On Simmel’s Metropolis and Mental Life

Metropolis and Mental Life is a 1903 essay written by sociologist Georg Simmel. This short essay is a general summary/elucidation of that essay.


Simmel categorizes life in the metropolis as one of personal freedom, but he also realizes the consequences of that freedom - that it comes at a negative emotional cost. His argument can be reduced into an overarching social and physiological component.

The social component consists of a freeing from the historical moral and economical bonds demanded from them by state and religion.§ This is an affordance of the metropolis. The result of the functional specialization of man - is that it “makes each man the more directly dependent upon the supplementary activities of all others.”§ While each individual can ‘choose’ their functional specialization - thus, having more personal freedom, freedom here ascribed as choice. 

Simmel recognizes that a capitalistic (or ‘money economy’) system has developed within the metropolis and is what causes social friction.§ Now, a massive change has “transformed the struggle with nature for livelihood into an inter-human struggle for gain.”§ The mounting pressure to produce, to sell one’s labor, and simultaneously “meet the difficulty of asserting his personality within the dimensions of metropolitan life,” is emotionally taxing.§ Simultaneously, there is a physiological component that the metropolis brings out, or rather, exacerbates as compared to country or rural life. The “tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational, and social life” is heightened, the “sensory foundations” are deeply contrasted with “small town and rural life.”§

This unmatched tempo of new and usually overwhelming metropolitan stimuli is the physiological basis of the blasé attitude, characterized by a “life in boundless pursuit” as it “agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally cease to react at all.”§ This overstimulation is not emotionally comfortable, even though it might be desired and pursued. The blasé attitude blunts discrimination and makes money “with all its colorlessness and indifference,” the common ruler which “hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability.”§ When the money economy becomes a priority, the value of the social component - as described above - also begins to shift, and act “directly as dissociation [but is] in reality only one of its elemental forms of socialization.”§

Thus, while one can divide Simmel’s argument into its physiological and social components from which emotional states of discomfort arise, one realizes that they are reciprocally determined. The freedom of the money economy allows the pursuit of one’s passions but forces one to work harder to survive, causing stress which is exacerbated by the metropolis. 


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