Cities and Civilization

Morton Dilkes – USA

Cities are the source of civilization. The truth of that statement is attested by the very etymology of the word civilization, whose stem is the Latin word civis, meaning “city.”

Madam Blavatsky also bore witness to the connection between cities and civilization in The Secret Doctrine (2:198), where she wrote of the first physical humanity on our planet: “The whole human race was at that time of ‘one language and of one lip.’ This did not prevent the last two Sub-Races of the Third Race from building cities, and sowing far and wide the first seeds of civilization under the guidance of their divine instructors.” Earlier, in Isis Unveiled (2:508), she had referred to the mythic figures of Hermes and Cain as those who “build cities, civilize and instruct mankind in the arts.” And later, in an 1892 article in Lucifer (CW 13:100), she noted: “Some Homeric heroes also, when they are said, like Laomedon, Priam’s father, to have built cities, were in reality establishing the Mysteries and introducing the Wisdom-Religion in foreign lands.”

The connection of cities to civilization has more recently been argued by Edward Glaeser, a Harvard University economist (who is, perhaps not irrelevantly, a native of New York City). He has put forth his argument in a book entitled Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (Penguin Press, 2011). He proposes that one of the reasons cities are our “greatest invention” is that they bring large numbers of people together, face-to-face, and their proximity ignites creativity, innovation, and understanding. Thus, Glaeser’s thesis is fundamentally Theosophical. The first object of the Theosophical Society is “to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction . . . .” But that object can be realized only if people come together face-to-face and interact creatively. So cities and the civilization they produce are essential to the achievement of Theosophical ideals. If we live alone and isolated, no nucleus is possible.

To be sure, cities have problems as well as promise. An old saying has it that to light a candle is to cast a shadow. But the existence of problems does not negate the reality of the promise. The notion that cities are bad and that the “unspoiled” (that is, undeveloped and unrefined) countryside alone is good is a Romantic fiction. A review of Glaeser’s book (in The Economist, Feb. 12. 2011, pp. 91-2) concludes with this summary: “Mr Glaeser clearly believes that hell isn’t other people; heaven’s more like it, for all our faults. He’s right, and he says it well.” That is a remarkably Theosophical view of heaven and people.

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