( Originally Published 1879 )
TRIFLES are not to be despised. The nerve of a tooth, not so large as the finest cambric needle, will sometimes drive a strong man to distraction. A musquito can make an elephant absolutely mad. The coral rock, which causes a navy to founder, is the work of tiny insects. The warrior that with-stood death in a thousand forms may be killed by an insect. For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; for want of a horse the rider was lost. Every pea helps to fill the peck.
Little and often fills the purse. Moments are the golden sands of time. Every day is a little life; and our whole life is but a day repeated; those, therefore, that dare lose a day, are dangerously prodigal; those that dare misspend it, desperate. Springs are little things, but they are sources of large streams—a helm is a little thing, but it governs the course of a ship — a bridle bit is a little thing, but see its use and power — nails and pegs are little things, but they hold parts of large buildings together—a word, a look, a frown, all are little things, but powerful for good or evil. Think of this, and mind the little things. Pay that little debt—it's promise redeem.
Little acts are the elements of true greatness. They raise life's value like the little figures over the larger ones in arithmetic, to its highest power. They are tests of character and disinterestedness. They are the straws upon life's deceitful current, and show the current's way. The heart comes all out in them. They move on the dial of character and responsibility significantly. They indicate the character and destiny. They help to make the immortal man: It matters not so much where we are as what we are. It is seldom that acts of moral heroism are called for. Rather the real heroism of life is, to do all its little duties promptly and faithfully.
There are no such things as trifles in the biography of man. Drops make up the sea. Acorns cover the earth with oaks, and the ocean with navies. Sands make up the bar in the harbor's mouth, on which vessels are wrecked; and little things in youth accumulate into character in age, and destiny in eternity. All the links in that glorious chain which is in all and around all, we can see and admire, or at least admit; but the staple to which all is fastened, and which is the conductor of all, is the Throne of Deity.
If you cannot be a great river, bearing great vessels of blessings to the world, you can be a little spring by the wayside of life, singing merrily all day and all night, and giving a cup of cold water to every weary, thirsty one who passes by.
Life is made up of little things. He who travels over a continent must go step by step. He who writes books must do it sentence by sentence. He who learns a science must master it fact by fact, and principle after principle. What is the happiness of our life made up of ? Little courtesies, little kindnesses, pleasant words, genial smiles, a friendly letter, good wishes, and good deeds. One in a million—once in a lifetime—may do a heroic action; but the little things that make up our life come every day and every hour. If we make the little events of life beautiful and good, then is the whole life full of beauty and goodness.
There is nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible. "If a straw," says Dryden, a can be made the instrument of happiness, he is a wise man who does not despise it." A very little thing makes all the difference. You stand in the engine-room of a steamer; you admit the steam to the cylinders, and the paddles turn ahead; a touch of a lever, you admit the self same steam to the self same cylinders, and the paddles turn astern. It is so, oftentimes, in the moral world. The turning of a straw decides whether the engines shall work forward or backward. Look to the littles. The atomic theory is the true one. The universe is but an infinite attrition} of particles. The grandest whole is resolvable to fractions; or, as the ditty has it
"Little drops of water and little grains of sand,
Is it not strange that, in the face of these facts, men will neglect details? that many even consider them beneath their notice, and, when they hear of the success of a business man who is, perhaps, more. solid than brilliant, sneeringly say that he is "great in little things"? Is it not the "little things" that, in the aggregate, make up whatever is great? Is it not the countless grains of sand that make the beach; the trees that form the forest; the successive strata of rock that compose the mountains; the myriads of almost imperceptible stars that whiten the heavens with the milky-way?
So with character, fortune, and all the concerns of life—the littles combined form the great bulk. If we look well to the disposition of these, the sum total will be cared for. It is the minutes wasted that wound the hours and mar the day. It is the pennies neglected that squander the dollars. The majority of men disdain littles—to many fractions are "vulgar" in more senses than the rule implies. It is apt to be thought indicative of a narrow mind and petty spirit to be scrupulous about littles. Yet from littles have sprung the mass of great vices and crimes. In habits, in manners, in business, we have only to watch the littles, and all will come out clear. The smallest leak, overlooked, may sink a ship—the smallest tendency to evil thinking or evil doing, left unguarded, may wreck character and life. No ridicule should dissuade us from looking to the littles. The greatest and best of men have not been above caring for the littles—some of which have to do with every hour and every purpose of our lives.
Often what seems a trifle, a mere nothing by itself, in some nice situations turns the scale of fate, and rules the most important actions. The cackling of a goose is fabled to have saved Rome from the Gauls, and the pain produced by a thistle to have warned a Scottish army of the approach to the Danes; and according to the following anecdote from Randall's "Life of Jefferson," it seems that flies contributed to hasten the American independence: While the question of independence was before Congress, it-had its- meeting near a livery stable. Its members wore short breeches and silk stockings, and, with handkerchief in hand, they were diligently employed in lashing the flies from their legs. So very vexatious was this annoyance, and to so great an impatience did it arouse the sufferers, that it hastened, if it did not aid in inducing them to promptly affix their signatures to the great document which gave birth to an empire republic!
