The Little Things
It is not histories I am writing, but lives; and in the most glorious deeds there is not always an indication of virtue or vice, indeed a small thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands die.
Plutarch (Life of Alexander/Life of Julius Caesar, Parallel Lives, tr. E.L Bowie)
The little things in one’s behaviour are more important than the big ones.
Not “equally important,” as many would easily agree to. But more. It took me years to understand why. I was searching for a quality inherent in the little things, but as it turns out, it is a quality that is absent that makes all the difference. The reason that the little things in one’s behaviour are more important than the big ones, turns out to be very simple: one can fake the big things in one’s behaviour, but not the little things. The little things lack the three “f’s”: feigning, fabrication, fakeness. Plus the most important “c”: contrivance.
A well-groomed politician wearing his tailor-made suit, might make an inspiring speech about history and profess to have the best solutions to the country’s problems. Yet his superficiality and ignorance may easily be revealed by a comment he makes later on at the dinner table, away from the lights of the media, by which it becomes obvious that he confuses the Reformation with the Renaissance. His table manners may also betray that his polished suit is just an attempt to cover his unrefined manners. Similarly, a guest at a wedding may give a big gift that stands out in order to impress the couple, but he then fails to search for the couple’s parents in order to congratulate them – thus showing that he was not earnestly interested in the couple and that the big gift had an ulterior motive.
The little things may be barely visible, or visible only to the discerning eye. A grimace one makes at someone else’s comment or a little sound of approval or disapproval at seeing something in the street, may uncover one’s true political, social, or ethical views that may be different from those he supports openly. An exclamation point at the end of a sentence, or a prolonged silence before answering a question, may in themselves reveal what a person was carefully trying to hide for hours. The masterful way someone cuts a peach in two to share, may reveal one’s immense sensitivity, as well as his love of both nature and the person he is serving. Andersen’s story “The Princess and the Pea,” in which the Princess’s royal upbringing is betrayed by her extreme sensitivity to minor discomfort, may actually be the best allusion to the idea that little things point to the large things in a most direct manner. Not pompous words, but the miniscule pea helps separate the real from the fake Princess.
I will not go as far as claiming that the little things cannot be feigned. There are of course many a conmen or politicians who may have actually mastered the art of faking even the little things in their behaviour. Yet still, there will always be one little thing that will betray them. There is always a pea. The whole of Life can never be faked!
Long after I had come to the conclusion that the little things in people’s behaviour reveal more than the big obvious deeds, I discovered that the idea was probably first expressed by none other than Plutarch – the greatest master of biography of the ancient world. Surprisingly, he had come to the same conclusion: not that the small things are equally important, but that they are more important. In the quotation above, he specifically writes that they “make a greater (in Greek: μᾶλλον) revelation of a character.” He then continues: “Accordingly, just as painters get the likenesses in their portraits from the face and the expression of the eyes, wherein the character shows itself, but make very little account of the other parts of the body, so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men, and by means of these to portray the life of each, leaving to others the description of their great contests.” It is most interesting that, just after he mentions the greater importance of the “small things,” he gives the excellent example of the portrait artist capturing in the subject’s small eyes the character of the person, just as Plutarch is about to reveal the soul of men. Via the artist simile, a link is implicitly created all the way from the little things to the expression of the (small) eyes to the soul of man.
As it turns out, Plutarch, consciously or unconsciously, touched on a truth that most of us feel, but rarely meditate upon: the little things in behaviour are the door not only to the real character of people but also to their soul. The uncontrived manner by which “we are ourselves” whilst engaged in everyday activities, the uncontrived way with which we naturally deal with what is ordinary and seemingly insignificant, express our soul. In these little inconspicuous acts we cannot but reveal ourselves in a most natural and truthful manner. And it is only by observing those little things in others too, that we begin to see, like Plutarch, into the soul of men.