30. On Preference of the Right Hand

A wise man’s heart inclines him toward the right,
But a fool’s heart toward the left.

Ecclesiastes 10:2

Considering our two hands apart from the rest of the body, they both seem equally functional. And yet there are far more “right-handed” people than “left-handed.” For no apparent reason, there has long ago developed a preference for the right-hand. Why should this be so?

The knowledge we know today, that in our Bicameral brain the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, allows us to recognize many resultant consequences. Socially we assign importance to the one who sits on the right hand of the king, and none of us wants to receive a “left-handed” compliment. We use the right hand and not the left to shake hands.

The French word for “Law,” one of the most conceptual, logical and rational professions, is “droit” (“right”), so here the right hand is a symbol for the left brain. Similarly, the Indians of the American Southwest distinguished between the functions of the hands, the right for writing and the left for music. There are the Hindu notions of “buddhi” and ‘manas” and the Confucian concepts, found in the ancient book, “I Ching,” which associate the masculine, “Yang,” with the left side of the mind and the feminine, “Yin,” with the right. From this comes our expression, “I had a yin to …” for those actions for which we lack a good rational explanation.

While early persons would not have had access to the modern physical knowledge about the left and right hemisphere of the brain, still since only the left brain can think in terms of language and rational logic, and is the only side which can communicate in language, perhaps even on a subconscious level they recognized a preference for the right hand. In any case, this right-hand preference has had a distinct influence on philosophical thought and hence on civilization, therefore we present the following interesting examples of right hand preference for the curious reader’s interest.

We can document this right-hand preference from nearly the beginning of literature. The book of the Old Testament quoted above is dated according to Rabbinic tradition as being from the time of King Solomon (970–931 BC). We find in Plato (427–347 BC), evidence that this prejudice was so strong that nurses and mothers were active in making sure the child used the right hand. Plato’s point was that the difference in the use of the hands should reflect nature and its purpose but wherever this is has been lost as “we are maimed by the folly of nurses and mothers.”1

It is also interesting that we find Pliny the Elder (d. 79 AD), in writing of the left hand uses the word “sinistrae,” which also connotes unlucky or sinister. What one sees here is the left-brain labeling the mysterious and mute right hemisphere.

One of the early Church fathers, St. John Chrysostom (fourth to fifth century AD), paraphrases in one of his sermons a passage in the New Testament, Matthew 25:31–46. Here is this passage in the “Revised Standard Version”:

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” … Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”2

Talk about incentive to use the right hand! There are more biblical references, by the way. In John 21:14 we have one of the accounts of Jesus appearing to his Disciples after the resurrection. He appears to them by the Sea of Tiberius where the Disciples have been fishing all night but have caught nothing. So Jesus commands them,

“Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it to the right, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish.

We should perhaps also mention that in Judges 7:20, which describes Gideon’s great victory on the field, his men held their torches in their left hands and their trumpets in their right hands. And, similarly, in Revelations 1:16, “in his right hand he held seven stars.”

Much like God separating the nations right and left, like sheep and goats, an account of Charlemagne (768–814 AD), has him visiting one of the schools he founded and placing the outstanding students on his right hand, praising them, and the unsuccessful students on his left, condemning them.3

From the later Middle Ages there is a work by the Churchman, John of Salisbury (first half, twelfth century AD), intended as a treatise of advice for a prince. In a chapter entitled, “What is the Meaning of Inclining to the Right Hand or the Left, Which is Forbidden to the Prince,” he advises,

“He shall not incline to the right hand nor to the left. To incline to the right hand signifies to insist too enthusiastically on the virtues themselves. To incline to the right is to exceed the bounds of moderation in the works of virtue, the essence of which is moderation … To incline to the left means to slip or deviate from the way of virtue down the precipices of the vices.”4

There are some early works of poetry in which a path is described with various features on the right or left. John Lydgate (1370–1450) wrote a poem entitled, Reson and Sensuallyte, in which he argues against Love as an emotion (right hemisphere). He has man take a right-hand path to the (left hemisphere) non-feeling huntress, the goddess Diana.5

The Italian poet, Ariosto (1474–1533), sings of a similar path,

The man who leaves this path finds on the right only the beautiful and on the left as much ugliness gathered as the world embraces.6

