Atomistic v. domestic family

Allan C. Carlson introduces Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization:

Carle Zimmerman was the most important American sociologist of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. … Zimmerman focused on the family virtues of farm people. “Rural people have greater vital indices than urban people,” he reported. Farm people had earlier and stronger marriages, more children, fewer divorces, and “more unity and mutual attachment and engulfment of the personalit[ies]” of its members than did their urban counterparts.

Zimmerman’s thought ran sharply counter to the primary thrust of American sociology in this era. The so-called Chicago School dominated American social science, led by figures such as William F. Ogburn and Joseph K. Folsom. They focused on the family’s steady loss of functions under industrialization to both governments and corporations. As Ogburn explained, many American homes had already become “merely ‘parking places’ for parents and children who spend their active hours elsewhere.”

Up to this point, Zimmerman would not have disagreed. But the Chicago School went on to argue that such changes were inevitable and that the state should help complete the process. Mothers should be mobilized for full-time employment, small children should be put into collective day care, and other measures should be adopted to effect “the individualization of the members of society.” …

Zimmerman wrote Family and Civilization to recover that “actual, documented, historical truth.” The book stands as an extraordinary feat of research and interpretation. It sweeps across the millennia and burrows into the nature of otherwise disparate civilizations to reveal deeper and universal social traits. To guide his investigation, Zimmerman asks: “Of the total power in [a] society, how much belongs to the family? Of the total amount of control of action in [a] society, how much is left for the family?”

By analyzing these levels of family autonomy, Zimmerman identifies three basic family types:

(1) the trustee family, with extensive power rooted in extended family and clan;

(2) the atomistic family, which has virtually no power and little field of action; and

(3) the domestic family (a variant of Le Play’s “stem” family), in which a balance exists between the power of the family and that of other agencies.

He traces the dynamics as civilizations, or nations, move from one type to another. Zimmerman’s central thesis is that the “domestic family” is the system found in all civilizations at their peak of creativity and progress, for it “possesses a certain amount of mobility and freedom and still keeps up the minimum amount of familism necessary for carrying on the society.”

Where the Chicago School was neo-Marxist in orientation, Zimmerman looked to a different sociological tradition. He drew heavily on the insights of the mid-nineteenth-century French social investigator Frederic Le Play. The Frenchman had used detailed case studies, rather than vast statistical constructs, to explore the “stem family” as the social structure best adapted to insure adequate fertility under modern economic conditions. Le Play had also stressed the value of noncash “home production” to a family’s life and health. Zimmerman’s book from 1935, Family and Society, represented a broad application of Le Play’s techniques to modern America. Zimmerman claimed to find the “stem family” alivand well in America’s heartland: in the Appalachian-Ozark region and among the German- and Scandinavian-Americans in the Wheat Belt. More importantly, Le Play had held to an unapologetically normative view of the family as the necessary center of critical human experiences, an orientation readily embraced by Zimmerman.

This mooring explains his frequent denunciations of American sociology in the pages of Family and Civilization. “Most of family sociology,” he asserts, “is the work of amateurs” who utterly fail to comprehend the “inner meaning of their subject.” Zimmerman mocks the Chicago School’s new definition of the family as “a group of interacting personalities.” …

Zimmerman wrote Family and Civilization to recover that “actual, documented, historical truth.” The book stands as an extraordinary feat of research and interpretation. It sweeps across the millennia and burrows into the nature of otherwise disparate civilizations to reveal deeper and universal social traits. To guide his investigation, Zimmerman asks: “Of the total power in [a] society, how much belongs to the family? Of the total amount of control of action in [a] society, how much is left for the family?”

By analyzing these levels of family autonomy, Zimmerman identifies three basic family types:

  1. the trustee family, with extensive power rooted in extended family and clan;
  2. the atomistic family, which has virtually no power and little field of action; and
  3. the domestic family (a variant of Le Play’s “stem” family), in which a balance exists between the power of the family and that of other agencies.

