“Cain built a city, but Abel. . .”

Soon Romney will have enough delegates secured and the 2012 presidential campaign will begin in earnest.  All who lack excitement are forgiven.

One theme of the coming campaign is sure to be the economy.  Candidates will talk about creating jobs, and innovation as the key to a strong economy, and a strong economy as the key to a strong country.

Sir Peter Hall’s Cities and Civilization is quite a long read and I have just started it.  But already I am intrigued at the prospect of trying to achieve historical perspective on just what makes cities thrive, and how “golden ages” come about.  Though I have just begun, a few things have already struck me:

  • Vienna glittered in the late 19th and early 20th century, but not for its creature comforts.  Hall noted that the Viennese remained almost indifferent to the new technologies that had arisen in their time.  In contrast to other cities, suburbs had no piped water, with hardly any phones, and almost no bathrooms.
  • Vienna’s cultural golden age owed much to  immigrants, or at least, non-Tuetonic Viennese like the Jewish middle and upper-middle classes (cheers from the left and libertarians).
  • In Periclean Athens, perhaps the most glittering of all western epochs, citizens faced no direct taxation (cheers from the right), but all were more or less expected to voluntarily donate money to the state, especially the rich (cheers from the left).  Indirect taxes had erratic application.  Of course we should realize that Athens financed much of their democracy through tribute from their overseas empire (cheers from hopefully no one!).
  • As in Vienna, Athenian creature comforts practically did not exist.  We are used to the glory of the Acropolis, but archaeologists reveal that Athenian homes were bare and primitive.  Athenian diets did not venture beyond the staples, and foreign visitors remarked how badly planned Athens seemed (cheers from the “back in my day” crowd).

Both Athens and Vienna created golden ages, by seemingly

  • Not caring about technology
  • Combining a curious mix of strong individualism and strong public attachments.
  • Not caring much about personal wealth.

As Kenneth Clarke noted, civilization needs a moderate amount of wealth to get by, but too much money will make any nation lethargic.

In short, vibrant economies and technological innovation will not create greatness.  Greatness comes by seeking something else, something higher.  St. Augustine said as much when he wrote in his The City of God,

Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none.

And C.S. Lewis discussed something similar when he elucidated the principle of “First and Second Things,” in his classic essay of the same name, excerpted here below:

The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping.

The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.

It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?

Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made.

. . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.

I don’t know if I would have voted for Santorum had he received the nomination, but good Catholic that he is, he rightly stated that, “[W]e hear this all the time: cut spending, limit the government, everything will be fine. No, everything’s not going to be fine.  There are bigger problems at stake in America.”