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The Lost City: What’s the use of cities in a world of states?

November 15th, 2019 | 13 min read

By Alan Fimister

I once quoted to my father, who is of a Marxist disposition and considers patriotism “the last refuge of scoundrels”, the famous words of Sir Walter Scott:

“Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.”

My father insisted that Scott’s censures did not fall on him because all these sentiments attached in his case to his home town for which he has – I can bear witness – a fierce love. Aristotle in Book VII of the Politics lays down criteria for the maximum size of a city which my and my father’s home town both greatly exceed.

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My father’s home town of Liverpool was founded in the thirteenth century by bad king John. In two years my city, Newcastle, will be nineteen hundred years old, founded by the emperor who tried to wipe Jerusalem from the map and, nine hundred years later, re-founded by the Duke of Normandy who would go on to liberate Jerusalem at the end of the First Crusade. 

The constitutional developments forced upon John by his barons and the eradication of the earthly Jerusalem and its reconquest in the name of its heavenly counterpart are not unconnected to the evolution of the city itself as an institution over the last two thousand years, an evolution in which the connection between the concrete and the abstract has been stretched to breaking point and perhaps beyond.

What is the city? A large concentration of homes and places of business under defined political authorities? The quintessential human community? Both? What then of those human communities that exceed the visible city in dispersal and numbers?

The use of the category of ‘city’ for the quintessential human community surely implies some deficiency in such larger social entities. Too vast for real participation and consequently demanding a principle of political unity too powerful for the maintenance of positive liberty.

The history of the res publica romana seemed to surmount the conceptual problem while confirming the practical impossibility of a true “city” stretching across provinces and continents. The religious communities and Italian communes of the middle ages preserved and the former eventually developed the structures of the ancient city to the point where they were able to operate over provinces and continents.

Then, in the thirteenth century, these structures, spurred on by the reciprocal pressures of feudalism, were transposed into the temporal order most famously in the form of the English Parliament the embodiment of the “counsel of the whole realm” (consilio totius regni) demanded by John’s Great Charter of Liberties.

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This is a magnificent achievement that has proved an immensely versatile vehicle for political stability and liberty under the rule of law. But surely something is lost in the transposition. The intensity of the political life of a city enjoying a plenitude of temporal power and composed of persons truly known to each other surely cannot be maintained through mere representation.

Perhaps if not the best of both worlds then much of the city’s excellence and all of the perfections of the dominium politicum et regale (as Sir John Fortescue described the political order of England in the fifteenth century) can be retained by leaving a substantial tranche of power and responsibility in the hands of the municipal corporations that compose the larger whole and select their representatives for parliament? 

But here another difficulty arises. These corporations were governed by the master craftsmen of their guilds not by officials elected by an indiscriminate multitude of all adults or adult males. The guilds seemed to give the lie to the ancient pagan assumption that only the leisured owners of slaves could truly govern a city but they were not universal institutions by any stretch of the imagination.

I am often surprised passing through towns of long pedigree (even my own) to see statues and monuments to apparently august figures of whom I have never heard. They were great men of the municipality and we today are so used to attributing greatness only to those who walk the national stage that their story has been lost to all but antiquarians. When I ascend the entrance stair of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne a great stature of a nineteenth century Recorder (chief judge) of the city lowers down at me and I am always ashamed that I know nothing of him. 

Reason demands that we reciprocally will the good of our neighbor for his own sake and the gospel reveals that everyman is my neighbor. The gospel famously does not license us to will the spiritual good of our neighbor and leave him to starve in the gutter. A fortiori, if participation in the life of ‘the city’ is his highest natural good I ought, all other things being equal, to will it for him. Granted that it can easily become nominal and an instrument of oligarchy, can the attainment of citizenship through mastership in some craft, knighthood, the possession of an agricultural freehold, or the attainment of the academic degree of master be simply the equalization of those other things?

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Our cities are now so vast that the distance between the representative on the municipal council and the citizen can be as alienating as that between the elector and the member of parliament in a former age. And yet, I studied the dramatic arts with the son of the leader of my city council as a young man, many of my councillors have been known to me personally at least one when she was a child, my MP (a former minister of the crown) used to live in the same building as my parents and I chanced upon him in the pub just the other day where he gave me a full and accurate account of the policy and strategy of his party on the greatest issue of the day.

