Big is Beautiful

There is a recent worldwide bias against Big.

Big alienating cities are worse than small beautiful villages.[1] A big fat guy is bad; fashion-model-thin is good. A big meal is bad for your health – “eat light.” Small, boutique hotels – good. Big hotels for the masses – bad. Small family farms – good. Big corporate farms – bad. Big cars – bad; “be smart, drive a Smart!” In travel, you’ve heard it a hundred times – “travel light.”[2] Recently, there’s even a new fashion about to conquer the world: tiny tattoos!

I remember my high school teachers telling us to make our essays shorter, or during a discussion in class, admonishing us with something like “your argument is too long – get to the point!” The history teacher would also add that the Parthenon is definitely of greater artistic value than the Great Pyramid mainly by virtue of it being small, of “human size.” The Greek temples were functional since people could enter and worship their Gods; the pyramids were big dead tombs, a tribute to their creator’s vanity – bad.

Well, it’s time to redress the balance!

Let us begin with Nature: Small birds are beautiful and cute, but it is the majestic big eagle that we admire most – the king of the sky! It is this eagle that has become the emblem of nations, from the Byzantine Empire to the USA. Similarly, the giant Hyacinth Macaw is considered the “King of Parrots.” We may enjoy an apple or a mango tree, but it is the old plane trees (platanus) and the giant sequoias that take our breath away and become (as in the famous Sequoia National Park in California) major attractions by themselves, even national monuments. When it comes to the earth’s geological features, we give our greatest admiration to the highest mountain peaks (the Alps, the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro); to the deepest chasms (the Grand Canyon and Gorge du Verdon); the biggest rivers (the Amazon, the Nile). Probably the two best fruits also happen to be among the largest: the Asian king of fruits – the durian – and the king of summer fruits, the watermelon!

Going beyond our small planet, the same is true of the universe at large. The most fascinating objects in the cosmos are gargantuan: massive black holes, quasars, exploding supernovas, supervoids, superclusters, not to mention the recently discovered 10 billion-light-years-across Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall – as you can see, it is all there in its long, pompous name itself!

The admiration we bestow upon the grandest structures of nature, is actually extended to what we ourselves create. Of all the architectural marvels and engineering feats of man, it is the biggest we are proudest of, appreciate most, and seek to visit and see for ourselves: the Great Pyramid in Egypt, which of course is not what my high school history teacher thought it was, since its inexhaustible mysteries are still being unveiled 5,000 years after its creation – not least of all because it is an infinite microcosm; the Great Wall and the Grand Canal of China have long been considered the greatest human constructions of Asia; the Taj Mahal in India is not only the most beautiful Islamic mausoleum, but also one of the largest on the planet; the giant Statue of Liberty, the most famous statue in the world, is the embodiment of both the American ideal of personal freedom and the expression of America’s grandest aims as a nation.

As for the grandest of all human structures, our planet’s most famous metropolises that are so eschewed by so many travelers and “lovers-of-small” – are they not the fullest expression of our civilization’s prowess and aesthetics? Are not Paris, London, Vienna, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Bangkok, to name a few, as beautiful, alluring, and admirable as the small charming villages of Tuscany and Provence? The list of big human structures can go on and on…

When it comes to the artistic and spiritual accomplishments of humanity, the case for Big is even more incontrovertible: Within the sphere of many diverse domains, the greatest of all human creations of the spirit have also been big. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, considered by most experts to be the greatest of all symphonies, is not just the grandest in terms of the total number of musicians performing it but was also, at the time it was written, the longest symphony. Some of the greatest novels are also the longest: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The two greatest philosophical works of the nineteenth century, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, are two of the longest philosophical works ever written. Similarly, the greatest philosophical work in Eastern philosophy, Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine, is also a huge tome, while one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, Savitri, by the same author, is the longest in the English language. It seems, yet again, that contrary to what my teachers preached, the length of an argument depends not so much on the conscious choice of the speaker or writer, but on the nature and complexity of the subject being explored.

