The Gift of Fire Chapter Two


by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Two
The Square of the Hypotenuse

WHO FIRST CALLED REASON sweet, I don’t know. I suspect that he was a man with very few responsibilities, no children to rear, and no payroll to meet. An anchorite with heretical tendencies, maybe, or the idle youngest son of a wealthy Athenian. The dictates of Reason are often difficult to figure out, rarely to my liking, and profitable only by what seems a happy but remarkably unusual accident. Mostly, Reason brings bad news, and bad news of the worst sort, for, if it is truly the word of Reason, there is no denying it or weaseling out of its demands without simply deciding to be irrational. Thus it is that I have discovered, and many others, I notice, have also discovered, all sorts of clever ways to convince myself that Reason is “mere” Reason, powerful and right, of course, but infinitely outnumbered by reasons, my reasons.

Let me give an example. Socrates often considered with his friends a familiar but still vexing question: Which is better, to suffer an injustice or to commit one? He brought them–and me too–to consider the question in some new ways. Which, for instance, is uglier, the person who suffers or the person who commits? Which person has surrendered himself to the rule of injustice, and which person might still be able to avoid it? Which might still be free to choose between the better and the worse, and which not? Out of the consideration of such questions, and countless others that flow from them, I know that it is better to suffer an injustice than to commit one just as purely and absolutely as I know about the square of the hypotenuse. If there were some acts possible to me, some ways of living and doing, that could be based in principle on my knowledge of the square of the hypotenuse, what a splendid fellow I would be. In all my dealing with you, and with everybody, I would be strictly on the square. I would no more cut a corner than a right angle would decide, well, just for this once, to enlarge itself by just a little degree or two, which the other angles could surely do without, and which, after all, they might not even notice. Nevertheless, as certain as I am by Reason that suffering injustice is better than doing it, my first reaction to what I consider an injustice done to me is probably just the same as yours. I hate it. I just can’t wait to get even. And sometimes, much to my satisfaction, I do. When I do, I call it Justice, not omitting the capital.

So, for some reason with a small “r,” I actually find it possible to hate the conclusions of Reason, which would show me that I am all the better off, as well as all the better, for keeping strictly on the receiving end of injustice. From the point of view of Socrates, I guess, I might just as wisely and sanely decide not to go along with the square of the hypotenuse.

I doubt that I could get around Socrates, although I would give it a try, by pointing out that circumstances alter cases, to which he would probably reply, perhaps even with passing reference to that exasperating square of the hypotenuse, that cases don’t seem to alter principles, but that, on the contrary, it is precisely because we can detect some underlying principle that we can recognize a case. Nor would I be able to convince him that, in getting even, I had actually done my persecutor a big favor, bringing him to his senses and making him a wiser and better person, which outcome was not really my intention at all. If he had, in fact, been made a better person by my revenge, the credit would not be mine but his, for having managed to find the better in spite of having been dealt the worse. Therefore, on those all-too-rare occasions when I do manage to take a swift and sweet revenge, I don’t mention it to Socrates.

Now that is strange behavior, and it is even stranger that it is generally called nothing but “normal” behavior, out of the same presumption, no doubt, that brings us to think Socrates a freak. But lots of people will do just as I do where they find themselves treated, as they see it, unjustly. Lots of those people know every bit as well as I do that Reason does indeed show that it is better to suffer than to do an injustice.

So here we are, they and I, whoever they might be, not only doing what we know to be contrary to the perfectly demonstrable conclusions of Reason, bad enough, but then going on to call that “normal,” a lot worse. It is as though we were willing to say that it is normal for human beings, in whom the power of Reason is the quintessential attribute, not only to reject its conclusions but even to despise them. We might just as well say that sanity is, of course, a fine and wholesome condition, but that insanity is normal.

I can not speak for others, but in my own case I find this a vexing conclusion, for when I say that everyone is a little bit crazy, I am surely including myself, a member in standing–“good standing” seems inappropriate at the moment–of the numerous company called “everyone.” I do go around in the world putting myself forth as an “educated man,” whatever that means. And what can it mean, indeed, if an educated man has to admit, and gladly takes the strange satisfaction that goes with the admission, that he is at least a little bit crazy and just as normal as anyone else who sees Reason but doesn’t like it?

