I reflected what a Mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this Nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us.”

–Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

Boy oh boy, if I had a dollar for every time in the in the past few months somebody mentioned the size of the universe and its effect of making humans small while completely ignoring the obverse insight that there are things so small in the universe that, by comparison, we humans are positively huge, I’d have at least two more dollars in my pocket than I currently have.  But, beyond that, I refer to the mental atmosphere we all inhabit where our supposed smallness seems to be handed on, especially in school, as if it were serious and absolute, whereas our bigness, whenever somebody with imagination puts it out there, (like Dr. Seuss’ in Horton Hears a Who!), is seen as occasional, silly, childlike, and is almost always taken as relative.  But, as the big/small Lemuel Gulliver reminds us:  “Undoubtedly Philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by Comparison.”

A representative case in point is a short article from Time.com on the Big Bang.  Here’s a snippet:

Later generations of telescopes gave us more information we could make no practical use of and that only served to shrink us further, revealing that we are crazily small organisms on a crazily small world and that, on a cosmic scale, our species’ entire time on the stage amounts to little more than the trillionths of a second it took the Higgs Boson to flash out of existence after its celebrated creation in 2012.

This type of analysis, common to almost every statement or discovery coming from the fields of science, is de rigueur now, especially in light of the new Cosmos series which evokes the original Cosmos and Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions of stars” (apparently, a phrase never actually uttered by Sagan himself).  It’s so aggressive that, although one can understand the focus on our relative smallness when talking about the discoveries of telescopes, this mental fashion seems to force the author, even when mention is made of the Higgs Boson, (so small the search for it requires a Super Collider!), to invoke it as yet further proof our smallness and insignificance, (in terms of time), even though you would think it would more naturally serve as a backdrop for how big we are and how long our human lives are.

The author says, “our species’ entire time on the stage amounts to little more than the trillionths of a second it took the Higgs Boson to flash out of existence”.  I would suggest, however, that a trillonth of second, as a unit of time, servers better in making the history of our species look really, really long by comparison, but there seems to be a taboo against looking at it that way.  Name something really big, (or so goes this vulgar form of analysis), and we’ll point out that, in comparison with that big thing, we humans are really, really small.  But name something small and we’ll use it as yet further proof of our smallness by saying something like, “even though we’re a lot bigger, we’re just like that small thing”.  This type of analysis seems to reflect a fetish with bigness.

Weird, I say.  The deck seems stacked against somebody with imagination, like Gulliver.  He, unlike a lot of science commentators, didn’t use his experience in Lilliput retrospectively as further proof of the “inconsiderable”ness he experienced in Brobdingnag.   He saw with a healthy dose of sanity and maturity, that it can be both ways.  In other words, Jonathan Swift didn’t have a vulgar, adolescent bigness fetish.

Please, if you have about eight seconds for a worthwhile download, take a look at this wonderful tool, Scale of the Universe.  This tool scales as small as Quantum Foam, the posited “strings” of String Theory, and  the “Planck  Length”, (at 10^-35 meters).  And, on the other side of the scale it goes as large as the “Observable Universe’” (at 10^ 27 meters).  We get a feel for the smallest things we know and the biggest things we know.  In the words of Cross-Wearing Mike, a Physics and Math student at the college where I work, (who has that nickname because he often wears a pretty big cross, and his name is Mike), who was the first person I thought to inbox to verify the implications of the Scale: “Yeah, we are actually closer, rounding wise, to the size of the universe than to a Planck length. It does seem odd that we favor the large”.  And he added, “I remember being shocked when I found out that the average engagement ring has more atoms than stars exist in the universe.” This contrasts with the prevailing fashion, and I suspect it might have been Cross-Wearing Mike’s cross that protected him from the vulgar adolescent bigness fetish that infests the universities.  

Furthermore, I think it’s somewhat interesting that, though the Scale is technically centered around a “meterstick” at the center, look closely and you’ll see that there’s a figure hanging out to the left of the stick, and so close to it as to be almost related.  Yep, it’s Protagoras’ old protagonist, “Man”, who still stubbornly abides there in the center, and after all these years still seems a pretty good reference by which one can “measure all things.”  And Earth, too, hangs in there pretty close to the center, which seems to confirm the insight of Peter Kingsley who, in his book Reality, writes:

There’s nowhere is it could be, because this is where we are: at the center of everything we see.  Even if we leave it to travel somewhere else, our eyes will still be made of earth.  Whatever we discover, or believe we discover, however wonderful the life forms we happen to bump into, they will all only be the creation of our terrestrial perception.  We are the most naïve of devils if we imagine we will ever find reality by drifting around in outer space.

