Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon.” His works, include some collaborations, and about 38 plays, 154 sonnets and two long narrative poems. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright. Many literary experts suggest that no one will likely ever equal his writing talents.
There is little doubt that no small part of his success was due to his living at the end of the culturally explosive periods of the renaissance and protestant reformation. His “tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stone,” presage the eventual expansion of the sciences of botany, aquatic biology and geology. His reference to “the precious jewel” in the toad’s head is the fact that, unlike frogs, toad eyes often have complex geometric shapes not unlike a kaleidoscope.
However, Charles Darwin and I have problems with the last line, “and good in everything.” Ironically, few people know (or care?) that Darwin struggled with the idea of a “loving God” creating animals that would tear weaker animals limb from limb in a bloodbath of “survival of the fittest.” He was a mild-mannered man and the reality was deeply upsetting. He admitted being “spiritually conflicted” which is an honest and apt description of many people. He died before WWI and WWII so I can only guess that he would have been perplexed about human cruelty. He probably would have been even more skeptical about where God was during the horrendous events. On the other hand, if he understood that humans, indeed, truly possess the phenomenon of “free will” then he must have concluded that they are not governed by a supernatural, Superman.
As for me, Shakespeare wrote the line before WWI or WWII. I can find nothing “good” about the perpetrators of WWI. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. I find nothing good in the fact that WW II was the deadliest military conflict in history. Over 60 million people were killed, which was over 2.5% of the world population. Was this simply an example of survival of the fittest as well?
This paradox is demonstrated in the “Epic Animals” striking portrait of a Mandrill. This beautiful, highly exotic animal is omnivorous, but can be a ferocious killer of other monkeys and smaller animals including the bay duiker, a small deer-like mammal.
As for “sweet are the uses of adversity” Darwin, Loren Eiseley and I, remain conflicted on the concept and can only conclude that, in human terms, it remains an unsolved mystery.