New Urbanism and Virtue
There is an outstanding article on the blog Public Discourse about how “walkable communities” are more conducive to building virtue. (Hat tip to A Dei in the Life for this reference.) Many have argued for some time now about the merits of living in a community that does not require driving on a day-to-day basis, but Raymond Hain (the author) finds the popular arguments inadequate: controversial environmental issues, tacky architecture, and vague descriptions about the value of “community.” Instead, utilizing the work of Philip Bess, Mr. Hain seeks to establish an argument for walkable communities that is grounded in solid Thomistic virtue. His arguments are three:
1. We need others to help us to identify what is good for us.
2. True virtuous action demands that we treat others justly, charitably and with kindness, but such action is always with regards to a particular situation, not abstract generalities.
3. When our lives are fragmented in the way suburbia makes possible, it is much easier for us to act badly, and it is much harder to learn from the bad actions we do perform (and so to become someone who eventually acts well).
Regarding the first point, Thomas insists that training in virtue must be done in community (he says “in conference among several”). The demands of the moral life are not always simple, and prudence is required to sort through all the various aspects of a dilemma, but these various aspects are often disclosed to us in consultation with those in our lives.
Regarding the second point, virtue is a habit, and as such it needs practiced in order to develop. Practice means encountering real, concrete situations, not merely working our solutions in abstract. We need frequent interaction with others in order to prudently judge the merits of various moral solutions.
Finally, with respect to the third point, personal encounters provide the impetus for virtuous behavior. In the words of the author, “It becomes much easier for us to treat someone poorly, to violate the demands of true virtue, when that person shares only a small fragment of our lives.”
Mr. Hain is onto something here. Our lives are rapidly becoming both private and segmented. Both of these tendencies tend away from seeing man as made in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God. First, God consists of three Persons, which means that God is inherently relationship. When John claims that God is love, he does not say God loves or God has love, but rather discloses that God, in his essence, is the act of love. As such, God is immanent (which is not to discount his transcendence), and as beings mades in his image and likeness, we are called to be in relationship with one another. The increasingly mobile society, together with the Cartesian turn towards the subject, promotes quite the opposite. However, God is not merely plurality, but is also unity: there is but one God. In other words, even in his multiplicity God is perfectly integrated. As an image of God, while we have different aspects to our beings and our lives, we are called to integrate them into our person. This goes first and foremost for our body and soul – our body needs trained in the ways of the soul, for a strict dualism is impossible. But it also goes for the various arenas in which we live out our vocation. Our jobs, our family, our friends, our faith … all must be oriented ad Dominum, and in doing so we come to understand a life whose singular purpose is holiness.
I would add two marginal observations to Mr. Hain’s argument. The first involves the use of communication technology. As communication became possible without physical proximity, man began to rethink the meaning of knowledge, discourse, and relationship. In the 1980’s, Neil Postman observed that this began with the invention of the telegraph: for the first time in human history, communication was not limited by geography. (Letter writing was always a possibility, but inherent to letter writing is the lack of instantaneousness, something absent from telegraphic communication.) Once the telegraph became utilized by the news agencies, it introduced three problems into rational discourse: irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. It accomplished this by decontextualizing information and presented it as a series of disconnected (and disappearing) facts.
But the telegraph was only the beginning, for later came the telephone and the television, and the whole thing has seen a great culmination with the advent of the internet. (Postman sees the culmination, but his work was published before the internet became widespread. In this sense, he was an man ahead of his time.) Personal communication is being replaced with rapid transmission of zeros and ones, and relationships are being replaced with Facebook “friendship.” Whether this is a cause or result of the suburban sprawl is a bit of a chicken-egg phenomenon, but the correlation is obvious.
My second marginal observation is the strange juxtaposition of proximity and isolation found in the act of driving on the highway. When a driver is on the road, he is surrounded by hundreds of other individuals who are in relative close proximity, yet he is isolated in his own world. This all seems contrary to the way in which human relationships were intended to work. By this I mean that man is an embodied soul, and as such he can best relate to his fellow man when the person is physically present. (Such is the very principle of sacramentality.) True, some methods of communication can provide a substitute for the lack of proximity (such as the telephone), but they will always be substitutes. (This, indeed, is the very heart of the problem – people are coming the see the substitute as the real thing, as can be seen when today’s youth would rather send a text message than actually dial the phone or meet the person face to face.) Human relationships are intended to involve the body and physical proximity. This is why Confession must be done in the presence of a priest, and more importantly explains the reason and power of the Incarnation.
The problem with extended time in a car is that is separates relationship from proximity. It is actually the flip side of the telegraph-telephone-internet problem. Communication technology attempts to preserve the personal encounter without a corresponding physical encounter. Driving in a car presents us with a situation where we have a physical encounter but one the is completely void of anything personal. In falsely separating these two things, it is no surprise that people are less prone to virtue in their communications. On the internet, when the face-to-face encounter has been eliminated, people are more likely to behave in vicious ways because they perceive those actions as lacking consequence. Likewise, in a vehicle there is an absence of personal relationship (due to the physical isolation and confinement) and therefore people are more likely to exhibit rage and other vicious emotions. Again, a perceived lack of consequences plays a role here. The whole thing seems to separate what God has joined: relationship and physical proximity.
While marginal, these two observations are intimately bound up with the problem of suburban sprawl. Of course the second example of the car is a direct consequence of suburbia.
I would add as a final observation that both communication and transportation technology provide the one necessary ingredient for destroying virtue and human relationship: anonymity. When one is able to dissociate his personal identity from his actions, virtue becomes virtually impossible. It is telling the Scripture presents a life of virtue as tied to personal identity, or rather it presents the lack of identity as a key characteristic of evil, which is why the demons Christ encounters often refer to themselves in the plural (“We” or “legion”).
Mr. Hain ends his article with the following:
[S]uburbia represents a turning away from public life towards private life. Front porches have become back decks, and public squares have disappeared. Suppose we were to rebuild those public squares, and all of us spent our evenings on our front porches. We might discover, to our dismay, that we had almost nothing to talk about.
The last bit reminds me of a quotation from Henry David Thorough, written on the eve of the development of a transcontinental telegraph line:
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Main to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. … We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.
But as usual, Postman synthesizes all of this best:
A man in Main and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into ‘one neighborhood,’ but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.