The City

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Fix your eyes on the greatness of Athens as you have it before you day by day, fall in love with her, and when you feel her great, remember that this greatness was won by men with courage, with knowledge of their duty, and with a sense of honour in action.


 Shimmering on the edge of the horizon, the city embraces the principles of space, elevation and height exemplified by canyons, hills and plains. It addresses itself in materials and structure to the abrupt escarpments of youthful mountains and the layered density of sedimentary strata. Its arches mimic the wave-cut caves of Adriatic coves and its spires intrude upon the heavens like granite peaks bathing in more rarefied air. The city echoes a natural landscape and yet, being man-made, it has the power to concentrate the hopes and dreams of individuals in much sharper focus. Great mountains and canyons can subdue the ego in man and absorb him totally into their height and depth, but the city promises deliverance from the bonds of ignorance which are etched across the featureless plains of habitual living.

 It is this great hope which Thomas Hardy depicted so beautifully, seen through the eyes of the young and earnest Jude Fawley, who climbed atop a barn to catch a glimpse of Christminster. As the evening mist suddenly dissolved, beams streamed out of the leaden clouds and "some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed." The boy gazed upon this sublime sight until the whole city became veiled in evening shadows, and he noticed that the ground around him, the barn and the village at the back "had grown funereally dark, and near objects put on the hues and shapes of chimaeras".

 For Jude, this heavenly city was the symbol of a sacred doctrine which might divulge the secrets of truth and beauty and the way of the Good. It was like a Jerusalem, an Athens or Eridu, the oft-resurrected holy city which for millennia had symbolized the womb or reflection of the heavenly matrix in which the male spirit fecundates the germ of the visible universe. Such cities are sacred sanctuaries of antique wisdom even whilst they engender and shelter generations of fresh ideas capable of leaving their stamp on the human psyche for centuries. Such cities mirror and mould the nature of man and they strike a keynote on the horizon which seems to sum up the whole chorus of human aspirations as it rings out across the countryside, issuing from fields, villages and boroughs. Such cities are scattered reflections of Hiranyapura, the Golden City, which floats in the air and is the abode of Kasyapa, father of Indra and Spirit of Humanity. They echo the grandeur of Asteria, the sunlit birthplace of Apollo and the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola wherein the seven primitive groups of the First Root Race were gestated.

 In our world, heavenly-seeming cities may still be found as in the delicate rosy sandstone of Fatehpur-Sikhri, which was built by Akbar at the spot where a holy man foretold the birth of his son. The elegant Panch Mahal rises upon variously carved pillars like silhouetted layers of exquisite filigree and lace. All of the buildings and the great walls about them suggest an elaborate yet ethereal sense of balance and proportion. It is as though the subtlest and most romantic sensibilities were etched out in relief and made to float over the water-ways and ponds that criss-cross the great quadrangles. Cities like this were built where prophecies were made or mysteries occurred. In Hellas, wherever an olive sprang from the ground at the stroke of Athena's spear or the water of some nymph gushed forth, there a city was built. Where the stone fell from heaven or the oracle's cave was found, there a city arose, encircling and protecting its Holy of Holies in its inmost heart. The town of Eleusis grew where the Eleusinian Mysteries were held) and the Book of Enoch was preserved in Kirjath-Sepher, the City of Letters. Laomedon founded a branch of the archaic Mysteries at Troy, which flourished until the earth-bound soul (personified by Helen) was brought there by Paris. Masons who built these holy cities were originally connected with the occult Mysteries, whose foundation doctrines were equivalent to the foundation of a city. They did not build a wall but laid down the basis of initiation into the Mysteries. It is said that Apollo presented himself as a mason to Laomedon (father of Priam) in order to instruct him in the building of the city of Troy.

 In the Laws, Plato taught that "long before the construction of the first cities, Saturn (Kronos) had established on earth a certain form of government under which man was very happy". This was so because Saturn knew that man could not rule over man without injustice. Under his wisdom the flocks were given a shepherd of a superior nature who taught mankind and bequeathed the genius of invention which led to the domestication of grain and animals and the building of the first cities. The Secret Doctrine teaches that whilst the human race was still of one lip, the last two sub-races of the Third Race built cities under the guidance of Divine Instructors. These Builders or Dhyan Chohans were the heads of seven dynasties of Divine Kings who taught the architecture of the Mysteries and appeared in myth and history first as 'gods', 'creators', and then as Divine Kings and Rulers. They reigned in cities like Ayodhya, which was the capital of the Ikshvaku kings and was said to be full of wealth, with spacious streets, plentiful waters, lofty gates, palatial buildings, mango groves and fragrant flowers. The religion of this city was centered upon the principle of devotion to duty, and the architecture itself reflected the generous scope and creative function of this ideal.

