American Observations

City layout and design always offers insight into the history of a country and its ramifications. In Berlin, for example, city block structure and architectural style reflect the impact of WW2 destruction, with a proportion of buildings surviving from before the war intermingled with newer structures. The layout of the city also mirrors the decades of separation of East and West, with infrastructural links still not always reconnected. I’ve been musing on these kind of observations since moving to DC, and trying to learn more about America through the design cues.

The picture-postcard view of DC, with the white marble columns of the Capitol building and Lincoln Memorial, dominates the downtown of the city. In many respects, the city centre reflects the unaccomplished visions of European city designers in the late enlightenment period; it was not possible to rip down and rebuild London or Paris from scratch, but Washington at the end of the 18th century was a blank slate, and the architectural plan devised by Pierre Charles L’Enfant was complete, with the entire city layout planned from the start.

The architectural influences are hard to miss. The columns and marble draw heavily from Greek and Roman history, with the Supreme Court bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Parthenon in Athens. Such comparisons are hard to miss, but I was also struck by the similarity between the statue of Lincoln in his eponymous memorial, and historical descriptions of the Statue of Zeus at Olympia. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Statue of Zeus was famously seated, but so dominated the interior of the temple that it gave the sense that if Zeus were to stand, he would ‘unroof the temple’. Lincoln is perhaps not quite so large in comparison to the building in which his statue is housed, but his seated position seemed to suggest a similar idea in mind.

The Roman connection is there too. The Jefferson memorial is modelled from the Pantheon in Rome, and the Capitol building evokes strong connotations of Roman palaces. And perhaps it’s no coincidence, given the admiration for the Roman republic that the founding fathers had. It is worth noting that republican Rome was more primarily a red-brick city; the marble came later. Augustus, the first emperor boasted that he “found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble”.

Looking at the city, it’s driven home for me the connections between the ideals under which America was founded and the culture and politics of ancient Rome and Greece. Representative democracy is inevitably linked with Athens, while the Roman republic is often compared with America in both favourable and unfavourable contexts. Recently I’ve been reading The Open Society & Its Enemies by Karl Popper, which digs into the philosophy of Plato as it informs our modern day politics. The influence of Plato on modern thought cannot be understated, and I’ve found Popper’s discussion of Plato’s work to be a fascinating juxtaposition with considerations of classical architecture and influence on America.

Plato’s Republic is often cited as the most influential work of philosophy ever written, and given how strongly it influenced government in the ancient world it is perhaps important to consider how the central tenets may show up in modern society. As portrayed by Popper, Plato was deeply conservative; he felt society was changing too fast, and democracy (as epitomised by Athens of the time) was a sign of a state in decline, one step from tyranny. Instead Plato felt that a rigid caste structure was necessary, ruled by the ‘best’ – an aristocracy – or better still by a ‘philosopher king’.

At first glance, these ideas seem to have more in common with historical monarchies than modern democracies. Plato’s philosophy was all-encompassing, however, and his concept of a rigid hierarchical society was not just rooted in his own perspective of elitism. He builds from a specific perception of the word Justice. We use this term so widely today that we perhaps forget to question exactly what we mean by it. Popper gives a great summary of the debate as it was in Plato’s time. Some philosophers argued that Justice meant an equal treatment for all, regardless of who they might be. That belief has continued through generations and is still key today. Plato, however, argued for something different. To him, Justice meant ‘what was best for the State’; each citizen should mind their own business and not move above their station. This is the archetype of a static society, with no social mobility. Plato’s split of citizens into a hereditary ruling class and a working class smacks of entrenched elitism (Popper suggests he felt the workers were no better than cattle), and the rigid social structure he proposed needed a definition of justice that could support it.

What does this have to do with the modern era? Well, from my perspective it explains much of the link between nationalism and elitism. When we hear talk of protecting the nation from outside threats such as immigrants, it sounds like an appeal to protect ‘the State’ before defending equal rights for all. We hear much less overt talk of defending elitism from modern politicians – it’s hard to outright say you’re interested only in a minority when you’re still theoretically accountable to all voters – but Plato basically makes this connection for us. Choosing the version of justice that protects the state, rather than equality between individuals, invariably allows for elitism; Plato even had in mind that this concept of justice would limit change within society. Popper writes that Plato’s state is a form of totalitarianism – not a claim to be made lightly.
So it’s not just the architecture that I’ve found interesting in America. To me, it seems that the republic has borrowed more than the building design from the classical era; Plato’s vision of the state is certainly evident in places. True, it isn’t universally accepted; but even in Plato’s time, it wasn’t. Looking back to these early concepts of how a country should be run informs, for me, the outlook today; we should bear in mind the intentions of those early authors. I’m by no means satisfied with how well I understand the society in which I live, and these loosely connected ideas are certainly only part of my thought process as I continue to tug at the thread. I hope to continue musing along these lines in future.

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