The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

Modernity, The “City of Pigs”
Wayne Allen (MA 44:4, Fall 2002) - 11/13/08
Ordering the Soul

Most readers of Plato’s Republic understand the Socratic tactic of speaking to the “kind” of person the philosopher is engaged with at the time. It is not a rhetorical “trick,” so characteristic of the politician’s self-interested desire to please and to flatter his audience. Socrates was a student of human types, the disposition towards good or evil; hence, his interlocutor recommends a language suitable to truth-finding, the objective of the philosopher. This is why Socrates’s peregrinations took him to different shelters of debate, where men sought the truth, or thought they had it. This is also why the Greeks sought a unique place, a topos, for speech, so that men of common longing might join one another: the Academy for Plato, the Lyceum for Aristotle.

In the opening book of the Republic we find Socrates restively taken to the home of Polemarchus where he is confronted by various types within the city. Thus Cephalus, Polemarchus’s father, represents ancestry, the generational and conventional aspects of the city, its traditions and limitations. Thrasymachus embodies the city, in this case Athens, in sharp decline. Thrasymachus is not only a sophist, one who teaches argument for money, but signifies the decay of the city from an aspiration to a primal state, necessity. He does not argue for power as a good but as a reflection of human need, a need Socrates reveals to be indistinguishable from the brutes.

Speech (logos) is the beginning of philosophy, and Socrates handles Thrasy-machus with care, because he represents the city, which is always (at best) in tension with philosophy. While Socrates appreciates Thrasymachus’s abilities, he appeals to his vanity as a rhetor, while defeating his argument that justice is only the interest of the stronger, and depends on satisfying the variegated passions of the city. Thrasymachus’s arguments are not compelling, but they are formidable because he represents the doxa, the opinion of the ruling passion of men, self–interest. Thrasymachus is not driven to surrender by Socrates, but to silence. While Cephalus symbolizes convention, his age releases him from the passions which still dominate Thrasymachus and those of the city. Cephalus’s departure reflects a kind of wisdom, the “owl of Minerva,” in withdrawal from a decaying life, one that elevates the process of life over love of the gods.

The youth of the city, represented by Glaucon and Adeimantus, also signifies ways of life, of men trapped between a declining Athenian model and an emerging tyranny, aristocracy, and democracy, the aspiration for community and the commands of law, philosophy, and politics. Adeimantus is the poetic soul, weaned on poetry and a lover of the beautiful, but he wants things to be easy. Glaucon is “lustful,” the erotic man who genuinely pines for the good life, the true life; he is capable of good and evil, and becomes the real focus of Socrates’s tutoring. It is Glaucon who substitutes for Thrasymachus, because he has similar passions, but also a love of beauty that tempers desire; he is thereby teachable.

The path from Thrasymachus (necessity) to Glaucon (philosophy) runs from perfect selfishness organized by needs, which finally succumb to tyranny, to the ambiguity of politics under law, which requires the formation of character under the Greek paideia. But it runs beyond Glaucon who is forced to accept the city of necessity as the end-point for men, but not for philosophers. While justice is a political question, and indeed, the human question par excellence, its purpose cannot be located among the “bulky mass of things,” as Socrates informs Glaucon, the luxuries men seek beyond necessity that form the “city of pigs.”1

While Thrasymachus represents the doxa, the majority opinion of the city that is organized by unsated democrats, Glaucon represents its ambiguity, the capacity of men to unite for goodness and form community. The first is organized for protection, the second for friendship. But Socrates sees in Glaucon the eros requisite to philosophy, the passion that goes beyond the body and finally subdues it; he is caught between nature and morality. Both Glaucon and Socrates, in the latter’s inducement to consummate Glaucon’s erotic desires, disdain the basic city, the former because it lacks refinement and pleasures, the latter because he serves no useful purpose in it.

The ambiguity of the Glauconian eros forms the challenge of philosophy, which is not a duality between nature and nurture (modernity), but their symbiosis, how to reconcile the tension between humanity and politics. The human solution is moral, the emancipation of the body from necessity, the prerequisite to excellence, virtue. Yet Socrates was neither an ascetic, nor thought it a good. But he felt that desire, Glaucon’s untutored passion, had to be refashioned without a tyranny of the soul over the body. He wanted men to pursue the good not for the sake of the body, but for the sake of the good. Thus the body is the source of politics at its lowest point, the bodily necessities that bring it into the world. The soul is the source of justice which regulates the necessities of the body and gives it a home in politics. This is why justice is, and ever will be, a political question, and arises when men yield to and confront necessity. The true city, the perfect city, is restorative, and seeks to return men to their humanity, a community of souls that integrates them beyond their needs.

