A Donut Shaped Universe

If anyone every feels a tinge of excitement opening Plato’s Republic for the first time, many find the text quickly snuffs it out. This foundational philosophical work starts off with a rather mundane conversation. Then, when Plato starts to talk about how the state should be built, one of the first points he makes is that no one should more than one job, one task. Stay in your lane, and do not deviate. Otherwise, “great evil” would result.

Such pronouncements strike moderns as absurd and non-sensical. I like Plato and think The Republic deserves its place in the canon, but I too never really liked the explanation given by various commentators about this section of the work.

Ah . . . but Jane Jacobs may have discovered the answer–one I had never heard or considered before.

All readers know the pleasure of discovering a new author, with the prospect not only of the current book in front of you, but of all of their other works. Well, historians get the same thrill as seekers of fiction, and I have to say . . . Jane Jacobs has been too long absent from my life. I am not sure if I agree with her, but that is not the point. The best teachers you have had may not have agreed with you, but pushed you to think, explore, and wonder.

But I have another qualification for a good historian–one cannot be simply a “one thing after another” type of historian. I would say that such people are in fact not historians–however good their research skills–for historians must create meaning. This means that historians must consciously synthesize even if they do not wish to overtly systematize. Jacobs showed in her most famous work (which I have not read) The Life and Death of American Cities that she can pick order out of the seemingly scattered flotsam of different neighborhoods.

One wants to agree with such people, and I find it annoying for the moment that I cannot decide quite what I think about one of her perhaps lesser-known works, Systems of Survival, a book that attempts to unify the entirety of history into two moral systems, or two ways in which civilizations, organizations, or movements, can order themselves. I admire the audacity of the attempt, and I love too that she organizes her thoughts in the form of hypothetical conversations–more books should take this accessible approach.*

Jacobs broadly identifies two “casts of mind” throughout history that derive from these two moral modes of being. The first, the “Guardian,” and the second, the “Commercial.” I think that “Cosmopolitan” fits better (my first minor disagreement with Jacobs), but I will stick with her terms. She has two of her characters demonstrate this with the following conversation:

Guardian: The love of money is the root of all evil.

Commercial: The love of power is the root of all evil.

G: History tells of the dynasties and the fates of nations and empires.

C: History tells us of how social, material, and economic conditions have changed.

G: The most valuable archeological findings are of art, religious artifacts, tombs, of kings, etc.

C: The most valuable artifacts are clues to how people lived everyday life, how they made their living, their tools and materials.

G: War and preparations for war are normal and peace a hiatus from war.

C: No–peace is normal, war is the aberration.

G: Man is a territorial animal.

C: People are city-building animals.

G: Knowledge is a weapon or possibly an adornment

C: Knowledge is a tool.

G: Intelligence gives us insight into others’ way of thinking–we should focus on what divides us.

C: Intelligence means primarily the ability to pick up new skills and good reasoning.  We should focus on what unites us.

G: China is prosperous at our expense.

C: China’s prosperity raises everyone’s standard of living.  Economic gain is not zero-sum.

G: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

C: The state exists for the sake of the people–that’s Locke, Rousseau, Madison–the social contract.

These casts of mind come from what Jacobs describes as two “moral syndromes.” By “syndrome” she simply means that the various parts of the moral system necessarily run together. She calls these the “Commercial” and “Guardian” moralities, and part of the vim and dash of the book is that she commits to the idea that these two “syndromes” are all that have ever existed. The values of each system are . . .

The “Commercial” Syndrome

Shun Force–Come to voluntary agreements

Be honest–collaborate easily with strangers

Compete–but respect contracts and other voluntary agreements

Use initiative and creativity

Be open to new things–change should be embraced

Be thrifty and efficient

Promote comfort and convenience

Dissent is valuable for the sake of the task

Invest for productive and practical results

Be optimistic

The Guardian Moral Syndrome

Shun trading, and exert prowess

Be disciplined and obedient

Value tradition and the ‘old ways’

Respect hierarchy–strive for loyalty

Make rich use of leisure–be ostentatious

Dispense largesse

Group exclusivity strengthens internal identity

Treasure honor

Jacobs has much to say about both, and of course both go right and wrong in different ways. In general, most of the world used to subscribe to a Guardian morality and now certainly the first world at least has shifted to the Commercial syndrome. But the shift has not been absolute, as ancient Babylon and classical Athens strike me as mainly “Commercial” in nature, and even “Guardian” civilizations had Commercial aspects. Cities, and any civilization with a port, generally need to adopt a commercial mentality.

I found myself much taken with her analysis, as it explains a lot of the success and frustrations we have with our predicament. The benefits of the Commercial syndrome seem almost second-nature. Our religious and political freedoms arise from it. The material comforts we enjoy come from the speed of innovation (and its accompanying trampling of tradition) over the last 250 years.** Many of our “freedoms” have also resulted from a variety of moral innovations, especially in the area of sexuality. To point out the obvious, if we like democracy we have to value collaborating with strangers.^

But a second look reveals its weaknesses. A “Commercial” society will never build pyramids or cathedrals–hence the constant critique of the vanilla-tapioca nature of democratic culture. The promotion of comfort will make it hard for us to sacrifice without an extreme need. The combination of valuing comfort and dissent make it hard to act as one with common purpose.

