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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Freedom and the City
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.