“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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Great insight, Dr. Cuddeback. You know I agree and support this position. Working with one’s hands teaches us a great deal about God’s created, material world and our abilities/limitations within it. Properly ordered, it teaches us humility, wisdom and reverence. When the mind and hand are united we become most human and most divine.
“Put tools in the hands of children”!
Thank you, Jordan. And I heartily second your injunction; our children so need to feel the real power and competence of their hands!
Rode on a plane with a widowed lady last night. She lost her husband to cancer 13 years ago leaving her with two teenage children.
Her husband had been a banker and they were quite well off but he quit to refinish antique furniture (hand work) Because of the change of work he also left the family broke and without so much as life insurance.
It was tough times but her teenage son stepped up and became the man of the house and continued the furniture business. (Hand work) Last year they grossed $400,000
What a story of character building.
Wow. That is very impressive.
Dear Dr. Cuddeback,
I signed up to receive your blog posts this summer. My parents have been fans for a long time, and they told me that I too would enjoy your blog. I love how I recognize what I learned in your wonderful class from your posts. Thank you for teaching me- both in and out of the classroom. These posts lift me up and make me recognize how to be a full person in Christ.
God bless and have a restful and peaceful remainder of your summer,
That makes my day, Elizabeth. Thank you very much for this, and I wish you many summer blessings too.
Thought provoking and insightful as always! Thank you so much for taking time to share your reflections. Every one of them resonates with me and it’s my favorite read of the week.
I am honored, Karen. Thank you very much!
I am a quilter and a knitter. Yes, quilts can be machine pieced and quilted but my most beloved quilts and those that receive the most accolades are those made by completely by hand. Same applies to knitting. I don’t own a knitting machine and enjoy the tactile feeling of the yarn and the needles creating clothing, or something as simple as a dish or washcloth.
Barbara, I’m so glad you know the joy of skillful, artful hands–able to make things of beauty. I hope you also have occasion to share your art. May more people come to know such joys. Thanks.