Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Provincial

The family may fairly be considered, one would think, an ultimate human institution.

Heretics, Gilbert K. Chesterton (eBook)

Not only, as some would say, because it is “peaceful, pleasant, and at one,” but because it is often quite the opposite.  Unlike with our friends and acquaintances, with family we don’t get to choose.  We think of the cosmopolitan, travelling to four corners of the world, choosing what he does, who he sees, with whom he spends time, how he spends time.  The provincial has much of this chosen for him:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

In a big society, we can form cliques.  We can choose, and the field from which we can choose is as large as we make our circle – even as large as the entire world, for those whose reach is almost unlimited.  Hence, the big society forms narrowness.  Those who live in a big society are free to associate with – or not associate with – whomever they choose.  Mostly, people just like them.

If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known.

Our neighbors.  Yet this is the world from which the modern has decided to escape.  He invents modern culture and modern imperialism; he goes off on wild adventures.  He is fleeing from his street, not, as he claims, because it is too dull, but because it is too interesting.

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour.

We are not told to find random people to love; we are told to love our neighbor.  We don’t get to choose our neighbor; he is chosen for us.  We are told to love him because he is there, right next to us, without our doing or choosing. 

Instead, the modern goes to the four corners, thinking that he is finding people much different than himself.  Instead, he is finding others who are quite like him – who just happen to speak a different primary language.

…if what he wants is people different from himself, he had much better stop at home and discuss religion with the housemaid. …if he wants to conquer something fundamentally and symbolically hostile and also very strong, he had much better remain where he is and have a row with the rector.

So, returning to the family.  It is to be commended for precisely this reason – the same reason that the institution of the nation or the city are to be commended: they all force him to contend, not with something outside, but something inside.  Do unto others – not others of your own choosing, but others chosen for you.  If that doesn’t force you to contend with your inside, nothing will.

Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.

Step out of this, and you step into a narrower world.  The cosmopolitan is not broadening his horizons, he is limiting them; he is not growing, he is shrinking.  He is suffering a delusion. 

The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.

And the day our children were born, and the day we moved to a new neighborhood, or our new neighbors moved in.  It is romantic because it is random, because it is arbitrary.  Life can only be a story if a great portion of it is “settled for us without our permission.”  Would we want the author to come out on stage and ask us to tell him how the next act should go?  Does that make a story?

A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel.

It would be easy to point to Jesus here.  Instead, I will point to one of the hundreds of examples that man invented as a poor facsimile: Tony Stark wasn’t a hero because of what he could control; he was a hero because of what he could not control.

The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect.

The mistake of the moderns, as Chesterton puts it, is to believe that life is at its most romantic in a complete state of liberty.  They are after a world of no limitations.

They say they wish to be, as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves.


To really feel the joy in life

You must suffer through the pain

Until you struggle through the dark

You'll never know that you're alive

-          Illumination Theory, Dream Theater

You can fight

Without ever winning

But never ever win

Without a fight

-          Resist, Rush

Or you can make the universe as weak as you are.  But from which type of man will the foundations of liberty be built?  The weak cosmopolitan, or the strong provincial?


  1. Thanks, Mos. For years I have been noodling on why everything gets pulled down to the lowest common denominator over time. This piece helps fill in some gaps in my evolving personal view.

  2. I had the same observations when I moved from my hometown to the big city for college. I could interact with more people but mostly they were the same. If they weren't I could choose to never see them again and find others I preferred. There were always an abundance of people to associate with.

    In my home town, I was much more familiar with people who were of different races, educational levels and socio-economic backgrounds. I knew more drunks and druggies as a kid than at college because I could avoid them more easily.

    I experienced something similar but in the opposite direction moving out to a more suburban area though still in a big metropolitan area. I see more diversity even in my neighborhood. It is kind of wild that this is true.

    Chesterton must have had similar experiences.

    Funny enough I have been thinking about some things of a similar nature. Not exactly what this article is about but parallel in thinking about society and how people are to interact with one another properly.

    This is part 1. Part 2 will have more overlap talking about the interworking of families and other groups. Didn't think of neighborhoods. Part 1 is more setting the stage for what I would like to call Cooperative Individualism. Reading this blog has made me think about how we need intermediary institutions and centers of power between individuals and state. This is my attempt to organize my thoughts around the subject.