 Kapilavastu, whose foundation was associated with the great sage Kapila, was surrounded by seven walls and possessed many beautiful gardens, market-places and avenues. Large white mansions housed all the people, whilst temples of learning were administered according to lofty ideals. The city had a broad moat, large ramparts and straight and magnificent roads leading to its centre, where stood the congress hall in which the Sakyan nobles deliberated. When the Buddha returned here six years after his enlightenment, the ladies rushed to their balconies to see him and none could have foreseen the eventual destruction that was to be wrought by Vidhudarba, who so devastated the city that it never revived. In the seventh century AJ). the Chinese monk Hiouen Tsang found there a profound solitude with neither king nor people but a few monks and some ten or twenty scattered houses.

 As the early masons knew, the plans of the earliest cities were never arbitrary or utilitarian but in strict accordance with sacred doctrines. The metaphysics of religious philosophy provided the very units of measurement which served as the basis for architecture. The walls of the city sheltered the sacred from the profane world and such demarcations continued in degrees as one approached the temple and public places which rested at the core. Very often, from the temple the streets would radiate outwards to the gates or into the suburbs of the central city itself, as in the case of the mighty Minakshi Temple at Madura. The ancients never formed a city by degrees but founded it all at once as a sanctuary for common worship. Thus the founding itself was a religious act wherein the site was chosen according to an oracle consulted or an auspicious sign offered by a sacred animal or a flight of birds. This was followed by a sacrifice where the sacrificers leapt through the flames to purify themselves. Then a trench was dug in a circle and consecrated soil was thrown into it by each co-founder. In this way they did not quit the land where their ancestors were buried but brought their essence with them to the new city. Where the sacred fire was lit, the hearth of the city was established and a temple raised around it. Around the city of Rome a furrow was made with a copper ploughshare pulled by a white cow and bull. Romulus, praying, directed the plough and led his companions, who threw the upturned clods inside the sacred enclosure. At the points where the gates were to be, Romulus lifted the plough so that people could pass, for the furrow and the walls were sacred and could not be touched. Surrounded by a sacred enclosure and extending, as it did, around a holy altar, the city was the religious abode of gods and citizens. In the words of Livy: "There is not a place in this city which is not impregnated with religion, which is not occupied by some divinity. The gods inhabit it."

 Authority flowed from the worship of the sacred fire. Thus he who set up the hearth of the ancient city was its founder and his descendants would act as kings and priests. The character of primitive royalty was strongly sacerdotal, and it was believed that such a ruler must be free of those qualities which could contaminate a city. This is borne out in the words of Euripides, when Orestes says to Menelaus: "It is just that I, the son of Agamemnon, should reign at Argos." But Menelaus replies: "Art thou, then fit – thou, a murderer – to touch the vessel of lustral water for the sacrifices? Art thou fit to slay the victims?" The founder king, the city and the fate of its citizens were thus bound together in a unified religious sentiment which affected the whole and its parts at one and the same time. The gods of the cities lived in and through them and were as exalted as the cities were great. They had grown in conception with the expansion of human society and seemed to express a larger notion of shared human identity.

 Many scholars have thought that the smallness of primitive society corresponds with a narrow idea of divinity, every family or clan having its totemic god. Finding their God in the human soul, tribal people focussed upon the ancestral spirit in their worship, each clan having its separate rituals. These scholars suggest that as people gathered in larger societies, they became inspired by the immensity of creation and took their gods from nature to be worshipped by all. Morality, no longer confined to teaching family duties, provided for strangers and 'the venerable poor'. It can be countered that ancestor worship is actually a degenerate form of the more ancient and archetypal worship of the original 'founders of the fire', the Agnishwatha Pitris, but there is a certain validity to tracing the more recent parallel expansion of religion and society. Thus when the tribes united to form a city, they adopted a common religion and though phratries, gens, demes and curries were still recognized in sacrifices and civil organization in ancient Greece and Rome, their first loyalty was to their city and its god. The transition from loyalty to kinship to allegiance to the city-state was not always smooth, as is painfully demonstrated in the tragedy of Antigone. One still empathizes with her devotion to kindred, and even hardened urbanites can sense something deeper in her dilemma that touches upon an ancient thread upon which the human soul races back to its primordial seed.

