The Bigness Thing

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Everything has to be big: We live in big houses in big cities, go to work in big cars on superhighways to reach our big businesses where we try to make big money.It’s no secret. Americans have a thing about bigness.
We live in a big country that feels comfortable with the idea that bigger is better.

Everything has to be big. We live in big houses in big cities, go to work in big cars on superhighways to reach our big businesses where we try to make big money. We eat Big Macs and Whoppers. Every aspect of our lives is somehow touched by the superlative. Everything must be extra-, super-or mega-sized.

Even problems must be big: big government, trillion dollar debts and World Wars.
The materialistic underpinning of our nation necessarily leads us to believe that only the big is important. And even small things can become important when enlarged by hype from big media.

But bigger is not necessarily better. There is a certain uneasiness caused by living in the shadow of awesome dimensions. If there is one thing that the Industrial Revolution took from man it was the well- being he felt by living with a sense of proportion and scale.

A Sense of Proportion

Of course, not all things must be small. God Himself created the world with majestic mountains, giant Sequoias and vast seas. But creation also is filled with intermediary sizes that somehow connect the small and large and thus establish harmony.

Pre-industrial societies lived within this proportionality and adapted the tempo and scale of their lives accordingly. Within the framework of Christian civilization, medieval society took proportionality even further. Catholic society extended a sense of proportion among the social classes with its concept of charity to the poor that was unknown to the ancients. Proportion was like a nectar that invigorated and harmonized all society.
Perhaps one of its most impressive aspects was the medieval capacity to create ambiences agreeable to human nature. Medieval castles, cathedrals and villages not only looked beautiful but also were amazingly proper to the human psychology.

Medieval proportion in architecture was not mere subjective fancy but involved principles implicit in the very process of perception. The medievals understood there are definite upper limits as to the sizes of streets, buildings and plazas beyond which things appear colossal and inhuman.

Human Measure, the Best Measure

German architect H. Martens in his studies on urban architecture and human scale proportion uncovered interesting relationships between distance and perception. He determined that the ideal width of a city street, for example, would be that in which a person could recognize another (about 72 feet). Residential streets requiring more community intimacy would be the distance (about 48 feet) where a facial expression can be distinguished. Aristotle among others noted that the best manner of viewing a building is in its entirety. The human soul feels comfortable in comprehending a whole reality. Thus, the height of a normal building where people feel most comfortable always seems to be around three stories depending on the width of the street. In a similar way, man can naturally view taller cathedrals and public buildings from large public squares.

Studies indicate that large public spaces like plazas and squares should be limited to the distance where the general outlines, clothes, sex, age and gait of a person can be distinguished-a distance of around 450 feet. It is no coincidence that the oval in front of St. Peter’s in Rome is 430 feet wide; the Place Vendome in Paris measures 450 feet; and the length of the Piazza San Marco, perhaps the world’s most delightful plaza, is 425 feet.

Christian civilization naturally incorporated such human proportions in all fields. In his search for perfection, medieval man brought proportion into economy, education, government and society.
Arthur Lovejoy in his book, The Great Chain of Being, explains how Saint Thomas Aquinas defined nature as a great ladder or chain of being stretching from the lowest of God’s creatures to the gates of heaven itself. His was a tightly knit world with a careful graduation of ranks accompanied by instructions governing mutual responsibilities and obligations. This concern for proportionality gave the Middle Ages a great well being.

The Road to Bigness

The Thomist concept of the order of the universe was abruptly challenged by new commercial and technological developments. Jeremy Rifkin in his 1991 book, Biosphere Politics, describes how French philosopher Rene Descartes prepared the way in the seventeenth century by introducing a bold new cosmology. “God, the benevolent and caring shepherd of Christendom, was replaced with God the remote and cold technician, who created and set in motion a self-regulating machinelike universe that was orderly, predictable and self-perpetuating.”

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, technology unleashed a new dynamism that habitually violated proportionality. The massive steam engines, the gigantic factories, noises, gases and odors all carried the note of disproportion. Their enthusiastic reception was a kind of triumphal support of the abnormally colossal. The cult of bigness was born.

Metaphysics of Quantity

The Industrial Revolution’s obsession with bigness made a metaphysical statement that quantity is worth more than quality. Making huge things came to be more than crafting very refined ones. The standard of measurement came to be that of size and quantity. Bigger came to be better. Thus, materialism entered the daily life of modern man.

The men who built the skyscrapers, the huge interstate highways, and the massive water projects were the objects of prodigious admiration. The overwhelming colossalism of the modern world seemed to mark a victory over tradition and Christian civilization.

In fact, it is a hollow victory because materialism cannot but bring forth a cold and impersonal world. Its concrete, steel and glass skyscrapers are calculated to make man feel like an ant, a grain of sand or an atom. Its cities are engulfing oceans of asphalt, which insure the anonymity, isolation and annihilation of the individual.

It creates an unlivable and disjointed world that underscores the need to return to virtue and proportion. And to look once again with wonder at that great chain of being that produced a world of well-being and harmony.