It goes without saying that both Protagoras and Kingsley, who live thousands of years apart, apparently avoided becoming vulgar adolescent bigness fetishizers.  Good for them, I say.

Now let me posit a theory:

When we are children, we find it generally more interesting when the main character is big and the world is small; hence, Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput are more interesting than those in Brobdingnag, Honey I Shrunk the Kids does better at the box-office than Honey I Blew Up the Kids, Horton hears a “Who” (and not a dinosaur), and big Alice just tends to carry more fun for the imaginative child exploring Wonderland than does small Alice.

Adolescence, however, seems to flip-the coin for a while, and one’s interest quite often turns to the obverse: Dinosaurs, King Kong, Monsters, Monster Trucks and lots of other big things that crush small things are cool in that stage of life, as well as, of course, aliens and the outer reaches of outer space.

Maturity, then, as I view it, is the ability to see it both ways.  And it’s also the reappropriation of the child’s ability to see how big and central we are, but with a humility and wisdom less characteristic of that “first childhood.”  This mature view is somewhat analogous, I submit, to what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur described with his phrase “Second Naïveté,” (which follows the stage of First Naïveté and the stage of Critical Distance), and which he says requires “the full responsibility of autonomous thought.”  The fact that Swift exemplified this maturity and responsibility at the dawn of the modern era I have already tried to demonstrate.  Blake too, of course, got it, (because, after all, he’s William Blake and was, in the title of a lecture series at Cambridge about him by Malcolm Guite, “Ahead of His Time. Ahead of Ours.”).  And the fact that he did get it allowed him to please and enlighten us with such lines as,

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

John Donne, for the record, got it too:  

It is too little to call Man a little World; Except God, Man is a diminutive to nothing. Man consistes of more pieces, more parts, than the world; than the world doeth, nay than the world is. And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in Man, as they in the world, Man would bee the Gyant, and the Worlde the Dwarfe, the World but the Map, and the Man the World.

Blake and Donne were certainly not vulgar adolescent bigness fetishizers.  Contrast this, however, with a statement by one of modernity’s bigness (and biggest) sages, the theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking:

The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit. That would be like saying that you would disappear if I closed my eyes.

I think Hawking sounds, at least in this quote, like a vulgar adolescent bigness fetishizer.  He, at least here, is an example of somebody who doesn’t get it.  It’s an adolsecent worldview.  Then why is this view so dominant?  Because, like most of the rest of our adolescent mass culture, this vulgar worldview is aggressive.  As Nirad Chaudhuri, a wonderful commentator on the decadence of the West, (and who incidentally thought that the forces of evolution had stopped creating new biological species long ago but were probably on the move to create new psychological species), said, “vulgar ages will not only create vulgarity but even persecute everything that is not vulgar.”  Perhaps vulgar adolescent bigness fetishizers are a different psychological species altogether.

So, simply put, and not to be exclusive, (God forbid), but I think the Porch is a wonderful meeting place for non-vulgar, mature, people who don’t make a fetish out of bigness, but who suffer the persecution of vulgar fools gladly.  Examples include, of course, Wendell Berry who not only qualifies but sets a standard in his Jefferson Lecture where he highlighted the wise words of E. M. Forster:

It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile . . . That is not imagination. No, it kills it. . . . Your universities? Oh, yes, you have learned men who collect . . . facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?

(I wish I could tell Forster that I recently came across some evidence, if only anecdotal, that wearing a cross while at university can protect people who go there from this form of vulgarity.)

And Chesterton is an example as well:

I do not believe in being dehumanised in order to study humanity. I do not believe in dwelling upon the distances that are supposed to dwarf the world; I think there is even something a trifle vulgar about this idea of trying to rebuke spirit by size.

(It’s only just that, standing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) and weighing around 286 pounds, Chesterton would take up a lot of place on the Porch.)

