The Hierarchy of Patterns
In Jonathan Hale’s excellent book “The Old Way of Seeing”, he describes why pre-modern buildings are so visually interesting. It is not simply a matter of detail and ornamentation, but the fact that the buildings had diminishing levels of visual detail as one got closer to them. From far off one would see a certain level of detail, and then as one got closer, and that first level of detail became too large to take in, a newer, smaller level of detail would become visible. The gradually diminishing scale of detail would keep presenting the viewer with something new to see until one was right next to the building and the smallest, finest ornamentation presented itself. This stands in stark contrast to most modern architecture, which might be visually interesting when viewed at a large scale (and herein we see the bias of the modern mindset toward things that are large), but quickly loses detail as one approaches, and becomes cold and visually empty at the personal level. At best most modern architecture retains some visual interest at close examination due to the variations inherent in the building materials used. Even a concrete slab, a metal plate, or a sheet of glass retain some variability to their surfaces to give the eye something to look at, though I have no doubt that somewhere there is an architect who wishes to create a building with perfectly homogenous surfaces.
This lack of scaling down in the patterns of modern architecture has parallels in the more social aspects of our lives. While in most cases people can easily identify themselves as part of a global, abstract group (Progressives, Christians, Libertarians, Feminists), and we go to great lengths to identify ourselves as individuals, the sense of being part of a larger hierarchy of communal and social patterns has been either lost or outright rejected. In the natural world no organism stands apart from it’s ecosystem, and each is linked to other parts of the ecosystem in manifold ways. In the study of ecology, an organism is in many way primarily defined by it’s relationship to the other parts that make up the whole. Unfortunately the vast majority of people, and amazingly enough even many who wish to try and adapt our lives to be more in sync with the natural world, seem bent on defining themselves primarily as individuals.
It seems to be that the problem lies in the fact that we are afraid to give up our freedom. Part of the siren song of modern life, that has been sold to us in ways that cut across political philosophies, is that there is nothing more important than our individual freedom. We have been willing to destroy all the old obligations and affiliations in the name of liberating us from the tyranny of being bound to any particular person, place or custom. If we look back at our architecture, we see that certain details only exist in reference to their place in the whole, and some of the most beautiful details derive their beauty by the limits of their form. Turning to nature, it is almost nonsensical to imagine a certain species or organism being “liberated” from the constraints of it’s place in an ecosystem. Of course it must be said that humans are not buildings, and that we have the ability to transcend our ecology in a way that lower animals and plants cannot do, but when we see what a poor job we have made of it, we might be tempted to think and act with greater humility.
It is no coincidence that among early Christian writers, humility was seen as the source and cornerstone of all the other virtues. Indeed it might be said that love (aside from self-love, which often become monstrous) is not possible without humility, that is preferring something or someone outside of oneself, to ones own needs, wants, or opinions. It is puzzling then that many who show humility in their dealings with the natural world are so unwilling to display it towards other people, lest someone else get power over them. There is much talk about restoring lost community, but we always seem to want to have community on our own terms, without accepting that in order to truly be a part of a community we must necessarily be willing to give up some of our autonomy (or more precisely, the illusion of autonomy that has been sold to us by modern society). Before I got married a wise friend of mine told me, by way of warning and encouragement, that my marriage to my wife was not just between her and I, but would affect our entire community for better or for worse. On the one hand our community had a stake in supporting and helping us in our married life together, but on the other, we had to understand that the actions we took as individuals in our marriage and as a married couple extended far beyond ourselves. By accepting our place as a new family in this community we accepted both the support the community could provide as well as an obligation to something outside ourselves.
Oftentimes we prefer to show our care for those things outside ourselves for something very abstract. “The Environment”, “The Oppressed”, “The Working Poor” becomes the objects of our affection, because on a sub-conscious level, we know “The Working Poor” will never hold us accountable. It is nearly impossible to be accountable to “The Environment”, but we can be accountable to the environment in a particular place. If we wish to show our love in humility to the people and natural world around us, that love needs to be manifested in showing care to concrete people and places, because care cannot be true without a sense of accountability. It is a frightful thing to accept limitations in order to take one’s place in the the pattern of a place or community, but of the three types of love identified by early Christian writers, kenotic or self-emptying love has always been seen as the highest.