Discoveries are made mostly by little things. The art of printing owes its origin to rude impressions (for the amusement of children) from ,letters carved on the bark of a beech tree. It was a slight matter which thousands would have passed over with neglect. Gun-powder was discovered from the falling of a spark on some material mixed in a mortar.
The stupendous results of the steam-engine may all be attributed to an individual observing steam issuing from a bottle just emptied and placed casually close to a fire. He plunged the bottle's neck into cold water and was intelligent enough to notice the instantaneous rush which ensued from this simple condensing apparatus. Electricity was discovered by a person observing that a piece of rubbed glass, or some similar substance, attracted small bits of paper, etc.
Galvanism again owes its origin to Madame Galvani's noticing the contraction of the muscles of a skinned frog which was accidentally touched by a person at the moment of the professor, her husband, taking an electric spark from a machine. He followed up the hint by experiments.
Pendulum clocks were invented from Galileo's observing the lamp in a church swinging to and fro. The telescope we owe to some children of a spectacle-maker placing two or more pairs of spectacles before each other and. looking through them at a distant object. The glimpse thus afforded was followed up by older heads.
The barometer originated in the circumstance of a pump which had been fixed higher than usual above the surface of a well. A sagacious observer hence deducted the pressure of the atmosphere and tried quicksilver.
The Argand lamp was invented by one of the brothers of that name having remarked that a tube held by chance over a candle caused it to burn with a bright flame.
Sedulous attention and painstaking industry always mark the true worker. The greatest men are not those who "despise the day of small things," but those who improve them the most carefully. Michael Angelo was one day explaining to a visitor at his studio what he had been doing at a statue since his previous visit. "I have retouched this part—polished that softened this feature brought out that muscle—given some expression to this lip, and more energy to that limb." "But these are trifles," remarked the visitor "It may be so," replied the sculptor, "but recollect that trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle." So it was said of Nicholas Poissin, the painter, that the rule of his conduct was, that "whatever was worth doing at all was worth doing well;" and when asked, late in life, by what means he had gained so high a reputation among the painters of Italy, he emphatically answered, "Because I have neglected nothing."
Many of the most distinguished names in the world's history were nearly half a century in attracting the admiring notice of mankind; as witness Cromwell and Cavour, and. Bismarck and Palmerston, and the elder Beecher. But their star will never die; their works, their influence on the age in which they lived, will be perpetuated to remote generations. This should be encouragement to all the plodders, for their time may come.
It is the intelligent eye of the careful observer which gives apparently trivial phenomena their value. So trifling a matter as the sight of sea-weed floating past his ship, enabled Columbus to quell the mutiny which arose among his sailors at not discovering land, and to assure them that the eagerly sought New World was not far off. There is nothing so small that it should remain forgotten; and no fact, however trivial, but may prove useful in some way or other if carefully interpreted. Who could have imagined that the famous "chalk-cliffs of Albion" had been built up by tiny insects—detected only by the help of the microscope—of the same order of creatures that have gemmed the sea with islands of coral ! And who that contemplates such extraordinary results, arising from infinitely minute operations. will venture to question the power of little things?
It is the close observation of little things which is the secret of success in business, in art, in science, and in every pursuit in life. Human knowledge is but an accumulation of small facts, made by successive generations of men, the little bits of knowledge and -experience carefully treasured up by them growing' at length into a mighty pyramid. Though many of these facts and observations seemed in the first instance to have but slight significance, they are all found to have their eventual uses, and to fit into their proper places. Even many speculations seemingly remote turn out to be the basis of results the most obviously practical. In the case of the conic sections discovered by Apolonius Pergoeus, twenty centuries elapsed before they were made the basis of astronomy—a science which enables the modern navigator to stéer his way through unknown seas, and traces for him in the heavens an unerring path to his appointed haven. And had not mathematics toiled for so long, and, to uninstructed observers, apparently so fruitlessly, over the abstract relations of lines and surfaces, it is probable that but few of our mechanical inventions would have seen the light.
When Franklin made his discovery of the identity of lightning and electricity, it was sneered at, and people asked, "Of what use is it?" to which his apt reply was, "What is the use of a child? It may become a man!" When Galvani discovered that a frog's leg twitched when placed in contact with different metals, it could scarcely have been imagined that so apparently insignificant a fact could have led to important results. Yet therein lay the germ of the electric telegraph, which binds the intelligence of continents together, and doubtless before many years elapse will "put a girdle round the globe." So, too, little bits of stone and fossil, dug out of the earth, intelligently interpreted, have issued in the science of geology and the practical operations of mining, in which large capitals are invested and vast numbers of persons profitably employed.