Advice to Clever Children

Extract from Celia Green, Advice to Clever Children
(IPR 1981, reissued Oxford Forum 1999)


The belief in society prevents one from knowing one's own mind. To know one's own mind is a very technical matter, and not much practised.

In the simplest way this can be seen in the well-known fact that flattery can be used to blind the victim to the motivation of the flatterer. In order to have significance conferred upon him, he stops using his own judgement.

Cf. Aesop's fable in which the fox induces the crow to relinquish his hold on the highly desirable cheese by professing an admiration of his singing voice.

Of course in so simple a case what the victim is prevented from thinking is fairly obvious and accessible even to his own conscious inspection if he devotes a little thought to it. But the desire to derive significance from social approval can be (and of course usually is) present in a way which has enormous subconscious implications, and the trains of thought which the possessor is being inhibited from having are not at all obvious, nor the psychological positions which he is being prevented from occupying.

To take a slightly more sophisticated example: most people, if they read relativity or learn quantum theory, are motivated, more or less consciously, by a desire to obtain social approval (even if only their own social approval, so to speak) by demonstrating their ability to understand these socially statusful things. This produces the most amazing imperviousness to meaningless and inconsistent statements in what they are reading, and they do not give a thought to the motivation of the people who wrote it.

Already, in such a case, it is not too obvious what an inhibited person is being prevented from thinking. But of course to a certain extent the examples I have given are misleading, because they suggest that what principally holds the human psychosis in place is the desire for personal glory, in however abstract a sense, and the human race is quite willing to recognise the existence of this motive.

So long as the belief in society actually is only held in place by the desire for personal significance it is probably much less stable than in its more characteristic form, in which it is held in place by the desire to diminish the significance of others. This motive is, one must believe, extremely powerful.

Reading a book on psychological testing recently I came across a passage where the author was discussing people's dislike of such tests. Paraphrasing roughly, the author said: No doubt people do not altogether like having their abilities and attributes quantified and placed on a numerical scale in relation to other people's, but these tests are very useful and people should be induced to accept them. After all, nobody is good at every-thing. One should always reflect that however great the abilities of some other person may be, there is sure to be something he is bad at.

One really might wonder how on earth that was supposed to be relevant, if one were not already acquainted with the syndrome.

A child psychologist recently sounded off to the effect that children like bionic men and women because fantasies of magic are consoling to their sense of weakness, lack of control of their destiny, etc. If adults are supposed not to need consolations of this kind because they feel their size and strength is quite sufficient, they must just be less realistic than children. Or, more probably, they have acquired that different form of consolation which consists of belittling one another.

But, of course, you may very well say that one has to believe in society to some extent. After all, one has to live; one has to do something; being efficient and moralised is an agreeable state and one must give oneself some incentive. While fully aware of the similarity between the human race and an ant-hill spinning in space, what harm can it do to ascribe a certain weighting to the goings-on of society, the consensus of current opinion, and so forth. And this is very reasonable; I thought so once myself.

However, it is a position which contains certain weaknesses, both actual and potential. The actual weaknesses may pass unnoticed indefinitely, since if all goes well such an outlook is not incompatible with even quite a high degree of knowing one's mind. But all may not go well; society may exploit the situation so as to leave you a space altogether too small to live in, as if wishing to force a total capitulation.

One of the weaknesses in the psychological position of almost everybody is the assumption that there will always be a way of avoiding complete social disapproval; that they will never have to find themselves in a minority of one.