He traces the dynamics as civilizations, or nations, move from one type to another. Zimmerman’s central thesis is that the “domestic family” is the system found in all civilizations at their peak of creativity and progress, for it “possesses a certain amount of mobility and freedom and still keeps up the minimum amount of familism necessary for carrying on the society.” …

Indeed, the primary theme of Family and Civilization is fertility. Zimmerman underscores the three functions of familism as articulated by historic Christianity: fides, proles, and sacramentum; or “fidelity, childbearing, and indissoluble unity.” While describing at length the social value of premarital chastity, the health-giving effects of marriage, the costs of adultery, and the social devastation of divorce, Zimmerman zeros in on the birth rate. He concludes that “we see [ever] more clearly the role of proles or childbearing as the main stem of the family.” The very act of childbearing, he notes, “creates resistances to the breaking-up of the marriage.” In short, “the basis of familism is the birth rate. Societies that have numerous children have to have familism. Other societies (those with few children) do not have it.” This gives Zimmerman one easy measure of social success or decline: the marital fertility rate. A familistic society, he says, would average at least four children born per household. …

It seems like we’re moving from the “domestic” family of the late 20th century to flirting with the “atomistic” family being more the norm in the early 21st century.

Vatican II’s fruits

Nathan Israel Smolin shared this recently and I’m sharing it here because it’s a convincing perspective on Christianity’s enduring characteristics:

You know, say what you will about the post-Vatican 2 Catholic Church, but any era of the Church that could produce Lumen Gentium, the writings of Pope St. John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church can’t exactly be a dark age.

I have no real doubt that in a century, Catholics will still be reading all of these things, and finding them very important and foundational. They’ll probably also, frankly, be hearing some version of the NO Mass. I doubt *anyone* will remember who Hans Kung was, though.

Most eras of the Church are judged in retrospect, not by their conflicts or failings, their heretics or worldly clerics, but by their Saints and Doctors–because these latter have fruits that endure for centuries & forever. That makes it hard to judge any time while it’s going on

Probably the silliest thing self-described Traditionalists do is complain about the Fruits of Vatican 2 & insist on judging it immediately by those fruits. If it comes to that, what were the Fruits of the Council of Nicaea in the same timeframe?

Externally, the main effect of the Council of Nicaea was to put the Church into the power of the Imperial office, which would immediately betray it. Inside the Church, within a decade of Nicaea there were pitched battles between Christian factions in the streets of major cities.

I’m not saying Vatican 2 is as important as Nicaea; but the truth is, the 4th and 5th centuries defined the Church for the next millennium through the Doctors & Councils. But it was also the time of the worst internal conflicts ever, heresies, & massive schisms that still endure.

We marvel at Augustine’s faith; no one really cares about the Donatists who for most of his life had much more power & numbers in North Africa, let alone the vast flock of semi-pagans delaying baptism til death he preached to.

We can read Pope Leo the Great’s Christology, and be inspired by it. We don’t have to read Eutychius, or worry about the loss of the Patriarchate of Alexandria to Schism. We can read Basil the Great, & skip all the brilliant & politically influential Arian Bishops he argued with.

Anyway, I don’t pretend to know how the past fifty years will be seen in the Church. But I’m sure future Catholics will be reading & judging it by its great saints & doctors & documents, & mostly ignoring & forgetting all the things we spend our time worrying & fighting about.

Stability and specialness of place

K.E. Colombini on the impermanence of place:

When I was young, I had a recurring dream. I’d be walking home from grade school—it was a walk of only a few blocks—and I’d pass the house that sat next-door to mine on the school side. I expected to see my home beyond the neighbors’ tall hedge, but it wasn’t there. My home had ceased to exist.

