Sunday April 14, 2024

The lure of the city

By Mubarak Ali
May 21, 2018

Oswald Spengler, a German historian, was working as a teacher at a school when the idea to write a book on the rise and fall of civilisations cropped up in his mind.

He resigned from his job and devoted his time towards writing this book. He published ‘The Decline of the West’ in 1918. During his lifetime, he witnessed stiff competition among European nations that led to World War I. Spengler also explored the results of the Industrial Revolution, which completely altered the way of life in European society. Factory smoke blackened the site and polluted the fresh and fragrant air. Workers in these factories worked under subhuman conditions.

The Industrial Revolution made people yearn for a pre-industrial society dotted with green fields surrounded by thick trees and filled with the pleasant sounds of birds. The life of peasants was simple during the pre-industrial era. They enjoyed nature’s beauty and were deeply attached to the land that provided them with sufficient food. They preserved the natural environment and didn’t extract more resources from it than was required. The cultural values that originated and developed during this period did not focus on accumulating more money at other people’s expense.

Humans broke their ties with nature when they decided to build cities. In cities, humans became hunters and wandered from one place to other. They eventually lost their attachment to Mother Earth.

According to Spengler, the history of mankind is the history of cities, where state institutions emerge along with their paraphernalia – kingship, bureaucracy, army and administrative setup. Art, literature, sculpture and other branches of knowledge flourish in cities. Cities tend to nurture great writers who only become famous when they leave villages. When a city is fully populated and developed, it creates its own spirit. The difference between a city and a village is that the latter is a friendly place that is close to nature while the former constructs its own environment. The differences between villages and cities produces varied characteristics among. The mentality of a weaver or a cobbler from a German village is not the same as that of a citizen of Berlin.

In the early period, buildings in various cities represented nature. The Doric pillars, the pyramids in Egypt and the Gothic churches appear as to be rising from the depths of the earth. They not only provide shelter but also ensure serenity under their shadows. With time, the architecture of buildings became far removed from nature.

The language of cities has changed to such an extent that villagers fail to understand it. Urban art, culture, literature and architecture, therefore, become alien to villagers. Cities are populated and destroyed. But villages remain intact. While most cities in Greece have been wiped out, the villages remain alive. Similarly, the city of Mohenjodaro was reduced to ruins. But the villages that surrounded the city continue to exist and represent their culture.

Rulers built and rebuilt cities according to their needs. For instance, Napoleon III reconstructed Paris and Bismarck changed the entire structure of Berlin. In this process, villages are neglected and remain in their original shape. However, such is the charm and fascination of a city that when once a villager arrives and settles down, he prefers to die on the footpath of a city rather than return to his birthplace.

The most important city is the capital of a state. This is where rulers and aristocrats build palaces, beautifying them with gardens, fountains and waterfalls. They also build zoos in an attempt to enjoy nature. These are artificial means of representing nature in cities. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when a ruler was displeased with a noble, he rusticated him and sent him to a village as a form of punishment.

The irony is that history records the achievements of the ruling classes and religious leaders who live in cities and ignores the contributions made by villagers to human civilisation. Despite some external changes, villagers retains their ancient faith and often believe in supernatural powers.

Whenever the bourgeois bring change, it is only confined to the city. The adjoining villages remain unaffected by these developments. Two factors emerge as a symbol of power in cities: wealth and belief in rationality. These factors eliminate all religious, ethnic and linguistic differences and make city life more cosmopolitan.

Over time, a city gradually decays and loses its importance – politically and geographically – and the ruling classes replace it with a new city. For instance, the Muslim capital of Medina was changed to Kufa. The Ottomans shifted the capital from Bursa with Istanbul. After Fatehpur Sikri, the Mughals adopted Agra and Delhi as their capital cities. When traders overpower the aristocracy, they reshape cultural values and traditions. This is evident in the way that North American traders annihilated the culture of South America.

Oswald Spengler romanticised and admired the feudal culture of the medieval period. He viewed the new political, social and economic changes that occur during his time as a sign of the West’s decline.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.