Houses say more about our world and cultural milieu than you might think. They speak of what we think of each other—as equals, superiors, or inferiors, or with indifference. And the same house that communicates authentic authority in one political regime speaks arrogance in another. The meaning of a house is embedded in the regime type. There is a politics of the house and it deserves to be uncovered and brought to light. In this post, I discuss houses and their regime-determined messages.
There was a time when the grandest of houses, visible by all from afar, was a reminder of authority, deserved wealth, high grace and manners, political responsibility, and peace through strength. It was the castle on the hill. The people looked up, literally and figuratively, to that place, submitting to it and its inhabitants as part of their duty to the order of things. They looked up with a love intimately connected with hope, a hope to survive and thrive by the care, wisdom and prudence of their sovereign. It was not a place of arbitrary authority. The lofty dwelling was not a vain show of wealth. It was not merely a site for a nameless observer disconnected from those below. Indeed, the king looked down upon his people as father to his child—a look, in serious and the best of moments, of profound joy and awful fear of his responsibility for their security and happiness. That terrifying divine magistracy, thrust upon the king typically by birth, justifies his high station and living quarters. With responsibility comes privilege—the type of privilege that constantly reminds one of his responsibility.
The best tactical place for a castle or stronghold is, of course, on some type of hill or elevated terrain. But the high ground represented something about the natural hierarchy of human society: some are born with profound political responsibility, others not; and the social order in each society is an expression of this natural hierarchical power relation (at least so it was thought). Thomas Aquinas, for example, claimed that even in the state of innocence (prior to the fall of Adam) social hierarchy is natural: “Equality is the cause of equality in mutual love. Yet between those who are unequal there can be a greater love than between equals…. The cause of inequality could be on the part of God; not indeed that He would punish some and reward others, but that He would exalt some above others; so that the beauty of order would the more shine forth among men” (Summa I-I.96.3). So, according to this understanding of reality, the elevated dwelling of persons of authority is entirely justified, at least as a just custom conducive to the recognition of natural authority. The elevation of the sovereign’s home was symbolic of the divine ordinance of hierarchy.
Now, the recognition of the power of houses in the communication of authority was not merely present in the age of castles. Aristotle called upon the powerful to “furnish his home in a way fitting to his wealth (since this, too, is a certain ornament)” (Nicomachean Ethics, 4.2; 1123a). There is no requirement of elevated terrain, but Aristotle does recognize something important about how the home communicates a certain social distinction to observers. Its look, size, and furnishing serves as effective means of expressing social distinction.
But Aristotle’s point assumes a deeper principle. The home’s structure and yard seem to be something more than private property or something of monetary value, as we often think today. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, the public face of its inhabitants. This explains why we put so much time into its appearance: it says something about its inhabitants. All homes, not only those of aristocrats or oligarchs, can have a positive, community-affirming, public face. And for many homeowners today, especially in the old neighborhoods, the effort put into the appearance is not for one’s consumption to become conspicuous, but about showing yourself and your commitment to the proper order and appearance of your community. The cared-for home communicates that you cherish society, that you acknowledge collective dwelling in a particular place. You join the collective witness of those around you saying that this place is one worth loving and preserving. The American landscape historian, John Brinkerhoff Jackson said it this way:
The family itself, to say nothing of the public, judges the house as it relates to its surroundings, natural as well as social. We see the house as a sign not only of membership in the community, but of its interaction with the community. So I am now inclined to believe that…the house is the extension of the hand. It is the hand we raise to indicate our presence; it is the hand that protects and holds what is its own; the house or hand creates its own small world; it is the visible expression of our identity and our intentions. It is the hand which reaches out to establish and confirm relationships. Without it, we are never complete social beings. (from A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time)
The public side of homemaking, then, is not exclusively for the wealthy or for the age of aristocracy and castles. It is for anyone with such responsibility of being a part of the community. The care we put into it confirms our degree of commitment to the community, our sense of shared responsibility for its lovability. For, to modify Edmund Burke’s famous line, to make us love our neighborhood, our neighborhood ought to be lovely. In Baton Rouge, where I live, there are pleasant little neighborhoods, full of those mess-making deciduous oak trees whose roots make the sidewalk uneven. It is clear when looking at the houses that people have care and concern, not for any risk of being fined by a Home Owners Association (HOA), but because they “bought” into a sphere of concern and thereby committed themselves to its loveliness. They know that any object of love and cherishing is an object that calls for one’s concern. The truly valuable things in life are the things you worry about.
Lately, however, the cookie-cutter track housing—with its eradication of any semblance of the unartificial and its rigid set of HOA policies—has undermined this sense of responsibility. The look of such a neighborhood is not one developed over time through care and concern, but one that has been commodified by the developer. One buys into a pre-fabricated look, and the buyer can be confident that this look, so tied up with the house’s monetary value, will endure through impersonal HOA enforcement. Neither risk, nor active cherishing is required.
I speak of our modern places of collective dwelling—the suburbs. There is much to criticize in such community planning, but there are suburban neighborhoods that inspire a certain pride of place and sometimes they harmoniously integrate mixed-incomes families. Pricey and pleasant custom houses coexist with smaller, less expensive houses. The value differences, both monetary and architectural, are obvious, but the integration does not communicate a certain natural hierarchical inequality. The pricier houses do not look down upon the inexpensive houses. One can infer income and wealth inequality between these occupants, but equality is still present—one that assumes our democratic age. There is a respect and mutual dwelling among economic unequals. Fortunes might be different, but we still occupy the same place. We all have a common concern.
