Visitors to Charleston sometimes take note of the Latin inscriptions on historical plaques: Collegium Carolopolitanum, Diocesis Carolopolitana, and, most commonly, Carolopolis, the Latin version of Charleston’s name, which sounds like one of those Greek cities created by Alexander the Great and his successors somewhere in the hinterlands of Bithynia or Afghanistan. Charleston has always been its own place, a town whose sense of the past can make European visitors feel at home. Charleston used to be a world apart even from the rest of South Carolina, and, since the Collegium Carolopolitanum did not drop its Latin requirement for the A.B. until the late 1960’s, it seems appropriate that its name slips so easily into a classical form ending in –polis.
Most people know that polis is the Greek word for city. To be more accurate, it is a many-layered word that we conveniently translate with the simple English word city, which comes (by way of French) from the Latin civitas. Civitas, of course, does not really mean “city” in our sense of an urban sprawl exploited by a corrupt government. A civitas was a commonwealth, a body of citizens (cives) and the institutions of their common life—that is, their constitutional order.
The Greek polis is an even richer word, the central social and political fact of Greek civilization. There were parts of Greece in which the polis did not develop, but the world of ancient Hellas was dotted with hundreds of poleis, cities that were also independent countries. Mogens Herman Hansen, the Danish classicist who has specialized in the study of the polis, estimates there were about 1,000 known Greek poleis of varying sizes. The set of institutions and procedures by which the citizens (politai) managed their common business was called a politeia, a word that can be translated abstractly as “constitution” and more concretely as “commonwealth,” and when the Romans translated this concept into Latin they used their own term, res publica, the people’s business. Plato’s Republic (in Greek, the Politeia) is not a diatribe against monarchy—as the title would have suggested in 18th-century England—but a treatise on how the citizens of a polis should conduct their affairs—that is, ta politika. When Aristotle famously defined man as a zoon politikon, a political animal, he was not suggesting that we were beasts who sought power over others by manipulating elections but that we were beings who lived together in organized societies that have evolved from the family.
In talking about alternatives to the Leviathan of the nation-state and to the super-Leviathan of global government, American conservatives usually concentrate on states and provinces or occasionally on subpolitical entities like families and informal communities. What they tend to leave out is the form of political association that virtually defines the civilization of the West, the so-called city-state. This rather unsatisfactory term (borrowed from the cleverer German Stadtstaat) is used to designate a variety of distinctive institutions: the Greek polis, the Roman civitas, and the medieval Italian città—a word that descends, like the institution itself, from ancient Italy and the Roman Empire. We could throw in for good measure the roughly 100 independent and semi-independent city-states of medieval Germany, the Aztec/Central American city-states of the 15th century, and, indeed, the many city-states of the ancient Middle East.
The modern concepts of citizenship and citizens, then, are rooted in the idea of a city, and these roots were still visible in Shakespeare’s London, where citizen referred to a legitimate member of the chartered corporation known as London and did not apply to any yokel or foreign merchant recently come to town, much less to the urban rabble who worked for wages. A “citizen of the world” is thus a contradiction in terms.
Since at least the 18th century, the progress of civilization has usually been portrayed as proceeding from small political units (villages and towns) to ever larger units (dukedoms, kingdoms, and, ultimately, empires) all the way to the embryonic universal empire that George Bush I called the New World Order.
In fact, the political and cultural development of Western commonwealths is more like the process described by Aristotle in connection with other human pursuits, such as poetry or rhetoric: From crude beginnings, the art form or social institution is gradually developed and refined until it reaches a peak of perfection from which, as it becomes more cosmopolitan, it declines. The myth of progress, when applied to the history of science and technology, has some merit, but in more important areas of human life—what Aristotle called the ethical sciences of poetry and politics—the trajectory is the more organic process of generation, blossoming, fruition, decay, and death.
The so-called city-state, far from being a primitive stage of development, has always been the political form in which and through which the heights of human achievement have been reached, and nation-states and empires, rather than being evolutionary pinnacles, are actually phases of decadence and decline, both for the subjects and slaves who are exploited and robbed of their initiative and for the culture as a whole.
Contrast the creativity of the Sumerian and Akkadian cities of the third millennium b.c., in which the first breakthroughs in every known art were made, with the stagnation of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires that were content to live off the earlier accomplishments and make Sumerian and Akkadian classical languages.
The most stunning case is the history of the archaic and classical Greeks, from the time of Homer to the time of Aristotle. It is the most creative period in human history, a time when literary and artistic high points were reached that have never been reached again, when the foundations of history and science and philosophy were laid, and the most significant works of philosophy composed. In the succeeding centuries, the Greek spirit could not be suppressed by the kings, tyrants, and emperors who tried to create regional and global states, but as brilliant as Hellenistic culture is, it shines by reflected light. The cosmopolitan culture of Alexandria is a marvelous achievement, but tiny Sicyon gave the world some of its best sculpture and painting, and Elea, a Phocaean colony in Italy, and Acragas in Sicily are home to three of the greatest ancient philosophers. Sicyon and Elea, once they were conquered and merged into kingdoms and empires, lost their creative spark, and their ruins are of interest only to archaeologists. Agrigento, splendid in its devastation, remains to hint at what we have lost.
