did she proceed, by a conscious and supremely important act of the will, to give it up?

If we now look around at all of our species, and flatter ourselves as persons who have learned at least enough goodness to grant our slaves their freedom, we say what is not so. Somewhere in North Africa or the deep jungles of Borneo, it may be possible to find a chieftain or two who has in fact done exactly that, but I think it unlikely that we can depend on them to save us from war.

I will have to say the same about dueling and cannibalism. I have never given them up. In those respects, I am not the better person implied in that we. And there is very probably hardly anyone who is. Where will we find all of those people who, having learned better how to order society and become better persons, will now be the better persons who stop fighting and killing each other?

Any proposition has two sides. It always says, in its simplest form, that A is B. The A of those propositions simply doesn’t exist. There surely have been people who did once give up those wicked practices, but they are gone from us. Could they hear us boasting that we made those decisions, they might be a bit put out. Perlman might do little more than raise an eyebrow if I were to claim that we had learned to play the violin, but the heroes of Marathon might actually turn nasty if I were to boast that we found on that little beach the strength and determination to turn back the stronger force of tyranny. The B’s of those propositions, however, do indeed exist. And, if we can understand them not just by their titles but by their principles, it may become clear that practically no one has ever given them up.

Here is another way in which our language can trick us into imagining that we are thinking. The names of things are not the things, and we have many names that point to no things at all, but to ideas. What is slavery? In one sense, it is easily identified. Where one person is allowed to have, by law, possession of another person, ownership, with all the rights that traditionally go with ownership, that is slavery. In our own nation, that law was changed, but not by those who owned the slaves. As to whether those who made the change sought the moral betterment of those who resisted it, or something else, there is at least room for speculation.

But what is the root of slavery? What is it in principle, rather than in detail? How did such a practice come to be established by humanity, and, apparently, universally established at that? Here, there is room for both speculation and introspection. Which of us can say that he has never used another person as though that person were an object? Which of us has resisted every impulse to control or govern another? Which of us has never deemed himself better and more valuable than another? Which of us has never sought to put some fence around the mind of another? Is there one of us who has not thought what even Plato thought, that there are certain people who are–well, just inferior, by nature, just not capable of living under their own direction, and that we are actually doing them a favor by directing their lives for them, in some way or another?

I will plead guilty to all of those charges, and I would be very eager to meet a person who is innocent of them all, for then I might best study Goodness. But, thinking not in terms of laws and social conventions, which are always changing, and for reasons that have nothing to do with Goodness, but only with Necessity, I will have to admit again, but for a very different reason, that I have not given up slavery, for indeed, I still practice it.

I can be very specific about that. I can, and do, so overpower the minds of my students, those, at least, who want to pay attention, and who have little defense, that they come to believe what I seem to believe, to judge as I judge. When that happens, I have to start contradicting myself, and pointing to the uncertainties of my own reasoning, until they too come around to the new course, and the process begins again. Is the root of slavery not in them as well as in me? Who of us has not sought to be led? Which of us has not, from time to time, abandoned the difficult task of understanding for ourselves, of governing ourselves, even of supporting ourselves? Which of us has not wanted a master, so that we might be as well taken care of as a puppy, fed and watered and cleaned up after? Why is it that my students, when they come to be entirely of my mind, think that that is what they are supposed to do? What taught them that, if not some cultivation and even some encouragement in them of whatever it is in us all that fears the perils of freedom? And the cultivators and encouragers, or even the permitters–have they given up slavery?

Nor have I given up dueling. I still duel. I still seek to avenge my “honor.” I still incline to answer fire with fire, and injustice, whatever I mean by that, with justice, whatever I mean by that. That I do not go out at dawn with pistols is not enough to save me from the name of duelist.

On cannibalism, I will make a small concession. While I never did give it up, I have also never knowingly practiced it. It is, in any case, not at all the same sort of “crime” or “depravity” as slavery or dueling, or even as fighting and killing, not rooted in what may well be some permanent and universal facts about human beings. We do know that it was usually practiced only as a religious ritual, and we also know that our supposed innate abhorrence of cannibalism disappears quite readily under the clear and imminent threat of starvation, as survivors of airplane crashes in the high mountains will testify. But cannibalism, too, might well have been “given up” by some person or persons who did indeed come into some new moral understanding. Where are they now? What role will they have to play in the moral reawakening by which we will all escape the coming storm?

If you were to ask the next three persons you meet in the street to give a few reasons for the fact that so many people seem unable to think coherently, consistently, and logically, you would hear some obvious answers. Some of those answers would refer to what is called “intelligence.” Well, some people are just smarter than others, and thus naturally capable of more and better thought. You would hear answers about something called “judgment,” and very likely accompanied by the complaint that the schools just don’t teach judgment anymore, as though they always had, of course, in the good old days when everyone was consistently able to think coherently. Your most sophisticated informant might well point to the notorious difficulty of strict and formal logic, which the schools also don’t teach anymore. After all, are there not dozens and dozens of those syllogisms, each with a name of its own, and each indispensable to clear and correct thought? Just think of all those famous fallacies, and how easily the untrained mind will stumble into them. And then, of course, there is ignorance, in this context to be strictly construed not as dullness of mind, but as the simple absence of information, and thus a widespread impediment to clear thinking even in the smartest. And just think how much information there is! Who could have it all, or even any considerable share of it?

