I just ran across this Chesterton quote at Alexander Pruss’s blog:
Chesterton says, “It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. 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. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery… A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.”
Having moved here from Houston, I see the truth of what G.K. says here. In small town life we encounter and live out every day life with all kinds of people. I think this is one of the things my son was getting at when he expressed discomfort at his college orientation, “There’s just not the diversity we have in Pittsburg,” As G.K. would note, the irony is that it is the large polis or cosmopolitan institution (the modern American university) that prides itself on being diverse. Taken as a whole, sure they are. But in day to day experience it’s mighty easy to find a critical mass of friends and companions who are just like you.
It’s not just that I know more people, but that I know more kinds of people, and associate with them day to day. In a small town I know the folks at places I shop – often the people who work there and other customers. One of the factors in some articulations of secularization theory has been that as we relate to people in only one setting, one kind of relationship, secularization is one of the results. Small towns resist secularization (some of the time), not just because they’re uneducated “hicks” (the ones around here sure aren’t), but because they experience a different kind of depth to life, unable to segregate themselves from others as easily.