 An alliance between ancient cities implied an alliance between their gods. Only then could there be reciprocity between peoples. If a city was vanquished, so was its god, and if a god was taken from it, the city was lost. Thus the Romans practised magic to coax the gods away, and sometimes the besieged bound their god with chains or kept his name a secret so that the enemy could not invoke it. During military campaigns the Greeks took with them the statues of their divinities as well as a hearth and the sacred flame. A man belonged to his city body and soul. At Rome military service was due until a man was fifty years in age, whilst at Athens he could be called up as late as sixty. Male citizens of Sparta could be expected to serve in the army throughout their lives and in this way showed their religious devotion. If any of the cities needed money, they could order women to deliver their jewellery. Men were forbidden to remain single in Athens and in Sparta punished for marrying late. The city could demand these and many more exacting indications of loyalty and offered in return the greatest prize of citizenship in a holy structure which rose upon some rocky promontory as the vesture of a living god.

 Greek political thought was deeply rooted in the concept of the polis, the politically autonomous city. This is different from what is suggested by the Latin civitas, which indicates the union of citizens, and urbs, which connotes a walled city. In relation to the latter two terms, it can be said that the urbs of Troy was destroyed but not the civitas because the sacred fire was kept alive by Aeneas who transported it to Latium. The polis, however, is at once an abstract idea and a physical entity. It is the idea as well as the image of deity, and is closer to the concept of the city as a concrete reflection of civilization in its most essential meaning. The term 'city' implies civilization, which is a complex artificial environment that insulates and mediates between man and nature. It is not necessarily large in size. No city in ancient Greece proper exceeded the size of Edinburgh or York as they were in the eighteen nineties. In modern Greece a village is called a town when its population exceeds ten thousand, but a qualitative difference exists between the town and the city. Even before the city arose, it began as a meeting place to which people returned, a magnet around which the container was eventually built.

 An ancient fragment of the writings of Theophrastus written during the time of Alexander the Great reveals a dialogue between Midas the Phrygian and Silenus. Midas is told of an ancient and immense continent that produced giant plants, animals and men who had great and wealthy cities with populations as large as one million people. Such Atlantean wonders dwarf the earliest cities of our own age which, as in the case of Uruk of Mesopotamia, had walls less than ten kilometers in circumference. There was a population of around fifty thousand in Uruk, harboured with a wall said to have first been built by Gilgamesh. In the highlands of the Middle East, settled communities emerged around eleven thousand years ago, and three thousand years later the monumental temples of Eridu, Ubaid and Susa were the centres of well-planned cities owned by their resident gods. These theocracies teemed with priests, scribes, craftsmen, noblemen, commoners, soldiers and farmers. Rigid class systems emerged which, though limiting to individual expression, did not diminish the attraction the city possessed for many people. It is difficult to suppose that the city was merely a social invention. Its great lure has existed since the beginning, the nature of which seems to have had more to do with man's fascination with the manifestation of his own power. It represents the fullest expression of man's kaleidoscopic potential as well as a focal point for an extended sense of self.

 In contrast to the ancient city, its medieval European successor was essentially a fortified castle within a fief or kingdom to which it was bound in political and religious duty. There was little light or air and the cathedrals or abbeys sometimes occupied as much as one-tenth of the area within the walls. Many of these churches were larger than the ancient temples, and though they attempted to meet the needs of the poor, they and the streets and houses around them were filthy, as were their inhabitants themselves. One of the striking qualities of these cities was a sort of religion of industry that has never existed before or since. Each burgher's house was his factory or workshop, and each house and guild had its patron saint. Thus, despite the darkness and squalor of such an urban existence, a strong sense of spiritual identity was sustained in relation to work, class and religious duties which supported an essentially ecclesiastical fortress.