It would be one thing if I alone called myself educated, out of some profound misunderstanding of the meaning of education. Then, I could either be set right, or left to my own special craziness. But the fact is that the world also calls me, and countless other people just like me, educated. The world says, in other words: Here is a man who can see some truth and choose not to live by it, a man who excuses himself as normal for giving his feelings and appetites domination over his mind, a man who might actually hate the square of the hypotenuse should it occur to him that his behavior might be circumscribed by the principle it reveals. All of which is to say, here is an educated man.

That already seems to be approaching the preposterous, but the world goes even farther. Here we have one educated man cunningly devising the discomfiture and destruction of his enemies, another cleverly contriving to take possession of the goods of others by force or fraud, and yet another passing out one-way tickets for long rides in boxcars. What sort of definition of education must we have, that we suppose it neither an impediment to immoral behavior nor an imperative to rational behavior?

I am driven, in search of some answer to that question, to compare myself with my unlucky counterpart, the uneducated man. Here he stands, the poor ignoramus, knowing neither Dante nor Debussy. He has never heard of Socrates or of syllogisms. He can neither write a grammatical sentence nor read one. He is not impelled to meditation by the square of the hypotenuse, and he wouldn’t for a minute swallow any of that nonsense about putting up with injustice. Ah, how different we are. He watches reruns of “Laverne and Shirley,” and I stick to “Masterpiece Theater” and “Nova.” He and his pals, furthermore, outnumber me and mine enormously. No wonder the world is always in such a mess.

I find myself feeling sorry for him, and imagining how much better a person he might have been had he only spent more of his life paying close attention, and some fees, to people like me. I am, after all, a teacher. Have I not pledged myself to make people better? What a pity it is that this poor slob never put himself under my instruction and learned to be better, like me. Ah, well, we can’t all be that lucky, and, after all, somebody does have to do all the hard and messy work that I am too educated to do.

And how lucky I am that he is probably rather inarticulate. And I do hope that he remains inarticulate, lest he say what I should hear:

So, I would be better would I, if I were more like you, eh? Do you mean that I too would then be able to recognize and coherently describe the conclusions of Reason before I reject them and decide to do as I please? Is that what you teach in your school–how to go beyond an unknowing obedience to appetite into a fully conscious and willful obedience to appetite? Do you have the brass, Jack, to tell me that it is better to know the good and to refuse it than to be ignorant of the good–as you suppose me–and to miss it? The important differences between us that I can see are that you choose to be irrational and I can’t help being irrational, and that you have been rewarded for the cleverness out of which you do that choosing with a handsome collection of diplomas.

Yes, diplomas. About that, at least, he’s surely right. I do have all sorts of information that he lacks. I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical, although I must admit that I’m no longer sure of the cheerfulness of those many facts about the square of the hypotenuse. Of course, he might also have lots of information that I lack, but the kind of information he has is … well … a different kind of information, you know. Not quite as classy. It’s about how to do some sort of work, perhaps, or maybe about baseball statistics or something. It’s not that educated kind of information that I have.

Still, the difference does seem to be a matter of information, and, of course, diplomas, which are testimonials to the fact that some other people with lots of the “educated kind” of information were willing to concede that I had acquired some sufficient amount of that too. And, thinking of that, a strange and unnerving thought strikes me. It’s not as easy as I thought to define that educated kind of information. Socrates and Aquinas were also utterly ignorant of Dante and Debussy, and they didn’t watch any television at all, not even “Masterpiece Theater.” They never read Dostoyevski or Kant, and they never even heard of calculus or quantum mechanics. (I, of course, am informed about those two mysteries, which is to say, needless to say, that I have heard of them.) And Socrates never read Aquinas, who did, at least, read Plato, and especially Aristotle, whom Socrates also never read. But it would be very hard, even for me, educated as I am, to deny such minds the rank, if rank it is, of “educated. “

On the other hand, I suspect, no, I know, that they would not admit me to that rank. They shared, across many centuries, an idea about education, and about its absolute dependence on Reason rather than information, that we do not share. I’m not so sure about Aquinas, for he was a schoolman, after all, but Socrates cared nothing for schools or diplomas. Both, however, understood that education had no necessary relationship to schools or diplomas, and both held that the true goal of education was to make people able to be good.

I think it’s important to put it just that way–able to be good. That phrase contains some remarkable suggestions. We do suppose that the aim of education is to make people able to do some sort of work, to be engineers or physicians or social workers or something else, and we do hope that as many of them as possible will be good at what they do. But by that, we mean “effective.” And we are pretty clear about what it is that will make them effective–some combination of talent, information, and practice, producing, of course, some visible and measurable results in the world that we all can see. But Socrates and Aquinas would not want us to confuse any person’s effectiveness, his skill in his calling, with his Goodness, quite another thing.

