Political Animals

"If you went to your own room at midnight, locked the door, pulled down the blind, and SNEEZED, Mrs. Lynde would ask you the next day how your cold was!"

Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

Such is life in a small town.  And such is life in a small parish, too.  One Friday morning I had to leave Liturgy early, as I wasn't feeling well.  I whispered this to a friend, and asked her to take home the children of another friend I had brought with me. The next day at Vespers, and the following day at Liturgy, I had half a dozen parishioners, and my priest, inquire with concern about my health.  (I was rather ashamed, as I hadn't been deathly ill and probably should have just stuck it out, and had to repeat that information over and over.)  Not only that, but they each shared a different remedy: one recommended yoga, another fruit juice.  All promised prayers, and I was both touched and embarrassed by all the attention.

This memory came to mind as I was reading an excerpt for class last week about the Greek polis.  The author, H.D.F. Kitto, writes beneath a thick layer of nostalgia and idealization that I consider a little misplaced (he didn't actually live in ancient Greece, so I think it's a bit like a lifelong Midwesterner fantasizing about moving to the colorful, exciting world of New York City: amorous and a little naive.)  However, I was able to glean some very interesting information about the idea of the polis.  We usually call the polis a "city-state," but that's a terrible mistranslation: in truth it encompassed a whole way of life, wherein each polis was independent and self-sufficient, a microcosm of society as a whole.  People lived close together and knew each other well, so this made it difficult to, say, plan an insurrection or run off with the wrong person.  It was really a sort of family, and as such, fights were all the more bitter and the sense of community all the more palpable and vivid.

The clincher is that Aristotle's famous saying, "Man is a political animal," is a victim of this same mistranslation.  What he really meant to say was, "Man is a creature of the polis."  We function best when part of a small society where we can watch out for one another; even the closeness that can be grating is good for us, as it teaches us patience and humility.  Jane Jacobs saw this on Hudson Street in Manhattan, where neighbors threw their doors open when a loud drunk would wander through, keeping an eye on him until the police arrived.  In fact, the vast majority of urban planners have tried to create these sort of enclaves within the larger, more alienating city structure.

Me?  I don't know any of my neighbors.  The first Christmas we arrived here, Rob and I made plates of cookies and left them for 6 or 8 of the closest homes on our corner; only one stopped by to thank us and introduce himself, so that's the one whose name we know.  The others we know by identifying characteristics of race (The Mexicans, whose house appears to be the promised land to Maia), pets (Dog Lady, whose many canines erupt every so often into a chorus of howls) or lawn care (Hedge Guy, who gives us a real fright a couple of times a summer when he climbs onto a rickety old ladder to trim his monstrous hedges with what looks like an electric knife.)  We know who they are, but we don't know where they've come from, what they do or who matters to them.  In fact, if I met one in the grocery store, I probably wouldn't even recognize his face.

Too bad. For all of us.