Excerpt from “The Gift of Fire,” by Richard Mitchell

Chapter 1: “Who is Socrates, now that we need him?”

I imagine some well-informed and largely wise visitor from another world who comes to Earth to study us. He begins by choosing two people at random, and, since time and place are of no importance to him, but only the single fact of humanity, he chooses Socrates and me, leaving aside for the moment every other human being. He begins with an understanding of the single but tremendous attribute that distinguishes us both from all other creatures of Earth. We are capable of Reason. Capable. We can know ourselves, unlike the foxes and the oaks, and can know that we know ourselves. He knows that while we have appetites and urges just like all the other creatures, we have the astonishing power of seeing them not simply as the necessary attributes of what we are, but as separate from us in a strange way, so that we can hold them at arm's length, turning them this way and that, and make judgment of them, and even put them aside, saying, Yes, that is "me," in a way, but, when I choose, it is just a thing, not truly me, but only mine. He sees, in short, what "human" means in "human beings."

And then he considers the specimens he has chosen, Socrates and me. He measures that degree to which they conform to what "human" means in "human beings." With those superior extraterrestrial powers that imagination grants him, he will easily discover:

That I have notions, certain "sayings" in my mind, that flatly contradict one another; believing, for instance, that I can choose for myself the path of my life while blaming other people for the difficulty of the path. With Socrates, this is not the case.

That my mind is full of ideas that are truly nothing more than words, and that as to the meaning of the words I have no clear and constant idea, behaving today as though "justice" were one thing, and tomorrow as though it were another. That, while wanting to be happy and good, I have no clear ideas by which I might distinguish, or might even want to distinguish, happiness from pleasure, and goodness from social acceptability. With Socrates, this is not the case.

That I usually believe what I believe not because I have tested and found it coherent and consistent, and harmonious with evidence, but because it is also believed by the right people, people like me, and because it pleases me. And that furthermore, I live and act and speak as though my believing were no different from my knowing. With Socrates, this is not the case.

That I put myself forth as one who can direct and govern the minds, the inner lives, of others, that, in fact, I make my living as one who can do that, but that my own actions are governed, more often than not, by desire or whim. With Socrates, this is not the case.

That I seem to have a great need for things, and think myself somehow treated unjustly by an insufficiency of them, and that this insufficiency, which seems strangely to persist even after I get hold of the thing whose necessity I have most recently noted, prevents in me that cheerful and temperate disposition to which I deem myself entitled. With Socrates, this is not the case.

That I seem to know what I want, but that I have no way of figuring out whether I should want what I want, and that, indeed, it does not occur to me that I should be able to figure that out. With Socrates, this is not the case.

And that, in short and in general, my mind, the thing that most makes us human, is not doing the steering of this life, but is usually being hustled along on a wild ride by the disorderly and conflicting commands of whole hosts of notions, appetites, hopes, and fears. With Socrates, this is not the case. 

How could the alien enquirer help concluding that there is something "wrong" with me, and that the humanness that is indeed in me has been somehow "broken," which he can clearly see by comparing me with Socrates? Must he not decide that Socrates is the normal human, and I the freak, the distortion of human nature?

When he pronounces me the freak, and Socrates the perfectly ordinary, normal human being, living quite obviously, as perhaps only an "alien" can see, by the power of that which most makes a human a human, shall I defend myself by appeal to the principle of majority rule? Shall I say: Well, after all, Socrates is only one human being, and all the others are more like me. Would I not prove myself all the more the freak by my dependence on such a preposterously irrelevant principle? If that visitor were rude, he might well point out that my ability to see, on the one hand, what is natural to human beings, and to claim, on the other, that its absence is only natural, and thus normal, is just the sort of reasoning that he would expect of a freak, whose very freakishness is seen in his inability to do what is simply natural to his species--that is, to make sense.

But Socrates would defend me. He would say, for this he said very often:

No, my young friend is not truly a freak. All that I can do, he can do; he just doesn't do it. And if he doesn't do it, it is because of something else that is natural to human beings, and just as human as the powers that you rightly find human in me. Before we awaken, we must sleep, and some of us sleep deeper and longer than others. It may be, that unless we are awakened by some help from other human beings, we sleep our lives away, and never come into those powers. But we can be awakened.

In that respect, my friend is not a freak. He might better be thought a sleepwalker, moving about in the world, and getting all sorts of things done, often on time, and sometimes very effectively indeed. But the very power of routine habit by which he can do all that has become the only government that he knows. And the voices of his desires are loud. He is just now not in a condition to give his full attention to any meaning that might be found in all that he does, or to consider carefully how to distinguish between the better and the worse. He might be thought a child, and a perfectly natural child, who lives still in that curious, glorious haze of youth, when only desire seems worthy of obedience, and when the mighty fact of the world that is so very "there" looms immeasurably larger than the fact of the self that is in that world. He might grow up, and it is the "mightness" in him that makes him truly human, however he may look like a freak just now. From time to time, we are all just such freaks, and mindless, for mindlessness is the great background of noise out of which some few certain sounds can be brought forth and harmonized as music.