Attached to Our Places: The Foundation of Citizenship

Today we share a guest article from Brian Jones with some philosophical reflections on the meaning of citizenship and love of a place.

While recently strolling through a shopping center in the Washington D.C. area, I passed by a furniture store that had the following phrase on the building exterior: “Home is a feeling, not a place.” 

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this phrase would make a good marketing strategy for a company. A successful and good life can, and does, mean many things to all sorts of persons. And yet, there is a common cord underlying these differences that this furniture store was seeking to strike.

As Americans, many of us have been taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that the manner in which we will become successful in our lives should entail a process whereby we leave our places of origin. In other words, “making it” in this life will likely require that we foster dispositions of hyper-mobility, what Simon Weil termed “uprootedness.” This is, at its core, why claiming that “home is a feeling, not place” does not unsettle us, for this is what we’ve been taught to believe. Anywhere and any place can be home, so long as the feeling exists and endures.

At first glance, there is some real truth in these ruminations. There are numerous stories of young men and women who moved away from their towns and neighborhoods precisely because that was the only choice they had if they wanted to succeed in life. Such a sociological and demographic fact is not meant to be scorned but lauded.

However, history shows that half-truths can be particularly dangerous. The American drive towards mobility, and our seemingly increased inability to settle and remain in one place has had disastrous consequences. American rootlessness and globalism has led to an over-arching cultural and social impotence to make the connection between loving our places and the possibility of flourishing local communities. Additionally, this very argument and historical fact sheds further light on a more enriching, and humane, understanding of local citizenship and its potential preservation. 

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

In a strikingly similar vein, the early 19th century French social scientist Alexis de Tocqueville provided the following observations regarding the early New England towns:

The inhabitant of New England is attached to his township because it is strong and independent; he is interested in it because he cooperates in directing it; he loves it… he places his ambition and future in it; he mingles in each of the incidents of township life: in this restricted sphere that is within his reach he tries to govern society; he habituates himself to the forms without which freedom proceeds only through revolutions, permeates himself with their spirit, gets a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and finally assembles clear and practical ideas on the nature of his duties as well as the extent of his rights” (Democracy in America, 65).

The connection between being attached to his township and love is central here. An ability to care for the places we inhabit is the result of our dwelling somewhere over an extended period of time. Love and attachment can only come to fruition with longevity. And this type of attachment spills over and is the deeper motivation for our membership in our communities, whereby we are habituated to take responsibility for governing and ruling from a more local and proximate level.

Abstract, top-down planning and decision-making have, too often, been the predominant model for understanding our relationship to cities, towns, and neighborhoods. However, such a flawed view cripples real and deep affection, for the very fact that the outlook comes from without—from them, not us. It becomes all the more difficult to proclaim “this place is ours” when so many of the fundamental decisions pertaining to local citizens are being made by those who have too little concern for such communities.

If, on the other hand, we want our cities and towns to be strong and independent, with citizens directly involved in creating their places, that needs to be grounded in love. This love is not merely a “feeling,” one that comes and goes. Rather, it is intimately tied to the notion of social membership and our identity as human beings in this world. Roger Scruton made a similar point:

So understood social membership cannot be achieved without settlement, meaning a relation among neighbours, who are united less by shared ambitions or shared ways of earning a living, than by shared territory, and all the obligations that go with that. A small and localised community is able to guide people, through its own vigilance, towards honest dealing, both to prevent the exploitation of the weak by the strong and to direct the profits of the wealthy towards the relief of the poor. This happens not because the community is organized economically in some way other than the spontaneous way of the market. It happens because people know each other, share each other’s fortunes, and recognize the penalties of defection.

As a people, Americans are prone to move and uproot with such regularity that it seems to be part of the very fabric of who we are. This is the narrative that is the most common in our modern age, but it does not tell us the full truth about ourselves.

I would argue that what needs to be recovered in response to such a problem is a defense of what Roger Scruton has called oikophilia, which is Greek for “love of home.” From such a worldview, our cities, towns, and local communities will have a more stable path towards local economic vitality and preservation. How beautiful it will be to pass on such a heritage, one that we can call ours. In this respect, the Strong Towns movement has been a bright light in our rather restless darkness.

(All photos from Unsplash unless otherwise noted.)

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About the author

Brian Jones is currently a Ph. D candidate in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is originally from Cleveland, Ohio and is married with three daughters.