The Human Scale

by George Santayana (1922)

Great buildings often have great doors; but great doors are heavy to swing, and if left open they may let in too much cold or glare; so that we sometimes observe a small postern cut into one leaf of the large door for more convenient entrance and exit, and it is seldom or never that the monumental gates yawn in their somnolence. Here is the modest human scale reasserting itself in the midst of a titanic structure, but it reasserts itself with an ill grace and in the interests of frailty; the patch it makes seems unintended and ignominious.

Yet the human scale is not essentially petty; when it does not slip in as a sort of interloper it has nothing to apologize for. Between the infinite and the infinitesimal all sizes are equally central. The Greeks, the Saracens, the English, the Chinese, and Japanese instinctively retain the human scale in all that part of their work which is most characteristic of them and nearest to their affections. A Greek temple or the hall of an English mansion can be spacious and dignified enough, but they do not outrun familiar uses, and they lend their spaciousness and dignity to the mind, instead of crushing it. Everything about them has an air of friendliness and sufficiency; their elegance is not pompous, and if they are noble they are certainly not vast, cold, nor gilded.

The Saracens, Chinese, and Japanese in their various ways use the human scale with even greater refinement, for they apply it also in a sensuous and psychological direction. Not only is the size of their works moderate by preference, like their brief lyrics, but they exactly meet human sensibility by a great delicacy and concentration in design and a fragrant simplicity in workmanship. Everything they make is economical in its beauty and seems to say to us: "I exist only to be enjoyed; there is nothing in me not merely delightful," Here the human scale is not drawn from the human body so much as from the human soul; its faculties are treated with deference — I mean the faculties it really has, not those, like reason, which a flattering philosophy may impute to it.

An English country house which is a cottage in appearance may turn out on examination to be almost a palace in extent and appointments; there is no parade, yet there is great profusion — too much furniture, too many ornaments, too much food, too many flowers, too many people. Everything there is on the human scale except the quantity of things, which is oppressive. The Orientals are poorer, more voluptuous, and more sensitive to calligraphy; they leave empty spaces about them and enjoy one thing at a time and enjoy it longer.

One reason for this greater subtlety and mercifulness in the art of Orientals is perhaps the fiercer assault made on their senses by nature. The Englishman lives in a country which is itself on the human scale, clement at all seasons, charming with a gently inconstant atmospheric charm. The rare humanity of nature in his island permeates his being from boyhood up with a delight that is half sentimental, half physical and sporting. In his fields and moors he grows keen and fond of exertion; there too his friendships and his estimates of men are shaped unawares, as if under some silent superior influence. There he imbibes the impressions that make him tender to poetry. He may not require great subtlety in his poets, but he insists that their sentiment shall have been felt and their images seen, and while the obvious, even the shamelessly obvious, does not irritate him, he hates cheap sublimity and false notes. He respects experience and is master of it in his own field.

Thus the empty spaces with which a delicate art likes to surround itself are supplied for the Englishman by his comradeship with nature, his ranging habits, and the reticence of his imagination. There the unexpressed dimension, the background of pregnant silence, exists for him in all its power. For the Saracen, on the contrary, nature is an abyss: parched deserts, hard mountains, night with its overwhelming moon. Here the human scale is altogether transgressed; nature is cruel, alien, excessive, to be fled from with a veiled face. For a relief and solace he builds his house without windows; he makes his life simple, his religion a single phrase, his art exquisite and slight, like the jet of his fountain. It is sweet and necessary that the works of man should respect the human scale when everything in nature so infinitely transcends it.

Why the Egyptians loved things colossal I do not know, but the taste of the Romans for the grandiose is easier to understand. It seems to have been part and parcel of that yearning for the super-human which filled late antiquity. This yearning took two distinct directions. Among the worldly it fostered imperialism, organization, rhetoric, portentous works, belief in the universality and eternity of Rome, and actual deification of emperors. Among the spiritually-minded it led to a violent abstraction from the world, so that the soul in its inward solitude might feel itself inviolate and divine. The Christians at first belonged of course to the latter party; they detested the inflation of the empire, with its cold veneer of marble and of optimism; they were nothing if not humble and dead to the world. Their catacombs were perforce on the human scale, as a coffin is; but even when they emerged to the surface, they reduced rather than enlarged the temples and basilicas bequeathed to them by the pagans. Apart from a few imperial structures at Constantinople or Ravenna their churches for a thousand years kept to the human scale; often they were diminutive; when necessary they were spread out to hold multitudes, but remained low and in the nature of avenues to a tomb or a shrine. The centre was some sombre precinct, often subterranean, where the inward man might commune with the other world. The sacraments were received with a bowed head; they did not call for architectural vistas. The sumptuousness that in time encrusted these sanctuaries was that of a jewel — the Oriental, interior, concentrated sumptuousness of the cloistered arts. Yet the open-air pagan tradition was not dead. Roman works were everywhere, and not all in ruins, and love of display and of plastic grandiloquence lay hardly dormant in the breast of many. It required only a little prosperity to dispel the mystical humility and detachment which Christianity had brought with it at first; and the human scale of the Christian Greeks yielded at the first opportunity to the gigantic scale of the Romans. Spaces were cleared, vaults were raised, arches were made pointed in order that they might be wider and be poised higher, towers and spires were aimed at the clouds, usually getting only half way, porches became immense caverns. Brunelleschi accomplished a tour de force in his dome and Michelangelo another in his, even more stupendous. These various strained models, straining in divergent directions, have kept artists uneasy and impotent ever since, except when under some benign influence they have recovered the human scale, and in domestic architecture or portrait painting have forgotten to be grand and have become felicitous.

The same movement is perhaps easier to survey in philosophy than in architecture. Scarcely had Socrates brought investigation down from the heavens and limited it to morals — a realm essentially on the human scale — when his pupils hastened to undo his work by projecting their moral system again into the sky, denaturalizing both morals and nature. They imagined a universe circling about man, tempering the light for his eyes and making absolute his childlike wishes and judgements. This was humanism out of scale and out of place, an attempt to cut not the works of man but the universe to human measure. It was the nemesis that overtook the Greeks for having become too complacently human. Earlier the monstrous had played a great part in their religion; henceforth that surrounding immensity having been falsely humanized, their modest humanity itself had to be made monstrous to fill its place.

Hence we see the temples growing larger and larger, the dome introduced, things on the human scale piled on one another to make a sublime fabric, like Saint Sophia, triumphal arches on pedestals not to be passed through, vain columns like towers, with a statue poised on the summit like a weathercock, and finally doors so large that they could not be opened and little doors had to be cut in them for men to use. So the human scale turned up again irrepressibly, but for the moment without its native dignity, because it had been stretched to compass a lifeless dignity quite other than its own.

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