by Jeff Polet, Director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
The idea of reflecting on a political order has an interesting history and generally occurs under two circumstances: the first, when the polity is in a state of crisis; and the second, when a distinction has been made between the order of the political community and a “higher” order that exists in tension with the historical order of society. The latter happens when people move away from the idea of intra-cosmic deities (that is, gods who are part of the observable world) toward some notion of a transcendent deity. That movement towards transcendence creates an evaluative standard against which historical peoples can be judged.
We can find examples of this dynamic in the Hebrew Scripture, as well as in Greek tragedy, most especially in Sophocles’ Antigone. But the dynamic is most fully articulated in the trial and death of Socrates, who turns Athens away from their local gods to contemplation on an eternal and transcendent God. This insistence results in charges of impiety being brought against him, for which he is condemned by the Athenian court. But as Plato relates the story, the real condemnation is on Athens, which, by condemning to death a just man, reveals that it is a fundamentally unjust regime. The disingenuousness of the charge of impiety is further exposed when Socrates refuses the escape from both Athens and death that is offered to him by his followers, and instead accepts the poisoned chalice of his unjust punishment.
Plato has different ways of developing this tension between the local gods and the transcendent god, but one of his main rhetorical moves is to place the actual order of Athens in the balance against what he at one point calls “the city in speech” and at another “the paradigm in heaven.” In other words, the justice of the actual city can only be measured against some sort of ideal city, and the contours of this ideal city are never wholly lost to us. In Plato’s argot, we have retained some sort of intuitive sense of that ideal city that alone makes it possible to think about justice in the here and now.
This distinction between two cities – an ideal or perfect one, and the historical and imperfect one – reaches a new level in tension in the Christian epoch. Christ reminds his listeners to distinguish carefully between “the things of God and the things of Caesar,” and also reminds his followers that his kingdom “is not of this world.” The tension receives its fullest expression in the writings of Saint Augustine, particularly in his magisterial City of God. There, Augustine responds to charges that the advent of the Christian religion was directly responsible for the fall of Rome by arguing that, in fact, it was Roman religion that was responsible for its own fall, mainly because no just or enduring order could be created on the basis of a false religion.
It was Saint Paul who had earlier told Christians that “here, we have no abiding city.” Taking up Saint Paul’s observation, Augustine argued that Christians are citizens of two cities, an earthly city and a heavenly city; and that, concerning these two cities, our citizenship in the latter is preeminent to our citizenship in the former. It places a greater but also more legitimate demand on our allegiances, obedience, and ways in which we live our lives. Christians, he argued, were freed from the pressures and destructive cycles that determine life in the here and now:
Slights and fights and spirits vexed,
Peace today and war the next
is how the repetitions, and pointlessness, of secular life unfold. But our membership in the heavenly city offers us something different, something not only permanent and enduring, but also something that offers genuine progress: the movement from our present mean estate to eternal glory.
Augustine well understood that the perennial human temptation would be to collapse the progressive dynamism of the City of God into the unfolding of secular time, such collapsing freeing us from the otherwise meaningless cycles of rise and fall that mark the paths of civilizations. For that reason, Augustine insisted on maintaining to the degree that we could the hard and fast distinction between the two cities. Granted, in the here and now we are all dual citizens, and must learn to work with those who are not citizens of the City of God, but we worship the king to whom every knee shall bow and by whom every kingdom in this world will be turned to dust.
This way of understanding the tension would often prove unsatisfactory to political actors and thinkers who wanted to attribute more meaning to what they do in this world, who had a compulsive need for massively possessive experience. Typically, this tension would get resolved in either one of two ways: the secularization option, which would involve the denial of any higher order whatsoever; or the sacralization model, which would involve the collapse of the higher order into the historical process or political community itself. Although many thinkers have referred to the last few centuries as a “secular age,” it is more appropriately thought of as a sacralized one. This is the central feature of the belief in progress.
Those who sacralize the historical process will also operate with some sort of notion of two cities: the one we live in now, and the one that will emerge as a result of human action in this world. Typically, that emergent city resides in the imagination of secular prophets who have been given the vision to see what that new city looks like, as well as being given the plan of action (for which they are typically in charge) to bring it into being. They will often concentrate their powers into a particular place, which may be only symbolic in nature, that becomes the home for all the aspirations of the progressive dream. Typically, then, this secular city (meaning of this world, although not fully of this world) becomes the gathering place for the true believers who will gather power onto themselves and whose vision will radiate out into the surrounding world.
