City vs Country- an Epicurean perspective

Here in the English speaking world, we’re all familiar of the tale of the city mouse and the country mouse: the city mouse invites the country mouse to his house. While containing riches beyond the country’s mouse’s dreams, it also contains terrifying dangers, like the cat. In the end, the country mouse decides his own life, while poorer, is also safer and thus happier. As Epicureans who see pleasure in negative terms, we thoroughly approve of the country mouse’s choice.

However, the urban-rural divide is more complicated nowadays than when the tale of the two mice was written. The city mouse didn’t have to deal with the challenges of deindustrialisation, urban deprivation, mass immigration or unaffordable housing. Equally, the country mouse didn’t have to deal with rural flight, climate change, an ageing population or right wing nationalism- something which is always disproportionately popular in rural areas. So today I’ve set out to assess the benefits and drawbacks of city and country living, with the (however unintentionally) Epicurean values the country mouse upheld.

Many of the benefits the country mouse believed the country to contain remain today. The countryside generally has lower crimes rates. The people are for the most part friendlier. There is usually a stronger sense of community. The rural pastoral ideal of the Epicurean garden is a stark juxtaposition to the frantic and stressful life urban dwellers tend to lead. Rural areas are also more economically equal, true to Epicurus’ egalitarian vision. The city mouse may have been rich, but many of his fellow mice lived in squalor. Such disparities have all sorts of negative effects, from lower life expectancy to worse educational attainment levels- see a book called The Spirit Level for more details. I’ve compiled a list of British local authorities by deprivation levels, and the lowest ones are all nearly all either rural or suburban; you can see the list here┬áhttps://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1OCQoEjK_3FzVTLdH0I_u68g8kMO6Ex-RUhHlP8CBpwg/edit?usp=sharing. These local authorities tend to have the highest levels of personal satisfaction, and the fewest number of children growing up in inadequate conditions.

However, the city mouse may have been more Epicurean than the fable’s writers were letting on. The city mouse might have had to be vigilant, but he also enjoyed the ease and convenience of urban living. He could visit the doctor or the shops in almost no time at all. He could walk everywhere, instead of relying on long and environmentally unfriendly car journeys. His children would have a wider choice of schools and after school clubs, and would be less likely to be bored as teenagers. The city mouse could also meet mice from other countries on a regular basis, increasing his knowledge of the world. His descendants would have better internet and a stronger mobile phone signal. He could experience theatre, museums and art galleries the country mouse could only dream of. Epicurus may have wanted to avoid stress, but he didn’t cut himself off from the world entirely. Many rural areas feel very cut off, and such isolation increases ignorance, cultural insularity and in some cases xenophobia in my view.

Overall whether I would recommend city or country living would depend very much on the country you’re living in. If you’re living in an extremely sparsely populated country, like the US, Canada or Australia, I would suggest living as close to the city centre as possible. The alternative is living in mind-numbingly boring suburbia, a repetitive horizon of single-family homes and ugly supermarkets. You would become a slave to your car, and consequently would be more likely to get fat. Or you would be in the country, which would also be a car-dependent existence, but even further cut off from the cultural amneties that in my view are necessary for an enjoyable life. North America and Australia are currently seeing a concentration of good jobs in the cities, while rural areas go into relative decline, so for your future prosperity, move to the city. The urban crime wave we saw in the Eighties is thankfully no more.

However, in the UK, I couldn’t recommend the city as enthusiastically. The British countryside is for the most part, not as isolated as in America. British cities don’t have the extremely low-dense urban sprawl found in virtually every North American urban area. Rather, the trip from city centre to rural idyll can be a relatively short one. In the list of British local authorities I shared earlier, the least deprived areas are not the most isolated, but are close to major cities. These areas have the Epicurean ideal of a relatively stress free life, but also benefit from the wealth and cultural clout their neighbouring cities bring. But the most significant example of how British rural life is superior, is the huge losses British cities are experiencing in terms of domestic migration, London especially. People are moving from the country to the city in their droves, particularly those in their thirties who want to have children. Our cities’ populations are only kept afloat by migrants coming in from abroad, who like the abundance of low-paid jobs in the cities, and are discouraged by the countryside’s frightening ethnic homogeneity. This shows that British cities are increasingly unliveable, perhaps proving the country mouse right all along.

  • Carmen

    A charming and insightful perspective, Owen. Our little family happened into a moderate, Epicurean solution: weekdays in the city–which also has its strengths, as you note, and when possible, longish weekends in the countryside.

    Last week, traffic gridlock slowed city city travel but when we arrived at the farm, the problem we faced was a cow which had suffered a breech-birth and had to be nurtured back to strength. You see how the shift caused a bit of psychological whip-lash, eh?