It was only a dream. But as I think about places in which I’ve spent periods of my life, I do sense a disturbing trend. The hospital outside Sacramento where I was born is gone, replaced by a tidy subdivision. My elementary school is no longer an elementary school, and my junior high school is no longer a junior high school. In a few years, my high school will move to a new location. My college dorms and classrooms have been torn down and rebuilt.

The small newspaper chain at which I held my first real job was bought out by its daily metro competitor, and the office in which I worked is now an auto-parts store. Even that metro paper has moved to a new, less expensive location. Another paper for which I worked has since closed, and its building, celebrated as technologically advanced when it was built in the 1960s, was torn down—ostensibly for a grander development, which has yet to appear more than a decade later. A Fortune 500 company for which I later worked, a company with a long and proud American lineage, has since been taken over by foreign interests that swept in, ransacked, and restructured the office and its culture. Only the governmental offices that employed me, such as the State Capitol, seem resistant to change—for good or for ill.

Our throwaway culture has come to include entire buildings. Everywhere one looks, one senses the impermanence of place. …

When one thinks of monks or nuns, the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience come to mind. But many also take a vow of stability. In The Sign of Jonas, the journal that traces the time around his ordination as a Trappist priest, Thomas Merton describes that vow: “By making a vow of stability the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.’”

St. Benedict had little respect for monks who lacked stability, and he applied to them the perfectly fitting term “gyrovague.” His Rule states: “These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony.”

We all need to learn that “perfect” doesn’t exist on earth; the greener grass is probably artificial turf. Stability is a commitment to life as it is now: the relationships, the places, the joys, and even the sorrows we deal with each day. It is a refusal of the temptation to run away from our lives when they get dark or uncomfortable. And it is a recognition that the places we know will change. …

The maps of our lives beckon us to explore new places while urging us to take along those things that have shaped us and made us who we are: the memories, the people, the ideas, the beliefs, the virtues and values we hold most dear. Stability keeps all this intact when the world of matter outside wants to make us think it is more important than it really is.

A few years ago I wrote that nostalgia lives in places that, in the context of what we do have in our daily lives, tell us what we no longer have (or never had) but recognize as good and worth pursuing. Stability is the foundation for special places like so many of America’s college towns, places that seem to stand outside of time, to some degree, and offer aged alums as much as first time visitors a sense that, “Yes, this place is enough.”

Dependent suburban lifestyles

Johnny Sanphillippo at Granola Shotgun shares the experience of walking through Thousand Oaks, a typical Southern California neighborhood:

I’m just a geek who likes seeing how people occupy the landscape. … I believe our institutions and society are all in a lot of trouble and I’m trying to figure out how to ride out a difficult set of challenges in the not-too-distant future. …

One of the things that the front lawn guy was fired up about was attempts by the state to force all towns to accept infill development and higher densities even when residents didn’t want it. The idea that every home might have a second unit constructed in the back yard or that multi-family buildings would proliferate within subdivisions of single family homes was anathema. I totally understood his concerns. Personally I have no desire to impose such things on anyone. However… many of the homes next door and along his street already had backyard cottages and were, by any measure, already physically “multi-family.”

This house is currently for sale. It’s advertised as having, “a large detached casita with a living area, bedroom, bathroom and separate wet steam room!” The photos show the interior of the casita with a sink, tiled kitchen counters, cabinets, and a standard size refrigerator, but no stove. A stove would make this an illegal and culturally repugnant accessory dwelling unit. But a casita… That’s a luxury guest suite for treasured family and friends.

