July 14, 2010 | 10 comments
“Civilization as we know it is inseparable from urban life,” wrote Friedrich Hayek in his classic study The Constitution of Liberty, and by civilization he meant the Western kind. The Austrian economist viewed the city as the source of the West’s dynamic, world-transforming science, culture, and prosperity. The “bourgeois” values of civility and urbanity are also products of the city and ultimately (though Hayek did not develop this theme) it is to the city that we owe the liberty that has been embodied in our political, spiritual, and economic institutions. Simply put, without the city, no democracy, no Christianity, no capitalism, no West.
The city’s importance in Western civilization makes its long crisis deeply troubling. In the second half of the 20th century blight, crime, and ugliness have ravaged many American and European urban areas, and have reached them all. The crisis represents, I believe, a general loss of Western self-confidence; I will explore a few of its causes and point to some welcome signs of renewal.
The word “POLITICS” Derives from “POLIS,” the Greek word for the city-state, of which Athens was the leading example. The “Greek miracle,” as Philippe Nemo describes it in his important recent book What Is the West?, was in essence political—the great philosophical and artistic achievements of the Athenians being a byproduct of their political freedom. The Greek city arose in the eighth century B.C. out of the ruins of the Mycenaean civilization, which had been based on divine kingship. Urban republics took the place of monarchy; participatory rule replaced the shadowy machinations of the royal palace. “The powers of ruling officials in the Greek City became an open, public matter,” writes Nemo—as is shown by the archaeological evidence of the Athenian agora, the public square where citizens would gather to deliberate about their communal ends.
Religion, too, surrendered to the democratic city some of its social and moral authority, which in archaic times had been absolute, unchanging, demanding complete submission. Why the agora happened when and where it did is anybody’s guess, since history records no earlier example. It does seem a kind of miracle, an irruption or mutation in the order of time. But happen it did. In the agora, noble lineage or sacred position mattered less than a man’s debating skills, especially his ability to make persuasive arguments. Because any citizen, even the lowliest, could make such arguments, a new conception of the human person emerged —a conception that has been internalized by Western civilization. As Nemo puts it, we have inherited from Greek democracy the idea of “each one as the equal of all others, before the law, subject to law, and helping to write the law.” The aristocratic virtues associated with the era of Homeric kingship were increasingly seen as excessive and violent. Moderation and reason emerged as core values of the polis.
On a deeper level, the Greeks discovered the distinction between nature and convention—between phusis and nomos. Nature transcends the human will and constitutes the deep unalterable order of things; convention, however, is man-made and therefore open to change and reform. There is a natural law, implanted in the heart of things, but the laws that govern social life are conventional; they can be debated and, if found wanting, changed. And this is the premise of politics as we in the West have known it—not submission to a law that is unquestioned and eternal, but the creation of a law of our own, by ration al deliberation and consent. In this way the “civic pillars” of modern constitutional states—the rule of man-made law, democracy and self-government, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship—were first erected. They would fall in the late Roman era, only to be rediscovered by Italian city-states, and then by modern English philosophers and statesmen. When we speak of “Athens” as central to the idea of the West, it is this philosophical architecture we have in mind. (One should not neglect in this context, however, the importance of theatrical spectacle to the Greek mind and to the Western experience. The theater creates the sense of an individual, living out the consequences of his free choices, though trapped, too, in fates beyond his control.
The absence of an Islamic theater may have something to do with the Islamists’ grim humorlessness, which reflects an inability to see themselves from outside, as we see actors in a drama.) The Greek philosophers held life in the city to be the only one that accorded with man’s nature as a “political animal,” as Aristotle famously defined him. In fact Aristotle believed the city to be as natural as the family, and prior to it in importance. It is where a “rule of life” would make citizens “good and just” and help human beings to flourish. It is also of the right size—big enough that people could act collectively and have an effect on others, but not so big that citizens could not identify with one another, or love one another as friends.
Does such an understanding retain any meaning for modern constitutional democracies? The polis was a direct democracy, whose intrusions into private lives we would find unacceptably authoritarian; today, the will of the people leads to government action primarily by way of elected representatives. Moreover, contemporary thought, whether rightly or not, no longer accepts the Greek view that certain human ends are naturally superior to others. Human interests have become ever more varied, so that the notion of a common good is ever harder to conceive. Finally, our cities are not city-states in the old sense.
They have long been subsumed by those larger sovereign bodies, nations, and many have become megacities, dwarfing in size even the largest urban centers of antiquity. The population of Athens at the height of its power, in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., was probably around 300,000, with perhaps 70,000 adult males contending in the agora—fewer than populate Staten Island, New York City’s smallest borough.
Nevertheless our cities remain in some sense moral and political communities. In his classic 1981 study, The Philosopher in the City, constitutional scholar Hadley Arkes reminded us that the policy concerns of cities unavoidably go far beyond street cleaning and traffic regulation to encompass “questions of moral judgment which are far more important for… citizens in establishing the kind of people they wish to be.” Cities answer such questions—on how to police and secure decent neighborhoods, how to educate children, how to encourage or discourage certain kinds of business, whether to tolerate victimless” crimes like prostitution, and so on—in various ways. But in America it is still often local government, not the nation as a whole, that answers those questions. Hence without republican virtues urban life as we know it will wither.