Regular readers of this column know I am a great admirer of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose meditations on democracy are more relevant today than they were nearly two centuries ago. The first volume of Democracy in America offers us a complex and ambiguous assessment of American democracy, appreciative in parts, but always accompanied by more than a hint of anxiety about what it might become. One of the most interesting sections of the work is entitled “The Main Causes Tending to Maintain a Democratic Republic in the United States,” that is, tend to keep democracies from indulging their excesses.
In this section he highlights the importance of both laws and mores (which he refers to as “habits of the heart,” the unspoken and unwritten rules of conduct that regulate our interactions with each other, such as table manners), and speaks a great deal about the importance of religion in a democracy.
Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot. Religion is much more needed in the republic they advocate than in the monarchy they attack, and in democratic republics most of all. How could society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God?
Thus Tocqueville continues the ancient habit of subordinating the historical city to an eternal one. Not for him is the formulation vox populi, vox dei.
Our interest is directed here to an almost throw-away observation Tocqueville makes in this section, something helping to maintain democracy that he calls “providential.” What if, he wondered, Americans become subjects of two cities, and one of them is not a heavenly city but rather an unheavenly one wherein political power becomes concentrated? What if the backwater that was Washington DC became a major city?
America has not yet any great capital whose direct or indirect influence is felt through the length and breadth of the land, and I believe that that is one of the primary reasons why republican institutions are maintained in the United States. In towns it is impossible to prevent men assembling, getting excited together, and forming sudden passionate resolves. Towns are like great meeting houses with all the inhabitants as members. In them the people wield immense influence over their magistrates and often carry their desires into execution without intermediaries. Therefore, to subject the province to the capital is to place the destinies of the whole empire not only into the hands of a section of the people, which is unfair, but also into the hands of the people acting on their own, which is very dangerous. Therefore the preponderance of capitals is a great threat to the representative system; it makes modern republics share this defect with those of antiquity, all of which perished because they did not know this system. [emphasis added]
When faced with the demands of two earthly cities, the republican energy, not to mention the resources and personnel, of the smaller unit is absorbed into the larger one. The capital city dictates to the hinterlands a set of demands that not only homogenize the political world, and not only serve the interests of a select group, but undermine the republican habits and actions of an otherwise free people. The whole population that is now no longer part of a ruling class and no longer able to rule themselves in their locales become little more than fodder for the ambitions of those who now rule, and thus does republican government become oligarchic. Indeed, many critics of the Constitution feared that it would eventually lead to republicanism being replaced by empire, that the “ten miles square” defining Washington DC, will be occupied by those who have “language and manners” that “distinguish them from the rest of the community and not assimilate them to it.”
A similar observation was made by Oswald Spengler in his The Decline of the West. He identified the rise of a powerful capital city as the surest sign that we have entered the decline phase of a civilization. As money flows to large cities, and especially the capital city (Washington DC has more wealthy communities than any other place in America), ambitious individuals will follow it, thus not only concentrating power and wealth in the capital city but creating a brain drain and thus further impoverishing the places these individuals leave behind. Spengler wrote:
…we find in every Culture (and very soon) the type of the capital city. This, as its name pointedly indicates, is that city whose spirit, with its methods, aims, and decisions of policy and economics, dominates the land. The land with its people is for this controlling spirit a tool and an object. The land does not understand what is going on, and is not even asked. In all countries of all late cultures, the great parties, the revolutions, the Caesarisms, the democracies, the parliaments, are the forms in which the spirit of the capital tells the country what is expected to desire and, if called upon, to die for.
Thus most Americans now find themselves citizens of two cities, one of which they can freely interact in, and the other that controls them. The latter is not a heavenly city that provides for us a measure of and for justice, but is rather an imperial city that draws off resources from its parts in order to feed its ambitions. But if earlier thinkers such as Plato and Saints Paul and Augustine are to be trusted, those ambitions will lead to collapse, unless they can restrained by a city beyond the powers of this world.
- Why did thinkers find it necessary to think about two cities?
- Are the empires of this world necessarily subject to collapse? Why?
- Does history move in cycles or in a line? What difference would that understanding make to our action?
- Is it possible for a political order to be just without reference to some sort of transcendent standard or enduring moral order?