Freedom and the City

By Anderson, Brian C. | The American Spectator, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Freedom and the City

Anderson, Brian C., The American Spectator

There would be no West without both.

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 rational 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. …

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