In Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom, there is a fairy tale called “The Giant and the Mite.” It is the story of something so big that it cannot be comprehended—and of something too small to be comprehended.
The size of the Giant was the first problem:
There was once a Giant who was too big to be seen. As he walked about, the space between his legs was so great that nobody could see as far as from one side to the other, and his head was so high in the sky that nobody’s eyes were strong enough to see the top of him. Not being able to take him in all at once, nobody therefore knew that the giant existed.
Then there was the problem of the size of the Mite:
At the same time, there was a Mite who was too small to be seen …. A grain of sand was like a mountain to him, and it would have taken him longer than his whole life to walk across a sixpence. So you can fancy what a tiny bit he moved day to day from the spot where he was born. But he himself never knew this….
Western civilization is like the Giant: It is too big to be seen. It is such a great, universal, all-encompassing thing that to try to step out of it and look back on it objectively is, practically speaking, impossible. It is the air we breathe, the intellectual food we eat; it is everything we aspire to, and everything we fear. It is all we know and all we don’t know. It is the culture we took in with our mother’s milk and took for granted until we became conscious of its existence at all.
“The universe,” says G. K. Chesterton, “is the supreme example of a thing that is too obvious to be seen.” In a sense, Western civilization is our universe.
Those who would criticize this cultural heritage (it is “racist,” it is “sexist,” it is this or that) think they somehow stand outside it—over and above it in some position from which they can see all its contours and consequences. But they are living in the imperceptible shadow of the Western giant, mites too small to apprehend it.
They think they have, to borrow a term from the philosopher Thomas Nagel, a “view from nowhere.” But, as Nagel himself points out, such a perspective does not exist.
Anyone who pretends to rationally criticize Western civilization must take his place inside it, since Western civilization is the birthplace of reason and criticism as we know it. The very acts of reason and criticism, in other words, are Western impulses.
We can only criticize the West from the inside.
The rest of Farjeon’s story cannot bear the full weight of my analogy. She uses it to make a completely different point. Still, the figures of the Giant and the Mite perfectly illustrate our plight: As mites, the Western giant is hard to see.
So what do we do, we mites, in the cause of understanding the giant whose shadow is cast over everything we say and do?
When we look at the list of the great works of the West, it is hard not to despair. To be well-versed in even a small handful of them is a challenge that can take a lifetime of study.
Thomas Aquinas once said, “The slightest knowledge of the greatest things is greater than the greatest knowledge of the slightest things.”
As modern people, we spend so much of our time on trivialities. What if we began spending our time on a few great things? This is the idea behind classical Christian education: to focus on the greatest thoughts, actions, and aspirations of a few great men and women.
No one has ever fully encompassed the Western tradition, not even the greatest of Western thinkers. But the best of them have learned the most important things. We can at least do this.
It is all a mite can do.