The City and the Soul: Character and Thriving in Law and Politics

This Article describes a way of thinking about law and politics that is ancient in origins but largely absent from modern legal scholarship. It poses a two-part question: how do our law and politics influence our character, and how does that in turn influence how well and fully we live?

Much legal scholarship asks how law can be more efficient and effective in making us richer, healthier, safer, and such. This is good: wealth, health, and safety are—or can be—good things. But material conditions are not the only things that make for a rich and full life. What also matters—and beyond a certain threshold may matter much more—is what sort of people we are. If, for example, we are wise and brave, we will likely live better and more fully than if we are foolish and fearful. This much should be uncontroversial. What goes unaddressed, however, is that law and politics, whether we like it or not, have an impact on what sort of people we become. Granted, the impact is incremental and marginal, but it may also be cumulative and substantial—just as an incremental cumulative exposure to asbestos can lead to cancer. We can ignore it, but that does not make it go away. We can claim that it is not the business of law to think about character, but that is an irresponsible dodge.

This Article argues that we should acknowledge and take responsibility for the impact our law and politics have on our character and thus on our capacity to live well. To that end, I describe several ways in which law and politics may influence the sort of people we become. I then offer a way of thinking about what traits and capacities may conduce to our thriving—as democratic citizens and human beings. Just as a dose or two of poison every day can cause illness, nutrition and exercise can build strength. If our law and politics inevitably have some impact on the sort of people we become, as I argue they do, we should ask whether and how we can nurture the strengths we need—for our city and our souls.