Language allows us to share what we observe within the world: the passing of the seasons, the behaviors of animals, the stars in the skies above. Over thousands of years, a study of grasses led to an understanding of the relationship between seed and plant. Seeds could be sown, multiplying the number of plants. The Agricultural Revolution has its roots in language and the ability it confers upon us to transmit our experience and experiments.
Agriculture provides the caloric foundation populations far denser than the widely-disbursed hunter-gatherer tribes roaming the continents. People could be fed, but could they live together in vast groups? We have fixed physical limits for the number of individuals we can hold within our minds; for nearly two hundred thousand years, this kept the upper boundary of human groupings below the critical value of one hundred and fifty. Beyond that, you weren’t in one another’s heads – and this, for any primate, is an unacceptable state of affairs. We instinctively distrust strangers. Xenophobia may be shameful, but it is also perfectly natural, the visible echo of the limits of our ability to know others.
How could cities ever come to be? We find it nearly impossible and literally inconceivable to tolerate the presence of unknown others. There must have been an internal, psychological conflict, as we confronted our fear of the other. Yet we inexorably drew together, compelled by something so powerful it overwhelmed our innate reticence.
Before language we knew only what we carried within ourselves. Once we acquired the ability to talk, we knew everything worth telling to anyone within the tribe. Language gave us a weak group-mind, broadening of our knowing, producing an amplification of capabilities, propelling us into an understanding of the world wrought in stories and myths. The linguistic tribe triumphed, and established a precedent: coming together in a shared mindspace conferred obvious benefits.
These benefits acted as the lure to draw us out of our tribal selves and into the new social configuration of the city. The division of labour that is a defining characteristic of urbanization trades intimacy for capability, a bargain that leaves us vastly more powerful and consequently more isolated. The city has always been anonymous, precisely because it transcends our ability to know everyone within it. In reaction, we withdraw within ourselves and draw together within tight groupings of consanguinity. We put up a wall, both within ourselves, and around our families.
The city is defined by the wall. Both defensive technology and psychological boundary, the city wall separates the elect from the exiled, echoing of the close familiarity of the tribe, but at a greater scale. People gathered within the wall share an identity as residents of the polis, and the wall stands as the visible marker of their affiliation. Within those walls, overwhelmed individuals found sanctuary and meaning as they turned to something outside the province of their personal and intimate experience. The city-dweller defines himself in relation to the culture of the city.
This culture brings with it capacities impossible for and inconceivable to the tribe. Tribes can wage war, but cities raise armies – vast and highly organized – to raze other cities. The properties of the army portray, in miniature, the defining characteristics of the city, with its faceless anonymity, division of labor and amplification of individual capability.
With thousands of inhabitants, the city represented a wealth of human experience too great for any single person to apprehend. Each member of the tribe can know the important stories of their tribe, but there are a million stories in the city. Our capacious memories can not contain them. Where stories are lost, or forgotten, some of the meaning of – and justification for – the city disappears. In order to preserve itself, and maximize its own advantage, the city had to create its own form of language, one that could facilitate the sharing of minds beyond our individual capacity to encompass the stories told by others.
From this pressure to cohere, language concretized into writing. Although the earliest texts from Sumer are scribes’ accounts (here accuracy perfectly maps onto success) the first narrative work – the oldest written story – the Epic of Gilgamesh, both begins and ends with a meditation on the walls of the city of Uruk:
Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.
Is not even the core of the structure made of kiln-fired brick,
and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?
One league city, one league palm gardens,
one league lowlands, the open area of the Ishtar Temple,
three leagues and the open area of Uruk the wall encloses.
The story of an urbanized humanity is the story of walls, and a walled-in humanity, stewing in its own stories and experiences, people who need writing to make the experience of the city something commonly accessible. Writing becomes the speech of the city, the mechanism through which each generation passes along what it has learned. Writing is the vehicle of city culture, defining the psychological walls which separate residents from foreigners. Without writing, there can be no law. Tribes function on lines of custom and tradition, but cities have edicts, ukases, and commandments. The Decalogue are specifically indicated to have been written by the hand of God. The law may be ‘written on men’s hearts’, but it is always written.
One of the few surviving fragments attributed to the Presocratic philospher Heraclitus goes, “The people should fight for the Law as if for their city-wall.” The law of the city is the culture of the city, the internal representation of belonging. Just as the walls protect from invasion, the law protects against a cultural disintegration. Laws hold our innate xenophobia in check, bound by cultural prohibitions, compelling us to accept those we do not know, so long as they adhere to the same rules.
We wage a constant war within ourselves. Our oldest parts want to be clannish, insular, and intensely xenophobic. That’s what we’re adapted to. That’s what natural selection fitted us for. The newest parts of us realize real benefits from accumulations of humanity too big to get our heads around. The division of labor associated with cities allows for intensive human productivity, hence larger and more successful human populations.
The city is the real hub of human progress; more than any technology, it is our ability to congregate together in vast numbers, sharing what we know, that has propelled us into modernity.