Man understands without any effort that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and that it is still more useful when leaving the spit. It is needless to tell you that first the sportsman and then the cook has added a surplus value to the bird. If I put before you a ton of pig-iron, worth fifty francs, and then a ton of fine needles, worth ninety thousand, you will instantly see the enormous supplement of utility which the work of men has added to the metal.
But there are other benefits of which the utility is not as directly visible to our eyes, though it be at least as great. An impalpable, invisible, imponderable idea is often more useful than a mountain of benefits clear to the naked eye. Man is a thinking body; his hands have done much to render the earth habitable, but his brain has done a hundred times more.
Suppose that a great manufacturer had converted a thousand million pounds of iron into steel. Would he have performed as much usefulness in his life as the discoverer of cementation, as he who has put it within the reach of all men to convert iron into steel? He who should transport a mountain ten miles would produce less utility than the discoverer of the lever. For, by teaching us a simple law of mechanics we have been put in a position to transport a hundred mountains, if we please, with less outlay and effort. An economy is thus rendered possible which will profit all men who have been and may be born.
If Pascal had said to the men of his day, "I am rich, I possess a hundred miles of pasturage around Montevideo, and a thousand vessels on the Atlantic; I have caused half a million of horses to be transported hither, which I present to you, and which will work for you till their deaths," Pascal would have been less useful to the human race than on the day when, in his study, he invented the wheel-barrow.
Studious men, by a series of discoveries, superinduced the one upon the other, have given to us all the machines which abridge and facilitate labor. England alone possesses a hundred millions of horse-power which work for the profit of thirty millions of men.
The history of civilization may be summarized in nine words: the more one knows, the more one can perform.
In proportion as science and reasoning simplify production, the quantity of benefits produced tends to increase without augmentation of expense; work done helps the work to be done. The tools of the human race are nothing else than a collection of ideas. All levers are worn out in the long-run, and all wheel-barrows also; steam-engines are not everlasting, but the idea remains, and enables us indefinitely to replace the material which perishes. It follows from this that the first of useful things for man, is man himself.
You are of the greater use to yourself the more you are instructed, rendered better, and, so to speak, more perfect. The development of your personal faculties also enables you to be more useful to others, and to obtain from them greater services through reciprocity.