Living vs. Living well

Do cities still exist in the West? That is a question one must ask after reading Aristotle’s Politics (3.9). For him, a true city is not formed when people share a location, prevent injustice, and facility commerce. It is not merely for the sake of living. A true city is most importantly a political community formed for the sake of living well. A group of individuals contrapoliescted only to ensure living is merely an alliance between separate and independent individuals. It is an agreement to leave each other alone. It is like, to use Aristotle’s example, the Tyrrhenians and the Carthaginians forming compacts concerning “imports [and] agreements to abstain from injustice.” It is more than just sharing a location, as if forming walls around neighboring peoples, such as the Corinthians and Megarians (who were neighbors), would form a city. It is not one formed only for self-preservation, tolerance, and maximizing one’s ability to do whatever he or she wants as long as it does not interfere with another’s ability to do whatever he or she wants. People who have “nothing in common except…exchange and alliance” cannot form a true city.

A true city is “the community in living well both of households and families [or extended families] for the sake of a complete and self-sufficient life.” This arises from intermarriage, festivals and the “pastimes of living together.” In short, it is “the work of affection.” A true city is one in which the people have a common genealogy and shared customs, habits, and affections—all for the sake of “noble actions, not for the sake of living together.” Aristotle sees each city as having a different set of social expectations, cultural events, and understandings of the good life that unite the people in affection. The particulars that constitute virtue are not left to the individual, nor do individuals have the right to their own. What constitutes living well is always a matter of the community, not the individual alone.

Edmund Burke later repeats this Aristotelian sentiment:

Society is indeed a contract…but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is…a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. It…[is] a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

Burke, with Aristotles, sees the true community as one held together by affections rooted in particulars and developed, passed down, and instilled as our way of the good life.

So, are there any cities left in our modern age? At first glance, it would seem not, since the prevailing message today is “authenticity.” That is, one ought to conform only to one’s own self-projection, developed independently from all those forces trying to master you. But, at the same time, Americans, at least, all seem to watch, listen, and read the same things and are outraged at the same things. And those who shun this conformity conduct themselves in irony, motivated by nothing but opposition through mockery to the norm (hence, Jon Stewart), not by any norm or standard that can stand alone. So there seems to be some unity.

But this modern unity is not established and maintained by a contract between the dead, living and unborn. It is formed by powerful commercial and state forces taking advantage of the vacuum left when heritage no longer matters. Hobbes’ Leviathan, as a unifying force, is not natural, but the result of the breakdown of a common and substantial notion of living well—of the good life. After anarchy has been loosed upon the world — partly through diversity, multiculturalism, and atomization —  societies require mastery to maintain order, and ours has been mastered by the mass-culture market and the state. That’s the irony of it: we are each “free to be me,” yet only by being mastered by the most impersonal of forces.

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