But that’s a fairly elementary suggestion of “able to be good.” It also suggests that being good is not, as it often seems, and as it surely pleases us to believe, a matter of temperament and character, combined with suitable feelings, and maybe a little bit of luck. It is, rather than a skill, a power and a propensity, both of which can be learned and consciously applied.

I do have some practical experience of the fact that lots of people find that notion either just plain silly or astonishing. I often ask my students to read at least some parts of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, and there, as I intended, they soon come to that passage in which Franklin describes his youthful ambition to achieve moral perfection. So how hard could it be? He knew, after all, the roots of moral failure, a mix of custom, bad company, and his own weaknesses, and felt that, by knowing them for what they were, and by a deliberate act of will, he would certainly be able to pay them strict attention and to keep them all under control.

He made a little chart, the sort of thing on which my earliest piano teacher, and yours too, I imagine, used to stick little stars in recognition of some slight improvement in arpeggios. Franklin’s chart was a list of virtues to be practiced every day, and every evening he gave himself grades. It is a bit Eagle Scoutish, and the whole idea seems bizarre to my students, and that for at least two very important reasons. First, they do not see any reason to call patience “better” than impatience, but only different, and second, because even if patience were for some unaccountable reason to be thought the better, those who don’t have it, just don’t have it, and that’s the way it is. To them, an impatient person is impatient in the same way that a left-handed person is left-handed, and trying to make some change in the first case might be, for all they know, as dangerous and disabling as enforcing change in the second. They don’t see, at first, that patience, even if it can be understood as a virtue, is something that anyone can do anything about.

Socrates, and Franklin too, would have remarked on the extraordinary convenience of that belief. But, in fairness to my students, it is not because of its convenience that they have come into that belief, nor did they choose it. It was, in fact, thrust upon them, like so many other ideas that they don’t notice that they have. Indeed, it doesn’t take more than a little discussion, salted with just the right questions, to bring them–well, quite a few of them–to see just how convenient a belief it is, and to wonder, a bit suspiciously, just how they came to believe it in the first place. And then, the conscious and deliberate practice of patience seems less bizarre, and not dangerous. Perhaps, even, “good,” whatever that means.

This invariable result–it truly never fails–convinces me that an ancient idea of the meaning of education is a better one than whatever it is we now assume. It says first that if we can know the Good, it is by the power of Reason; and second, that there is in all of us a hunger for the Good, so that, as Reason little by little seems to reveal it, we are delighted and enthralled. It is as though we were hearing, at last, what we have always longed to hear, without having any idea at all what it was. My students still see Franklin’s chart as–well, overoptimistic, to say the least, as Franklin himself saw it from the distance of many years, but they also see that it is based on an idea that makes some sense, and that can be known. They see, furthermore, that to this idea they were, for some strange reason, simply blind. They just hadn’t thought of it, nor had anyone proposed it for them.

They see, too, and I think this a terribly important realization, that they are perfectly capable of understanding it, and that their understanding has nothing to do with having taken the right courses and having gotten good grades, and nothing to do, either, with the so-called lessons of experience. Experiences they have surely had, but it is only now, in the light of some hitherto unsuspected principle, that those experiences can suddenly be construed as lessons.

My students do, I’m sure, put all of that out of their minds the next day. And why shouldn’t they? So does their teacher. Having discussed Franklin’s ideas about the practice of patience on Tuesday, their teacher gets in his car on Wednesday and rushes across the nearest bridge, carefully switching from lane to lane lest he find himself in any tollbooth line but the shortest. Then, ending up behind some woman driver who thought she had exact change, he curses the inexorable destiny that seems to follow him everywhere, and the folly of a government that gives driving licenses to women.

But they do not forget forever. Someday, somewhere, the idea reappears, at least in many of them. It has a quality that schoolwork often lacks. It is seductive, enticing, it will not leave the mind alone. I know this not only from their testimony, but from my own experience, when I do happen to consider experience in the light of principle. From time to time, while fuming in the tollbooth line, I do think of Franklin’s chart. I am, to be sure, rebuked, but also enticed; troubled, but also consoled.

