Urban Prospects by Anthony Esolen


Urban Prospects

The Cities of Man & the Dwelling Place of the Lord
by Anthony Esolen

I am not fond of cities. Cain, a tiller of the soil, was the first man in Scripture to have founded a city. Thus does the sacred author, with a laconic suggestion, associate the height and the strength of the city with the murder of a brother. Saint Augustine was not slow to miss the point, and after the vindictive Alaric and his Goths went on their spree and put Rome to the torch, he spread his carbolic acid on the open wound, noting that the eternal city, begun in time and to end in time, was founded by another brother-murderer, Romulus. Livy gives us the legend. Romulus and Remus were building separately, and Remus in contempt leaped over the walls of his brother's earthwork. So Romulus stabbed him to death. Sic semper, and all that.

The second builder of a city, after Cain, is Nimrod, that "mighty hunter before the Lord," whose name in English came to be synonymous with "idiot." For it was the same Nimrod, as the ancients interpreted it, who decided to build a Tower to reach unto heaven, that he and his people might make a name for themselves, suspicious of their neighbors and seeking to dominate them.

Milton saw it that way, too. His Nimrod hunts not beasts but men. He is the first to "arrogate Dominion undeserved / Over his brethren." God laughs the Nimrods to scorn, and scatters them abroad, each of them speaking a language unintelligible to the others: "Thus was the building left / Ridiculous, and the work Confusion named."

Such are the cities men build. The drover comes to Ecbatana and finds himself amid a gabble of tongues, amid the hustle, the sidelong glances, the nervous walking, and the locked doors of suspicion. Well may he suppose that every city is a Babel at heart. Cosmopolis: chaopolis.

The Colors of Chaopolis

So I have imagined a centurion in the time of Christ, bidding farewell to the Judean harlot he loves, wishing also to bid farewell to all of the cities he has seen, in quest of a land he has not seen:

. . . Sparta the pig-sty with a broken fence,
Athens the groveling teacher of the world,
Seven-gated Thebes upon her windy plain,
Renowned only for treachery and worse,
Aegina, Argos, Mycenae rich in gold,
All faded into names. Then westward still,
Past her who squats upon the waters like
A whore at her salt-bath, the general sink
Of all the gathering sewage of the world,
Rome, glorious stewing-pot of wealth and power,
Her slapdash tenements just one spark away
From fields of ruin, her temples marble-faced
But inward brick, and rafters termite-riddled;
My home, for all that; we will leave her too.

Rome would go up in flames, lighted by the hand of her own emperor, neither the wickedest among those who went by that title, nor the least intelligent; and that is saying much. When I walk along the streets of a chaopolis like Manhattan, or an anti-polis, like the gated and barred non-places where the rich wall themselves away from the masses who suffer their benefactions, I do not fear fire or sword, thief or highwayman. But the vast angular structures of the former, and the blank bolted silences of the latter, say to my soul, "You do not belong here. You are a human being, and we are not. Bow down to us. Submit,
if you wish to remain and prosper."

Not that the modern city lacks its color. Here are plots of green grass where children must not play, or the ground would be tracked and rutted with their games. Here are great garish signs declaring something to spend your money on. Here are greater signs declaring octopodal businesses that control what the money you would spend is worth. Here are well-dressed men and women hurrying somewhere, among the occasional badly dressed person not hurrying anywhere.

Here is a church, like a dowdy widow, sporting her crinoline and lace, with a cross to top her little spire, while buildings fifty stories high loom above her, and leave her in the valley of the shadow of something which, if it is not death, is not quite life; or if it is life, it is that of a weed sprouting in the cracks of a pavement, soon to be rooted out or withered with the surest of modern poisons. As I say, the city has color.

Not a Place but a Condition

When the three friends of Jesus stood atop the mountain with him, and he was transfigured before their eyes, Peter the impetuous said, "Master, it is good for us to be here!" Lay a stress on the adverb: it is good to be here, here and nowhere else. For here was all at once a place. Here was an event—what makes the place. So Peter recommended that they build a place to dwell; the booths, the tabernacles, the tents, each a lean-to against the overpowering glory, one for the Lord, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Says the evangelist, Peter was not in his right senses. Can a fisherman build?

Perhaps only a fisherman can build, or a drover, or a carpenter from Galilee. Can anything good come out of Galilee? Rather, what great human good has ever come out of Los Angeles, Athens, Rome, London, Unreal, in their cosmopolitan character? I am pressing the point, but when people speak of their native city with affection, they do not call it a cosmopolis. They call it their town, and so do they name sections of it, without irony, even when such places have lost all of the intimate character that such names suggest: Georgetown, the borough of Brooklyn, Greenwich Village.

But in the most recently hustled-up cities, there are not even the faint old footprints or fingerprints of places. No one can say, "Here stood Washington; from this balcony Daniel Webster spoke; in this churchyard lie the bones of William Sherman," because the memories have been obliterated, or there never was a memory to begin with. Thus do the sons of Adam take spite upon the ravages of time. Our place knows us no more? To hell with you, O place.

As is the city, the cosmopolis, the chaopolis, so are its works and days, its pride and power. The school for small human beings is a machine. The center of government is a machine. Those who work well in a machine do well there, materially. They tend to be people of some useful but by no means extraordinary intelligence. They catch and pass along the social current like a wire; they are low in ohms. What was unthinkable ten years ago is a matter of course now; women especially, for this purpose, are high-grade ductile fiberglass. The city is not a place but a condition, and the condition is one of humane inhumanity. Few of its denizens would strike you on the head with a club, or put a bullet through your heart. They are not sufficiently interested in you to do that.