There is some usefulness in all of those understandings, but they seem to me quite unable to explain the thinking we have been considering here. The author of those thoughts on slavery remains, whether she practices or not, a skillful physician. She must indeed be what we call “smart,” and diligent as well. Her profession requires logical thought, and lots of it, and the drawing of correct inferences from the evidence of knowable facts, a process which must be granted the rank of judgment. I would put the care of my body under her supervision with no misgivings at all, knowing that where she had knowledge she would act effectively, and that where she had not enough knowledge, she would know that she had not enough knowledge, and send me to someone who did.

Nor would I say, of the thoughts we have been thinking about, that she has wandered “out of her field.” There are some people who do put themselves forth as experts in the mysteries of the human heart and soul–all sorts, from psychiatrists and economists to preachers and politicians–but those mysteries are, and in fact should be, everybody’s field. Who are you, who am I, who is anybody, to be disqualified as to that inquiry? If there is any special expertise to be had in contemplating human mysteries and speaking what truth can be had about them, it might be in our poets and dramatists and novelists, or even in our myths and music, but who surely knows which? No, we are not dealing here with someone who is just out of her depth in a highly technical subject. The impediments to her clear thinking are not to be found in any of the answers given above. They come from pains in her belly.

The Greeks supposed that the belly was the nursery and dwelling place of the appetites and desires, just as they supposed that the head was the home of thought, and the chest the place of right feelings, a reasonable mediation between the two. Their knowledge of anatomy would not have gotten them through our medical schools, but their metaphor provides powers of the mind that are not instilled in our medical schools, or any other. That metaphor has this great virtue, that it gives us the beginning of a way to distinguish internal and invisible events from one another by family, as it were. We can be almost as clear in our minds about the different denizens of the belly, the chest, and the head, as we can about animals, vegetables, and minerals.

(I am thinking just now, as many readers may know, about a long essay by C. S. Lewis, “Men Without Chests.” It is about what seems to Lewis a general and growing inability either to dethrone or harmonize technical information or prowess and gut feelings. It is good to read. Once a year.)

Consider again that, even in the company of those we call “intellectuals,” I would suffer rebuke or disapproval in saying that Jews are stingy, and escape both in saying that Jews are diligent and productive. As thinking, both statements are equal. Both worthless. If I can get away with the second, even in lofty mental company, it is because what I say probably makes every belly in the room purr with satisfaction, while the first makes them all growl with unease.

Of course, it may be a bit more complicated than that. Some belly may be in spasm, truly pleased to hear Jews called stingy, but fearful lest its owner be revealed as bigoted. That owner will very likely permit his belly its secret pleasure and send his head forth to do a little socially acceptable lying. I will still get the rebuke and disapproval. To escape it, and thus get away with an utterly worthless proposition, all I have to do is make the bellies purr. Lots of people know that secret, and live very well by it indeed.

The passage cited earlier will make many bellies purr. There are probably very few people who are looking forward to nuclear war, and thus anxious about all the rest of us who are hoping to find some way to prevent it. Who but a maniac out of an old-fashioned science-fiction novel would contemplate with glee the destruction of all life, or even of lots of it? Who would not lament the destruction of the butterflies, which is actually, and just a little bit unfortunately, one of the hideous possibilities used by the author in her “argument”?

But if it is by reasoning together that we may escape nuclear war, then her thinking may kill us all. In that marvelously pliable land of we all, anybody can get away with anything. Her opponents, and there must be some, for otherwise there could be no threat, can write books claiming that we have learned, through bitter lessons, that force succumbs only to force, and that we have thus given up, or certainly should give up, our childish dreams of perpetual peace. Just as cogently as she, which is to say, not at all, but with just as much hope of making bellies purr, others can say that we have learned that the price of freedom is supreme sacrifice, and thus given up the belief, which might also be called “antithetical to civilization,” that we can enjoy its fruits without paying its costs.

There is lots of talk these days about “teaching children to think,” a presumed function of the schools, which they are either executing well or ill, depending on which expert speaks. Of what can that teaching of thinking consist, I wonder. What exercises can be done? Are the answers in the back of the book, or only in the teachers’ manual? What would I do, if I had to teach children to think?

The first thing I would do, I hope, would be to get out of the land of we all, and recognize that “children” do not constitute an entity capable of thought. So I would set out to discover how to teach a person to think. And, since the task seems formidable, I would prefer, for my first try at such work, to pick the person myself, one who shows some promise. And I would pick, of course, a person who says that we have given up slavery and dueling and cannibalism.

And where would I begin, with a person who is already, as we understand the term, not only “educated,” but “highly educated”? With the belly, of course, which in this case has overpowered the head. The greatest failures of thinking do not come from any incapacities of the mind, nor are they prevented by great skills of the mind. They come from the interference emitted by the feelings, which can be both detected and disarmed by the one great power of thought that is the mother of all others, and that is self-knowledge, the beginning of all thoughtfulness.