Monday, October 27, 2008

City in History

The City in History, God as Friend and Neighbour
By John Taylor; 2008 Oct 25, 9 'Ilm 165 BE

Lewis Mumford, The City in History, Its origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, Harcourt, Inc. San Diego New York London, 1961

I want to pause in my study of the Panorthosia to consider Lewis Mumford's book about the role of cities (this is no book review, I've only read the first dozen or so pages). Consulting this classic book in its field provided me with some powerful insights into the origin and continued importance not only of the city but also of villages, towns and indeed the world.

Before, there were civilizations based on capitol cities there were smaller villages and towns. How did they come about? For some unknown reason nomads and hunter-gatherers gathered into villages, and then into larger, more permanent places of residence. Such events are lost to prehistory, but as Mumford points out, at least some scholars have speculated that the first villages grew into towns out of a religious impulse, out of our visceral need to visit a holy place.

"... spiritual stimulus no less than trade remains one of the essential criteria of the city, a witness to its inherent dynamism, as opposed to the more fixed and indrawn form of the village, hostile to the outsider. (Lewis Mumford, The City in History, p. 10)

In these holy places we build our worldview, we form an image of our place in the universe by simply walking on ground associated with our Creator. The pilgrimage to this sanctified locale epitomizes our entire journey in life from cradle to grave. From that trip comes the political order we make out of our new understanding, whatever form it may take.

"The first germ of the city, then, is in the ceremonial meeting place that serves as the goal for pilgrimage: a site to which family or clan groups are drawn back, at seasonable intervals, because it concentrates, in addition to any natural advantages it may have, certain 'spiritual' or supernatural powers, powers of higher potency and greater duration, of wider cosmic significance, than the ordinary processes of life. And though the human performances may be occasional and temporary, the structure that supports it, whether a paleolithic grotto or a Mayan ceremonial center with its lofty pyramid, will be endowed with a more lasting cosmic image." (p. 10)

Muhammad, then, made a lasting contribution to the advance of civilization when He began a formalized, universal institution of pilgrimage applicable to all Muslims. He started with the ancient center of the Bible, and then turned it to "the city," Medina. As Islam spread across Asia, Europe and Africa its contribution was to take the spiritual basis of urban life, the need to journey and visit a holy place, and make it into what was called the Umma, a broader community than a tribe or city, one formalized by common prayer and pilgrimage. Thus began the nation.

Revolutionary as it was to have cities, and the agriculture that supports cities, the village remained fundamental. It made an essential, lasting contribution to human happiness, the neighbour.

"Before the city came into existence the village had brought forth the neighbor: he who lives near at hand, within calling distance, sharing crises of life, watching over the dying, weeping sympathetically for the dead, rejoicing at a marriage feast or a childbirth. Neighbors hurry to your door, as Hesiod reminds us, while even kinsmen `dawdle over their gear.'" (pp. 14-15)

The vexed question, "Who is my neighbour?" was what Jesus addressed with His message of love and spirit. The parable of the Good Samaritan, told about a pilgrim in answer to that question as to who is our neighbour, was that it is not those nearest or most like us but those who love by doing most good who are the true neighbours, no matter where they live, whose tribe or family they belong to, or how important a place in the social order they may occupy. Combine Muhammad's teaching of formalized religious pilgrimage with Jesus's teaching of universal neighbourliness, and we got the ability to break away from clannishness and tribalism and gather into larger units without losing contact with nature or one another. What hope would we have of a global village without any of that?

It is from these twin pillars, neighbourly love and journey to sanctity, that Baha'u'llah raises the universal moral order of a united humanity. Just as it was impossible to be fully human living in a village without connecting with one's spiritual neighbours by respecting the holy times and places of fellow villagers, the same is true on a planetary level today, as Baha'u'llah insists: "That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race." (Tablets, 167) Mumford talks about how this sense of what makes us wholly human developed as cities gradually grew over the millennia,

"The order and stability of the village, along with its maternal enclosure and intimacy and its oneness with the forces of nature, were carried over into the city: if lost in the city at large, through its overexpansion, it nevertheless remains in the quarter or the neighborhood. Without this communal identification and mothering, the young become demoralized: indeed, their very power to become fully human may vanish, along with neolithic man's first obligation -- the cherishing and nurturing of life. What we call morality began in the mores, the life-conserving customs, of the village. When these primary bonds dissolve, when the intimate visible community ceases to be a watchful, identifiable, deeply concerned group, then the 'We' becomes a buzzing swarm of 'I's', and secondary ties and allegiances become too feeble to halt the disintegration of the urban community. Only now that village ways are rapidly disappearing throughout the world can we estimate all that the city owes to them for the vital energy and loving nurture that made possible man's further development." (p. 15)

The implication of this longer perspective on the city is clear. We got to where we are by forming alliances with nature at all levels, from the tiniest microorganisms to the larger predators, including cats and dogs. Now that we are on the brink of a world civilization our survival is being threatened because, having lost touch with a common point of pilgrimage, we imagine that it is possible to make it by breaking our alliance and dominating and exploiting our former allies.

I was astonished to learn of the long term role that pigs have had as walking "departments of sanitation" in the following passage from Mumford. Now we factory farm pigs in cruel industrial operations that have larger ecological footprints than large cities. Yet, once upon a time, pigs actually helped cities get rid of their garbage.

"Originally the dog was less a hunting animal than a watchman and a scavenger: without the dog and the pig it is doubtful if the close-packed community could have survived its sanitary misdemeanors: indeed, the pig served as an auxiliary department of sanitation right down to the nineteenth century, in supposedly progressive towns like New York and Manchester. Then, too, when grains became plentiful, the cat -- and in Egypt the domesticated snake -- served to keep down the rodents that carried disease and sapped the food supply. But one must add, in fairness, a word about the negative side: the mouse, the rat, and the cockroach also took advantage of the new settlements, and formed an all-too permanent attachment." (pp. 14-15)

Even these latter, unwanted alliances, are not as bad as Mumford thought. There is video on the TED website ( of a lecture given by a guy who challenged this old presupposition that we are natural enemies and must inevitably try to exterminate all vermin and other dependent species that cross our path.

He decided to start an alliance that has never existed before. He designed and built, using principles of operant conditioning, a "crow vending machine" that trains crows, a species to be found within twenty miles of all human settlements except Antarctica, to go and find lost coins in exchange for peanut snacks. As he says, it is perfectly possible to make friends with any number of other species and make them as useful as pigs were for thousands of years in cleaning up detritus and sewage created by city life. 

As subjects of a God Who calls us His Friend, this would seem to be the right thing to do.

John Taylor

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