The Stone that the Builders Refused

by  John Roland Stahl
June, 2009

“The stone that the builders refused will always be the head cornerstone.”  – Bob Marley

     Those words by Bob Marley are intended to convey a very nice message; however, there are a couple of errors in the way the idea is presented.  In the first place, “the stone that the builders refused” would never be selected as the head cornerstone!  The quotation is taken from The Book of Psalms, 118:22, and the original quotation runs something like, “the stone that the builders rejected will become the capstone (keystone of the arch).”

     There is a big difference in the qualities required for the “head cornerstone” and the “keystone of the arch.”  In general, when a mason is building an edifice of stone, he will be looking for stones that are as perfectly square and straight and regular as it is possible to find (carefully dressed that way from the quarry).  As for the head cornerstone, it must be the most perfectly square and straight and regular of all, since all lines and levels will be based upon it.  For the rest of the building, the best stones will be wanted, of course, although some stones may be accepted which are not entirely perfect, but when a stone is really not square at all, but is some kind of trapezoid or worse, it will be entirely rejected.  

     This rule applies to the great majority of stones used in construction, but “the keystone of the arch” is an altogether different story.  The arch was of critical importance in Medieval stone masonry construction, as it made possible a whole range of construction features that included windows, doorways, and even major support columns and galleries.  The “key” which made an arch work was a stone at the top center of the arch that was not square: it was wider on the top than on the bottom, so that the pressure of the remaining stones would maintain the shape of the arch from collapsing.  Of course the builder would search among the rejected stones to find some irregular stone that would be suitable for use as the keystone of his arch.  

     Now, taking another look at Bob Marley’s song, it is easy to discern his intention: while square and straight and regular may be a useful ideal for an orderly society (when the concept is applied to people), it is the one that is different from the others that is singled out for the most important and critical positions.  While masses of society may be built up of row upon row of identical, square, straight, and regular units, it will be the different ones, the original, creative, and independent ones which will take on the leadership positions.  The ultimate illustration of this is an army, in which absolute conformity is literally drilled into the soldiers so that the whole becomes a uniform and mindless machine, while it is the senior officers who retain their independence and creativity, and make all the important decisions.  I think it is an unfortunate aspect of modern society that, all too often, schools are run along the lines of armies and military academies, in which all novelty, originality, and creativity is deliberately squelched out of any incipient nonconformist pupil who might dare to think for himself, or have an original idea.

     However, there is another problem with Marley’s presentation of his idea: when he says “the stone that the builders refused will always be the head cornerstone,” it almost sounds as if all that is required is for a stone to be rejected for it to be exalted to the position of head cornerstone.  In fact, however, there will be a great pile of rejected stones, and all but a very select few will be left as rubble, perhaps pounded down into road base.  

     So we might suggest an alternate reading for Marley’s song: “the Keystone of the Arch will always be a stone that the builders refused” (all keystones are rejected stones, but not all rejected stones become keystones of an arch).  

     The moral of this story is simple enough: while we can respect the importance of the great mass of uniform, square, straight, and regular (stones, people, or anything else), we should also recognize the even greater importance of the few that are unique, “creative,” or otherwise different in some essential way from the straight and regular majority, as it is this introjection of Novelty into the system that allows the universe to remain in existence at all, and is responsible for evolutionary change and growth.

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