Those are attributes of true education, but the enticement and the consolation do not begin to appear until the rebuke has been delivered and the troubling begun. Socrates was well acquainted with that unpleasant onset, the first stirring not unlike a small and suspiciously unfamiliar pain in the belly that tells you that you may be in for big trouble. He was speaking of people who had no philosophy and wanted none, meaning by “philosophy” not the elaborate and esoteric discipline that we have instituted in our schools, but only a certain way of the mind, a certain habitual resort to Reason, and a certain propensity to talk about Goodness. Such people, he said, if only they will stay around and hear an argument out, begin to get a little twitchy. They are vexed by something that they know they don’t like, but without knowing why they don’t like it. They want to object, but they know not how.

They are like people who discover, on first hearing about the square of the hypotenuse, that something or other about it does not please them. But they can hardly say, No, no, it isn’t that way at all! So they brood. They go away at last, discontented, and unable, at least for a while, to return to their former states of well-being. Some, of course, will never come back for another session of the mental equivalent of root canal. But some will.

Nevertheless, even those who come back also go away again. And that is why I am always so ready to take revenge. I know better, but I don’t do better. That is not a good condition, not a condition of Goodness. However, there is a yet worse condition. I would be in worse condition if I did not know that I am in bad condition. That worse condition, whatever its proper name, must be the condition out of which education can lead us.

The word “education” does suggest some process that leads outward, and its best opposite would be a word we don’t have, “inducation,” a leading inward. The idea of liberation suggests a great metaphor, a picture of a place, the Waiting Room of the Mind, perhaps even the Prison Camp of the Mind, out of which, someday, somehow, the mind might be led, or in which it might languish, or even, worst of all, in which it might be forever held captive.

I must see myself, then, as one at the door of the waiting room, one in whom the enterprise worthy of the name of education has only begun. I have come out of something, but I haven’t come very far out of it. There is more outing to be done. How shall I do it? How shall I even learn to want to do it, for I am, I must confess, very reluctant to give up the delicious pleasures (as I now find them) of such things as revenge and just complaint against women who imagine, contrary to all experience and common sense, that they can find three quarters in their purses.

I would like to say, of course, since that would at least make the enterprise seem easier, that “mere” Reason, by itself, will not lead me out. That, after all, is what the world says, and it is, like my students’ automatic belief that nothing can or should be done about perfectly natural endowments like patience or impatience, a remarkably convenient belief. I often wish that I could share that convenient belief but to do so would be to conclude, and to claim, that I have already done everything that the power of reason permits, which I haven’t. I have done only enough to see, but from a distance, some better condition into which reason might yet bring me. I can not yet say, therefore, that Reason will not lead me out. I don’t know that. I have heard others saying it, as we all have, but that is not the same as knowing it, knowing it for and in myself.

Education, I am convinced, must be nothing more than this: The journey toward the limits of Reason, if any there be. And if any there be, so that some other and even better condition than education may lie beyond them, we can hardly hope to enter into the greater mystery without passing through the lesser.

If I have come but a short way on that journey, diplomas notwithstanding, I would like to pass at least some of the blame for that to inducation, a vast and diverse condition of life, ordinarily as impalpable to us as air was to our ancient ancestors. Inducation, in terms probably much too simple to be entirely accurate, but good enough, I hope, for now, includes all the forces and influences that, whether by accident or design, make it difficult for us to think clearly. There is no counting of them. Some of them are in us, and some outside, in the very air we breathe, as it were, and those inside we exhale into the world where they afflict others with clouded thinking, thus making the air we breathe what it is. All of those forces and influences, we made, for there is in the whole universe, as far as we can tell, no other thinking creature, and thus, happily, I suppose, no other mis-thinking creature.

We are all born in captivity. That is no disgrace, for there is no other place in which to be born. Without the nurture of all the rest of our kind, we do not become our kind. We need captivity. But, unlike the other animals, whose original endowment is also their ultimate endowment, we can be born, as it were, in one world, and come at last to live in quite another. By our nature we can do something that no other creature we know of is able to do. The equivalent act in an oyster would be to discover that it lives in the sea, and not in the jungle; and that it is an oyster, and not some other creature; and that it is only the oyster that it is, and unique; and that its countless and complicated natural functions, taken all together, do not quite add up to its self.

When we make the equivalent discoveries, we see that there is one world of We and another of I. From the latter, an “I” can behold and consider the former, but it doesn’t work the other way around.