The Greek precursor to the eternal city had its temporal analogue in the immortality of the city in history. The durable capacity of the city had to be connected to the achievements of mortal men who were circumscribed by the life-process. In order to attain historical significance, the city became the final resting place for the imperishable achievements of men who secured the city through a time not given to mortal men. The city, then, became a remembrance of things past so well eulogized by Pericles: “For the whole earth is the sepulchre for famous men . . . graven not in stone but in the hearts of men.”2The meritorious was mnemonic, and pointed from hero to hero as the path towards immortality.

This heroic unfolding of everlastingness forms the mythopoetic foundation of Greek cosmology that elaborately connects the individual soul to the soul of the city, its origin and its aspiration to transcend its moment in history. In Plato this took the form of the Er myth and the Judgment of the Dead. The anamnetic (memory) experience of the philosopher who recounts the myth takes on a kind of “Eternal Recurrence,” to use a Nietzschean metaphor, because Hades contains within it a repetitive fate for one’s choices in life. The “Spindle of Necessity” requires choosing one’s new life according to how one has lived, the life between good and evil, virtue and vice. The souls of desire, bound only to temporality, therefore the needs of the body, sit at the throne of Necessity remembering only their accidental lives, which recur for a 1000 years.3Death symbolizes life as a historical reality, the eternally recurring desires of men who forget the immortal aspiration of the city, which is the beginning point for all men on earth.

This transcendental, if pagan, understanding of immortality has its Christian analogue in the redemptive metaphor of Christ’s Resurrection, to return man to a pre-natural spirituality that overcomes temporal urges, the desires of the body. Yet both fall into the “classical” understanding of man’s duty on earth against the modern concession to necessity. Derived from the Latin, modo became modernus, meaning “presently,” “just now,” and implied a novelty, not what is good but what is new, thereby supporting the vanity of every generation. This vanity, amour propre, is no doubt what prompted Pope Pius VI to hold that, “Modernity is the synthesis of all heresies.” Indeed, the moderni (“men of today”) created the polemical significance between antiquus and modernus, thus assuring a principle of conflict between successors and predecessors. The vanity of chronology is established. Modernists soon began to establish an aesthetic dichotomy between their own cultural sense of novelty, which used to confront the classic (classicus), conveying a sense of permanence, timelessness, and therefore an eternity that embraced all men. The classic took its positive and aristocratic bearings from the social reference to the “first class” of Romans, and thereby recommended an anti-democratic bias.

More important politically, the aristocratic analogy conveyed an explicit opposition between the scriptor classicus and the (scriptor) proletarius, which established linguistically (at first) the antagonism between the classic and the “vulgar,” understood as the new or recent. In the world of human artifacts, including art and architecture, this distinction was revealed in a love of the enduring and universal as opposed to the temporary and useful. The ascendancy of novelty, now connected to both time and succession, allowed modernists to rescue the democratic project by speaking to the “vulgar” through an attack on the classic—truths, beauties, virtues. The permanence sought by the classic is abolished by the novelty of modernity; time trumps eternity.

The temporal overcoming of eternity inverts the ordering principle of politics from the transcendent to the descendent, from the spiritual to the material. Man’s actions no longer point beyond themselves, but aim exclusively at his time on earth. While dating this specific turn is difficult, its importance lies in the fact that it can help us locate the epochal shift in politics, the shift from the eternal city to an organized banality. Eric Voegelin argues in his multivolume History of Political Ideas (1997–99), that the symbolizations for ordering a people express their significance in their origin (arche), the metaphysical shift in self-definition.

Rather than the Renaissance, Voegelin sees the beginning of modernity extending as far back as the twelfth century, when the anonymous author of the York Tracts (1102) evoked an ethos of innerworldliness against the prevailing Augustinian, Carolingian, and Gregorian interpretation of Christianity. Of course this inner-worldliness reshapes and refocuses the meaning of the political and transforms it into a purely intramundane affair. By “political” I mean the Platonic/Aristotelian understanding that politics aims at the highest good, not the prosaic modern notions expressed in the language of “social justice” or economic welfare. In the former view, man forms his being and organizes his life with others from the whole of Being, and reckons towards that which transcends the temporal and mundane, from which the latter takes direction. Politically speaking, then, modernity begins with the revolution in religion and ends with the religion of revolution, what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn calls the “restless cult of novelty.”


