Fools, Jewels, and Tools

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   October 11, 2018

I mean “Fools” here in the Shakespearian sense of clowns or jesters – in our day, professional comics, who make a living making us laugh. The most successful of these are highly paid, so much so that they can afford to hire other people to write jokes for them.

As for jewels, the best ones are also highly valued – but for an entirely different reason. They are considered beautiful – and beauty, in our society, is as highly prized as laughter.

But what about tools? There’s nothing funny about them, and they’re not particularly beautiful – at least that’s not their prime intention. All they are is useful. But our whole world depends on them, and always has. Since they stopped being made of stone and wood, and started to be made of metal, it’s surprising how little their basic designs have changed. A spade is still a spade. A hammer is still a hammer.

All the great structures left to us from the ancient world, including the Pyramids – and the machines used in constructing them – were made with simple tools, often similar to those we have today, but of course, far less durable. 

But why are useful things generally valued so much less than beautiful or entertaining ones? You will tell me it’s simply the old Law of Supply and Demand having its effect once again. Screws and screwdrivers are so much easier to produce now than they ever were – to say nothing of “power tools,” which diminish the value of manual labor altogether – that their prices are naturally low, compared with the cost of fine gems or star performers.

However, if you were marooned on a small island with a celebrity entertainer, a well-stocked jeweler, and a handyman (or woman) with a tool kit, I have no doubt whose company you’d be most likely to seek out. I can only lament how low sheer usefulness tends to rank on our scale of values. Can you think of any songs that are about tools? Off-hand, I can think of only one, “If I Had a Hammer”. As for poetry, only “The Village Blacksmith” comes to mind.

But am I losing some sense of proportion here? Does “usefulness” have any real meaning anymore, in a world where the most useful tools – unquestionably those in the form of electronic devices – bear no resemblance to anything that ever existed in the past, let alone in living memory? If it comes to that, can the usage value of an automobile or an airplane be compared in any meaningful way with that of a horse or one of the other four-legged power-sources, which were all we had for transportation on land over all the preceding millennia?

And what excuse is there for my side-stepping beauty so casually? I’m sure there are many of us who would join Keats in equating beauty with truth, and saying “That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Such a pronouncement leaves precious little room for utility – and perhaps even less for jollity. But who is to say that aesthetics are not, after all, the supreme value of life?

It’s easy (perhaps too easy) to cast scorn upon such sentiments, and, with Gilbert and Sullivan (in Patience), to mock the Aesthetic Movement, with its love of beautiful plants (perhaps a foretaste of the “Flower Power” hippies a few generations later):

Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle
In the High Aesthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily
In your Medieval hand.

But we must not forget that utility has had its own creed: Utilitarianism, and its of own apostles, of whom the leader was a great thinker named Jeremy Bentham, whose motto was “The greatest good for the greatest number.”

I must admit to having a soft spot in my heart for the eccentric Mr. Bentham, who was a founder of my alma mater, University College, London. When he died in 1832, his will decreed that his body was to be preserved and kept on display at the college, a directive which, in various manners, has been fulfilled to the present day. If you visit the college, you may see a large glass case containing his seated skeleton, decently clad, with a life-like wax mask covering his skull. At meetings of the college board, he is recorded in the Minutes as being “Present, but not voting.”  


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