On Hammers and Nails

Been a busy month so far, mostly with Lent, Holy Week and Easter-related activities. And it will be busy for another week or so. Anyone missing blog posts is just going to have to be patient.

But I want to write this quickly. It’s an aphorism — “To a man who has a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.” That is, the solution to any particular problem at hand tends to be based on the tools at hand. If all you have is a hammer, chances are, you will treat most problems as if they are nails, since that is what hammers are deigned to deal with. And what they deal with most effectively.

The opposite, however, is also true — “To a man who sees nothing but nails, every tool begins to look like or be used like a hammer.” (I realize that formulation is not as clever as it could be…) It is possible to be blinded by the real nature of the things in front of you, and to think that they are nothing but nails. I base this observation on my experience of the Progressive Left, which treats all social problems as if they were akin to segregation and discrimination in need of the constant and never-ending expansion of legal rights and legal equality. Everything is a nail that can only be deal with by the hammer of a never-ending civil rights movement. But the criticism equally applies to liberal internationalists and the neoconservative fellow-travelers who want to save the world. Ot just about anyone else.

Not everything is a nail, or a screw, or even a cotter pin. And not everything you can hold in your hand is a tool. I am reminded of the Taoist story of the man who was angry because the gnarled pine tree couldn’t be cut down to provide good lumber to build a house. A monk showed the man that the tree had value of its own, apart from what the man wanted to make of it but couldn’t. Sometimes problems aren’t. And sometimes tools aren’t either.

2 thoughts on “On Hammers and Nails

  1. Every social organism looks for problems that match the solutions it has — it frames the world in the language of its worldview.The joy of the Tao is that it provides the answer of identity to the question of being. Since we’re so often stuck with the answer of purpose or of function, this answer — that a thing is what it is — remains a remarkably insightful tool for breaking open the question.

  2. @ Matt: Well put. I have always deeply admired the restraint — even passivity — inherent in Taoism. In a world constantly demanding action, I think “not acting” is a brave stance. Sometimes, things do not need to be done.

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