The Guardian Syndrome obviously has its associations with aristocracy and its attendant abuses–be they spiritual (such as pride), moral, (indolence) or otherwise–we see right away. But the Guardian syndrome can also give more civic-mindedness & “noblesse oblige.” Those in a Guardian society know their place and need not fight for it. Most every kind of environmental advocate, for example, uses aspects of the Guardian syndrome, i.e., hedging in and protecting defined spaces, and knows the futility of their approach to a Commercial syndrome society (something that Paul Kingsnorth discovered).

But back to Plato . . .

Jacobs surmises that what Plato might have meant by his condemnation of having more than one job or “calling” strongly correlates to these moral syndromes. When we “mix” these syndromes together we have the possibility of dangerous moral hybrids. A few examples . . .

  • In the 1980’s NYC sought to help fix crime on their subways by injecting the Transit Police (police have a natural Guardian morality) with certain Commercial incentives. The cops got rewards for things like efficiency, i.e., numbers of arrests, and competition (promotions for higher numbers). The result–Transit Police began falsely arresting people least able to fight the charges–the poor–who were mostly minorities.
  • The Nazi’s took certain aspects of the Guardian morality (such as defense of the homeland) and combined them with Commercial science, whose ‘innovation’ had spawned new racial theories, military ideas, and industrial capacity.
  • Marx hated bourgeois Commercial morality. But all of his theories lay rooted in western political categories of thought. One result–A generally Guardian mentality in terms of communal unity, but applied on a scale of universal Commercial ideology. Guardians tend towards being apolitical, but the Soviet Union also united the Guardian aspect of loyalty with Commercial ideological innovation. So–to be on the wrong side of the prevailing ideology=disloyalty to the state.
  • I think that SJW’s make the same moral monster, but start from the other end–the Commercial values of openness, inclusion, and moral innovation combined with the Guardian mentality of rigid loyalty and protection of its own–i.e. “safe spaces.”

Yes, Jacobs also discusses positive moral hybrids, but seems to lean towards Plato’s conclusion that mixing them brings problems more often than solutions.

So far, so good. I found Jacobs’ thoughts stimulating and illuminating. Where I part ways with her comes with her theory of how these two moral syndromes developed. She postulates a material cause for each, with the guardian mentality arising from war, and the commercial from trade. But it is mind that generates matter, so to speak. It is mind that shapes matter. I won’t defend this proposition here, suffice to say, as a Christian I reject a strictly materialist argument for the origins of civilization. But, Jacobs has a point. These moral syndromes have ancient roots–more ancient than she supposes.

For civilizations to work, they must take into account both unity and diversity. Something must bring them together for a society to form at all, yet if this “something” binds them too tightly it will neglect their individuality. This has its roots in Being Itself. God is both Unity (1 God) and Diversity (3 Persons).

Christ, being both God and Man incarnated this duality/tension. He revealed to us both what I will “Open” and “Closed” ways of being. The Open way shows how God shows Himself in Nature (Ps. 19:1) or our fellow man (Mt. 25). Marriage is an icon of Christ and His Church. (Eph. 5). In other words, the Open way encourages us seek Truth in our experience of the world.

But just as often, we are encouraged to take the Closed way. We must gouge out our eye if it causes us to sin (Mt. 5). St. Paul often posits enmity between the world, the flesh, and the Spirit. Christ tells us that we must “hate” even our mother and father for the sake of the Kingdom. The Closed approach urges us to seek the Truth by narrowing, not broadening, our focus and shunning the trappings of this mortal coil that we might see God and God alone.

So–is the Open or Closed way superior? The answer, of course, is ‘Yes.”

I love that the world Jacob’s presents has coherence–two halves, coming together to make a whole. The problem is that, like a donut, it lacks a center. Without this center, Jacobs’ outstanding observations lack any real meaning. But with it . . . well, we have the possibility of real coherence.

And who would complain about having another bite of a donut?

Update . . . if only Jane Jacobs were here to comment on the Blue Angels flyover that happened Saturday (May 2, 2020), she might argue that one’s reaction to the event would pefectly pigenhole a person into one of the two aforementioned moral syndromes–if we keep in mind that heavily symbolic and “ostentatious” nature of the event:


  • This display wasted money that could have been used to so much better practical good
  • This display wasted time and effort.
  • This display foolishly misdirected our attention–encouraging the American public to look at the shiny object, rather than a) the problem itself, or b) the politicians and agency heads responsible for gross mismanagement of the whole pandemic.


  • We live by symbols, and having our most famous and powerful planes flyover gave the nation a powerful symbol of American pride and resolve.
  • These “unnecessary” displays are in fact, absolutely necessary. We are not materialists–we need such acts to lift us out of the mundane of our lives. We need ‘elevated’ out of our current circumstances. We need inspiration as a people if we are to win the “war” against the virus.
  • Leaders act responsibly when they provide these symbols for the people–something to inspire awe and help unify them.

*Another notable fact about Jacobs–she had no college degree and can be therefore classified as an amateur. Toynbee would have rejoiced.

**Though–different writers from different perspectives, such as Tyler Cowen, Ross Douthat, Peter Thiel, and even Jane Jacobs herself (in her last book Dark Age Ahead) have declared that innovation has essentially ceased in western economies.

^This kind of collaboration also seems on the decline, in Congress, in marriages (Republicans don’t marry Democrats, and vice-versa), etc.–and this may herald a decline in democratic practice.