See, the home can communicate an affirmation of equality, despite differences in home monetary value. It is not like Aristotle’s natural aristocracy or Aquinas’s higher love between superiors and inferiors. It is mutual and equal love between equals despite differences in wealth. I emphasize that this is possible; it is not always, and typically not, the case. Most suburban developments market themselves as an escape from the poor.
Homes can also display arrogance, especially in our age. But what constitutes arrogance is different based on the regime type, as Aristotle would say. In an aristocracy or kingship, the large house on a beautiful hill is entirely justified, given the role of the aristocracy in authority, responsibility and honor. It communicates authentic authority and responsibility. But what would the house communicate in a democracy: arbitrary wealth, arrogance, the ruining of a views, etc. It all depends on the regime. In our democratic age, hilltop houses are not symbols of authentic power, mutual love between unequals, peace, security, political responsibility or mutual devotion. Hilltop houses provide nothing but a view for their occupants while often spoiling the view for those below. They occupy a site symbolic of power, but have no (or ought not have) more power than those below. They occupy high terrain, yet possess no high status in the community. Those who look down upon us are nameless and the house often stands unoccupied until the summer. What was once a view of natural beauty, wonder, or simply some typical yet pleasant hill, is now occupied by seemingly arbitrary money, uncertain power, and an exploitation of the chaos of modernity. They take from all of us below-dwellers the view and give nothing back: no peace, security, mutual love, political authority, nothing.
Our modern democratic principles have affected more than the communication of hilltop houses. Common concern for neighborhoods has become less and less possible, since liberal political theory has become consumed with the maximization of each individual’s ability to conceive and practice his or her own view of the good life. This is reflected in Justice Kennedy’s remark in his majority opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” It is difficult to form and sustain a common concern for one’s collective dwelling when people cannot agree on anything excepting agreeing to disagree. The right to and the celebration of one’s own private morality undermines any substantial commitment to a place like a neighborhood. Celebrating diversity is the celebration not of a set of particular habits, customs, traditions, expressions of beauty, but of an abstract idea of tolerance. Community is built on shared practices, not the tolerance of contradictory ones.
Without any substantial common and substantial culture and set of shared practices you get the necessity of HOAs and the commodified, care-free community of the typical track-housing. The rigidity of the new subdivision community is a direct result of liberalism’s destruction of a shared conception of the good life. Concern has shifted to the self and the protection of its expression from judgment. With the authority of enforcing neighborhood norms externalized to the HOA, which makes any sentiment for place unnecessary, each person can continue to devote their capital of concern to themselves or, at least, something other than the neighborhood. So concern has been externalized and people are further atomized. Though there is no sentiment of concern that calls for effort on one’s part, there still is an enforced look to the neighborhood, one that the residents ‘take in’ and enjoy with mutual and potentially equal satisfaction. They have given nothing, or very little, to create it, yet they all can take from it. This allows for a sort of harmony between residents: no one gives anything to its looks (for it was created by the developer and enforced by the HOA), but they all have potentially equal satisfaction from it. It is highly impersonal, yet its fits a democratic age devoted to maximizing liberty and equality. It is one those ironies of our ages: we are each free ‘to be me,’ yet only after being mastered by the most impersonal of forces.
This explains why we tolerate arrogant houses on hills. Everything, all land and every view, is already a commodity to us. They just happened to get their first. As free and equal individuals, we do not have a claim on anything because there is no we. Each is free from the other. Furthermore, the only way to deaden ourselves to the natural inclination to view elevated structures as communicative of power is to demystify everything, to make all meaning a construct and, therefore, dismissible and suppressible. So we are free, equal, and meaningless, and everything is a commodity to do with as one likes.
Just as the type of regime changes individuals’ political relationship to one another, so too do the message and meaning of their houses change. Houses that once enjoyed an exalted position (either due to elevated terrain, the location in the city, or its height) can communicate authority in a kingship and an aristocracy, but not in a democracy. Such houses in a democracy can be received in two ways: either as arrogance (the takers of a view while giving nothing in return) or with indifference. For the latter, this occurs when the people think of everything as up for grabs and shared values are destroyed by the abstract principle of tolerance. All care for the neighborhood is handed over to an impersonal and rigid entity, the HOA; and the labor is transferred to the immigrant gardener.
Democracy, at least in name, is not going away, and so it seems that we need to open our eyes, or just look up and ask why. Why is that landscape littered with arrogance—from nameless takers who provide nothing in return? If we are all equal in some sense, then no one has a right to take the landscape from us. They erect their visible expression of identity at a distance from us, as if set apart and above us. Are they or ought they be set apart? Not according to democracy (though if natural aristocracy is a real thing, then they should be). They represent nothing but the principle of taking. They can have a large, glorious house, but it must be down here with the rest us, next door to us. We must restore liberty, equality and fraternity. Only then can be we equal. Yet hilltop houses should be the least of our worries. Our diversity started a culture war and ended with exhaustion, resulting in the impersonalization of the neighborhood through the creation of HOAs. We must seek a particular, robust, and substantial particular way of life that is considered morally obligatory within a certain place. Only then have we form communities with fellow-feeling, and personal care and concern.
 Some people might not have seen such houses. I have in mind the houses that keep popping up on the hills and mountains of Napa Valley, where I grew up. The valley is so beautiful, yet more and more houses name and claim the land and our view of it. They take and give nothing, because we are all equal.