The Abstract Jungle

What is the oldest city in the world? This question is a rather tricky one to answer, not only for scientific reasons, such as difficulties in exactly dating ancient civilizations, but also for semantic reasons. It depends heavily on how one defines a “city”: Does a town become a city when it reaches a certain population density? When it constructs permanent buildings? When it demonstrates written communication? Different cities may satisfy these conditions at different times, leading to different cities being considered “the first.” But our question’s answer also depends on the precise definition of another word: “world.” If we consider the world to be the physical Earth, the subset of space-time in which all humans live and die, then the oldest city in the world could be Athens, or Jerusalem, or Uruk. But if our notion of the world is broadened to include the realm of thought and possibility, our question has a definitive answer: Old York, the abstract idea of a city.

How old is Old York? Trying to answer this question is like trying to describe what lies to the north of The North Pole; it just doesn’t make sense. Traditionally, a city’s age is determined by when it was built, an approach which is inapplicable to a city with no physical existence. One might try to claim Old York as being founded when it was first imagined by humans, but this is a naïve mistake. Though our imagination is a window into the world of the abstract, it is not the abstract world itself. To think Old York did not exist until we conceived of it would be no different from denying that stars existed before we first saw their light. The only other event which one might reasonably assume to have coincided with the creation of Old York is the birth of the universe itself. But even this is a dubious claim; ideas can exist independently of physical form, so there is no reason to assume that the existence of the abstract world requires the existence of the concrete world. Another possible alternative is that Old York is infinitely old, but it is difficult to precisely define what this means when time itself has only existed for a finite duration. If it is possible to quantify Old York’s age, it is by means which are yet to be imagined by mankind; currently, all that can be said for sure is that it is old enough to be worthy of its moniker.

Who lives in Old York? This question must have an answer; a city is defined by its citizens, after all. And the answer is that Old York is populated by Ideals. Just as Old York is the abstraction of a city, these Ideals are abstractions of people. Unlike concrete humans, these Ideals do not contain multitudes. In a city like New York, one who walks on the streets is a pedestrian, but they are always more than that. They could be a man or a woman, a child or an elder, an artist or an engineer, a saint or a sinner, and so much more. But The Pedestrian of Old York is none of these things. It has no age, gender, occupation, or any other defining characteristics outside of its endless journey through Old York, and the steps that make it up. Old York is filled with such “people,” if they can be called that. The Chef who only cooks, The Drunkard who only drinks, The Liar who only lies, and so on.

How does one visit Old York? Surprising as it may seem, this question does have an answer. Just because a location is abstract does not mean that it is inaccessible; for example, consider the last time you were in danger. But Old York is more difficult to reach: Only those who are wholly defined by a single characteristic are permitted within its boroughs. Throughout the ages, many have sought out Old York as a refuge from mortality, thinking a monotonous eternity to be preferable to death. Ironically, these would-be Ideals are invariably undone by their own thirst for immortality. Thus, this transcendence has only ever been achieved by accident, if at all. If you doubt the possibility that a person could live in such a way that their entire existence can be boiled down to a single idea, ask yourself the following question: Who is Benedict Arnold? Is he a human? Or is he The Traitor?


Author: havocmantis

I am Havoc Mantis, Skullmaster (like a headmaster but spookier) of The School of Havoc. I am a scholar of mathematics, mysticism, and memes, as well as the intersection of all three.

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