    1. Just finished up the second part of thinking through this subject, at least tangentially. A apply the theory to the family, civilization, and the church.

  3. "The weak cosmopolitan, or the strong provincial?"

    I think the strongest man is the one who knows the world, and yet fixes his allegiance to and his love for his regional way of life anyway. What I think is especially important to the intellectual leadership of a region or province is to know the history of the parent civilization to the one in which he resides.

    Robert E Lee, despite his faults, was one of these men. He was against secession personally, but when his state (Virginia) voted to secede after it was clear the North was going to invade South Carolina, he turned down Lincoln's offer of generalship in the Union army and instead led his own countrymen against the North.

    Contrast Lee with George Henry Thomas, another Virginian, who instead of fighting on the side of his countrymen, became a general for the invading Union army, fighting even against his own family, which shunned him thereafter. The story goes that none of his family showed up to his funeral.

    "My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them; nor indisposed me to serve them; nor in spite of failures, which I lament, of errors, which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present state of affairs, do I despair of the future. The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient, the work of progress is so immense, and our means of aiding it so feeble, the life of humanity is so long, and that of the individual is so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave, and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope." - Robert E. Lee

    I know which man I'd rather emulate.

    1. "It is history that teaches us to hope."

      Thus we must act, regardless of what we believe about the likelihood of success in our lifetime.

    2. Agreed. Though I'm not sure what I can do. I have limited means and limited time to offer to any cause other than my marriage, my children, and my profession, all three of which I consider more important than any exterior cause. Though I do realize there is a trade off, and that at some point, that which is exterior may have a detrimental impact of on my small way of life with my family, friends, and co-workers.

      This whole virus hysteria is a good example of that. In a case such as this, I like to send out an email to those in my inner circle to help inform them of the situation as I understand it, and at least give them a different perspective than the one being shot into their veins by mass media.

      But you are right; we have to do something. I don't know if it is enough, but I'm doing what I can at the moment.

      "It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule." - J.R.R. Tolkien

    3. We do what we can. Working on a healthy marriage and family is plenty.

    4. ATL, where does that Tolkien quote come from? That is great. I have read volumes of Tolkien but haven't seen that one.

      I think your focus is correct. If you can go outside of that and still take care of your family then great, but better to make sure they are good.

    5. ATL,

      I appreciate what you are saying and would probably be safe in saying that many of us are in the same situation as you are.

      One of the bits of wisdom I acquired from my dad goes like this. "We do what we have to. We do what we can. We don't always do what we want."

      If someone did have the unlimited means and time to do anything he wanted, he would be the most cosmopolitan of them all, virtually good for nothing. What an empty life. We should be glad that we are not there.

    6. RMB,

      I had written this quote of Tolkien's in my notes a few years ago, and I did not record where I got it. I was worried I wouldn't be able to find its source, but at long last I have. It is from the third installment of LOTR, entitled, "The Return of the King" near the end of the chapter "The Last Debate", page 861, in my copy, which counts the pages starting from "The Fellowship of the Ring."

      The heroes had just successfully defended Minas Tirith from the siege of the orcs, and they were deciding what the next move should be. It was of course Gandalf who said it, in the context of what would happen if they defeat Sauron by destroying the ring and a new enemy should take his place, since Sauron was "but a servant or emmissary" of other evils that are older and greater (likely speaking of Morgoth, Toklien's representation of Satan).

      I was worried I had gotten it from a compilation of letters Tolkien had written people over the course of his life edited by his son Christopher and Humphrey Carpenter. It is very hard to track down quotes in there. I had highlighted quite a few and thumbing through the pages, I failed to find the one I was looking for, but I found a few others that are fitting for our discussions here at Bionic Mosquito.

      "Chesterton once said that it is our duty to keep the Flag of this World flying; but it takes now a sturdier and more sublime patriotism than it did then. Gandalf added that it is not for us to choose the times into which we are born, but to do what we could to repair them; but the spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydra's heads." Letter to Amy, 16 Nov 1969


      "We were born in a dark age out of due time (for us). But there is this comfort; otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love. I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water." Letter to Christopher, 29 Nov 1943

    7. Roger,

      Agreed and I like that adage from your father. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Am new to your site/writing...enjoy and appreciate it..thank you...couldn't help here thinking of O Henry's The Cosmopolite...