 The modern city is almost entirely bereft of such a religious or artistic character. These activities go on in the modern city but they are not embodied in the city. The modern city is ever changing, loose in organization, casual in form. Few families live in it for three successive generations, but move on whilst others come to engage in the unlimited pursuit of new investments and quick returns. Paris, Venice and Florence are a few old cities that have retained something of a sense of civic life, art and history, but they, like brave Oxford, are steadily engulfed in waves of indefinite change. All cities have a character but not all have a soul. Some are beautiful in spite of rampant growth and decay. The view of Bombay from Malabar Hill is unforgettable. In the evening a queen's necklace of lighted buildings curves along the harbour shore from Breach Candy to the Jubilee Arch and Elephanta hovers over the open sea. But many lament, like Thomas Jefferson did over two hundred years ago, that "the mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body".

 There is, however, an aura of inevitability around modern cities, and perhaps this is because they truly reflect the quickened intellect of man. Georg Simmel understood the interplay between individuation and city life and wrote about it expressively. He noted:

 With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life. The metropolis exacts from man as a discriminative creature a different amount of consciousness than does rural life. . . . Intellectuality is emphasized to preserve subjective life against the overwhelming power of metropolitan life, and intellectuality branches out in many directions and is integrated with numerous discrete phenomena.

 History abounds with examples of cities which have nurtured intellectual and artistic excellence, and it is difficult to imagine an Italian Renaissance or an Elizabethan Age without Florence or London. The excitement generated by such creative centres acts as a powerful magnet, and simple peasants and rural types the world over are continually mesmerized by their dazzling promise. As an old World War I song put it: "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?"

 The shadow that follows this glitter lies on the opposite side of the same coin that represents the stimulated intellect. Individual liberation and economic mobility afforded by the modern city have been accompanied by an appalling mental disorganization. Studies have indicated that the majority of urbanites in American cities are suffering from varying degrees of mental illness. Nowhere do ideas evolve so rapidly as in the city, but bits and pieces get left behind in the wake of the whirlwind, and fragmented actors carry on in an ever-accelerating drama which seems to have no recognizable human structure, no central temple of God or sacred wall.

 The human mind and heart have passed through many doorways since the Ayodhyan reign of the Ikshvaku kings and the golden days of Periclean Athens. But the city in its transformations continues to fascinate us and even forces us to ask what went wrong with the ancient polis. Could it have succeeded if people had avoided internal factionalism and interstate wars? Was it something in the Greek character that precluded unity? An irreconcilable cleavage between left and right which ran through every polis? This is tantamount to saying that the polis merely reflected the collective inability of individuals to bring into harmony Buddhi and Manas, yin and yang, or the feminine and masculine sides of human nature. Indeed, if the city is a concrete image of civilized man, then it can be expected to reflect his collective condition just as the irrational growth of modern cities portrays man's disorientation in mind and soul.

 The polis remains an ideal because it was the product of inspired reason, and one searches the history of its downfall trying to identify the elements which, if altered or alchemized, could have led to an enduring state. Political unity in itself does not necessarily make for peace or an atmosphere of creativity. The large conglomerate results in less room for discussion and differences of opinion. World government involving an extended network of cities could easily lead to cultural and intellectual stagnation, even in the midst of general prosperity and peace. H.P. Blavatsky mourned the gradual disappearance of the distinctive excellence produced by individual cultures. She spoke of the "universal tendency to unification on the material plane and a corresponding diversity on that of thought and spirit". She warned that this would result in a massive gravitation to one level, "the lowest of all – the plane of empty appearance".

 The polis or samiti was and can be a society of moral and rational agents capable of perceiving the larger whole in the smaller independent unit. Only in an environment where everybody knows what is going on and where there is a lively awareness of the greater world can the human potential for collective self-realization be actualized. In such a city man may nurture the idea of the common good derived from his conception of the moral order of the universe. He can experience the polis as a microcosm of the macrocosm and yet,

such metaphysical underpinnings do not logically commit one to any medieval or modern organic view of the community as an entity, with a will, a life, a moral path, and a destiny of its own. The moral universe is compatible with ethical individualism if its social or metaphysical support is rightly comprehended.


Overwhelmed by the sprawl and ugliness of the irrational city, we need not seek asylum before the gates of an ancient temple town where we must worship a faded image of God. We can discover afresh within our souls the same springs of hope and inspiration that flooded the heart of Jude as he gazed upon the golden spires of Christminster. We can recognize the sacred design nurtured in the united mind of the Builders and, once again, lay down a plan for the City of Man.