Modernizing Needs

Among the novelties of modernity the most transformative is an increasing secularization and rising (if deformed) rationalism, whose own ground is nature. The first despiritualized man, while the second forever connected him to the temporal and mundane. The former prompted man’s assertion against God as the beacon of everlastingness, while the latter asserted man’s will against a recalcitrant nature that sets limits to human possibilities. The first person to recognize the political significance of this shift was Machiavelli, who grounded his theory on the purely mundane observation that “evil is politically more significant, more substantive, more ‘real’ than ‘good.’”4This was followed by the harbinger of the modern city, Thomas Hobbes. In his most comprehensive indictment of modern man, Leviathan, he formally overturned the Greek and Christian views, the first by showing that nature is not good or perfectible, and the second by showing that it does not begin with sin. Doing so he was the first to show that what interests men is themselves. This is why he replaced the good with rights, and why modern governments speak to men as interests rather than as citizens. This also makes Hobbes the first liberal, the movement from the ascendant to the descendent. Indeed, Hobbes’s Leviathan is the liberal city because men are permanently tethered to their interests, most often visible in the idiom of pluralism. With Hobbes, and since him, rights replace the idea of the good as the reckoning for modern political and social theorizing. What emerged for a foundation for public ethics were the contradictory notions of autonomy and democracy, the “sovereign self,” and the idea of community. Of course rights speak to individuals against the community, and cannot be united without a culture that seeks to integrate them. This establishes a permanent dualism in modernity between the self and society.

This dualism was formalized by Ferdinand Tonnies (1855–1936), when he created the antagonism between the aspiration of a people (culture) and the material/mechanical formation of a collectivity. He forever demonstrated the shift from the Greek nous and Christian charismata as interpretive sources, to the calculating ratio of the Enlightenment. His distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society) intellectualized the temporal movement of social progress from Volkstum to Staatstum, the first a cultural basis for cohesion, the second a technical (mechanical) development of science and law. While the latter may allow more for rights (Hobbes), it also abrogates moral duty and isolates individuals, making estrangement a fundamental part of the modern psychical condition.

The ambiguity of secular rationalism as a political reckoning is that it is simultaneously grounded in a nature it hopes to overcome through science, thus establishing purely artificial relations among people. But this ambiguity allows the intellectual class, the haute intelligentsia, an awesome power in asserting its will against the former spiritual (cultural) aspirations of the people by soliciting new modes of human connectedness. This diminishes the old cultural restraints, whose temporal objective is setting limits in life for the sake of an eternity that reaches beyond it. By inverting the former relationship, the new clerisy requires experimentation in reconstructing (now deconstructing) society around the new relationships derived from mundane life itself. But worse, the new class respiritualizes the life process not for the sake of the people, but to endow its own pronouncements with a redivinized authority. No one (other than Nietzsche) was more aware of this than Max Weber, who understood the shift from cultural authority to charismatic leadership as the modern organizing principle: “The salvation sought by the intellectual is always based on inner need, and hence it is at once more remote from life. . . . The intellectual seeks in various ways . . . to endow his life with a pervasive meaning.” This leads to the intellectual reconstruction of reality around the human will, because “there is a growing demand that the world and the total pattern of life be subject to an order that is significant and meaningful.”5Weber further observed the reemerging spiritualization in the new class in Germany which turned against religion and toward “the rise of the economic, eschatological faith of socialism.”6

Certainly one of the most gifted and honest of modern theorists of the city has been Lewis Mumford (1895–1990). Indeed, in Mumford we find the ambiguity of modern secularism’s disenchantment with the technology it hoped would bring relief to man’s estate (Bacon). Simultaneously, Mumford’s own secularism would not countenance the former spirituality that turned men away from mundane life so they might aspire to higher modes of living. Thus he urges a “turning away from the social myths that hamper us,” while we “ally ourselves with a different order of social myth which has always been vivified and enriched by the arts and sciences.”7The Protean nature of the “arts and sciences,” always subject to the whims of the cognoscenti, undermines the permanence sought by politics. They thereby diminish both culture and law as anchors for a reckoning that can guide a people through history. Indeed, man’s concern with life as the highest good makes transience on earth the fundamental existential fact, one impossible to contain by moral restraints given man’s brief time on earth.

Man’s secularist assertion against God has united with his (attenuated) rationalist assertion against nature, which reorients the soul towards banality. Even Mumford, who tried so hard to reconcile man to the ambiguities of technology, was to fall prey to the transient modern view of human self-construction. “The nearest we can get to rationality,” he equivocates, “is not to efface our myths but to attempt to infuse them with right reasoning and to alter them or exchange them for other myths when they appear to work badly.”8The objectification of life, then, transforms his eidola (ideal city) into relations among things, the hidden demon in the scientific (materialist) enterprise.