The 4,900 square foot (455 square meter) main house has five generously proportioned bedrooms each with its own private bath and all are large enough to hold all manner of furniture and activities in addition to a bed. Every bedroom also has an exterior door to the garden. There are two additional baths in the house. The massive kitchen has two breakfast bars. There’s a giant bonus room, home office, wine cellar, laundry… The attached two car garage is supplemented by a detached four car garage and enough driveway space for who knows how many more vehicles. The Google aerial view shows two full size recreational vehicles parked along the side driveway. This “single family home” is actually a small apartment complex in most regards. But as long as only one prosperous family inhabits it… no problem. …

Thousand Oaks has all the symbolism of farm life, minus the productive agriculture and supportive community. And driving everywhere, every day, for everything is mandatory. The residents may not know it, but they’re all just as dependent on the “Nanny State,” multinational corporations, global financial institutions, and just-in-time delivery systems as people living in high rise towers. It’s a great place to live if you like this sort of thing and can afford it. But it’s just as vulnerable to external shocks of all kinds as the urban environment they fear.

He hits on some of the real problems with suburban living, which is that in practice (meaning, on the level of daily, lived experience) you’re (a) less likely to encounter other human beings than in the city (b) less likely to feel the fulfillment that comes from healthy human relationships (c) less able to access neighborhood cultural/educational activities and resources, and (d) more “cooped up” than most city dwellers. To have to drive anywhere to have any of these experiences is a thin sort of independence in theory, and often, in fact, frustrating dependence in practice.

Consider the lilies

John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf shares the stories of his travel from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, which started in 1867—just two years after the Civil War’s end. Muir was 29 or 30 at the time of the encounter below, near the Cumberland Mountains leaving Tennessee:

As I turned to leave, after bidding her goodbye, she, evidently pitying me for my tired looks, called me back and asked me if I would like a drink of milk. This I gladly accepted, thinking that perhaps I might not be successful in getting any other nourishment for a day or two. Then I inquired whether there were any more houses on the road, nearer than North Carolina, forty or fifty miles away. “Yes,” she said, “it’s only two miles to the next house, but beyond that there are no houses that I know of except empty ones whose owners have been killed or driven away during the war.

Arriving at the last house, my knock at the door was answered by a bright, good-natured, good-looking little woman, who in reply to my request for a night s lodging and food, said, “Oh, I guess so. I think you can stay. Come in and I’ll call my husband.” “But I must first warn you,” I said, “that I have nothing smaller to offer you than a five-dollar bill for my entertainment. I don’t want you to think that I am trying to impose on your hospitality.”

She then called her husband, a blacksmith, who was at work at his forge. He came out, hammer in hand, bare-breasted, sweaty, begrimed, and covered with shaggy black hair. In reply to his wife s statement, that this young man wished to stop over night, he quickly replied, “That’s all right; tell him to go into the house.” He was turning to go back to his shop, when his wife added, ” But he says he has n’t any change to pay. He has nothing smaller than a five-dollar bill.” Hesitating only a moment, he turned on his heel and said, “Tell him to go into the house. A man that comes right out like that beforehand is welcome to eat my bread.”

When he came in after his hard day’s work and sat down to dinner, he solemnly asked a blessing on the frugal meal, consisting solely of corn bread and bacon. Then, looking across the table at me, he said, “Young man, what are you doing down here?” I replied that I was looking at plants. “Plants? What kind of plants?” I said, “Oh, all kinds; grass, weeds, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns,—almost every thing that grows is interesting to me.”

“Well, young man,” he queried, “you mean to say that you are not employed by the Government on some private business?” “No,” I said, “I am not employed by any one except just myself. I love all kinds of plants, and I came down here to these Southern States to get acquainted with as many of them as possible.”

“You look like a strong-minded man,” he replied, “and surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able. Picking up blossoms does n’t seem to be a man’s work at all in any kind of times.”

To this I replied, “You are a believer in the Bible, are you not?” “Oh, yes.” “Well, you know Solomon was a strong-minded man, and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls.

“Therefore, you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I’ll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to ‘consider the lilies how they grow,’ and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory? Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s? Christ says, ‘Consider the lilies.’ You say, ‘Don’t consider them. It isn’t worthwhile for any strong-minded man.’”

