The City

Man, says Aristotle, is the zoon politikon: the political animal.  I was talking about this last night with a friend; initially I said that Aristotle’s definition was somehow inadequate; perhaps because I am not much good with politics.  I was challenged to support my claim, and stumbled to a halt on working through it.  Politikon here doesn’t mean political in quite the modern sense, of course; it really means something more along the lines that man is the animal who lives in a city, who builds a city, who is a citizen.

I’ve been turning over in my mind something Charles Williams describes in his stories and essays, the idea that our purpose in life is to build the City.  Some of our time is taken up with maintaining — or destroying — earlier parts of the city, but when we ask ourselves what we have (or desire to have) made of our lives, this is what we’re making.  It can be beautiful or ugly, useful or gloriously inessential, a little park or a great cathedral, a palace or a home, a road or a garden.  We piece them together, vision and realization, across time and space.

For Charles Williams, the City we build on Earth, in historical life, is taken up into the real.  In The Place of the Lion he writes of the irruption of the Platonic Forms into our phenomenal reality, how they take up all the lesser unrealities, leaving only what belongs to the City.  How does it come to belong there?  By love, it seems; by being loved.  The outbuilding loved by the children playing at pirates stays; the ugly new suburbs full of stale lives (in his story) fall apart and return to dust.  The City is eternal, held outside of the vagaries of time.

Can we hold to that belief, that what is beloved — places, things, people — will never die, because they are what is real?  Even more: that they are made real by our love?  When someone weeps over the last of a species, or the shards of an ancient bowl, or the tree that was cut down in childhood — or rejoices in a sunrise, a meal, a moment, a summer — is that us seeing the real, building the City?  And then, after: After we pass our of the world, do we get finally to explore that City?

I don’t have answers, only questions.  But when I think of my life, and my actions, it helps me to ask what I am building, what I am working towards.  It helps to relate questions of eternity to its moving image, time.  I am quite sure that history, historical activity, is central to our being; we human beings are particulars.  We help (or hinder) the building of a shared work in time, each of us making our own mark, seeing a view or a possibility that no one ever saw before, citizens, we hope, of no mean city, which also is coming to be.

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7 thoughts on “The City

  1. I love, but am always kind of startled by, the fact that metaphors of city-dwelling are so old and so resonant compared to metaphors drawn from nature. This is a conception of reality that I can really get behind. Thanks for making me think about it again!

    I haven’t read Williams’ essays on this subject, but I think I should. Where in particular does he elaborate on this?

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