Democratizing Needs

Under conditions of the mythopoetic aspiration of the Greek theophany, and the redemptive love toward the Christian charismata, the true city is restorative, and seeks to return men to their humanity, a community of souls that integrates them beyond their needs. But much secularist hostility towards the modern city has to do with the purpose of the city as a political organization. Certainly the city organized around the principle of goodness will fashion a different citizenry and create different laws than a city organized for need and desire. Because what moves the citizenry in a certain direction is its ordering principle, which then shapes and informs all relationships, public and private. As a generic form, Greek republicanism recognized necessity, but sought to overcome it. It is no coincidence that the first mention of convention in the Republic is connected to the agora, the marketplace.9The marketplace signified the basic (base) city and republicanism had to limit men’s pursuit of necessities on the ground that this, too, is necessary to the city’s survival. Indeed, the nomoi (magistrates of the laws) upheld the nomos (spirit of the laws), because the nomos aimed at the eunomia, the good order of the people. The spiritualized relationship between the laws and the people was recognized by Plato in his opening sentence of the Laws (his last work): “God or some man, O strangers—who is supposed to have originated the institution of your laws?” Plato understood that the pre-republican, and certainly pre-philosophical, regime is consumptive, and the sybarite has never been the model republican.

This is far different from the democratic city, which counts less on equal citizens than on equal needs, and seeks their gratification through the administration of benefits. As a “popular” regime, democracy seeks equal distribution, recognizing needs common to all men in their formation of the life-process, what Marx called “biologisms.” But republicanism seeks equal responsibility for the whole, transforming men into citizens. The republican model recognizes not needs but obligations, making loyalty the foundation of interconnectedness, because the fate of one is bound to the fate of the whole. It is this interconnection, the movement of the whole through history, that subordinates the good of the one to the good of others. This is, perhaps, what prompted Cicero (who gave us the translation of politeia as “republic”) to observe that these virtues “originate in our natural inclination to love our fellow man.”

The action requisite to republicanism as a political philosophy is revelatory, a personal unmasking of one who is in concreteness. Politics then becomes a form of truth-telling, where an individual can sum up the intention of speech (logos) through a kind of intersubjective communion with others (taxis) in the field of human action (praxis). This way, and only this way, is the human world established as a reality. But under conditions of modernity this reality has given way to the impermanence of temporality, reducing the political to temporary alliances for the purpose of immediate gratification. Indeed, a trinity of modern principles has undermined the cosmological order of Greek life, and the Theologica Civilis of medieval life, in favor of a sow city recast in the language of modern social science theorizing. First, an imperialistic secularism devalues the former spiritualities (Greek and Christian); second, an arrogant and often effete rationalism confuses science with understanding; and third, the masse totale has become the object of demagoguery and desiccation, while all have diminished the city as an idea for human perfection.

Mumford, for instance, drew inspiration for his model city from Voltaire, and the purely secularist intention to promote the liberation of consciousness from prejudice. Of course the “prejudice” in question is Christian spirituality and the redemptive eschatology of the old faith. In its place Mumford would substitute a new “faith” to integrate the “biological, social, and personal needs” that actually led to human disintegration in the first place.10While Mumford sees the rejection of the old prejudice as an improvement over the “primitive village,” his integration of autonomous needs becomes a democracy of necessity under the domination of modern egalitarianism, which puts him closer to Bakunin and Marx than to Voltaire. It is precisely this domination that destroys the significance between the particular and the universal—a tension recognized by the Greeks and Christians, but denied by modern social theorists. This is why Mumford must try to reconcile the contradiction of the (purely modern) dichotomy between nominalism (an abstract individualism) and holism (a seemingly integrated universalism). However, they are neither reconciled nor eliminated in modernity, because no hierarchy emerges in Mumford or others that transcends the dynamics of social relations from which they receive their meaning.

However, there is a deeper problem at the level of politics: the society that abolishes the individual as the moral reference cannot produce the rule of law. And Mumford is unaware of this problem. His collectivist aesthetic forms the ontological ground for his eidola, but it banishes the individual to private life in order to do so: “[A]nother aspect of man’s nature must also be heeded if association [i.e., social relations] is to be durable and fruitful . . . a refuge for privacy, solitary communion, innerness.”11Thus the failure to go beyond an ontology of social existence reveals the true failure of Mumford’s political ambition: to wit, to reconcile the clear antagonism between the particular and the universal, the one and the many. It resolves itself in modernity not in terms of a hierarchy of good (Greek) or God (Christianity), but in the rationalist/materialist equalization of needs. But worse, this proves that the new city has no cosmological significance, only temporary and accidental utility. This utility gives social theorists an awesome power in reconfiguring human relationships around human needs. The authority of good or God is then replaced by the authority of functional relations (Gesell-schaft), managed not by the statesman, but by the experts of social institutions.