This evidently satisfied him, and he acknowledged that he had never thought of blossoms in that way before. He repeated again and again that I must be a very strong-minded man, and admitted that no doubt I was fully justified in picking up blossoms. He then told me that although the war was over, walking across the Cumberland Mountains still was far from safe on account of small bands of guerrillas who were in hiding along the roads, and earnestly entreated me to turn back and not to think of walking so far as the Gulf of Mexico until the country be came quiet and orderly once more.

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Craft v. ideology in architecture

Nick Phillips writes on architecture of the sort that we have, and of the sort that many want:

In The Architecture of Community, a brilliant, baffling book that contains equal parts text and the architectural equivalent of political cartoons, traditionalist architect Leon Krier opens with a simple proposition. Imagine that you had to choose between eliminating every building built before 1945 or every building built after 1945. Which would you choose? The total built volume of both periods is about the same—so which act of destruction would feel like the greater loss?

This proposition is fascinating because it should be a hard question, but it isn’t. Our guts immediately tell us that a world full of postwar buildings would be alienating and hollow, utile but sterile. We lean on our pre-war buildings for far more—for meaning, for beauty, for a sense of place, for the stuff that makes life not merely livable, but worth living. This is Krier’s point. Modern architecture attempted to make a clean break with the past and “start from zero.” But for most ordinary people, the result has been the opposite—an unprecedented dependence on our architectural heritage as a refuge from our architectural present.

Whenever anyone bothers to ask the American people about what kinds of buildings they prefer, they speak with a clear voice: They prefer traditional ones. In 2006, the American Institute of Architects decided to survey the general public for their view on the question, producing a ranked list of “America’s Favorite Architecture.” The list is remarkable: Of the 50 most favored buildings, a mere seven were built in postwar styles. Of those seven, two are monuments (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Gateway Arch) and another, the World Trade Center, no longer exists. The other four are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the Rose Center for Earth and Space, Chicago’s Willis Tower, and, inexplicably, Las Vegas’ Bellagio casino. The remaining 43 most favored buildings all hale from the prewar period. Perhaps the public will eventually come around to the new stuff, but it’s been 70 years.

Various other types of evidence corroborate the clear public preference for traditional architecture. And what it all reveals is a stark disconnect between what ordinary people like and what actually gets built. When famous architects build today, their intended audience is not really the general public, or even the client. It’s other architects. It’s the people who award the Pritzker Prize. It’s the academics, theoreticians, and highly-credentialed practitioners who dwell in the impregnable temple of architectural criticism.

These temples exist in every artistic discipline, and they presently elevate one precept above all others: disruption. …

The results are bizarre. For thousands of years, we built beautiful things. It is close to impossible to find a pre-20th century building capable of conjuring strong negative feelings—the worst they can evoke is indifference. But with the architect-theoreticians at the helm, we have succeeded for the first time at producing buildings that make people feel things like confusion, dread, anomie, and helplessness.

Phillips underscores what seems to me to be his primary point: “contemporary architecture reflects the migration of art away from craft and toward ideology.”

Exciting, exhilarating, and ecstatic

Jody Bottum writes on the space between “sober and dull” versus “drunk and interesting”:

Alcohol is the lubricant of social interaction: We rub against each other like rough-cut gears, the burred ratchets of unpolished clockwork, and without a little oil to ease our way, we’d grind one another down to raw metal.

Then, too, alcohol is a flavoring—something splashed on life to add a little zest. A dollop of wine deglazes the caramelized drippings and draws out the essences. A measure of beer enlivens a batter. A jigger of brandy warms a dessert. And why not? Liquor makes the banter seem wittier, the company more charming, the party more exciting.