In Don Quijote, by Cervantes, we find,

When a man doesn’t know how to read, or when he’s left-handed, it indicates one of two things: either he comes from a very low, a very humble family, or else he’s such a wicked rogue that neither good models nor good teaching could have any effect on him.7

There are two such references in Erasmus (1469–1536). In a treatise, On Good Manners, Erasmus discusses manners for young people. Among his rules, we find, “If offering or pouring something see that you do not do it with your left hand.”8

The second is in his discussion of the proverb, “Admetus’ dirge,” where Erasmus mentions a curious Greek myth regarding Aesculapius, son to Apollo, who studied medicine with Cheiron. Acquiring blood from the veins of the Gorgon, “he employed blood from the veins on the left side to destroy people, and blood from the right side to save their lives.”9

In Henry VI: Part III, there is a place where Shakespeare associates weeping with the left hand and a smile with the right.10

Voltaire (1694–1778), mentions “the simple and innocent practice yet taught in country places to children — that of kissing their right hands in return for a sugar plum.”11 It is also interesting that in one of his essays, Voltaire mentions that the French Academy had actually published a study on the subject of right hand preference, although he saw no potential value in such a study.

We could have very well dispensed, for instance, with such disquisitions as the origin of the preference due to the right hand over the left.12

We see an example of an unfavorable reference to a person by Voltaire, in one of his plays, The Tatler,13 where the character, Damis, asks,

Did you ever remember such a starched, affected, strained, left-handed understanding?

For some reason there was considerable reference to the right-hand preference in England during the Baroque Period. Among the Puritan preachers we find John Donne praying,

With thy left hand lay his body in the grave … and with thy right hand receive his soul into thy Kingdom.14

The most famous preacher of the period, John Bunyan, promises those saved will sit at the right hand of God. [“Saved by Grace”] It is on the right hand, that Christiana and Prudence hear “a most curious melodious note, with words,” made by birds in Bunyan’s famous, Pilgrim’s Progress.15

The greatest pen among the Puritans, John Milton, clearly associated dominance with the right hand as we see in four quotations from his masterpiece, Paradise Lost.

… where I shall Reign at thy right hand …16

His red right hand to plague us?17

[… our own right hand] shall teach us highest deeds.18

[… the first assay] Of his right hand provoked.19

In another place, we find, “Come therefore O thou that hast the seven stars in thy right hand, appoint thy chosen priests according to their Orders.”20

Among the Jacobean poets there is a poem by Ben Jonson called On my First Son, where we find, “Farewell, thou child of my right hand.”21 In this case, the child’s name was Benjamin, which in Hebrew means, “child of the right hand.”

Additional examples of right-hand preference can be seen in Richard Crashaw’s poem inspired by Matthew 2:11, “Whether by your eye or by your right hand you honor them,”22 and in Abraham Cowley’s (1618–1667) discussion of Hazel in his book on plants,23 where he observes,

In search of golden mines a Hazle wand
The wise Diviner takes in his Right-hand.

George Wither (1588–1667), in his book of emblems, entitles one picture, “The Right-hand way is Virtue’s path.” The essence of the poem which follows is that virtue’s path is the more difficult. He concludes,

And, though the Left-hand-way, more smoothness hath,
Let us go forward, in the Right-hand-path.24

There are also examples in this literature of obvious prejudice against the left hand, as for example in Thomas Dekker (b. 1570),25

All the Skies
Danced to the sounds of several Harmonies; Both Angels and Arch-angels loudly sung,
All Heaven was but One Instrument well strung.
But They, who on the Left-hand were set by,
(As Out-casts) shooke and trembled fearefully.

A similar prejudice is expressed by Robert Herrick (1591–1674),26

God has a Right Hand, but is quite bereft
Of that, which we do nominate the Left.

The only references we have found for right-hand preference by the Jacobean playwrights are by Thomas Dekker. One is from If This be not a Good Play27, where there is a discussion of the right eye being favored over the left. A more typical example is in his The Wonder of a Kingdom.28 A stage direction indicates “Musicke within,” which is followed by,

Alphonsina. What’s the matter sir?
Nicoletto. I hear a lute, and sure it comes this way.
Alphonsina. My most loved Lord, step you aside, I would not have you seen for
The saving of my right hand.