In order to provide a gloss of “humanism,” therefore a false universalism, to his new social relations, Mumford transforms “nature and culture” (a continuum in Greek thought) into “nature and society,” an antagonism in modern thought. Of course the forerunner to this epistemological sleight-of-hand was Auguste Comte (1798–1857), the founder of sociology who followed the philosophes (including Voltaire) and respiritualized man around the material needs of the body. Doing so he elevated the human will (the goddess of reason) above the nature formerly held compelling in shaping (and restraining) human organization. Under the new sovereignty of the will, society is reduced to a series of “functional relations” (as with Mumford) and nature is mechanized, thereby reducing man to a consequence of social institutions, something to be worked on, shaped. Equally ominous is the renunciation of natural limitations by moderns who believe they can substitute science for religion and reshape Western civilization according to intellectual fashions prevalent at the time, as though “myths” can be manufactured along with social relations.

Western civilization is the only cultural order that can claim a finite beginning (the birth of Christ), and an anticipated if indefinite end (Christ’s return). The authority of the whole is known, and has reference points through prophetic revelation. It is, then, the universal in which the particulars can be judged, including the actions of men. But contrary to modern theorists of mundane constructions, history can never offer meaning, because the whole cannot be known. This explains not only the arrogance of modernists but also their gnostic inclinations: the mundane, temporal, meaning can only be offered from the perspective of the thinker. This leads (Comte, Marx, et al.) to the idolization of the thinker himself.

This reconstructed and respiritualized egoism allows the individual thinker to interpret himself as the latest in a succession of pontificators, articulators of the world—immanent conscience. Some readers might object on the ground that the postmodernists have abandoned progress and thereby opted out of historical and spiritualized succession. While the rationalist formation of social relations has lost its progressivist capacities under postmodernism, and led to the abolition of “sacred texts,” it has reemerged in the mind of the interpreter, the critic, who dehistoricizes social relations for the sake of even more mundane body types. History no longer points to a crescendo in the evolution of disparate human types, but now anoints them through the intellectual laying on of hands (note multiculturalism).

In either the modern or the postmodern manifestations, the transcendental pneuma (vital soul) of Christ is overtaken by the rising intramundane spirit of man. In the case of modernists, the correspondence of the individual soul to that of Christ is replaced by opinion about intramundane progress. For the post-modernists, this correspondence is replaced by opinion about the path of suffering on behalf of one’s body type in history, hence the lament of eternal victimization. This concludes in an inversion of the former relationship; the corpus mysticum Christi is forced to give way to the new, socially constructed corpus mysticum humanitatis. This process of inversion, so well exploited by Marx and Freud, has the advantage of reconstructing historical meaning as an analogue to the former Christian interpretation. Thus Mumford’s eidola appears as a “cosmologically unifying aspiration,” but turns out to be nothing more than a collective solipsism, because it reckons from the lowest end of nature, biological needs, while it aspires to nothing beyond their gratification by the new “city” managers.


The Aesthetics of Desire

Modern arrogance, combined with the current postmodern de-romantization of the past, has depicted archaic life as wanting the au courant principles of economic equality and bodily gratification, and reveals modernity’s incapacity to define a coherent whole in which individuals are the integral parts. Indeed, since the Enlightenment, and in good measure because of it, modernity signals a substantial failure to integrate men beyond their needs, which always separate them in politics. Mumford tries to overcome this separation with his eutopia (good place), which is an inadequate philosophical exegesis of its significance in Greek thought, which he uses first to diminish Greek cosmology, then to veil modernity’s incapacity to substitute for it. In fact, the Greek eutopia emerged out of eunomia, or good order. It found its justification in the coincidence of good souls aspiring to overcome the temporal demands of the body to which they were consigned by nature. This only hints at the spiritual significance of the city as the place for ordering souls, succinctly expressed in Plato’s characterization that the city is “Man writ large.”

