Three Tales of Two Cities

In the last page of A Tale of Two Cities (quoted below), Sydney Carton, a London lawyer, lays down his life to be executed in Paris during the Terror in place of his friend Charles Darnay (d’Aulnais), a French émigré who looks exactly like him. For most of his life, Sydney was not a very good man, but his love for Darnay’s wife, Lucie, daughter of the good Doctor Manette, has changed him and he serenely walks to the scaffold. To protect his family, Darnay will then on pretend he is Carton, and his children will bear the name of the hero who saved him.

At the end of the movie The Dark Knight Rises, Commissioner Gordon reads a few sentences from Dickens’ text as a funeral eulogy for Bruce Wayne. Christopher Nolan said that A Tale of Two Cities was an inspiration for his script. An idea to be noted in both works is that the oppressed  – real or self-imagined – become the oppressors in the hands of evil manipulators.

The title Dickens chose, and indeed the whole novel, is a metaphor about two material cities, London and Paris, and the political positions they represented at the time, compared with the City of God and City of Man from Saint Augustine. London and Paris both actually figure the City of the fallen, corrupted Man, of any political persuasion, whether self-righteous or conscious of his evil ways. The good and just who selflessly help others and save lives, and foster hope and love in other souls, sacrificing their own life if they must, figure the City of God.

Civitas, Polis

It is no coincidence that the word “Cities”, in the title of Dickens’ novel, in French translations nowadays reads more often “villes” (towns), which has no particular philosophical meaning, than “cités” (cities), the more direct equivalent of Latin. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on “Christendom”, the word “city” itself is too narrow, except in a very metaphorical sense, to adequately translate civitas”. It seems, however, that we have no other choice than this term, and that the French translators and editors of A Tale of Two Cities showed a serious lack of classical literary and philosophical knowledge. Another such example would be the American editors who chose to transform the Philosopher’s Stone into a meaningless Sorcerer’s Stone in the title of the first Harry Potter book.

The Greek poliscivitas in Latin – is the very object of political philosophy: a community larger than a household and a village, and the workings of this community. A city can be as small as a little town or as large as a city-state, country or empire. The main purpose of the community is to give the citizens the means to live a good life in areas where isolated men or small groups cannot achieve it, hence the principle of subsidiarity: the larger community must not usurp the responsibilities of the smaller ones, notably the family.

Like personal moral life, public moral life needs the transmission of a moral code. In the public, political life, this is done through the enactment of laws. Law enforcement is known as the policing of the City, to prevent it being destroyed by anarchy and crime. Aristotle’s Politics is then a treaty of ethics, in fact the second part of his moral philosophy that began with Nicomachean Ethics.

Saint Augustine wrote his City of God to respond to the pagans’ accusation that the abandonment of pagan gods worship caused the sack of Rome in 410. He illustrated the relation between the temporal world and the eternal one, raising the political and moral sense of City that every educated man knew to its logical higher spiritual sense, where the concept can be extended to humanity on earth as a whole, that is, the civitas terrena (earthly city), or City of Man.

If he is to acknowledge the whole reality, man is required to admit he is only a traveler in this world and is called to be first a member of the Kingdom of God, the civitas Dei. Since natural law is by definition universal, unchangeable and originates in the eternal world, and since man is a whole in himself, while society is only a fabricated ensemble, the City of Man should be in the service of its members to help them realize their true call. That would be the only proper humanism, as Maritain explained in his book Integral humanism. The earthly city should protect especially the freedom of religion and freedom of thought, and keep in check moral errors damaging both man and society.

The City of Man rarely did so, obviously, but we can make out a few places and limited spans of time in history, not exclusively in Christendom, where the public moral order was about right. If philosophy and history teach us something, it is that moral decadence, private and public (ethical, political), is the main threat to civilization, and the real cause of weakness against other threats.

It is most remarkable that totalitarian societies, whether godless or not, do not protect, but rob their own citizens of their natural freedom. Totalitarian thinkers mistakenly believe society is a whole composed of parts, and that some enlightened or chosen individuals can embody the illusory collective will and dictate the cogs what they should think and do, without reference – or with only lip service reference – to a higher moral authority. There is indeed no difference between individual and person in secularist worldviews, as well as in many erroneous religious ones, whereas there is a fundamental difference in sound philosophy.

We sinners are easily manipulated into delusion by evil or self-righteous rulers. All they have to do to succeed is feed panem et circenses to the cogs. Bread and games, that is, unearned material goods regarded as a due, and as many addictive distractions as possible. Occasionally, some feel-good ideals are necessary to maintain the illusion of worthiness in the poor cogs, such as warped ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity. Usually, sheer historical fables, insane slandering and calumny, or complete bosh like “settled” science, are largely sufficient.

We fall for that, because we would rather contradict and question the very principles of natural law in order to justify our evildoing, than humiliate ourselves and repent. The rash in the ears, unchecked by training to virtue, makes us prone to believe any fable that would comfort us in our smugness. Our civilization then becomes a fallen City, ultimately hell on earth, and sets itself decidedly against our only possibility of redemption, through its aggressive atheistic and immoral propaganda.

Note on the Dark Knight

The Dark Knight stands as a redemptive figure, but, as is normal in the comic book hero and science-fiction genres, in a thoroughly secular world. The call for some humor and a happy ending requires a death only in effigy, and the passing of the flame to another in the end. In spite of his good intentions and the appeal of his personal story, the Dark Knight remains indeed a mere vigilante. Vigilantism is said to be the last step before complete anarchy. The tale, however, illustrates well enough the necessity of morality and rejection of false ideals, and the dangers of lying or any other evildoing for a “greater good”.


A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens) – Last words

[My emphasis on the main redemption themes]

They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic. One of the most remarkable sufferers by the same axe – a woman – had asked at the foot of the same scaffold, not long before, to be allowed to write down the thoughts that were inspiring her. If he had given any utterance to his, and they were prophetic, they would have been these:

“I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Jurymen, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long, long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.

“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace; I see the good old man, so long their friend, in ten years’ time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.

“I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.

“I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, foremost of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place – then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement – and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”