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Metropolis Meh: Georg Simmel Gives Insight to the Rise of the Blasé ‘Nones’

March 15, 2022


“Blasé” best describes a psychic attitude and outlook prevalent in many wealthy metropolises, and realizing that is key to understanding some of the factors, like nihilism, contributing to the rise of the “nones,” i.e., the religiously unaffiliated

The metropolitan blasé attitude was described by Georg Simmel in his famous 1903 lecture “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” He defines this attitude as “an indifference toward the distinction between things. Not in the sense that they are not perceived, as in the case of mental dullness, but rather that the meaning and the value of the distinctions between things, and therewith of the things themselves, are experienced as meaningless” [emphasis added]. He continues that things of value appear to the blasé person in a “homogeneous, flat and gray color with no one of them worthy of being preferred to another.” 

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For Simmel, this attitude or outlook is connected to the “impersonality” of the modern city, and not of rural life. He finds in it a physiological source as “the consequence of those rapidly shifting stimulations of the nerves . . . to their utmost reactivity until they finally can no longer produce any reaction at all.” This brings to mind the excess stimulation of the metropolis. And I think this can be extended to everyone now experiencing the Internet, even in rural places, with its overwhelming stimulation—from the 24/7 news cycle and social media to pornography and video games. But Simmel also finds the blasé to be “the correct subjective reflection of a complete money economy to the extent that money takes the place of all the manifoldness of things and expresses all qualitative distinctions between them in the distinction of ‘how much.’” Simmel later calls money “the frightful leveler” because “it hollows out the core of things, their peculiarities, their specific values and their uniqueness and incomparability in a way which is beyond repair.” Perhaps nihilism is another term for this, contributing to the triviality with which many people treat ultimate questions of life today and perhaps even the decline in religious affiliation.

We construct individual identities in the hope that we will stand out from the crowd and be loved and admired.

Apathetic, bored, and tired, often with too much money to spend—and a seemingly infinite variety of choices and ways to avoid silence and prayer—many of us cosmopolitans endlessly seek ever-new stimulations to escape the feeling of valuelessness that metropolitan life, as Simmel sees it, encourages. In reaction, we construct individual identities in the hope that we will stand out from the crowd and be loved and admired. 

Yet this exhausts our nerves, and no new titillation can help us escape the sadness. It’s as if we are living in a concrete bunker with nothing beyond ourselves. It is a culture of death. 

I have always been averse to using sociological labels like the “nones” to describe a large swath of the religiously unaffiliated. Each “none” has vastly different reasons for being unaffiliated, and to put them into a box seems to me to contribute to the depersonalization that has given rise to such a phenomenon. Additionally, in a world that seems like it would actively discourage us from asking the deeper questions of life, where there are religions that keep people affiliated by way of threats, or shame, or promises of prosperity, having no religious affiliation makes some sense to me. But I don’t like the label. It can make people think that there is a secular human type who is, by choice, not just unaffiliated with a religious organization but willfully non-religious and totally indifferent to the promptings of the divine. This is a myth. There is no escape from the drama (or the struggle) with the divine. It is essential to being a person. However, the label is helpful to generally understand ourselves and why certain social and economic conditions, forms of life, or ways of thinking have contributed to the depersonalization in society that so often expresses itself in religious disaffiliation. Simmel’s essay, while a century old, is a great contribution to understanding this condition today. 

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The blasé outlook is also captured by Andre in My Dinner With AndreI encourage you to rewatch that movie, perhaps with a shot of caffeine on hand—when he describes metropolitan life as something like a concentration camp, an artificial world that we have all prided ourselves on building but none of us like; a world that diminishes our humanity. But Andre’s admiration for the community at Findforn, a little pocket of life, should catch our attention. Andre describes it as a seed of a new culture with a new form of life animated by an encounter with the eternal “Thou” who gives life meaning and transforms a bleak outlook on life into one of joy and hope (Gaudium et Spes). As my friend Michael Ward has suggested to me on Facebook, Andre has laid out an essential purpose for the Church over the coming century. It may seem like the Benedict Option, which I don’t see as a necessarily bad thing.  

While Simmel’s analysis is very helpful, I think we can go deeper. I believe a misunderstanding and break from the Church has exacerbated the conditions for something like the blasé outlook on life to flourish. The Church in the West has been popularly understood, for the last several centuries, as mainly a voluntary association, and not as the visible sacramental communion rooted in the divine mystery of the Trinitarian God. Additionally, the natural world has been understood in merely quantitative terms and not qualitatively and essentially as creation—that is, as being from and for God. The Church showed the world its inherent connection to God, and without this robust understanding of the Church the world became secularized. This has given rise to a depersonalized society that has contributed to the rise of something like the “nones.” 

A bit of empathy will help us see that there is much more going on.

When discussing the “nones,” we sometimes present their rising numbers as a moral failure on their behalf. Repugnance to God and never wanting him to be the Lord of all, especially of our lives, is real for us sinners, as is knowing that we must change things about ourselves and our lives. We resist this. But a bit of empathy will help us see that there is much more going on. As someone who often experiences the metropolitan melancholia, often turning to the easy entertainment my numerous devices provide (and not to prayer) for peace of mind, I do sympathize with the indifferent attitude many people have toward religion. We are born and raised to serve the money economy that, I believe, Simmel rightly sees as contributing to such a psychic mood. 

I live in Dallas, part of the larger “concrete bunker” of the DFW metroplex. And while there are islands of nature throughout this space, most of it is occupied by concrete that has helped build a metropolis that is an efficient seat of commerce. There’s not much to do here beyond shopping and going to restaurants, neither of which attract me. Nature is far away, and so other than hearing the occasional bird song, there is not much opportunity to fling open the windows of the bunker and finally see the world as a beautifully complex order pointing to the divine. 

Perhaps I am just too cynical, but I cannot help but “feel the meh”—the blasé mood that I believe is partially contributing to the rise of the “nones.” And so, I return to my copy of Simmel’s essays, seeking to understand the psychic condition I find myself and so many others to seem stuck in. Maybe I should just go off into the Polish woods like Andre and experience a world beyond the bunker.