For our purposes, it is important to note the decline of Athens after Pericles (c. 494–429 b.c.) precisely because of its gravitation into necessity under the democratic party (demagogia) of Cleophon. Under Cleophon the various factions arrayed against each other could not be integrated by a leader whose concern was their temporary gratification. The city lost its principle of order and had no method (paideia) for transmitting it. More important here is the fact that the erosion of aristocratic intention under which Athenian symbols of art, literature, and politics flourished, began with the process of democratization. Thus the pathos of separation (ataxis) and disorder that was formerly overcome through excellence and virtue (aretai) ended in the disorder of democratic ascension. The decline of Hellenic life became a metaphor for man’s hubris and hedonism until the Enlightenment. It was, as Voegelin observes, the aristocracy of soul “which after all had created the paradigm of Hellenic culture.”12And it is hardly a coincidence that the very “idea” of city is connected to the city of the soul. Conversely, the unsated city has historically never been the object of emulation, until now.

Of course the current conceit of modernity denies history as a human reckoning, so it will deny the Greek lesson that the city cannot be reduced to a metaphor of desire, an agora writ large. Democratizing needs, now understood as equality between groups, does nothing to elevate them by pointing them beyond themselves from which an eidola can be formed. This is also why equality beyond the individual (citizenship) is always dangerous. It is reductionist, not elevating, because it reduces men to their least denominator. Equalizing interests degrades men to their natural, pre-political condition, to a privacy that was supposed to be overcome by the most public of human organizations, democracy. This is why democracy, understood as a process that strains towards agreement, degenerates into pluralism, interests momentarily united as a composite self-interest.


The City as Soul

Writing in sixth-century Athens, and serving as exemplar for the city, Solon poetically disabuses us of the illusion (doxa) of prosperity as a hedge against decadence, now the very illusion of progress: “For abundance breeds hubris/ When too much prosperity [olbos] comes/ To men whose mind is not fit for it.”13“Fitness” implies congruity, a continuity, between a part and the whole, an integration between the one and the many. It implies an aesthetic relation because it conveys an order that suggests that everything is as it ought to be. This is why the Greeks understood the city as a harmony of the souls that compose it. They understood “unfitness,” disorder, as a consequence of necessity, which is why they coined the term “idiot” (idiotes), to designate the private person bound to necessity and thereby unfit for public life.

The Greeks believed that necessity defines man’s temporality, because it consigns him to the lowest side of nature, a perishable within the life-process. But this temporality was mitigated by the longing men have for immortality (now confused with celebrity), so the Greeks sought to reconcile it to the aspirations of the city. Indeed, the meaningfulness of citizenship was expressed in part through friendship that turns love inwards, a love of one’s own. This is why the Greek virtues were considered the counterpoise to self-love, for they made public life not only bearable but somehow desirable. While Rome has been called the Eternal City, because of its tangible endurance through history, Athens is the Eternal Order, because it represents an immortal idea. This is why the Greeks connected citizenship to blood relation rather than territory, embodied in the maxim, “Wherever you go, you will always be a polis.” It was their way of reconciling the one and the many, because it is the city, the civitas, that provides a “kind of organized remembrance,” where the noble and beautiful are passed on generationally to newcomers who benefit from them.14This is why there was a symbiosis between art and politics as the artifactual, where art represented what was noble in a people and worthy of preservation as an “organized remembrance.”

In Greek ontology, the city represents a shelter for the mortal souls that give the city its immortality in art, literature, and the dramaturgy of history. In this pre-modern sense, the city was organized for remembrance through the exemplars of its high human types. We retain a reminiscence of this today in our quite jaded understanding of “cosmopolitanism.” To be a citizen was to be human, to aspire to the universal truths towards which all souls aspire in their capacity for goodness. The city served as a reckoning for souls and the perishables of human action that make life immortal in the temporal world: the deeds and speech from which others reckon in their humanity.15

This idea, the love of the whole in which men establish themselves as beings within Being, found its Christian expression in St. Augustine’s conclusion that “a people is a multitudinous assemblage of rational beings united by concord regarding loved things held in common.” This love cannot be reduced to bodily needs, which are necessary and cannot be elevated, because they are shared in common with the beasts. Augustine’s conclusion, like Solon’s wisdom, is clearly intended as a universal guide to all men in this world: “[I]f we wished to discern the character of any given people, we would have to investigate what it loves. . . . It is a better or worse people as it is united in loving things that are better or worse.”16In this now archaic sense, the city must be a home for men in their search for everlastingness that alone confronts the tentativeness of the life process.

The question of soul, the character of a people, has always been a political question, because it determines the fate of the city in history. But the city’s undoing may have been foreshadowed by the modern theorists of need who laid the groundwork for the Voltaire/Mumford “liberated consciousness” of need and interest. Thus Hobbes (fear), Locke (property), and Marx (materialism) have been the chief exponents for advancing private ends over public goodness. This has resulted in the modern theorist’s obsession with institutions and preoccupation with groups. This also abolishes the idea of justice as integrative, a metaphor for human living together, and turns it into vanity, amour propre, the purely modern belief that all human problems are structural, and can be remedied through the municipal administration of goodness.

