“The hand is a tool of tools.”
Aristotle, On the Soul
Recently I was watching a blacksmith work. I was mesmerized. There is something so satisfying and so fitting—indeed, so human—about the ability to do that kind of work.
What most struck me is how glad he must be to have such control of his hands. With no apparent effort he goes about his business, crafting metal into countless useful and beautiful forms. It also struck me that the human hand is made for this. In such work a hand is acting like a hand, and a man—a human person—is acting like a man.
Aristotle connects the human hand and human reason. It belongs especially to the rational animal to use tools when working. The human hand is at the same time both the most excellent of tools—fitted to carry out limitless kinds of activities, and the maker and user of other tools.
It is interesting that some tools enhance what the hand is doing, making the hand a more effective tool, while not separating it from its work. Such tools are like an extension of the hand. The chisel of a wood worker, the hammer of the blacksmith, the needle of the sewer, or the brush of the artist come to mind. So we speak reverently of ‘hand-made’ or ‘hand-crafted’ products. Since these were made with ‘hand tools’ rather than with machines—which of course are in a sense also operated by hands—they are seen as more truly the fruit of the human hand.
I wish simply to speak in praise of hand work. Though it is not the most noble of human works, it can be the most characteristically human, revealing and fulfilling the rational animal in his twofold glory of spirit and body.
Many of the traditional ways we would express, develop and enjoy our humanity through hand work have been set aside today. It is not unfair to point out that the hands of many of us—especially the the young—are more and more reduced to button-pushing. Everything from the written words by which we communicate, the food we eat, the fuel that heats our home and powers our work, the pictures that decorate, the jewelry and clothes that adorn us, the music we listen to, etc, are no longer really the products of our hands. Often they are no longer the products of any hands.
But we can choose, perhaps in just one or two areas, to bring our hands to life again. Latent in them even now are powers we have not yet recognized or cultivated. Our hands still have the power to craft the necessities and the accoutrements—at least some of them—of human life. And in and through our hands we too can come to life in a new and beautiful way.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. On the Soul is his systematic study of human nature.
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