On Cities and Community

I presume to believe that I am not alone among traditionalists and conservatives in having a distaste for the modern city. Not only are they dirty, loud, obnoxious, crime-ridden, vice-infested, and often have the sanitary rating of a septic tank, but they tend to be places that bring out the worst in their residents. The larger the city, the worse they seem to be. It is almost as if cities act as focal lenses for the innate sinful nature of mankind, taking it and amplifying it synergistically whenever huge numbers of people are aggregated together in such close proximity.

Yet, as a classically-minded student of Western history and civilization (I would classify myself as a “Neo-Ciceronian” if I absolutely had to identify with an “ideology”), I find this view to be at odds with how our forbearers thought of cities.

For instance, in his oft-quoted but ill-translated dictum, Aristotle said that “man is a political animal.” This translation is unfortunate because it gives the modern observer, especially Americans who are often and unfortunately ignorant of classical thought, an incorrect sense of what Aristotle meant. He did not mean that man is at his fullest when he’s arguing about abortion on an internet forum or voting for which candidate from the Republicrat Party will (mis)represent him in Congress. A more correct translation of Aristotle’s statement would be that “man is a creature of the polis.” The polis, often called the “city-state,” was the focal point of classical Greek life. As such, it was more than just a location in which people aggregated to live their separate lives. Instead, the polis was a living, breathing organism. It was a community in which man not only lived his private life, but in which he was practically compelled to lead a public existence as well. In classical Greece, a man who refused public participation and led an exclusively private life was looked down upon. He was an idios, from which we derive our own term “idiot.” People who did not have a poleis culture, which included many of the peoples that the Greeks thought of as barbarians, and even rustic Greeks like the Thessalians, were viewed as being malformed and incomplete.

The Romans had a similar view of things. Cicero (and surely his opinion must count for a lot!) lauded cities as beneficial and fulfilling for mankind, for much the same reasons as did Aristotle and other Greek thinkers. To be a citizen of a city of free men (municipia) made you a fuller person than the rustic provincial non-entity. And ultimately, this was why the highest aspiration for the upward-mover in the Empire was to be able to participate in the legal fiction of being a citizen of the city of Rome, even if one never actually laid eyes on it during one’s lifetime.

This dichotomy in my own mind – a distaste for the cities I see around me, but the reverence for “the city” in our classical heritage – has gnawed at the back of my mind for quite a while. But then the resolution of these contradictory impulses came to me. The difference between the two lies in their differing aspects of “community”, the one being based upon our Traditional sense of community and identity, the other being directly opposed to it.

As should be inferred from the comments above, classically-speaking, cities were not simply large aggregations of people. They were viewed as communities. They shared a commonality not only of culture and language and religion, but of purpose and direction and will. Or at least that was the idealized view of them, even if ancient cities departed from this to varying degrees in practice. What one person did for the community affected everyone else. The heroes like Pericles provided benefits to all the citizens of Athens. The traitors like Alcibiades caused great harm to them all.

As Jeff Culbreath said (even if in a bit different context), “The nature of tradition is that it is lived in community.” Traditional life requires community because that is what allows individuals to live together without resorting to become wards of the external state or becoming competing elements within a society that only serve to rip it apart from the inside out. Community is what allows the family to prosper. Community engenders bonds of loyalty, purpose, and reciprocity. Community is what allows society to enjoin the “gentle persuasion” of stigma and social pressure against those who deviate too grossly from traditional modes and patterns, instead of using the “violent persuasion” of the force and power of the state. Community is what allows each member to work with and persuade others towards a common end without falling either into dictatorship of ochlocracy. It is not surprising that the most successful genuine republics (among which the United States would not be included, for we ceased to be a genuine republic by 1865) have been those with a strong sense of community and common purpose.

It is exactly this that is missing from the modern American city. Think about what our cities are today, even the relatively well-functioning ones. They are simple aggregations of large numbers of people who are yet largely disconnected from each other. The people of Boston or San Francisco or Atlanta have no commonality of purpose. They have no unspoken yet very real bonds of loyalty and affection uniting them. They are the very essence of the idiotes of classical Greece, men and women whose sole loyalties are to themselves and their immediate families and the instant gratification of their desires, with no thought of their communities as a whole. Even in cases where ethnic enclaves may exist which create a small semblance of community, this extends only so far as the ethnic boundaries lay – they certainly do not unite these cities into “political” wholes in the Aristotlean sense.

As such, it is little surprise that such cities are riven with crime (after all, you don’t rob or murder people you feel bonds of love and loyalty toward). No wonder these cities need the heavy hands of militarized police to keep their denizens in check. Are we surprised that they’re dens of iniquity and vice, when there are no social pressures from any community of Tradition to govern the baser impulses of these people?

How did this aberrant style of city come about? It occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the social upheavals in labor and the movement of populations from the countryside to the cities that happened as a result. People left their traditional communities – places where their grandparents had lived where their grandparents had lived – to become atomized cogs in the industrial machinery that drove the rise of automated, bank-financed corporatism. Cities in the classical era and the Middle Ages existed, and many were quite large, but within them, everyone who was not a criminal or an outcast had a place of dignity and relevance and respect and worth. In the industrial city, man became an expendable gear; if one breaks, replace him with another one who just floated in from the countryside. Ultimately, the problem is not the advance of the technology itself, but of the failure of social man to guard against the commoditization of human beings in a way that never could and never did occur in traditional society.

The question then is, what can we do about this, if anything? Really, there’s nothing we could do about the state of our cities, short of nuking them and starting over. But as Traditionalists, we can seek to regenerate outlets for traditional society within the machine, at a demotic level. Start with the family, not just the nuclear, but the extended family. Work to create a sense of community with your neighbors. Seek to drive toward common purpose with those of a common culture. Build this around the churches, which in addition to meeting the spiritual needs of the people, have also served the practical roles of transmitters of social purpose and organizers of traditional society. Understand that, unlike what many of the libertarian “rugged individualists” may say, “community” does not mean “communism”. Community is not a dirty word. Community is the heart of our traditional culture. We can recover that culture when we recover that community. favicon