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The Metropolis and Mental Life

Updated: Mar 30

Photograph by Dan Roizer

In 1903, the German sociologist Georg Simmel published an essay called "The Metropolis and Mental Life." It was 2017 when I first came upon it, and I was a 27-year-old student at the University of London. It impressed me deeply and it influenced me.

At the time, I was studying while working full-time, so I had very little time for social interactions, let alone leisure and fun. It was this state of mind that perhaps drew me much more emphatically towards those ideas expressed more than a century earlier. Simmel had most probably based his opinions on his own experience of life in Germany, yet I could perfectly identify with the feelings and thoughts that his text diffused—even though I was in another time and place.

I had already moved from a small town in the hills of central Italy to a much bigger city, Milan, when I was nineteen. This time, I had been living in London—a true metropolis—for four years, having moved there at the age of twenty-three. As soon my eyes started scanning those characters, conjuncting them together into wider concepts as the author had intended, I suddenly knew that my very own experience was being described by those words.

The idea that in a metropolis, where you are surrounded by millions of people, one might feel more alone than anywhere else, is as frightening a thought as it is realistic. In large cities, people lead busy, industrious lives that leave little or no chance for idleness and human reflection. Most of the time, your brain is busy thinking where you are going to get to next and how you are going to get there. I used to walk over Waterloo Bridge every morning during rush hour, and I vividly remember that uncanny feeling that the experience of finding myself overtaking other people gave me. We were all literally marching, and it felt more like driving down the highway rather than walking to work. We do not need to look at a distant future where robots will be our masters: we already embody that type of life, we ourselves are the robots in many a big city.

Rural—or small-town—life, on the other hand, is directly connected to our hearts, according to Simmel. It is a question of quality over quantity. Of love and human interaction over money. If in the big city it is our brain to be continually stimulated, caught up in constant races and competitions, calculating the best possible way to achieve material objectives, the rural world makes us more of a community, and leads us to sharing and loving more openly. It also gives us the chance, I find, to think better. Any time I go back to my hometown, I notice this. The brain is calmer, the body is relaxed, and thoughts and feelings of a deeper nature—related to the spiritual aspect of our life rather than the rational one—open up. This is precisely why, after five years, I felt the urge to leave London, a city that I absolutely adore and would go back to infinite times. I felt I was slowly sliding towards an unconscious mechanization of my being, becoming less human with every passing day. The realization of this made me want to get my true nature back at all costs, before perhaps losing it for good. This is why, living now in a smaller city, which is almost classified as a town, I feel much more in tune with myself.

Metropolises have their positive aspects though. When one is young, one often feels the need to escape. A metropolis, at that stage of your life, is perhaps the only place that gives you the chance to come out, explore both yourself and the world as freely as you possibly can. For if in a small town everybody knows each other and gossips about each other constantly, in the metropolis nobody knows you, and there’s a freedom in that. I felt it, during my years in London, and I very much appreciated it. A metropolis will also give way to your ambition: it is here that people’s careers take off and sky-high. Nowhere else could you realize your dreams and aspirations as quickly as you may in a big city, where opportunities and chances move at their fastest.

In spite of my own feelings and of the point of view that Simmel’s words enlightened my mind with, I do believe that a happy life is possible even in a metropolis. There are people who are able to get a good job, one that they love, and create a circle of friends and relationships that make them feel at home. In such circumstances, life is good, no matter where you live. So, I think it is only a matter of personal preferences and dispositions. Some people love a fast, busy life, and love competition; other people are more tranquil and relaxed and cherish a slower pace of life—such as the one that Latin-American countries or countries in the far East may offer. In the end, understanding ourselves is all that matters, for that is the absolute starting point towards the building of a good, healthy life.


Edoardo is an Italian native and has lived and studied both in Italy and abroad. He graduated with a B.A. in Modern Languages and Economics from the University of Milan and with an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of London. He now lives and works in the city of Bologna.

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