Urban bliss

The City of God, Paris, BnF, Français 21 f.2 (Paris, 15th century)

Everyone wants to live in a big city. Cities attract talent and workforce. It is in cities that dreams are made and unmade. The urban elite may dream of green pastures, rivers and 0% population density, but surely that’s more of a ‘retreat dream’. Sociability, good ideas, urbanity, diversity, inclusiveness, cosmopolitanism happen in the big city. We’ve called for the defunding and abolition of everything except the big city. Everyone should have a holiday or secondary home in the countryside, but the city is the hub, the convergence plane, the terrarium of a life worth living and a spirit worth growing. We can’t live outside the city, and if we claim otherwise, it’s often the case that the rural is seen as the new urban, a new type of city environment at small scale. City-dwellers have always despised the country folk, the citadino looking down on the contadino, the bourgeois on the farmer, the converted on the pagan.

It’s never been a tale of two cities, but one between a city and the rest. Augustine’s City of God and the city of man, which, to believe the great Christian thinker, is not really a city.

For the ancient Romans, the city was a despicable place. The sentiment was echoed by the genteel folk of the Renaissance, who adopted the Roman resentment for the city as quickly as their love of Cicero. The Romans genuinely dreamt of green pastures and bucolic lifestyles, and it’s not a surprise that the Roman understanding of the afterlife had more in common with the Cotswolds than with the Champs Elysées. The city was nevertheless the centre of the Roman lifestyle because politics was at the centre of the Roman elite. But every aristocrat – meaning those who could afford the lifestyles they chose – couldn’t wait to run away to their villa(s) in the countryside. The urban landscape was a concession. The ideal environment was one of demographic scarcity and natural immersion.

We owe the rehabilitation of the city to Christianity and to its emphasis on the heavenly Jerusalem. No more Elysian fields, meadows and riverbeds, no more mountain greenery where God paints the scenery. The crowds of the saved populate huge cities – in fact only one, whose layout and architecture has tortured theologians for the last two millennia. The end is an urban new beginning. The Book of Revelations is the disclosure of the eternal city. The universality of the Gospel could only find its accomplishment within the wallless heavenly city, where the cosmopolitan redeemed find their own place in the crowd.

For all of the world’s rejection of Christianity, it seems it still cannot commit to a pagan rurality. We may have excised ‘of God’ from Augustine’s formulation, but we’re still wandering through the empty streets of our secular urban selves.

Or, as U2 has it,

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields […]
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls […]
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for

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