My last post was about my gradual realization that the best economic development strategy I've come across is one too cute to prioritize: love.

In that post, I used a quote and didn't know to whom I should attribute it, but commenters came to the rescue. Shawn directed me to Chapter 5 of Orthodoxy, by Gilbert K. Chesterton. While new to me, I'm sure many of you recognize this book because Wikipedia tells me it's a classic in Christian apologetics. That said, I wasn't expecting to find so much of my own thinking mirrored in this chapter but now it's got me pondering the intersection of spirituality and city-building. I'll spare you those disconnected thoughts! Instead, this week I want to share some of Chesterton's city-building metaphors that I found timeless and powerful because I think you'll like them too. You'll see faint reflections of the Strong Towns message hidden in here.

The general idea of Chapter 5 (the only one I've now read) is that an admirable life is one of mystic patriotism. By this he means having a somewhat irrational, inexplicable love for the place you live (both the universe at large and your little home therein). You love it just because it's yours. And yet you recognize that it's pretty messed up as well. And SINCE you love it so much, it's worth the trouble to try and fix it no matter how futile that exercise may be. It's the act of loving, working, trying, that fulfills.

Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?
— G.K. Chesterton

Let's pass it over to Chesterton

Everything below is quoted directly from Orthodoxy [with my curation] and emphasis. You can read the whole chapter here.

--

My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. [...] The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. [...]

Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great.
— G.K. Chesterton

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing -- say Pimlico [<-an area in London, England]. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

They rebuilt Freiburg, Germany in its medieval style after it was bombed in WW2 because they loved it. Photo by me.

[On problems with pure pessimists and pure optimists]

What is the matter with the pessimist? I think it can be stated by saying that he is the cosmic anti-patriot. And what is the matter with the anti-patriot? I think it can be stated, without undue bitterness, by saying that he is the candid friend. And what is the matter with the candid friend? There we strike the rock of real life and immutable human nature.

I venture to say that what is bad in the candid friend is simply that he is not candid. He is keeping something back -- his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. He has a secret desire to hurt, not merely to help. [...] the man who says, "I am sorry to say we are ruined," and is not sorry at all. [...]

What is the evil of the man commonly called an optimist? Obviously, it is felt that the optimist, wishing to defend the honour of this world, will defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe; he will say, "My cosmos, right or wrong." He will be less inclined to the reform of things. [...]

[On the mystic patriot]

The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason.
— G.K. Chesterton

We say there must be a primal loyalty to life: the only question is, shall it be a natural or a supernatural loyalty? If you like to put it so, shall it be a reasonable or an unreasonable loyalty? Now, the extraordinary thing is that the bad optimism (the whitewashing, the weak defence of everything) comes in with the reasonable optimism. Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform. Let me explain by using once more the parallel of patriotism.

The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason. If a man loves some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely), he may find himself defending that feature against Pimlico itself. But if he simply loves Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem. I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the mystic patriot who reforms. Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism. The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. [...] A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason -- because he has a reason. A man who loves France for being military will palliate the army of 1870. But a man who loves France for being France will improve the army of 1870. This is exactly what the French have done, and France is a good instance of the working paradox. Nowhere else is patriotism more purely abstract and arbitrary; and nowhere else is reform more drastic and sweeping. The more transcendental is your patriotism, the more practical are your politics.

[...]

No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?

- - -

Thank you so much to commenters Mike and Shawn who directed me to this reading.


GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. While she finished her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.

This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.