The other primal source of Western civilization also takes the shape of a city: Jerusalem, though maybe it would be more accurate to speak of Jerusalem as filtered through Rome. In his 2002 book On Two Wings, theologian Michael Novak argues that the political freedom of the Greek city would have had far less meaning without the triumph of “Jewish metaphysics.” One major dimension of that metaphysics, he explains, is the biblical “narrative of purpose and progress.” The pagan Greeks and Romans saw time as an inexorable cycle, repeating the same story again and again across millennia. By contrast, the Jews, and later the Christians, gave time a direction—a target. Time was seen as the dimension within which human liberty unfolds. It moves—though not inevitably, as reversals are certain—toward a new sacred kingdom, where love and justice will reign. Freedom matters in Jewish metaphysics, for it is what history is ultimately about: not political freedom only, as the Greeks had valued it, but inner freedom—the freedom of the will, which is (as the story of Genesis emphasizes) the foundation of the relationship between man and God.
“Liberty is the human condition established by the Bible, nearly every chapter of which turns upon the exercise of that freedom, as a wheel upon its axis,” Novak writes. “What will Adam, King David, Peter, Saul do next? Liberty is the axis of the universe, the ground of the possibility of love, human and divine.” Christianity would radicalize this emphasis on personal freedom, removing it from its communal context and extending it to all humanity. As a result, from the Confessions of St. Augustine to the novels of George Eliot and Henry James, personal liberty forms the leitmotif of Western literature. It is enshrined in our law, and especially in the common law of the English-speaking peoples, of which we in America are the great beneficiaries. It makes accountability and responsibility fundamental to all social and political relations. It has produced forms of education that encourage creativity and self-development, rather than the submissive acceptance of routines.
These days we tend to look at history in the light of progress, the implicit goal of which is liberty. This attitude comes to us not from the Greeks or the Romans, or even from the Enlightenment, but, as Novak reminds us, “via the preaching of Jesus Christ, from whom the Gentiles learned the essential outlook of the Hebrews: that the Creator gave humans a special place among all other creatures, and made them free, and endowed them with incomparable responsibility and dignity.” This metaphysical contribution of the Jews and Christians would never have shaped the history of Western civilization, however, if Christianity had not become a successful urban movement in the Roman Empire. All effective missionary movements are or swiftly become urban, because missionaries need to go where there are many potential converts. Hence St. Paul’s journeys took in major cities such as Antioch, Corinth, and Athens, and only occasionally smaller communities like Iconium and Laodicea. No record exists of Paul preaching the Gospel in the countryside, even though all but 5 percent of the Roman Empire’s population then lived in rural areas. The city collects agglomerations of people big enough to make conversion worthwhile. Several Greco-Roman urban centers in the era of early Christianity had populations in excess of 100,000, with two, Rome and Alexandria, climbing past 200,000. This allowed reformers like Paul to reach a critical mass of potential converts, producing a viable subculture at odds with the prevailing norms of religious expression.
The evidence shows that by the time of Constantine’s conversion in 312, Christians, having expanded to nine million in number, still made up only around 15 percent of the imperial population. However, almost all of them were urbanites, which greatly increased their political and communicative power. It was because their influence so far outstripped their numbers that Constantine sought the backing of the early church. The rest is history. But again: without cities, no Christendom—no West. Economic historians like Robert Lopez, and more recently, Avner Greif, have situated the birth of capitalism not, as the anti-Catholic Max Weber did, in the Protestant north of Europe and the Hanseatic League, but in the city-states of Florence, Genoa, Venice, and other northern Italian urban centers during the Middle Ages. Emerging from an entropic Europe ravaged by barbarian invasions and Muslim ferocity, where Christian monks had kept the embers of classical civilization glowing, these urban republics—the first to exist since the polis—forged an economic empire that stretched as far as England, southern Russia, the oases of the Sahara Desert, India, and China. The world had never seen its like: a commercial revolution that was, according to Lopez, “probably the greatest turning point in the history of our civilization.” This commercial revolution dissolved the old feudal system, freed serfs, and elevated a new elite, based on wealth rather than lineage or family: the bourgeoisie. A new literature and art was born; science and law, educational and cultural institutions all grew as prosperity spread. The modern ideals of liberty and equality began their long historical movement through Western institutions. The capitalist West had arrived, six centuries before the British Industrial Revolution gave modernity its current form. Lopez points to the separation of management from ownership of firms, the ceaseless effort to make firms more competitive, the expansion of credit, the accumulation of capital, the quest for profit, and various other aspects of full-blown capitalism.
As yet it all took place on a much smaller scale than would occur after the Industrial Revolution or during the rise of the global economy in the 20th century. And, as the word “bourgeois” conveys, it was an entirely urban phenomenon. But it was a decisive episode in the development of Western liberty.
What explains this commercial revolution?
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online