Sunday, August 15, 2004
The Order of Nature — Utopia & Dystopia
Here's the last part of Phil Bess's essay on New Urbanism and Natural Law. You can find all five parts here.
In light of yesterday's comments on Utopia and Dystopia, it's worth commenting that although Phil and I differ in our approach to Natural Law, we share a belief in the existence of grace and perfection, which naturally leads to aspirations for improvement. While Dystopians believe we are the result of random collisions of molecules, inevitably miserable in our meaningless, solitary lives.
I would like to conclude with a set of ten propositions about nature, human nature, and traditional urbanism that condense the preceding argument into a more concise form. Because the language of these propositions is terse and declarative and warrants elaboration, I hope it will be clear why I am offering them here at the end rather than at the beginning; because my intent throughout has been elaborative.
1. "Nature" includes everything that exists, except for God.To clarify briefly how the preceding understanding of nature and human nature takes into account certain key discoveries, themes and insights of the modern world, I offer the following three additional comments:
2. Nature exists independently of human beings.
3. Human beings are animals, and "human nature" is part of nature. Human beings are distinguished from the rest of nature by our capacity for productive, practical and theoretical reason; hence man has been characterized traditionally as the “rational animal.” Human membership in nature and the human capacity for reason are what make it both possible and morally obligatory for human beings to be good stewards of nature.
4. The best life for individual human beings is the life of moral and intellectual virtue lived in community with others, typically in a town or city.
5. It is part of human nature to make culture, including physical culture made from found nature transformed by human efforts into cultural artifacts.
6. Human beings are by nature social, and different cultures are the social and historical forms of individual and communal human aspirations for, and understandings of, the very best kind of human life.
7. The cultivated landscape, buildings, and cities in turn are the physical and spatial forms of culture.
8. Arts such as agriculture, architecture, and city making are therefore most precisely understood as cultural interventions in nature (and, n.b., have histories of development) that are also themselves in some sense natural.
9. It is in this sense therefore that Thomas Aquinas means that reason is the tool with and by which man (male and female) participates in nature; and that art — in the broadest possible sense, the making of things, choses, artifacts — is "reason in making."
10. It is also this sense in which Aristotle meant that "art imitates nature," i.e., the human artist acts towards his or her desired ends in a manner analogous to the way nature acts towards her ends; and human beings do so owing to our peculiar place in nature as "rational animals."
1. Both Nature and History are dynamic. Therefore, while our knowledge of them may be true, it is necessarily always incomplete.Penultimately — inspired by a similar small exercise once undertaken by the great art historian Ernst Gombrich — I offer for consideration the following rough draft of a secular New Urbanist “creed,” informed by and viewed through the lens of the Aristotelian–Thomist natural law tradition, but absent the specific references to natural law that might make it anathema to some:
2. Traditions are the way human beings make sense of the world; and traditions both maintain continuity and change as they are confronted with changing contingent circumstances.
3. Although debased by the Enlightenment, “progress” is a perfectly good word that nevertheless must always be measured and considered as progress toward a goal.
We believe that individual well–being requires good communities, and that a safe and beautiful public realm is a common good. We believe that individuals have both rights and obligations, and that individuals should have as much freedom as justice allows. We contend that traditional villages, towns and urban neighborhoods have proven themselves to promote and sustain diverse living conditions that both support and are supported by the free exchange of material goods and ideas.Finally, I have no idea how much if any interest there is among New Urbanists —most of whom (thank God) are not theorists — in the subject matter of this essay. If there are some New Urbanists who find my arguments compelling: well, God bless them. For those New Urbanists who don’t: well, God bless them too, with more coherent philosophical arguments for traditional urbanism than I have seen so far. Of equal concern to me however is how these arguments — not only for natural law, but also for traditional urbanism — are received within a variety of faith communities to whom these arguments have also been directed. There is a lot that Catholics and Jews and Calvinists and Seventh–day Adventists can and should learn from New Urbanists about the merits — and especially the formal characteristics — of good towns and neighborhoods. But Catholics and Jews and Calvinists and Adventists also bring with us certain cultural resources of which New Urbanists may be in shorter supply than we realize. I am thinking in particular of the fact that such faith communities (and others as well) are already communities in which membership is not a strict function — either theoretically or “on the ground” — of age, class, or race. It will be interesting to see whether it will be easier for our ever–so–suburbanized contemporary communities of faith to learn and adopt the principles and practices of traditional urbanism, or for New Urbanists to learn and adopt the principles and practices and obligations of mixed–class, mixed–age and mixed–race communities; but salutary, I say, if each can learn to do both.
We believe that the Urban Transect as a principle both promotes and accounts for the widest possible variety of free, just and environmentally sustainable human settlements. We therefore profess traditional urbanism in all its manifestations through the Urban Transect as the best way for human beings to organize and make human settlements. We fight for those who desire to live in compact, diverse, walkable communities, in the proximity of open landscape, plazas, squares, and pedestrian–friendly streets. We fight for the legal right to build traditional towns and neighborhoods.
We hope and believe that the merits of traditional towns and neighborhoods, manifest in various specific local forms, will cause traditional urbanism to once again someday prevail as a cultural norm. We work for the common good now, and for the common good of future generations. [“Amen” optional….]
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