The Gift of Fire


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“Richard Mitchell is a superb shatterer of icons. In The Gift of Fire, passion, commitment, exquisite reasoning, and Mitchell’s unique sense of humor are trained on the vital question: How do we use and, more commonly, misuse our minds? An important work.” –Thomas H. Middleton

“There exists in every age, in every society, a small, still choir of reason emanating from a few scattered thinkers ignored by the mainstream. Their collective voices, when duly discovered a century or so too late, reveal what was wrong with that society and age, and how it could have been corrected if only people had listened and acted accordingly. Richard Mitchell’s is such a voice. It could help make a better life for you or, if it is too late for that, for your children. Ignore it at your and their peril.” –John Simon

The Underground Grammarian is back with the most important book of his career. Richard Mitchell, author of the classics Less Than Words Can Say, The Graves of Academe, and The Leaning Tower of Babel, delivers in The Gift of Fire a series of fiercely witty, brilliantly considered “sermons” on an issue as old as Socrates but still controversial today: What is the role of morality in education, and therefore in our daily responsibilities? And how do we decide what morality should be taught, and why?

Those familiar with Mitchell’s legendary Underground Grammarian will recognize the sound of Mitchell’s voice crying in the wilderness–with considerable humor–as he uses telling examples and wicked, witty parables to illustrate his belief that the American education establishment and society itself have failed to teach us mental discipline, independence of thought, individual responsibility, or even the right books. From The Gift of Fire‘s first chapter, “Who Is Socrates, Now That We Need Him?” to the book’s stunning, emotionally moving conclusion, Mitchell decries “feel good,” “I’m OK, You’re OK” American public education–based on teaching to the lowest common denominator–and argues for a return to studies based on the work of thinkers like Socrates, Aquinas, and Ben Franklin. In this way, all of us learn to think for ourselves, not just the privileged.

Here, too, are Mitchell’s beautifully written, exquisitely argued explorations of not what but how to think about the knotty moral issues that face us every day: ambition, violence, nuclear weapons, political conflict, patience, duty, love, and even child-rearing. In the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mitchell considers the world around him in a manner that is thought-provoking, fascinating, and entertaining.

Thousands of enlightened readers know Richard Mitchell as one of our most brilliant, passionate, funny, and quintessentially American thinkers. Join them in reading The Gift of Fire. It will change your life–or at least how you think about it.

Richard Mitchell is editor and publisher of The Underground Grammarian and professor of classics at Glassboro State College.


Introduction “True education is not knowing about, but knowing. It is the cure of folly and the curb of vice, and our only hope of escaping what Socrates once called ‘the greatest peril of this our life’–not sickness or death, as most of us would say, but the failure to make sense about the better and the worse, and thus to choose the wrong one, thinking it the other.”

1. Who Is Socrates, Now That We Need Him? “Nevertheless, people do from time to time come to know enough about Socrates to be drawn into his company, and to agree, with rare exceptions, that it would indeed be a good thing to imitate him.”

2. 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.”

3. The Land of We All “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.”

4. The Right Little Thing “Although many of us seem to have misunderstood, or even deliberately misconstrued, the nature of education for a very long time, that nature is still recognized in some corner of almost every mind.”

5. The Gift of Fire “So I imagined myself in conversation with Prometheus, who had come back to find out what we mortals had managed to do with the astounding powers that he had given to us alone of all creatures.”

6. Children and Fish “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.”

7. The Perils of Petronilla “Epictetus, who could neither read nor write, supposed that education was an inner condition, easily–if temporarily–reached, in nothing more than an afternoon of thoughtful discourse, but a condition by virtue of which one could do everything that living requires, and do it well.”

8. Sad Stories of the Death of Kings “Any truthful literature will admit: No, this is not life itself, it is only a serious sort of game, but it is like life, and the mind that plays here is like yours, and this vision is what you too can see, and consider, and find worthy, and by which you may know yourself better. For this book is about you. Every truthful and thoughtful book is about you, every story is yours.”

9. Home Rule “From Epictetus, we can take another possible understanding of education. It is power over the inner world, the ability to know and judge the self and to do something about it.”

10. Colonialism “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.”

11. The World of No One At All “Epictetus was doing no more than reaffirming, simply and literally, a very old idea. He could see no sense at all in presuming the existence of goodness or badness where there was no intention, no will.”

12. How to Live (I Think) “Look around you, near and far, and find someone whom you can praise, and that without any consideration of self-interest or the profit that you might take from your praising. Whom do you find to praise? The just or the unjust? The patient or the impatient? The courageous or the cowardly?”