How an Architect Taught me about Natural Law: A Review of Till We Have Built Jerusalem

I don’t even remember when I purchased this book, but I’m certain the purchase was ill-advised, given that in the last three semesters I’ve either been studying for comps or taking an overload of graduate courses. Nonetheless, I finished it Saturday night, and I can recommend it without reservation for anyone looking for a genuinely Christian conservatism, a glance at what Aristotelian ethics might look like in the twenty-first century, or simply wants some great quotes about baseball. (I’ll cite my favorite shortly.) And all of this came out of a book by an architecture professor.

Phillip Bess is the head of Notre Dame’s architecture department and a public voice for a movement called New Urbanism.  To oversimplify, the movement calls for a concerted legal, economic, and ethical move away from suburban sprawl and back towards traditional small towns and urban neighborhoods, places where automobiles, to paraphrase his frequent formula, are not necessities to live day-to-day but conveniences for occasional use.  Concretely speaking, Bess imagines (and remembers, but aren’t those pretty closely related?) towns and neighborhoods roughly 150 acres in area, places across which a healthy person could walk in roughly fifteen minutes and which contain not exclusively residences or commercial businesses but places to sleep, buy food, worship, play outside together, and possibly even watch a ball game.

The benefits of such neighborhoods are immediately evident: the elderly and children, neither of which drive as safely as adults, become less dependent upon car-driving family and care providers to function day-to-day.  People who walk rather than drive everywhere tend to be healthier.  Instead of the class stratification that characterizes so many places, people actually see each other, even the odd ones, on the streets.  And with the return of actual, physical town squares, democracy has a chance of being something other than an abstraction as people have a chance to gather and to deliberate on public matters.

Bess traces the demise of old urbanism (or walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, to cite another of his formulae) to zoning laws that rose up around the late forties and early fifties.  Around that time, in the spaces surrounding cities, county governments started passing zoning ordinances that segregated residential, commercial, and industrial zones.  To paraphrase one of Bess’s metaphors, these laws took what used to be pizzas and replaced them with piles of dough separated by miles of asphalt from piles of cheese, in turn separated from piles of pepperoni.  The automobile became necessary for middle class life as the abandoned small towns lost jobs and the abandoned downtowns and inner suburbs, also empty of opportunity, took in the enterprise of the drug trade to fill what legitimate businesses used to provide.

New Urbanism, according to Bess, differs from Old Urbanism (or simply Urbanism) in that it intentionally attempts to establish walkable mixed-use communities in the context of of a suburban world.  So their projects might involve reclaiming abandoned shopping malls and their associated parking lots and using that space to develop a community, encourage relocating churches to build small towns instead of massive parking lots around their new sanctuaries, or revitalize old small towns via Internet-fueled businesses.

Not surprisingly, the movement draws its share of critics.  From the left (there’s always a left in these books, ain’t there?) critics say that NU simply panders to developers and sells “community” as one more toy for the wealthy.  And from the libertarian right critics say that NU is simply another iteration of “big government” telling people how to live.

To counter these, Bess digs back into Thomas Aquinas and his latter day interpreter Alasdair Macintyre.  (Even if the baseball quotes weren’t there, the frequent Macintyre quotes would have won me over.  But the baseball is coming, I promise.)  Over against John Locke and his heirs (the bad guys in sections of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, if you remember), Macintyre would agree with Aristotle and Aquinas that human desire, unredeemed and undisciplined by community life, is not the basis for a system of government (why does Monty Python pop up?) but one facet of communal life best governed (not eliminated by any means) by means of civic and community authority.  In other words, markets are fine, but they are not the end (in the Aristotelian sense) of life-together.  Instead, going back to Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Macintyre insists that life with different people requires that people become civi-lized.  (That was a Latinism, not a bad Mark Twain imitation.)  In other words, the human goods of justice, fortitude, wisdom, and morality are not “private” matters that have nothing to do with “the state” but instead find their truest meaning in the city, the community of communities, and never so much as when one’s neighbors are Jews and Muslims.

In all, the book states and develops a compelling thesis about real, concrete ways that human life could be better in walkable neighborhoods than it could be in suburban sprawls, and that’s where natural law comes in.  As Bess repeats in several places in the book, he and the other New Urbanists are neither advertisers nor opinion writers but philosophers, and they expect readers to take their claims as truth-claims that stand open to discussion but not dismissal as “true for you but not for me.”  And there’s natural law: a reasoned (not necessarily from the data of revelation) account of good human life, based on the human body (we walk upright) and the human soul (we experience the world through senses and language) and thus prescriptive by force of its truth.

This kind of account astonishes me because, in so many times that I’ve read the phrase “natural law,” it’s been used as a blunt instrument rather than reasoned out.  If a capitalist uses it, then “natural law” is capitalism.  If an anti-gay writer uses it, then “natural law” is anti-gay.  Here, for the first time in my reading, someone took the time and effort actually to reason out a case for natural law, and I think that for the first time, I get why it’s been such a compelling idea through the history of the Church.

Since my review is getting so long as to be burdensome, I’ll leave you patient readers with the baseball line that I promised:

Baseball is… like the Catholic Church: divinely inspired, sufficiently simple to be taught to children, sufficiently complex to satsify the highest intellect, and never entirely free from corruption in either its members or its leadership (Introduction xviii).

Wasn’t that a great line?  And I think this one is a great book.

Cross-posted at Conservative Reformed Mafia.

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