The next most significant peak in our civilization was reached in medieval Italy, when the turbulent republics of Venice, Genova, Pisa, Siena, Lucca, and Florence (to name only six) battled it out for supremacy often in regions smaller than a typical American county. A small city like Pisa produced a great mathematician (Fibonacci), the fresco paintings of the Last Judgment, and the most magnificent complex of buildings since the Acropolis, the Piazza dei Miracoli, which is home to the cathedral, baptistery, Campo Santo, and campanile. Siena gave birth to the first great school of Italian painting, and who needs to speak of Florence—her Dante and Petrarch, her cathedral, her painters? The wealth and power of the imperial papacy failed to rival the beauty of Pisa or Siena, and he would be foolish indeed who tried to name a Roman poet who rivaled Guido Cavalcanti, much less Dante.
Unfortunately, when Florence finally succeeded in uniting all Tuscany except for Lucca, she drained the other cities—Siena, Arezzo, and Pisa—of their wealth and creative energies. As the late Leo Raditsa pointed out to me, as we walked the streets of Florence, it is almost possible to date the Florentine conquest of a place by comparing the buildings built before and after. By the 1730’s, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was a stagnant land ruled by the feeble-minded and repulsively degenerate last Medici, so lovingly described by Harold Acton, and, in the end, it became one of the duller provinces of the Habsburgs.
But, you will say, what about the centralized states of ancient Egypt and Rome? What indeed? It has been argued (e.g., by Stephan Seidlmayer) that the most creative periods in ancient Egyptian history are the periods before and between the great kingdoms, when decentralized city-states encouraged a blossoming of the arts that the great dynasties could only imitate. The case of Rome is even more illustrative. Rome began as a city-state, then became a dominant member of a confederation of Latin and Italian cities, and ultimately a mistress of an empire; Rome’s peak of creativity, however, was during the republic and in the first generation of the Empire, run by men who had grown up in the Republic. But—and this point is very germane to us Americans today—the much misunderstood Roman Empire was not a centralized state at all, but a confederacy of civitates, each governing itself autonomously. Where the Romans conquered a people that had not developed the civitas, they simply created civitates out of market towns and tribal institutions.
Neoconservatives and other national socialists will grant the quaintness and charm of small republics, but great empires, they declare, bring great blessings to the citizens who are protected by the imperial armed forces and grow rich on imperial commerce. This argument is easy to rebut; it was rebutted as long ago as the first century a.d., when Juvenal complained that in creating a universal empire, Rome had permitted the Orontes to flow into the Tiber. The primary beneficiaries of empire are not the original subjects or citizens, whether Roman or Anglo-American, but conquered aliens who invade the imperial nation like so many maggots devouring the flesh of a dying host.
“But,” they insist, “this polyglot multicultural empire is the fulfillment of the American project that imposed itself on the continent, subduing Indians and Southerners and jettisoning the burden of British culture.” It is hard to mount a rational critique of America’s Manifest Destiny, an idea that belongs more to the realm of political theology than to the everyday reality of American history. Down to the early to mid-19th century, our history is the story of autonomous colonies and sovereign states to whom the peoples of Massachusetts or South Carolina owed primary allegiance. This reality has often been misrepresented by nationalist historians, who pretend that somehow America existed somewhere—perhaps in the mind of Zeus—independent of the states that created the union.
Here is one small fact, drawn from the history of South Carolina. In the spring of 1776, South Carolina appointed a committee to draw up a new constitution for an independent state—some months before the Declaration of Independence. When, in February of the next year, this constitution was emended, an oath of allegiance was drawn up that required Carolinians to “acknowledge that the State of South Carolina is and of right ought to be a free, independent and sovereign state.” Anyone who refused to swear was banished and given a year in which to dispose of his property. Similar oaths were required in several other states.
There is an even simpler and more direct proof. Of course, the states were sovereign and independent, because that is the meaning of the word state. A restaurant, by definition, is a place where people pay to consume food; England was a kingdom because the head of state was a king, and a state is by definition a self-governing political entity.
Every good thing distinctively American has been the result of local or regional patriotism and not of the ideology of national empire. The greatest American scholar of the 19th century, the Charlestonian Basil Gildersleeve, was an ardent Southerner who rode with Jeb Stuart. He knew that true patriotism was always locally grounded: “The man whose love for his country knows no local roots is a man whose love for his country is a poor abstraction.” Later, writing of the love of Vermonters for their impoverished state, he observes: “Take away this local patriotism and you take out all the color that is left in American life.”
To be continued . . .