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.

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