For that matter, alcohol is an emotional regulator: a mood restorative, an attitude adjustor. A martini can pick you. A Manhattan can calm you down. A beer can steady your nerves. A shot of rye can drown your sorrows. The taste of absinthe lets us imagine the experience of decadent French poets. The swirl of bourbon, the slight viscosity as it clings to the glass, gives us clues to the thought of highflying American novelists. …

Drunks may imagine their friendships as rich and interesting, filled with drama. But to the nondrinking observer, the alcoholic’s human relationships look merely impoverished and unpleasant. The result is the opposite of unique and dramatic. Just predictably sloppy and expectedly dull: an amateur production of Hedda Gableron a rainy Wednesday evening in Sioux City, Iowa. Drinking may be fun, but drunkenness is a race between the boring and the disgusting, with death closing in fast on the frontrunners.

The dullness is what Leslie Jamison tries to address in The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, her new book about her alcoholism, and it proves a long, tedious journey up from the bottom of a bottle. …

It was all supposed to make her interesting, she explains that she thought at the time. Dull people lead sober lives, lacking interesting flavors and moods. Even more to the point, she wanted to be an artist, and alcohol, she believed, fuels creativity and insight. …

In the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, Kirsten tries to explain her drinking by saying that, without alcohol, she “can’t get over how dirty everything looks.” The world seemed brighter and more interesting when she was drunk. For Leslie Jamison, however, it wasn’t an improvement of the world she sought. It was she herself that she saw as brighter and more interesting. …

Neither a mark of the demon rum nor a regular dosing with magical elixir for the artistic and the interesting, alcoholism in Jackson’s novel is revealed as the boring, predictable, and mean-spirited thing it is. …

Drinking is exciting, exhilarating, and ecstatic. Drunkenness is merely dull—a dullness that rots the liver. Rots the brain. Rots the soul.

I haven’t read The Recovering, and I don’t plan to. Bottum’s review is enough for me. I’d suggest, however, that it’s not drinking itself that is exciting, exhilarating, ecstatic. It’s drinking in the context and company of great people. That’s why drinking in a proper sense is a positive lubricant, because it helps us drop some of our atomistic sensibility defensiveness and be a bit more human than we might otherwise be. The great thrill to good drinking is an experience of the other, isn’t it?

Moral culture in emerging communities

Preston Jones writes on “moral culture in Gold Rush towns” in the 19th century:

People respond to expectations. A professor who allows students to submit late papers is likely to receive late papers, even from students who ordinarily complete their work on time.

Perhaps something similar is true in moral life. When I was in the Navy, I noticed that many sailors were perfectly decent in some ports, while in other ports the same men did things they would never admit to back home. The difference was expectations. In ports where almost anything was acceptable, almost anything happened, and the consequences were degrading for all.

This came to mind as I read the diaries and memoirs of women who went to gold rush communities in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon in the late nineteenth century. Mary Hitchcock was a curious New Yorker; Elizabeth Robins an actress and writer. Martha Black arrived pregnant and estranged from her husband; Anna DeGraf was a seamstress.

Gold rush lore evinces images of restless, grizzled miners and thriving saloons. Certainly, boom towns like Skagway (Alaska) and Dawson (Yukon) had their wild sides. Anna DeGraf saw “gold fever, greed, and lawlessness,” and she notes that she was harassed a few times by drunken men. Yet her story is mainly about cooperation and kindness. The same is true of the other women’s memoirs and diaries. Each of them ended up in situations where they would have been almost powerless against one man, let alone many. Yet their writings say little of vulnerability, even in areas beyond the reach of police.

For all of the experiences of oppression and subjugation that undoubtedly took place to some degree in frontier communities, Jones offers insights into the ways in which moral culture can be fruitfully developed in frontier communities. These aren’t earth-shattering insights, but they’re important ones if we’re trying to “get things right” in fostering a healthier culture. And relevant for our future lunar and Mars colonies.

Literary societies

I recently came across Lawrence Biemiller’s March 1997 profile of two Lancaster, Pennsylvania college literary societies. Biemiller’s piece appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I’m excerpting some of it below.