There are some interesting references to right-hand preference among the Jacobean writers of prose. One is a negative reference, when Thomas Dekker makes mention of “some lefthanded Priest.”29

Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682), who was also a physician, devotes an entire chapter, “Of the Right and Left Hand,” to the question of the curious priority given the right hand. He begins by representing himself as suspicious of any basis for this prejudice, although he acknowledges several passages in the Old Testament which clearly emphasize the right hand.30

He advances several arguments why no basis can be found in Nature for this prejudice, including the fact that no similar preference can be found in other animals, nor is a preference clear in very young children. Most important, he points out that none of the senses honor such a prejudice, nor can he find any meaningful evidence among the internal organs. In the end he finds even the fact that more persons are right-handed to be a matter of custom, and not of nature.

One of the writers of the Restoration in England, Thomas Otway (1652–1685), in speaking of the disappointed lover in his fictional Love-Letters, refers to one of the oldest expressions of the right-hand preference, the place of honor at the right hand.

… it is like seating me at your Side-table, when I have the best Pretense to your Right Hand at the Feast.

Finally, in Charles Gildon’s discussion of the actor’s gestures we can see how vividly the tendency toward right-hand preference was felt. He recommends the practice of observing one’s own gestures in a mirror, but quickly points out that this practice includes a great disadvantage in the fact that everything is seen backwards. He finds this particularly serious with respect to the hands,

When you make a motion with your right hand, the reflection makes it seem as done by the left, which confounds the gesture, and gives it an awkward appearance.

Later, we see how extraordinarily important the right-left hand question was to Gildon.

If an action comes to be used by only one hand, that must be the right, it being indecent to make a gesture with the left alone … When you speak of yourself, the right and not the left hand must be applied to the bosom, declaring your own faculties, and passions; your heart, your soul, or your conscience, but this action generally speaking, should be only applied or expressed by laying the hand gently on the breast.31

What do we take away from these acknowledgments of the preference of the right-hand? The right-hand reflects the left-hemisphere of the brain, the only side of the brain which talks and writes . The right-hemisphere of the brain is mute and leaves the left-hemisphere free to emphasize its importance through its representative, the right-hand.

Who then speaks for the right hemisphere of the brain, the experiential half of ourselves? Musicians, dancers, mimes, painters, sculptors and all who wish to express their feelings through Love or Music.


  1. Laws, VII, 794e ↩︎
  2. New Testament, Matthew 25:31–46 ↩︎
  3. Einhard and Notker, Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. Thorpe, 95 ↩︎
  4. Policraticus, trans. Dickinson, in The Stateman’s Book of John of Salisbury, 43. Similar right-hand prejudice can be found in Bernard of Clairvaux, On Conversion, quoted in Sermons on Conversion, trans. Said, 162, 166, and 253. ↩︎
  5. lines 2724ff ↩︎
  6. The Satires of Ludovico, trans. Wiggins, 133 ↩︎
  7. II, xliii ↩︎
  8. Collected Works of Erasmus, XXXV, 286 ↩︎
  9. Ibid., XXXIII, 302 ↩︎
  10. III, I, 43ff ↩︎
  11. Philosophical Dictionary, under “Kiss.” ↩︎
  12. Works of Voltaire, XXXIX, 100. He mentions this again in this Philosophical Dictionary, under “Society and Academies,” ↩︎
  13. I, ii ↩︎
  14. “Seventeenth Prayer” ↩︎
  15. III, 205 ↩︎
  16. Works of John Milton, ed. Patterson, II, 686 ↩︎
  17. Ibid., II, 44 ↩︎
  18. Ibid., II, 174 ↩︎
  19. Ibid., II, 183 ↩︎
  20. III, 147, a reference to “Revelations,” I:16 ↩︎
  21. Complete Poetry of Ben Jonson, Ed. Hunter, 20 ↩︎
  22. Complete Poetry of Crashaw, ed. William, 280 ↩︎
  23. Complete Works of Cowley, ed. Grosart, I, 276 ↩︎
  24. in English Emblem Books, 160 ↩︎
  25. in New-Dramatic Works of Dekker, ed. Grosart, III, 29 ↩︎
  26. Martin, Poetical Works of Herrick, 394 ↩︎
  27. III, ii ↩︎
  28. IV, iv ↩︎
  29. Grosart, Op. cit., II ↩︎
  30. Thomas Browne’s Works, ed. Wilkin, III, 13ff ↩︎
  31. The Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton… 1750, 54ff and 74ff ↩︎