Moving on to the field of art: One of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, is gigantic in both size and scope. It took the artist four years of hard work to complete the massive scene, and its deep effect on the viewer is also due in great part to its size. Monet’s revolutionary series of paintings, his Water Lilies, are not only on huge canvasses but also so numerous (a total of 250!) that they are shared by over twenty museums around the world that mimic Monet’s obsession with lilies by trying to outdo one another in possessing them. Picasso’s most famous piece, Guernica, is also his largest. The same holds true for some of the greatest movies of all time, which happen to last more than three hours – Once Upon a Time in AmericaThe Last EmperorApocalypse Now, to name three of the best.

But it is not only natural objects or creative/artistic accomplishments that follow the credo of “big is beautiful.” The way we think and conceive of the world had always included a covert yet correct bias in favor of Big – in spite of the recently professed trend of “small is beautiful.” We say “forget this, look at the big picture!” implying that the substance, the meaning, the purpose of all particulars is to be found in a grander vision, where all small elements come together to form a new larger whole that holds a higher value and significance. This also holds true of the way we work: we form grand plans, we have high aims, big dreams. Actually, it is to the extent that we have trust in and work towards our grandest visions that we manage to achieve the most we are capable of – to paraphrase Goethe’s famous maxim.

It is for this same reason that in science the bigger the scientific theory (or, in this case, the more all-inclusive and the more numerous and bold its predictions), the more important and valuable it is deemed. Thus, Newton’s laws of motion, Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations, and Einstein’s relativity theories have all been judged as much more important than other vital theories in other fields because of the grandness of their scope. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, for example, aims at unifying the grandest concepts of Space and Time into a theoretical framework that purports to understand the structure and behavior of matter and energy in the universe. Following these grand theories, some of today’s brightest theoretical physicists are working on formulating the famous Grand Unified Theory. And of course, they are assisted on the experimental side, by another gargantuan entity, the biggest and most powerful particle accelerator yet created (which is actually a giant microscope “seeing into” the subatomic world), the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Of course, there are many small and beautiful things in the world. And the case may be made for many human constructions and creations of the spirit to be smaller rather than bigger, because a larger size may be superfluous, ugly, or downright bad. But contrary to current fashion, Big has always been admired, whether consciously or unconsciously, for its imposing presence, its all-encompassing nature, its multilayered structure, its grandness of scope.

The time has come for Big to be admired once again without any guilt or apprehension.

[1] The phrase “Small Is Beautiful” entered our everyday vocabulary in the early 1970s after the publication of Ernst Schumacher’s very influential book of the same title. The book itself had many important and great ideas, such as that the earth’s natural resources ought to be treated as capital rather than as income, since they are not renewable, and that governments should strive for sustainable development. His book ushered in these and similar ideas that have shaped the last 40 years. His inspiration grew out of his study of village-based economics – hence “small is beautiful.” Unfortunately, his phrase, originally used within this specific and limited field, has since been taken out of context and has become a ubiquitous ideal in all sorts of fields. In the current essay, I address what I consider to be this improper extension. I do it in a nonacademic and unsophisticated manner, addressing, of course, not the complicated themes Schumacher explored, but the use of his short phrase.

[2] The inspiration for this essay was the frequent comments that people were making concerning my mode of travel during my around-the-world-journey. One of the most common (and sarcastic) criticisms was both its duration (and grandeur of its scope) and the way I conducted it. Yet, both were the natural byproduct of things that were beyond my control. The size of the earth was much larger than I had realized – the world could only be properly explored in its own grand terms, and in a leisurely, unhurried manner. It is these elements that governed the actual “size” of the (by then) big and long journey, not any conscious a-priori decision of mine.

Concerning the manner in which I conducted my exploration, I also contradicted the common maxim “travel light.” Everybody advises how to travel light, but nobody explains why one should do this. It is somehow implied that it is self-evidently best. Maybe because in the common psyche there resides the image of the backpacker of the 1970s constantly carrying along with him on his back, like a tortoise, all his belongings, wherever he goes. Yet when traveling becomes long-term, it cannot remain light. The traveler needs to carry both summer and winter clothes, as well as enough items so he need not do his laundry every week or have to continually buy new stuff – something that is time-consuming and often cumbersome. After realizing that the world is huge, one has to accept that the journey will be long and that he might need to travel heavy.

Lastly, historically, all real Journeys (with a capital J) were actually long – be it Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta’s.

© 2024 Nicos Hadjicostis