In the 19th century, many American colleges brilliantly combined the humanities (liberal arts) with the mechanical-industrial (servile arts) to create a new form of education meant to be accessible to any young person—not only the elite that the Ivy League institutions had long catered to. What’s less well known is the extent to which young people themselves often led the way in creating, shaping, and really breathing life into this new model. Biemiller’s piece tells some of that story as it related to Franklin & Marshall College:

Generations of Students Learned Oratory and Debate in 2 Literary Societies

Lancaster, PA. In the Goethean Literary Society’s first formal debate, in June of 1835, students argued the question, “Ought imprisonment for debt to be abolished?” The debate took place in York, Pa., at what was then called the High School of the Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church. The society’s minutes record that the question “was decided in favor of the negative both as to the merits of the arguments and those of the question.” Afterward the members chose a topic for the following week’s discussion: “Has not the civilization of mankind been as much affected by the influence of the fair Sex as by any other cause whatever?”

So began an extraordinary run of debates and orations that continued on three different campuses for more than a hundred years, from Andrew Jackson’s Presidency to Dwight Eisenhower’s. Along with its twin sister, the Diagnothian Literary Society, the Goethean Society prospered as the “high school” moved to Mercersburg and changed its name to Marshall College. At weekly meetings the societies’ members delivered speeches and poems and argued the issues of the day, from whether women should hold public office and whether the Roman Catholic Church was “an enemy to liberty” to whether man “is the creator of his own destiny.”

Both societies assembled libraries and built Greek-revival meeting halls. There they met for hours each Saturday morning, mixing parliamentary procedure with splashes of ritual and secrecy and with floods of declamation. In January and February of 1842, for example, the Goetheans addressed a range of issues. “Would it be beneficial for the United States to admit Texas to the Union?” “Is England justified in carrying on war against China?” “Would it promote the interests of the United States to elect Henry Clay, President?” The minutes for February 23 add a contemporary-sounding note: “A Resolution was offered by Geo. L. Staley, prohibiting the chewing of Tobacco in Society on the ground of its disrespect and insult to the dignity of Society.” The resolution failed, but “Mr. Brewer then moved a vote of censure to Mr. Staley for presuming to offer such a resolution.” It, too, failed, and the members moved on to choosing the next question for debate: “Would it be beneficial for the Northern and Southern States, if they were peaceably disunited?”

The two societies continued to thrive after Marshall merged with Franklin College in 1853. The new institution, Franklin and Marshall, commissioned a Gothic-revival building with a soaring tower here in Lancaster; the literary societies put up matching halls, one on either side. The halls had first-floor rooms for the societies’ libraries—larger than the college’s—and also rooms for their “cabinets,” or museums. Upstairs were the spacious meeting rooms, frescoed by local artists. The college’s curriculum was then centered on classical texts, history, and mathematics, but the societies offered students opportunities to practice writing and public speaking and to consider subjects from politics to the nature of mankind.

In those years orators and debaters were judged more on composition and delivery than on content. Henry Kyd Douglas, a Diagnothian who attended the college in the 1850s, reported in his diary on speeches at the society’s programs: “…5th Oration, J. B. Tredwell on ‘The Dawn of a New Era.’ This was nicely written and nicely spoken. Jim is a pleasant speaker but has not enough animation. 6th Oration, ‘Christian Martyrdom,’ by J. M. Mickly. This was a first rate speech and although he did well last year, he has made quite an improvement. His production gave evidence of thought…” Douglas’s own oration that day—May 28, 1858—was titled “Tombs of the Illustrious Dead,” and it was well received. “I never saw such an abundance of bouquets,” he wrote. “I got 12, and Mr. Tredwell even more. They came in showers.”

