The Good of the City and Man


Some in history have attempted to associate the good of the city with the good of man. In ancient times the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle argued this very notion. The city, according to Aristotle, is developed to assist man in reaching the complete human life through the administering of the daily and non daily needs. Thus what is good for the city must in the end is ultimately good for man. Man’s own good is tied to the city because it is through the city that man is able to live the complete human life. Initially what develops is the family, which is unable to provide for the non daily needs of mankind. Thus families enter into compacts with others to form villages, which are unable to provide for the daily needs of man. Finally villages are forced to join to form cities, which are capable of providing both the daily and non daily needs and thus is the only order capable of allowing for the complete human life. The ultimate struggle at the root of Socratic dialogues of both Plato and Xenophon, and the treatises of Aristotle, is the question of whether or not it is better to live of life of activity (politics) or the contemplative life (studies.) The breaking point comes between the politician and the philosopher but it is never truly clear as to which is better. We are only left with the evidence that only in the city are both lives possible. Thus what is good for the city must ultimately be good for man as well.

By the time of the Renaissance philosophers began to look at the question of the city differently. In the 17th and 18th centuries England produced two of the greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke helped to redefine what the city is and man’s relationship to the city. No longer was the city a natural order which helps man attain the complete human life. Rather, now the city is looked upon as an escape from the natural order. For Hobbes this natural order is a state of war because the only law is that of survival. Without a government to maintain order and ensure everyone obeys the laws of nature and maintains their contracts it is left to the individual to secure their rights. If you imagine the world before pan-national organizations like the United Nations or NATO you see this principle at work. Nations exist in a state of nature with each other, and thus in a state of war. There is no governing body able to enforce the laws of nature or maintain the contracts between two nations. Instead the nation becomes the judge, jury and executioner leading to a state of war. John Locke attempts to appear less savage than Hobbes but essentially reaches the same conclusion. Man exists in a state of nature, which is a state of pure freedom. Through reason man is able to know the law of nature. Yet in the state of nature man is responsible for enforcing the law of nature and contracts. Life is truly short and brutish in a state of nature as Locke states. Ultimately this state of nature dissolves into a state of war causing man to seek to escape nature and enter into society. For the moderns nature was something to be conquered and therefore society cannot be viewed as natural as the Greeks viewed it. Society is formed to allow for an impartial judge, and a common law which is enforced by an outside force. Outside of these responsibilities, society is useless to man. Hobbes defines society, as a Leviathan, the modern view of society is not as man’s friend but as his enemy. Unchecked society can do whatever it pleases whether it is for the good of man or not. For Hobbes the magistrate can do whatever he wants to his citizens and they must obey, save of course when one’s life is in danger and you are obligated by the law of nature to defend yourself. Thus for our Founders, students of men like Hobbes and Locke they would have viewed society, our Constitution, as a necessary evil.

Yet in recent times, namely the end of the 19th century, a new understanding has developed which does not exclude the Leviathan nature of society but does not reject society’s ultimate benefit to mankind either. The men who were associated with the German school of thought developed by men like Marx and Nietzsche associated society with being able to advance man. The central concern of Nietzsche is breaking man out of his “all too human” nature and the creation of the ubermensch. Marx viewed society as a tool to help advance man along the historical timeline to a period where no government would be necessary. In America we call the men and women associated with this line of thought the Progressives. It was their belief that in order for man to be moral the government had to instill that morality. For the moderns, morality was already present in the form of the law of nature. In order to understand morality one merely needs reason to understand the law of nature. Yet the German Historicist school of thought rejected a universal morality outside of the confines of the society. This notion was what helped spur on the Prohibitionists who believed it was government’s responsibility to ban alcohol to help better mankind. What developed was a notion similar to the ancient understanding that what is good for the city is good for man. Unfortunately, they were unable to temper the Leviathan and encouraged it to grow to control every aspect of human life. Through this belief came the rise of the Totalitarian states of Communist Russia, Fascist Italy and Spain, and Nazi Germany.

What makes the Progressive era different than the Enlightenment? The Enlightenment believed it was the responsibility of the government in a way to enforce the moral code. Yet the Enlightenment had the law of nature, which dictated right and wrong to society. Society was obligated to create laws in accordance with the law of nature or face being deemed illegitimate—they were able to hide the notion that really morality is whatever the majority willed. With the destruction of God by German philosophers came the destruction of the law of nature (ultimately rooted in the Divine Law.) Now it is whichever faction with the biggest guns makes the morality. The society for the Enlightenment is only charged with the safety of the people. Their complete perfection is left in the hands of the individual person. As Locke argues in his Letter on Toleration, society is permitted to promote religion but not religious beliefs—in other words it is man’s responsibility to find his way to salvation by whatever means he thinks best, but society is able to promote a religious lifestyle and prevent dangerous factions from existing within society. The Progressives were less worried about safety and more with perfection of humanity. The Ancients throw a wrench into the wheel of both movements by encouraging the notion that the city provides safety (non daily needs) and that the city provides for the complete human life. However, that safety doesn’t mean that the city should be ignored as in the case of the Enlightenment where individuals can essentially live and let live. Political activity was central in the Ancient understanding of the city. A man who refused to engage in Politics was called an idiot by the Greeks. Their definition of the complete human life had nothing to do with the divine—the idea of man’s salvation and perfectibility would have been lost on Aristotle in the Progressive sense. Rather, complete human life tends towards two arenas: Politics or Philosophy. Both lives potentially can lead to the complete human life. The obligation to be involved in the political life, more than merely casting a vote, is at the heart of why the city’s goods are good for man. By the Enlightenment man’s obligation to society was vested in merely voting. The interests of man at large are often mixed with the passions and interests of the individual. Progressives would view that it is important to have experts in positions of authority, so that their own private passions and interests are eliminated. Man is no longer able to make his own decisions, but is left to the dictates of supposed experts. Thus, since society should be dictated by those of superior intellect (experts in a given field), what is good for the city and man are intrinsically connected.

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