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From All Things Are Too Small, which will be published next month by Metropolitan Books.

“All things / are too small,” begins a poem believed to be written by the thirteenth-century Dutch mystic Hadewijch of Brabant. She goes on—“to hold me”—but she did not have to. All things are too small—not just to hold me, but to hold anything. Cups are too small, which is why they demand such relentless refilling. Bodies are too small to encompass more than a sole inhabitant, except in rare cases of mysticism or possession (or the more familiar but no less astounding case of pregnancy). Books can be big—most of the best ones are—yet even the most encyclopedic affairs are too small to encompass the whole of the world’s wild machinery. Moby-Dick can’t reach its arms around a whale—although Herman Melville aims, as James Wood writes, to touch every last word. I once saw a man in a restaurant finish his pasta, order the same dish again, eat it, then order and finish it a third time. His was the sanest response to his predicament, but he wouldn’t have had to grasp at such exorbitance if any plate available were big enough.

Plates, cups, books, bodies, and all the rest are too small, not contingently, but constitutionally. To want something with sufficient fervor is to want it beyond the possibility of ever getting enough. Is it this longing, phenomenologically keen enough to strike some of us as fact, that has led religious thinkers to posit the existence of eternity, the logic being that we seem to need it? Desire is as good a guide to truth as anything else, but until eternity arrives, we will have to find somewhere to fit our appetites.

One way to proceed is to shrink them—first by making concessions to smallness, then by framing contraction as wisdom or virtue. This is the minimalist tack, and these days, it is on the rise. We are inundated with exhortations to smallness: short sentences stitched into short books, professional declutterers who tell us to trash our possessions, meditation “practices” that promise to clear the mind of thought and other detritus, and nostalgic campaigns for sexual restraint. These adventures in parsimony each make their own particular mistakes, but they also share a central failing. There is nothing admirable in laboring to love a world as unlike heaven as possible. All things are too small, but some things are less small than others. Even if paucity is inevitable, we can still fight emptiness with fullness. Better to order the third plate of pasta. Better to graze each word once.

Material deprivation is an especially stupid sort of smallness. It is unnecessary, for it can be ameliorated by common-sense political reforms, and it is especially abominable because it is anathema to the excess that defines our age. As Karl Marx writes, we are distinguished from animals insofar as our wants extend beyond our needs: an animal “produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need,” but “man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.” By Marx’s lights, a full-fledged person lives not only in accordance with the imperative for survival but also “in accordance with the laws of beauty.” Early capitalism and its disciplinary concomitant, the then-nascent field of political economy, understood workers not as people, with a craving for vastness, but as animals, who aspire to nothing more ornate than subsistence. Marx lambastes his contemporaries for truncating the worker, regarding her as “a beast reduced to the strictest bodily needs.” He echoes his predecessor, the Romantic Friedrich Schiller, who lamented,

Art is a daughter of freedom, responding not to the demands of matter, but to the necessity in our minds. For the present, need prevails, and bends a sunken humanity to its tyrannical yoke. Utility is the great idol of the age, to which all powers are in thrall and all talent must pay homage. On this crude scale the spiritual virtues of art have no weight and, bereft of all encouragement, it disappears from the tumultuous market of our century.

We have not evolved greatly beyond these obstacles. Most of us still spend our days scheming to survive, and even those of us fortunate enough to cogitate or make art for a living are rarely at liberty to form things “in accordance with the laws of beauty.”

In concrete terms, material security would free us to devote ourselves to more than subsistence. Only when we have managed our daily acts of bodily housekeeping, only when the dishes are done and the bread is won, do we have time and energy for the improvidence of art—and only when we are assured of obtaining the means of survival can we create oddities that the market may not reward. Economic justice is a prerequisite for humanity because it is a prerequisite for the pursuit of superfluity. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” writes W. H. Auden. Instead, it “survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” It cannot be eaten or worn, lived in or wielded as a cudgel. As Edna St. Vincent Millay writes of an equally useless good, love, it is “not meat nor drink / Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain; Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink / And rise and sink and rise and sink again.” Millay knows it would be more practical to trade the memory of love for food. Still, she concludes, “I do not think I would.”