The few orations that survive are more interesting as samples of 19th-century writing than because they offer insights into their authors’ lives; even the poems are almost entirely impersonal. The topics are general and often grand: “Marriage,” “Justice,” “The Past Character and Recent Prospects of Pennsylvanians.” The prose is confident. …

The Goetheans, whose records are more complete, elected and received acceptance letters from John James Audubon, James Buchanan, Samuel T. Clemens, Grover Cleveland, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ulysses S. Grant, Washington Irving, Thomas Mann, Jean Sibelius, and Daniel Webster, among others. …

The museum curator noted the acquisition of a tortoise shell, a bottled snake, a rock from “a cave in Minnesota territory,” and “a specimen of peacock coal, beautifully colored.” The curator added that Professor Agassiz, as yet, has given us no information concerning the gar-fishes he borrowed from us several years ago.” The corresponding secretary, the curator added, had written to the professor “in a style not to be mistaken.”

The literary societies at F&M outlived most, remaining active into the 1950s. Like societies at Davidson College and Princeton University, they left behind handsome halls that still carry their names, perhaps reminding current students of the charge with Edmund Eck opened an oration titled “Who Are College Students?” It begins beautifully: “We are the embryo of stars, in the process of development, which are to illuminate the dark world when those before us have disappeared.”

This caught my attention because of Penn State’s experience with the Washington and Cresson Literary Societies. These were forerunners of both Penn State’s fraternity and sorority systems, and Penn State’s library, and much like Franklin & Marshall’s societies these provided the basis for bringing many young people together to form a critical and “unplanned” part of their collegiate experience.

We’re better people when we’re there

Gracy Olmstead writes:

In his latest book The Art of Loading Brush, Wendell Berry talks about the intuitive aspects of agrarianism: that there are many things agrarians do and uphold not for specific scientific reasons, but because they know in their bones that it’s “best.”

“I think that agrarianism had, and where it survives it still has, a sort of summary existence as a feeling—an instinct, an excitement, a passion, a tenderness—for the living earth and its creatures,” he writes in his introduction.

Chuck Marohn highlighted this same intuitive genius in ancient urban planning during his most recent podcast for Strong Towns. As a history lover and engineer, Marohn has observed patterns in urban planning that have been passed down through millennia, patterns that built a deep logic and beauty into the places they sculpted. “Human habitat is pretty ordinary,” he notes. “We need certain things, and those’ll be within a certain distance of each other. Buildings will be arranged in certain ways and will have certain attributes, because it makes places safer, and it makes places more social. It has all this ‘spooky wisdom’ built into it.”

“Spooky wisdom” is the term Marohn employs: “the idea in quantum mechanics, at least as it’s developed today, is that we know these things work—but we really don’t know why.” “We write equations out of our understanding of quantum mechanics,” he explains, “we can test those equations, they test out true—so clearly we’re onto something—but we don’t know why it works. … And what I’m suggesting is that the more I have studied and looked at human development patterns pre-modernity, the more I just find spooky wisdom. Things that work, and I can’t really explain or understand why.”

For millennia, humans have followed specific patterns passed down by their forbears without always knowing why. This is the essence of culture: the layers of belief and precedent, ritual and intuition that guide societal life and practice. As Maurice Telleen once put it, “A funny thing about cultures is that they produce people who understand more than they know. Sort of like osmosis.”

A great deal of the 20th century was an attempt to shape a new sort of civilization with our new technologies. Going from steam to electrification to automobiles to flight to atomic energy brought incredible transformations, but our ability to live differently on a human level (that is, on the level of our homes and neighborhoods and communities) hasn’t turned out to be as malleable as many of our economic and technological conventions.

There’s a reason that people in New York intuitively sought to protect the West Village (and pay incredible premiums to live there), and why the attempts at “urban renewal” that replaced West Village-esque neighborhoods with drab apartment blocks have been largely rejected. It’s not just the aesthetics of places like the West Village that make them beautiful, but it’s the whole way of life that those neighborhoods make possible that makes life worth living there.

Greenwich Village may once have been host to New York’s avant garde, but its longevity and conservation are testaments to the best sort of conservative spirit in every heart that says something like, “Yes, this place feels right.”