Contrary to the modern understanding, the Greeks did not begin with man, but ended with him, thus precluding vanity as a reckoning for human definition. Instead, the Greeks defined man in terms of a cosmos of which he was a part, more than a spectator, but less than a Creator. This assumption transforms the aesthetic perspective from a glorification of existence into a gratitude for it. This is the achievement of Hesiod’s Theogony. The Theogony is an aristeia, a ballad or story of an heroic adventure, but it is premonitory. It is intimately connected to theophany, the manifestation of divine presence to the human consciousness.

In Hesiod the Theogony provides a metaphor for the moral relation of man to his existence, thus a location and delineation of man’s purpose on earth. It is from Hesiod that we get the ethical language for shaping human relationships: good and evil, eternity (the gods) and time (Cronos), justice (Dike), peace (Eirene), and the gargantuan struggle for order, the Titanomachia.17These symbolizations formed the foundation for Greek public life. Thus Zeus defeats the lesser gods of disorder and establishes moral relations among men, which requires a good place (topos) for their order. The metaphor of Chaos symbolizes the very human struggle for civilization; therefore, a universalism which transcends all men in their search for order.

In this sense, the mythopoetic and philosophical quest is not hostile to the later Christian anthropology, but the temporal precursor to it. The pagan deities symbolized the search for good order, but were held to be part of the cosmological intention, rather than the creator of it. The Zeusian order (eunomia) was the pre-Christian symbolization of a redemptive authority later signified in Christ’s resurrection. But in both cases, and contrary to modern arrogance, disorder (evil, sin) is located in man himself, rather than in the mythical forces arrayed against him: society, history, race, and now technology.


Preserving the Soul or the Work

Technology represents man’s unconscious recognition that he is bound to the lowest end of nature, which proves inadequate in confronting other natural adversaries (whether beasts or disease) in the purely animal quest for survival. That this technology also creates its own human problems reflects man’s incapacity to rise above that nature in the first place. Indeed, the very notion of “technological civilization” is a contradiction in terms. Civilization (rooted in the civitas) must precede and inform variegated techniques, because it establishes the moral significance for their use. The nuclear bomb is no more monstrous than the billy club in the hands of an agent who has reduced another being to the status of the morally inconsequential. It only illustrates by an order of magnitude how technology objectifies life by objectifying the moral relations that compose it.

Every new piece of technology seems to justify itself socially on two different but interrelated grounds. It is often characterized as “labor saving” in both the public and the private sense. Publicly, it diminishes the need for labor, hence laborers, and abolishes the very foundation for human interrelatedness in the modern era (n.b., Marx). Privately, man himself is removed from any hint of usefulness which formed the justification for labor in the first place (n.b., Locke). Man’s life is then emancipated from labor (Marx) but, unlike the Greeks, he knows no higher purpose for which this emancipation should be won. In a city of idlers men are disconnected from what they do as citizens (public action) and reconnected to what they consume. Formerly driven by necessity, the life-process, men are transformed from what they need into what they desire, the passions, which now form the very meaning of interconnectedness (homosexuality, lifestyleism, etc.).

Unhappily, this is a less than hidden consequence in Mumford’s eidola, which reckons towards a materialist eschato-logy to be resolved by a struggle between exploiters and exploited, and replaces the civilizational Titanomachia of Greek thought and the apocalyptic struggle in Christianity. He concludes that the Marxist analysis of society “had the merit of presenting a great dream—the dream of a titanic struggle between the possessors and the dispossessed in which every worker had a definite part to play.”18Mumford’s ontology of “social relations” now gravitates into an ethical reconstruction of a new man, one who receives his meaning not from a cosmological ordering of human actions (Greek) or conformity to a divine order (Christianity), but from the very intermediary of things towards which all men must compete in their capacity as possessors.

This exposes one of the great quarrels between the ancients and the moderns. Moderns have inverted the old relationship between thinking and doing, which amounts to an inversion of Being over Becoming in both the Greek and the Christian sense. The new existential order then becomes the ground for the historicized social sciences, which take direction primarily from Hegel and Marx. Of course the new historicism takes direction not from transcendence but from the consciousness (of a thinker), which does not point beyond things but at them as the very basis of human self-definition. This has the political consequence of reducing the city to a thing, a perishable of only transient significance because it, too, is no more than an instrument of the life-process. This makes patriotism (love of one’s fathers) and loyalty problematic, because men cannot be faithful to any demand beyond the evanescent urges of the body, which always point men away from one another, hence the unity sought by the political.