I do not think I would, either, although I often worry that someday I may have to. The measure of a society’s stage of moral sophistication is how infrequently it requires us to trade gratuities like love and poetry for food. By this standard, our own form of life has not advanced very far.

Economic justice is a prerequisite for excess, but it is not itself excessive. Most egalitarian economic models promise each citizen as much as she is owed and no more. Glut is regarded with suspicion, and the few surpluses that are permitted must be rigorously justified. In John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, we are repeatedly reminded that the only inequalities of goods and privileges that we can countenance are those that benefit the least advantaged members of society. We can pay a neuroscientist more than a teacher only if doing so is in the interest of the most beleaguered demographic. What this boils down to, at least in my understanding, is that we probably cannot justify paying neuroscientists much more than teachers at all.

“The difference principle,” as this imperative is titled, may seem impossibly demanding. How could we ever allocate everything in accordance with such a rigid metric? Must we esteem everyone to the same degree, or judge each artwork equally beautiful, unless conferring disproportionate accolades benefits the least advantaged? Luckily, in the ideal polity Rawls envisions, principles of economic justice apply only to public institutions. We are taxed with an eye to promoting equality, but we are allowed to love or loathe without reference to fairness. Proportion organizes the socioeconomic order, but emotion reigns supreme and anarchic in our private lives. Here, we are licensed to discriminate in both senses of the word, exercising aesthetic judgment so as to declare some works better than others, rejecting prospective friends and lovers for no good reason at all.

This distinction is what keeps Rawls’s view from lapsing into inhumanity. Institutions can be called upon to refrain from indulging their biases, but even the most uncompromising political egalitarian understands that nepotism is a requirement of the heart. In a world of absolute equality, there would be no place left for derangements of disproportion. That is, there would be no place for the enchantments of maximalism—for encyclopedic novels of exorbitant length, for stylistic effusions, for camp confectionery. And of course there would be no place for love, which is nothing more or less than favoritism par excellence.

In a way, interpersonal inequality is the point of economic equality. Justice (which, for Rawls, involves stringent egalitarianism) is a virtue of social institutions—meaning it is not a virtue of other sorts of things, just as truth is a virtue of systems of thought but certainly not of fictions. In particular, justice is not a virtue of romantic relationships, or aesthetic culture, or interior decor, none of which admit of equalization. Another way to put this point is by way of analogy with liberalism, by which I do not mean the ideology associated with free-market economics, but rather the political philosophy according to which the state should remain neutral between different conceptions of the good life. A properly liberal government affords its citizens the means to realize their visions but does not foist any particular vision on them. The reason it refrains from doing so is not so that people can emulate its neutrality, like so many liberal governments in miniature, but so that they can go on to form communities in keeping with their own values. Just as the point of state neutrality is personal non-neutrality, the point of political egalitarianism is interpersonal disproportion. By fulfilling our basic needs, economic justice allows us to pass beyond exigency and into the more exciting territory of want, glut, and extravagance.

And while economic equality is a precondition of successful intimacy and successful artistry, intimacy and artistry both yield hierarchy. We probably could not succeed in loving everyone or esteeming every work of art even if we tried our hardest, but more to the point, interpersonal and aesthetic egalitarianism would be wretched: the kind of creatures for whom love and art mean anything at all are the kind with biases and aversions.

All things are too small because each of us can only be one paltry person at a time. Thus there is no end of things we are not: we are not a plate of pasta or a whale or every word in the English language or, most painfully, each other. “They are trying to become one creature, / and something will not have it,” writes one of those peddlers of futilities, a poet, about a couple in the throes of passion. That we cannot be each other, that we cannot be what we consume, that we cannot be the whole world and can never even ascend high enough to see all of it at once—all this is a source of disappointment, even torment, to anyone ravenous for life.

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