Chapter Five: The City Transforms Man

For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible….You—you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest, or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot. There, Herzog, thought Herzog, since you ask for the instance, is the way it runs. (Saul Bellow, Herzog)

12th century mosaics from Monreale Catherdral, Sicily, 2011

12th century mosaics from Monreale Catherdral, Sicily, 2011

City life demands cooperation and submission to an agreed upon system of order. As Bellow’s fictional Herzog tells himself, one either submits to the realities of the city or lives beyond its reach, as an idiot (the word comes from the Greek, meaning ‘private individual,’ i.e. one who lives on his own). A complex social hierarchy developed in ancient city that far exceeded any differentiations made by hunters-gathers. Because Mesopotamian (and later Hebrew) cosmology construed earthly existence in the city as a poorer reflection of the divine order, human society, like its heavenly counterpart, was strictly stratified. As the gods had a pecking order based upon primacy and function, so too did men. While all humans shared their mortality (one of the main plots to the Epic of Gilgamesh deals with the hero’s realization of man’s mortality), some men, to borrow from Orwell, were clearly more equal than others. Just as some gods were feared and waited on by lesser ones, so too were greater men feared and waited on by those lower down the social ladder.  At the lowest base of the urban social pyramid stood the laborers and slaves, at the peak the absolute ruler. Priests, scribes, merchants, soldiers, craftsmen, peasants, servants, and free-men, filled the stations in between, but the king alone, at the highest point, caught the full rays of the sun.

Urban historian Lewis Mumford makes some salient remarks on how this social stratification, this press of human potential, reached critical mass within the city, producing the first explosion of civilized arts:

Segregated economic functions and segregated social roles in turn created  distinct precincts within the city: marketplace, temple, royal household, slums. And the king’s special precinct, the interior citadel (literally the ‘little city’), became a crucial element in expanding the civilizing effects of urbanization. As the outer shell of the city grew, its interior likewise expanded and transformed those within: not merely its physical inner spaces, within the sacred precinct, but its inner life. Dreams welled up out of that interior and took form; fantasies turned into drama, and desire flowered into poetry and dance and music. The city itself thus became a collective expression of love, detached from the urgencies of  sexual reproduction. Activities that sprang to life only on festal occasions in ruder communities became part of the daily existence of the city. And what began as a wholesale transformation of the environment became a transformation of man.

This release of creativity was not, I need hardly emphasize, one of the original purposes of human settlement, nor yet of the urban implosion itself; and it is only partially and fitfully that it has characterized the development of cities. Even today, only a small part of the total energies of the urban community go into education and artistic expression: we sacrifice far more to the arts of destruction and extermination than to the arts of creation. But it is through the performance of creative acts, in art, in thought, in personal relationships, that the city can be identified as something more than a purely functional organization of factories and warehouses, barracks, courts, prisons, and control centers. The towers and domes of the historic city are reminders of that still unfulfilled promise.

The rulers of the urban citadel — the first priests and kings of Sumer — monopolized knowledge and power and, thereby, exerted their control over Mesopotamia, but most of the functions that they devised only after many thousands of years was collectively distributed to all civilized cities.
In the citadel’s bodyguard, we find the first army and the first police officers; and though we cannot identify the separate buildings until a late date, the first housing for purely military functionaries, the barracks. Here, too, we find the first foreign office, the first bureaucracy, the first court of law, and likewise, from the temple quarter, the first astronomical observatory, the first library, the first school and college, and not least, the first theater. All these flourished in the citadel before there were any larger political states as we know them or any question of democratic participation in their administration.

This royal monopoly held for many technical innovations, which made their appearance in the citadel long before they spread to the rest of he city. It was in the citadel that fireproof buildings and pavement first appeared. It was here that, before 2000 BCE, drains, running water, bathtubs, toilets, and private sleeping apartments were constructed; and it was in the palace precinct, at a time when the rest of the city had become a compact mass of houses, that the king and his court enjoyed what is still the greatest and most aristocratic of urban luxuries — an abundance of open space, stretching beyond the dwelling itself into gardens, sometimes forming a whole villa quarter for nobles and high officials.
Royal foraging expeditions first provided the fruits of trade by a one-way process of gathering raw materials: under royal command, armor was made, weapons forged, chariots built. For the king’s wives and concubines, and for his fellow nobles, the goldsmiths and the jewelers first practiced their arts. Industrial production firsts got its start in luxury wares for the court.

These facts about the origins of the city proper within the citadel or ‘little city’ seem essential to an inclusive picture of its functions and purposes. The citadel served as the original pilot project for the city, and this accounts for the fact that so many of the characteristics of both city and state today bear the imprint of ancient myths and magical aberrations, of obsolete privileges and prerogatives originally based on royal claims and associations with the gods. Fortunately, in uniting village and citadel, shrine and market, the city still rested on the moral underpinning of the habits of collaborative labor and the consecration of life.
All of this emphasizes a more general characteristic of the city: the way in which it gave a specialized, abstract, professional, collective form to human needs that no one had hitherto ever thought of dedicating a whole lifetime to fulfilling. The more successful urban types were those committed to specialization; and their partial lives depended upon the successful interlocking of a whole organization in which each group accepted the limitations of its allotted role. Everywhere the worker was always a worker, the slave always a slave, the noble always a noble.
The specialization of labor produced social class and the unequal distribution of wealth. Specialization, division, compulsion, and depersonalization produced an inner tension within the city. This resulted throughout history in an undercurrent of covert resentment and outright rebellion that was perhaps never fully recorded. But the fact that the city has from the beginning been based on forced labor, and that forced labor was produced, not only by enslavement, but by a monopoly on the food supply, seems to be indisputably incised on the walls of the ancient city. The guardians of the food supply held powers of life and death over the entire community. It was not for nothing that the great storehouse, the ziggurat, was within the heavy walls of the citadel, protected against the inhabitants of the city.

Thus the city became a special environment, not just for supporting kings, but for making persons, people more ready to move beyond the claims of tribal society and custom, more capable of creating new values and taking new directions. In the end, the city itself became the chief agent of man’s transformation. Into the city go a long procession of gods: out of it there come men and women, at long intervals, able to transcend the limitations of their gods.
Excerpted from Lewis Mumford’s The City in History. Edited and adapted by R.M.Shurmer.

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