A Conglomeration of the Separate

Yet the apostle at the height of his vision saw a city, not a village, descending out of heaven like a bride adorned for the bridegroom, a twelve-gated city thronged with twelve thousand saints from each of the twelve tribes of Israel: twelve the number of exuberance, of plenty. Says the psalmist, "I rejoiced when I heard them say, Let us go up to the house of the Lord." The plural is of the essence. No man goes alone to God, nor is God himself alone: He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Creatures are not solitary but plural, and man made in the image of God is not singular but male and female, made for one another. We must love God in loving our neighbor, and love our neighbor as making our love of God manifest. If we do not have neighbors, we had better seek them out.

As I write these words, I am sitting in an airplane, flying seven miles over the plotted and pieced farmlands of Iowa. The man next to me is checking his email on his computer. He is two feet away. He is a universe away. Together we make up a micro-cosmopolis, not because we are together, but because we are separate. The modern city is a conglomeration of the separate. That is not its geographical condition. It is a "political" condition in the modern sense of the word, whereby "politics" describes a vast impersonal machinery of management, governmental and private. Each person is a privacy of will, solitary without solitude, common without community.

The modern city is, as Harvey Cox said, essentially and not accidentally secular. Or the secular truncation of the human spirit, confining it to the saeculum, the passage of consecutive moments that follow upon one another inevitably and to no end, constructs and finds its fit confirmation in the modern city. The spire lifts the soul upward; the skyscraper dwarfs the soul and devours the sky, saying to every human aspiration that might soar beyond the material world, as a concrete wall preventing an ordinary boy from going down to what was once a river, "Thus far, and no farther."

Less a Mockery Than a Denial

But "I rejoiced when I heard them say, Let us go up to the house of the Lord," to Jerusalem, the City of God, the City of Peace. I who am not fond of cities must meditate upon that word house. If I have a neighbor, in Anglo Saxon a neahgebur, it is because he has set down his dwelling nearby. The structure is not where he encases his body after work in the city. It is where he dwells. If I am to love my neighbor as myself, I must somehow enter into his dwelling, as he enters into mine; but no dwelling is fit for human habitation unless it is open to the divine.

I appeal here not simply to the express words of Scripture, that we are made in the image of God, but to the universal experience of all human cultures, to their great poets and artists. Their words cannot pass away "so long as men can breathe and eyes can see," and not just because men share certain biological and psychological traits that make them more or less understandable to one another. When Shakespeare writes that Love "bends not with the remover to remove," that it does not alter with time's "spare hours and weeks, / But bears it out unto the edge of doom," he echoes Saint Paul's words to the Corinthians, but he touches a truth that the pagan himself must know or glimpse, as above him or beyond him, beckoning.

Where the soul is truncated, expect no neighborhood, only proximity, and only such help from proximate persons as may work residually in those blessed with pleasant psycho-physical dispositions. A city whose builder was Cain or Nimrod or Romulus might well be more violent than our cities are, and more obviously be founded upon military might and the oppression of neighboring tribes—to keep their hands off the surplus grain housed within the city walls. The modern city runs with less blood in the veins and on the streets. It is less a mockery of the divine than its denial. "Fear not those who can kill the body," says Jesus, "but fear that which can cast both body and soul into hell." Not without reason did C. S. Lewis imagine hell as a vast gray city, where everyone is an alien, and whence everyone longs to escape not into heaven but into the suburbs.

God's Dwelling Place of Peace

The house of God is the city of God, where he dwells. "How lovely is thy dwelling place," sings the psalmist, "O Lord of hosts!" Here I find an etymological clue to lead me out of my urban dismay. The Latin civitas from which, through the Norman French, we derive the English city is a cousin of the Germanic hiwan, a household: so in the Anglo Saxon Gospels, Jesus sends his disciples out to the hiw-raedene or house-dwellers of the lost souls of Israel, and commands the healed demoniac to return to his hiwum, his household or family.

Hiwan is like Hebrew beth, which has less to do with materials of construction than with relations of persons, including those that transcend place and time: "Let the house of Aaron say, His mercy endures forever." Beth can have a profound adverbial sense, suggesting intimacy: to enter the house of the veil is to enter "behind the veil," as the Letter to the Hebrews says; to enter into the holy of holies, the "place" of God. The secular civitas is in both the human and the divine sense incivilis: where neither God nor man has a home.

The City of God, Jerusalem, is the city of his dwelling place, which is peace. "Not as the world gives peace do I give it," says Jesus. Peace in the world is the cessation of violence. In the secular city, in Unreal, it is the predictable running of the machine, built by Mammon Incorporated, and though most people will be secure in their persons, because Mammon must not have it otherwise, they are nevertheless harried. Such peace is an intricately managed restlessness.

Consider what might happen if, in the central locus of Unreal, what passes for a heart, someone began to sing. "The heavens declare the glory of God," sings David, but if you do so in Unreal, you will find a policeman at your elbow, with a none-too-pleased look in his eye. It is the same if you should stop a stranger along the stone and macadam artery and say, "Neighbor, a fine day, isn't it!" One must not presume.

But if, with Augustine, we say that peace is "the tranquility of order," and by "order" we do not mean reducing persons to manageable units of appetite and labor, but rather directing them and raising them to their source and end, which is God, then we see that the yearning of the heart for love that does not end, and the yearning of the mind for the fullness of truth that does not change, is to be satisfied for each and for all in the communion of saints, singing in praise of God in three Persons. We are nomadic wanderers seeking the city. Even I am seeking the city.

It is not good for the man to be alone. Unreal, begone, and so, too, your suburbs and your rural environs where nobody farms. "Glorious things of thee are spoken, Sion, city of our God." 

Anthony Esolen is a faculty member and Writer-in-Residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including: Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (St. Benedict Press), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House).