Loving your city

June 11 2008

A life in London

Enchanted London

Our surviving records […] testify that, from the earliest date for which they provide evidence, the normal feelings of a citizen towards his city have been pride and love. Read the encomium of Athens that Thucydides has put into Pericles’ mouth in the Funeral Speech in honour of the Athenians killed in the first campaigning season of the Atheno-Peloponnesian War of 431-404 B.C. Recall the pride in his home-town, Tarsus, that Saint Paul expresses in words that are attributed to him in the Acts of the Apostles. Read Browning’s poem, “Up in a Villa – Down in the City”, in which this nineteenth-century English poet enters, with convincing imaginativeness, into the feelings of an impoverished Italian nobleman who has to economize by living in his country-house though he longs to be in a house in the city square. Read Goethe’s account, in Wahrheit und Dichtung, of his childhood in Frankfurt-am-Main in the middle years of the eighteenth century. Feel in your own heart the pain that was felt by Thucydides and by Cicero and by Dante when they were exiled, and by Machiavelli when he was rusticated. Thucydides continued to love Athens and to pine for her, even though he had a poor opinion of her democratic regime and believed, with just cause, that he had been treated by her unjustly. Dante’s and Machiavelli’s feelings for Florence were the same. In every letter that Dante wrote after he had been exiled, he styled himself “exul immeritus”, but he continued to yearn to be repatriated nevertheless.

As for Cicero, he missed Rome even when he was away from Rome, not under compulsion as an exile, but in one of his spells of voluntary withdrawal to a nearby country-house, in order to enjoy the peace and quiet that he needed for doing his literary work. Cicero, like Thucydides, had a poor opinion of his city’s current political regime. He came from a country town; he had thrown himself into law practice and conservative party politics in the metropolis with a naïve belief in the probity of the decadent Roman aristocracy of his day. He eventually became disillusioned with his aristocratic fellow conservative politicians through a long course of distressing experience, but he never became disillusioned with Rome herself. This politically unedifying capital of the Mediterranean World fascinated Cicero for the same reason that Browning’s imaginary nobleman was fascinated by his miniature city. The boon that Cicero found in the City of Rome was a stimulus that was exquisitely exhilarating. His expression of his attachment to Rome is eloquent. “The City, the City! Devote yourself to her and live in her incomparable light. As a young man I came to a conclusion from which I have never since wavered. Absenting oneself in any circumstance spells eclipse and discredit for any of us who have the capacity to add to Rome’s glory by our labours.” [Footnote: Ad Familiares, Book XI, Letter 12, § 2.] In the next generation, Virgil called Rome “the loveliest thing in the World”, [footnote: Virgil, Georgics, II, 534.] and manifestly he meant what he said, with no reservations. Cicero’s and Virgil’s love for Rome is the more impressive considering that each of them, like their fellow Roman citizen Saint Paul, had come originally from a small town of which he continued to be proud. Cicero loved his Arpinum and Virgil loved his Mantua; but each of them had a place in his heart for Rome as well. While the rare capital city was stimulating, the standard miniature city was cosy. Within the shelter of the city walls the artist and the scholar – Dürer in Nürnberg and Casaubon in Geneva – could work in peace and freedom, and these precious gifts won the beneficiary’s heart for the city that bestowed them.

The background to this passage is Toynbee’s belief that modern city-dwellers do not love their cities, which are ugly, and will do anything to leave them, on holiday or in retirement. As places for retirement he mentions the French Riviera, Southern California, Montreux and Vevey!

It is […] a spiritual misfortune for a worker to be alienated emotionally from the place in in which he has done his work, has earned his living, and had made his mark, for good or for evil, on the history of the human race.

Doesn’t this come under the heading of what one could call dated pessimism? The categories of that alarm, at least among post-war British academics of Toynbee’s type and upbringing, were, in no particular order:

– the assumption, unchanged since the Victorian era, that the “mass-produced manufactures” which the city “pours out”, to quote phrases in this chapter, will be ugly

– the fear that the city will extend itself across the whole world until there is no more space left

– the belief that work has been made permanently boring by industrial processes

– concern at the implications of the coming age of “leisure”

– the fear that computers will be used to control us

I remember an English academic, at about the time this book was published, looking up at the night sky with a grimace and saying something about the “computerised moon”.

I remember thinking that he should get a life.

I’m not saying that these beliefs and fears were misplaced. But they have been modified. They came out of the general pessimism of post-War Britain, 1945-79, partly inherited from the pessimism of the 1920s; and from the psychology of a class that felt itself to be stranded and bereft, even if Toynbee himself was too educated to have had such negative and class-bound emotions. But I don’t think Toynbee had an inkling of how modern people in, say, Taipei, Tokyo or Toronto relate, or were about to start relating, in a positive way to their cities.

Do they love them in the old sense? Many of them love their lives in them. Old-fashioned love of city and love of country were strong at the world’s point of maximum cultural diversity in 1900.

He says that all people want to do now is get out of the city as fast as possible, but modern leisure travel isn’t only a habit of city-dwellers and many holidays are taken in other cities. And he himself, in the same book, quotes Seneca and Juvenal on the stress of living in ancient Rome. Romans also escaped to the country. This is mid-century English pessimism.

Toynbee was a Londoner. He had no emotional relationship with the English countryside, though he did with the Greek countryside.

The passage I’ve quoted reads as if it had been dictated. Whether dictated or not, we should blame sloppy editing by OUP for Wahrheit und Dichtung instead of Dichtung und Wahrheit and Up in a Villa instead of Up at a Villa.

Cities on the Move, OUP, 1970

8 Responses to “Loving your city”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The protection which the small city offered Dürer and Casaubon is the same protection that the modern Taipei-ites, Tokyoites and New Yorkers feel, to refer to my examples. Cities can be loved, but they also offer ordered space for private life.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Compare Browning’s Italian nobleman with Lucretius’s aimless Roman, who leaves his villa to visit the town, finds nothing to do there, rushes home, and falls asleep.


    Perhaps Maugham took the title of his novella Up at the Villa from Browning.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Wired (select More when you’ve finished scrolling down):


  4. […] of human settlements which he called Ekistics. He had what now seem rather dated ideas of the World City or Ecumenopolis. I have mentioned Doxiadis already in this blog, and will look at Toynbee’s […]

  5. […] Loving your city. Chesterton, of course, loved […]

  6. […] See an old post on dated pessimism. […]

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