There are many others, too.  How about Arthur Miller?  He wasn’t vulgar.  Unlike Stephen Hawking who thinks that, We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit,” Miller had a gift for putting his imagination to use in order to demonstrate the mature realization that no man is disposable and that all are deserving of respect and attention.  On behalf of Miller himself, Linda Loman famously says of her insecure, self-deluding salesman-husband:

I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

I think that it’s interesting that this comes from the same artist who characterized the Nazi phenomenon, in the mouth of the Austrian noble Von Berg in Incident at Vichy as an, “outburst of vulgarity, an ocean of vulgarity”.

And I think it’s interesting, too, that an anagram can be made of the letters in the names “Miller”, “Chesterton”, “Swift”, “Chesterton” “Berry” and “Forster” that comes out “AVOID VULGAR ADOLESECENT BIGNESS FETISHIZERS LIKE THE PLAGUE!”

Actually, there isn’t such an anagram in those letters.

I just made that up.

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  1. The popularizers of vulgar scientism would have you believe scale is determinant. They choose to hold a crude strawman god which they easily demolish (and which I demolish also.) They forget that if God is Being Itself, mere scale is irrelevant.
    They would rather have their reduction of Man to “chemical scum”, so that they can, in the same breath, proclaim a million men are more important than one man, so the one may be sacrificed without conscience; and a million men are nothing set against the Universe, and can be easily sacrificed. (Only — they never speak of sacrificing their own insignificant selves…)
    But my main objection to these petty petite minds is, they are vulgar, and I am a snob.

  2. Fine piece, and a good reply to those who want to confuse sentimentality with paying attention (and paying homage).

  3. See the second-to-last paragraph of Chapter 18 of C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. The wise eldil of Mars tells earthman Ransom that the Martians “‘have a law never to speak much of sizes or numbers to you others… You do not understand, and it makes you do reverence to nothings and pass by what is really great.'”

    In the sequel, Perelandra, see Chapter 13, the fifth paragraph (begins “And now”), in which Ransom reflects on “the Empirical Bogey,” “the great myth” of the 20th century, with “its nightmare perspectives of simple arithmetic in which everything that can possibly hold significance for the mind becomes the mere by-product of essential disorder” — a notion worthy of disdain, disdain for this attitude’s “flat superlatives, its clownish* amazement that different things should be of different sizes, its glib munificence” of zeroes. This typical 20th-century bogey-man would cow the human spirit “‘with numbers and empty spaces and repetitions” and ask us “to bow down before bigness'” (middle of Chapter 17, paragraph beginning “‘I am full of doubts'”).

    This focus on Big Universe, Tiny Us, is an elementary fallacy, though popular writers such as H. P. Lovecraft apparently never caught on to that. The fallacy is that qualitative and quantitative are mixed up. The bigness of the galactic universe over against our relatively small dimensions is a matter of the quantitative; but what makes human beings great was never understood to be their size. (Perhaps our ancestors understood this better than we often do.) The qualities that make human beings significant, such as reason, imagination, conscience, etc. are not physical things that can be measured.

    Perhaps adherents of the “Cosmos” fallacy, since they are so fond of the quantitative, should be invited to consider a thought experiment along these lines. Let’s suppose that the universe is about 25 by 25 feet in size, containing one human being of five feet nine inches. Would we say that this human being was insignificant? No? Very well, let’s expand the universe to 50 by 50 feet. Is the human being a tad less significant now? No? Then what is the point at which the size of the universe is great enough over against the smallness of the human being that the latter is insignificant over against a vast universe?

    *”Clownish” here means “characteristic of the stereotypical dull, unsophisticated rustic.”

  4. Any rational being is, eo ipso, greater than any universe or any clutter of universes; because he can imagine worlds that do not exist, while all they are is a lot of beautiful dust. I contain the solar system; it does not contain me — it is only the place where I am.

  5. I remember someone saying that at universe scale, Man is nothing more, or even less than a grain of dust, but in God’s eyes (every) man is more than the whole Universe. The caps are intentional.
    Don’t forget(about nazis) not only an ocean of vulgarity, but a vulgarity shaped and expressed by a diabolic banality(Arendt). “What can an individual do? I follow orders(like any competent citizen would), I am merely a pawn.” Mind you individual, not person.
    I wonder if Asimov, is considered boring by adolescents, because of his arguably non megalomaniac depiction of his heroes. Although it deals with big time intervals, big space etc.
    Glad you pinned that haw-king(of fools, of black, yes those black holes) imbecile. Handicap is not an excuse for cosmic bull…manure. You don’t have to be healthy to stand or become vertical, without becoming too megalomaniac or too scared by own smallness.

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