“It’s knowing what to do with things that counts.”—Robert Frost, “At Woodward’s Gardens”
In Frost’s poem, “At Woodward’s Gardens,” a boy visiting a zoo carries a magnifying glass. From his study of science he has apparently learned to use the glass not only to magnify objects for better vision but also to concentrate the rays of the sun to create heat and fire.
This boy, “presuming on his intellect,” decides to torment the monkeys. Scientific man, gifted with the power of knowledge, decides to experiment upon the hapless monkeys lacking man’s reason. So the boy chooses to use the glass as a weapon as he concentrates the rays of the sun through the lens and burns the noses of the caged monkeys: “He made the sun a pin-point on the nose/ Of first one, then the other till it brought/ A look of puzzled dimness to their eyes/ That blinking could not seem to blink away.” Sensing danger and reacting with animal instinct, the scalded monkeys respond with self-defense as they touch their noses “And exchanged troubled glances over life.” Of course they have no idea of the cause of the pain or the physics of light as a source of heat and fire as they act disoriented “as if perhaps /Within a million years of an idea.” The boy with the glass lords it over the defenseless monkeys who have no means for resisting the enemy.
As the boy gloats over the secret power of his weapon and the success of his experiment, he feels the natural superiority that man enjoys over animals by virtue of his intelligence and technology: “The already known had once more been confirmed/ By psychological experiment.”
The monkeys, however, despite their ignorance of the source of the attack and their confinement behind cages, act with decisiveness: “There was a sudden flash of arm, a snatch, / And the glass was the monkeys’, not the boy’s.” The monkeys’ sudden move shifts the balance of power as they now possess the weapon that inflicted pain upon them. The monkeys do not understand the use of the magnifying glass and regard it as a strange object incomprehensible to their limited understanding. They too carry on their experiments to make sense of this new thing: “They bit the glass and listened for the flavor. They broke the handle and listened for the flavor.”
Even though their five senses do not inform them of any possible uses for the glass by way of food or enjoyment, the monkeys do grasp one irrefutable fact about the lens: it is harmful and threatening to monkeys. Hence, they “hid it in their bedding straw” rather than return it to the boy.
Using only their animal instincts and five senses, the monkeys demonstrate more common sense and good judgment than the educated boy with his knowledge of science. Although the animals do not discover the cause behind the effect and cannot comprehend the use of a magnifying glass, they know it is evil and reject it without any doubts or afterthought.
Ironically, the monkeys as members of the animal species reveal more wisdom than the boy, homo sapiens. Man as rational animal often is more irrational than intelligent, more foolish than wise. The mark of wisdom is the proper use of things for their intended natural or God-given purposes. To misuse the magnifying glass to burn animals rather than see small print is perverse, the abuse of power rather than use for its true end. The monkeys show more wisdom than enlightened man because “They might not understand a burning glass. / They might not understand the sun itself. / It’s knowing what to do with things that counts.”
Educated man with his science and technology often does not comprehend what the monkeys know. It is not natural to use knowledge or power to harm or destroy the good. The human mind is created to use knowledge to serve man and ennoble human life. Sophisticated modern man does not know “what to do with things” that simple monkeys instinctually sense. For example, with his higher education man tortures the meaning of words to invent “rights” to do evil or deny nature such as legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. With his scientific research man uses medical knowledge to prescribe contraceptive drugs, discover abortion bills like RU-486, perform tubal ligations and vasectomies, and engage in fetal harvesting and stem-cell research that are anti-life, anti-human, and anti-natural. With university degrees man exercises his mind to deny God, truth, moral law, and perennial philosophy and uses intelligence to teach that nothing is true and all is relative and subjective.
Common sense, right reason, and human wisdom know “what to do with things.” Man and woman exist for love and marriage. Love and marriage exist for families and children. Homes exist to create civilized societies and rich cultures. Civilization exists so that man learns to live well rather than merely live or survive—to live a human, moral, abundant life filled with goodness, beauty, and truth. The end of a moral, holy life is the blessedness of the Beatific Vision in Heaven.
Prideful educated man, with his weapons and instruments, perversely rejects the self-evident and willfully deconstructs what God has beautifully ordered. Like the boy intoxicated with the sense of power the magnifying glass gives him over the monkeys, man with his almighty degrees and higher learning would rather redesign the world and reinvent new and unnatural uses for the mind and body rather than acknowledge the nature of things. To have a mind and not to know is as perverse as having a magnifying glass and refusing to see.