Did a Change in Rhetoric Give Rise to Cities?

A peculiar phenomenon in early human history has stumped scientists. After learning to farm and establishing a more plentiful food supply about 10,000 years ago, humans began to congregate in larger groupings. Villages grew from 200 people to a few thousand inhabitants. These mega-villages were significantly larger than anything that came before but they clearly were not as large as the cities that would come later. Then, just a thousand years after they first sprung up, many mega-villages vanished and were abandoned.

A number of theories have been put forward to explain the sudden change. An early frontrunner was climate change, as one of the most excavated sites in Çatalhöyük Turkey underwent local environmental changes. But in English mega-villages experienced a similar dip in population without these exogenous changes, so climate has been ruled out. Another theory was that pestilence depopulated mega-villages. But upon closer inspection, this too seems not to hold weight, especially since villages suffer outbreaks of disease and survive.

The culprit for this drop may in fact be the rigid beliefs systems as this recent article at i09 explains:

The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

You can see this set of beliefs reflected in the built environment of Çatalhöyük, where everyone’s house is roughly the same size. Some houses have a lot more stuff in them — more pieces of art, or more ritual objects — but as I said earlier, nobody is living in the Neolithic equivalent of a mansion.

All of this works nicely in a small community, where you know all of your neighbors and only share with people whose lives are bound to yours (even if you don’t like them very much). But once you have a thousand people living together, it’s harder to have a flat social structure. People need local representatives to stand in for them, and perhaps even a system of writing to keep track of everyone and what they own. Some people start to do specialized tasks, and social differentiation begins.

Immediately, Deirdre McCloskey’s theory of industrial change comes to mind. As she argues, it isn’t society’s technical abilities as Joel Mokyr would suggest, the Protestant ethic of Weber or the property rights of Douglass North that explains the Industrial revolution. No, a change in our rhetoric, our ideology of business, is what made the difference.

She writes,

What changed in Europe, and then the world, was the rhetoric of trade and production and innovation… The bourgeois talk was challenged mainly by appeal to traditional values, aristocratic or religious, developing into nationalism, socialism, and environmentalism. But increasingly, as in Jane Austen, a rhetoric by no means enthusiastic for trade did accept — or at any rate acknowledged with genial amusement — the values of the polite and commercial people. The talk mattered because it affected how economic activity was valued and how governments behaved towards it.

Ideas matter. And in Auntie D’s writings, there is a parallel to the changes in beliefs that likely occurred between mega-villages and cities. Just as a change in rhetoric signaled the break from agrarian society to industrial society, the break from hunter-gatherer society to agrarian society required a similar change. The rhetoric that supported the aristocratic, religious world had to be created, which likely developed during this downward lull.

Between the mega-village and the cities that came later lies the formation of the state. Ultimately, this is the world of stratification buttressed through religion. With it came the creation of differing social groups and distinctions based upon rank or property. Yet, the acceptance of social specialization required a new view of the world, a new rhetoric in the McCloskeyian sense. And once that jump was made, benefits followed. Clustered people allowed for more trade and specialization of work, leading to more wealth, prestige and better equipped armies. While still a brutal world, cities had the potential for stability, but it came at the expense of radical equality.

5 thoughts on “Did a Change in Rhetoric Give Rise to Cities?

  1. William Eric Rinehart

    I don’t have a lot of direct evidence of this, especially since this comes from pre-historic, but I think given what we know now, this rhetorical change might have sparked the beginnings of law. Custom reigned supreme here and even the later Ancient Greeks had different words for divine law, human laws and custom, which each commanded their own sort of domain.

    Our concept of law is inherently based on written texts because it is out there to be interpreted. Writing was still a number of years off. But I think it is safe to say that the idea of divine law, of being ordered, saw its genesis at this time. And again, custom likely solved what poor laws aimed to do.

    An interesting tidbit. Athens is often held up as the great ancient Greek city, but that is because it imported ideas from the rest of Magna Graecia. Our modern concept of law probably comes from Syracuse. Here is some information about that (found here:http://blog.iese.edu/leggett/2012/10/16/history-of-classical-rhetoric-an-overview-of-its-early-development/#sthash.YOs9YC5F.dpuf):

    “It is accepted by most historians that rhetoric, as we know it, had its origins sometime in the 5th century B.C. when a form of democracy was established in Syracuse in Sicily. Many exiles, whose property had been seized under the former reign, returned to reclaim their appropriated properties from the new authorities. As many of these claims were some years old, the claimants were unable to produce documentary evidence of ownership. Nevertheless, they were given the opportunity to argue their case before a jury of their fellow citizens. This called for a need to speak well and persuasively. Consequently claimants sought the help of specialists in presenting their cases. As a result, a new school of oratory emerged. Corax, a Sicilian Greek was, perhaps, one of the best-known rhetors. His system divided a speech into the following basic parts: introduction, narrative (historical background), major arguments, subordinate arguments and subsidiary remarks, and summary.”

    Rhetors and sophists were just lawyers. Not surprising why Plato was not a fan.

  2. Pingback: Urban Communication: media ecology & infrastructure, neighborhood narratives, rhetoric & rebranding, and more | COOL MEDIUM

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