Perhaps I am fortunate in coming from a politically engaged family but political parties are not turning members away. I was elected to a powerful local committee in mine rapidly after beginning to attend its ward meetings as a teenager. The franchise may be universal but the turnout is low. The closest organs of government are too weak the most powerful too distant. There is no cursus honorum to ensure the brightest must pass through the humbler functions on their way to the highest counsels of the realm. But even if these failings were addressed one cannot help but feel that, with the vote as with education, entitlement has bred and was always going to breed contempt.

Alistair MacIntyre yearns for “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us”. Are these really different from Burke’s “little platoons”? Not, I suspect, if they are both realizable and worth having.

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But platoons do require basic training, bringing us back to that cursus honorum. The temporal ream is the home of the acquired virtues. Entry and final perseverance in the City of God cannot be merited. The acquired virtues can be as much a menace as an advantage to justification. The drunkard in the gutter may despair of conversion but he knows he is sinner. The upright burgher may be confident that he can sustain the life of virtue and yet be so confident that he goes home unjustified.

Nevertheless, these virtues secundum quid are real perfections of our nature. God really does will them for us. If the temporal city is a mirror to the eternal it is worth remembering that there is no entitlement in either and it is true in both that ‘he who makes no progress loses ground’.  

Liberalism has atomized the individual, legalized divorce, dissolved the guilds, subjected the spiritual to the temporal power, transferred by usury the wealth of society from goods to the tokens by which we exchange them. Finally, it must uproot the sexual difference itself lest any vestige of a claim to natural differentiation of function or to man’s social nature remain. The little platoons cannot survive a hail of such bullets.

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Leviathan “shall be greater than all the kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces.” Atoms and the void, atoms and the void

and the smoke of the pit arose, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke of the pit. And from the smoke of the pit there came out locusts upon the earth. And power was given to them, as the scorpions of the earth have power: And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree: but only the men who have not the sign of God on their foreheads. And it was given unto them that they should not kill them; but that they should torment them five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion when he striketh a man. And in those days men shall seek death, and shall not find it: and they shall desire to die, and death shall fly from them.

I am privileged in coming from a society that retains in vestigial form the organs of a medieval polity. When I was child the vestiges were more plenteous. Hereditary peerages were still being created in the first decade of my life. Until the mid-twentieth century the universities still sent members to parliament and there was a business vote, the remnant of those corporations which perished in the nineteenth century.

When I went to the fairground in the summer it was (and is) held on a Town Moor owned by the ‘city fathers’. Men who call themselves bishops still sit in the House of Lords. There are still monks in my land who hold the titular dignity of prior of the vanished monastic communities that used to elect those bishops when they were more than just titular.

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Elsewhere the tree of the commonweal was cut down while still green and flourishing, if weaker and less well adorned than the British Oak. Its vigor and longevity in my island has reserved for it a sadder fate. Eaten up from inside by insidious decay it creaks and sways alarmingly in the ever more violet squalls of modernity.

A few months ago, in the course of the titanic struggle to emancipate Britain from the European Union,  a royal commission was sent to the House of Lords to prorogue Parliament. It began

Elizabeth The Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Our other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, To Our right trusty and right well-beloved the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and to Our trusty and well-beloved the Knights Citizens and Burgesses of the House of Commons in this present Parliament assembled, Greeting:

A few weeks later the upstart ‘president’ of a ‘supreme court’ created by the creature Blair and alien to the traditions and laws of my country presumed to declare that according to the phantoms of her judicial imagination the act of Her Majesty was ‘null’ and of no effect and asserted of the commission I have just quoted that it was “as if the Commissioners had walked into Parliament with a blank piece of paper.”

It is for this blank sheet of paper that leviathan lusts. The void in which his poisonous atoms can be marshalled by that social contract which Leo XIII declared “a manifest fiction” but which is the charter of our servitude to the ‘enlightenment’ proffered by the one who will not serve.

The city remains the real locus of freedom and human flourishing integrated into its contado with its lord spiritual and lords temporal and knights and citizens and burgesses. We do not need to ascend or descend into abstractions to find it for it is generated by our nature and, did we but permit it, regenerated by grace. Find it, prune it, water it, love it and it will flourish and even if the locusts devour all your work you will not fail to receive much more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.

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