Trifles by A C Grayling

The following has been taken from A C Grayling’s The Meaning of Things :


Men trip not on mountains, but on stones

(Hindustani Proverb)


Trifles are the texture of history; in minutiae lie truths, and more significance attached to the myriad of events unobvious or apparently mundane than to single grand upheavals. As Manuel Gonzalez Prada said, ‘The displacement of a little sand eventually changes the deepest river’s course.’

There are at least two senses in which something can count as a trifle : one, by being small or unobvious, and the other, by being ordinary, familiar or mundane. In both cases it takes observation to single it out and see it for what it is. ‘It is only the dullness of the eye’ – to quote Walter Pater – ‘that makes to things seem alike.’ The small might be lost to view in the world’s sheer multiplicity, and the mundane likewise because ordinariness always confers invisibility. To be able to see such things in their own right is a special talent, but it is one that can be acquired by mindfulness and attention. The ability to see the small and the ordinary in their full particularity brings the texture of the world richly into view, and surprises one because it shows that small things can be large in meaning, and that scarcely anything is ordinary after all.

Pliny the Younger remarked that people travel far to see things which, if they were under their noses, would lie neglected and unconsidered. That suggests one should inhabit one’s life like a traveller, curious and alert, looking for the strangeness in things in order to see them afresh. To survive the blunting effects of time and habit on our sensibilities, we do well to remember the rousing claims of Carlyle, who said that the meanest object is a window into infinitude, and Rilke, in his remarkable Letters to a Young Poet, who said that if the world does not appear magical, ‘blame yourself; tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.’ …

If one sees the importance of small things, one is better able to judge the importance of their opposite. If only for this reason it is well that trifles are interesting, because they exercise our sense of perspective, and help us calibrate the material of experience. ‘For the person for whom small things do not exist,’ said Ortega y Gasset, ‘the great is not great.’ Such a person has no sense of proportion, which is a terrible defect because the ability to measure things is essential to judgement and – as a consequence – to the task of living well.


handsome and pretty



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