The immortality sought by the city is frustrated by a citizenry whose only concern is the life-process, which dissolves all relationships into an immediacy that makes duration impossible. This is why the Greeks saw politics as a performing art, a phenomenal regeneration against the perishability of all life, yet one that requires the contribution of other men, plurality. We see why Aristotle defined politics as the “master art,” because it makes all of the other arts possible.

Understood from this perspective, theories of necessity and movements to satisfy human wants (the very definition of modern society) take on a transient objective, assuming human and political perishability without a transcendent order that can serve to mitigate them. At least one consequence, so visible in contemporary society, is the temporary nature of all relationships, especially the family, which has been reduced to an economic unit that can no longer find an immortal or eternal justification to preserve it. This is why Rome has been degraded to a reminiscence, a place that could not sustain itself by mere mortal works alone. Indeed, Constantine’s invocation of the “One true God” was an effort to achieve immortality retroactively, by substituting one mnemonic foundation for another, Christ for Romulus.

It is one of the ironies of Western civilization, which now holds disdain for Christianity due to a renegade rationalism, that it owes its very existence in part to this Christianity. The collapse of the cosmology of the old orders (Greek and Roman) was replaced by a Christian cosmology that eventually assumed the belief that life was the highest good. Theologically, this meant the transcendence of the individual soul and an eternity that shaped and reformed individual action (“Do not conform to this world.” Romans 12:2). But politically, this robbed the political order of its immortality and reduced collective actions to the necessary, but temporary, aspect of man’s time on earth. This means that the old relationship between man and world became less urgent when rationalist theories distanced themselves from the tutelage of Church authority.

That this process gained momentum with the Reformation and then with the Enlightenment can hardly be doubted. The first fractured faith, while the second reconnected it to the body in the form of an imperialistic scientism or ideological salvationism. But in both cases life, the desires of the body, became the locus of human progress in the now ahistorical postmodern human sciences. This doomed forever the human aspiration for political immortality, and had the predictable consequence of sabotaging political authority and undermining loyalty, upon which all relationships must rest.



It has been said of Athens that she was not a city but an idea, “the school of Hellas,” as Pericles observed in his Funeral Oration. Yet one of the great ironies of Western Civilization is that two of its founders, Socrates and Christ, died to save it. The death of the former symbolized the enduring battle between philosophy and politics, while the death of the latter signified the struggle between love of oneself and love of the divine. Both were concerned to integrate men through a goodness that subordinates necessity, the passions that divide and isolate them: the former through an eros that aims at the whole, the latter through an agape that creates it.

At a literary level and, since the death of Socrates, a historical example as well, the fate of the city finds expression in the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, the distinction between thinking and making. For instance, Plato’s disdain for the poets, their mimetic reproduction of life to flatter their audience, was perhaps the first sign of the all too human belief that history, like cities, can be made, created de novo, from human will. This implies the premature death of contemplation in the death of Socrates commanded by the Athenian demos. Indeed, Socrates’s Apology reads like an indictment from the sybarites, where the charges from the democrats were more of a popular justification for their own indulgences. Even the charge of impiety (heresy) was not so much a popular defense of the extra-mundane deities as it was a solicitation for their democratic dissipations. The fate of Socrates was less the fate of the philosopher in the city than it was the fate of contemplation.

However, the idea of “making the world,” or in the case of Marx, “changing it,” is a form of self-creation (now “constructivism”) through the modern assertion against all thought, which reached its efflorescence with the self-divinized claim that we are what we make, including ourselves. Hedonism trumps humility! We have devalued nature as a reckoning and God as an inspiration, and created a city of sows. Then we wonder why “pigs can’t fly.”

  1. Plato, The Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York, 1968), Bk. II, 372a-373a.
  2. Pericles, Son of Athens (Lawrence, Kan., 1970), 83.
  3. The Republic, 613a-621d.
  4. Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism (Princeton, 1994), 13.
  5. The Sociology of Religion (Boston, 1963), 124–125.
  6. Ibid., 135.
  7. The Lewis Mumford Reader, ed. Donald L. Miller (Athens, Ga., 1995), 225.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Bk. II, 371b-c.
  10. The Lewis Mumford Reader, 162.
  11. Ibid., 175.
  12. The World of the Polis (Baton Rouge, 1957), 120.
  13. Ibid., 198.
  14. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958), 198.
  15. Cf. Eric Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle (Baton Rouge, 1957), 58.
  16. St. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York, 1950), Vol. 19, 24. 17. Cf. The World of the Polis, 132.
  17. The Lewis Mumford Reader, 221.
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