CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: by Brian J. ComanNews Weekly
Culture, philosophy and modernity: a mordant reflection
, August 4, 2012
One of the most poignant moments in Boswell’s Life of Johnson comes at that point when Boswell and Johnson decide to go to Greenwich and employ a young boy to row them over from Temple-stairs.
They had been talking on knowledge of the distant past. To demonstrate the value of such knowledge, Johnson turns to the young and barely literate boy and asks him, “What would you give, my lad, to know of the Argonauts?” The boy answers: “Sir, I would give what I have.”
Johnson was greatly moved by this reply and gave the boy a double fare. He was moved because here was a demonstration of what Johnson took to be a universal truth — that knowledge of one’s own cultural heritage was an enriching experience. Knowledge of such a thing, he maintained, brought its own rewards — rewards that were internal to the knower.
Now, the word culture is a very vague one because it means different things to different people. Here, I want to use the word to describe that assembly of art, music, literature, languages, and general religious and philosophical backgrounds that allows us to use the term “Western civilisation” in some meaningful way. It is that which distinguishes us from the other great cultures of the world.
The question arises: how does such an appreciation come about? It seems to me that this has a bearing on the way in which a culture is handed on to each new generation so as to embody what we call our Tradition.
The link may not be immediately evident and, indeed, it is something rather difficult to articulate. One useful approach is to consider the Aristotelian notion of practice — that is to say, of the development of a habit of mind or virtue which allows the achievement of some good.
The present-day philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, explains the notion by reference to the game of chess. Suppose we want to teach a child how to play chess. We may begin by offering inducements and extra rewards if he or she wins. This, in itself, will not lead the child to like chess, but only to like winning at chess. And this can be done by cheating.
Over the course of time, however, the child may learn to appreciate the skills required to play the game by the rules and might then wish to play it well for its own sake, not for external rewards. Cheating will then become a form of losing, for the child will then be denying himself or herself the true rewards of playing chess — rewards which are internal to the game.
This, I think, is analogous to the way in which we develop our appreciation of literature, music, art, history, and so on. In the beginning, we might find it tiresome to learn of these things and will require some prodding along by rewards or punishment. Eventually, though, the internal rewards of this knowledge will become apparent to the learner. Knowledge then supplies its own reward.
Not only does this reward continue to operate through our lives; it is, in some way, self-augmenting. The pleasurable sensation (it is much more than that, but impossible to describe) of hearing again a particular musical phrase from one’s favourite piece of music, or a memorable line from a favourite novel or poem, actually intensifies as we grow older. Eventually, just a couple of notes, or two or three words, will be sufficient to feel the full force of the emotion. The hairs on your neck stand up; you fight back the tears and you swallow hard.
Notice here that, traditionally, the emphasis has been on receptivity, not creativity. That is to say, we become creative in matters of culture by first immersing ourselves in the cultural tradition of our society and by imbibing all that came before us. Think for a moment of Homer and the prodigious influence of his works upon later poets and writers — Virgil, Dante, Tennyson, Pound, Joyce, Eliot and many others. Today, of course, children are encouraged to be “creative”, but without any reference to the great writers, poets and other artists of the past.
My contention is that, today, we have lost many of our connections with our own heritage and are poorer as a result, just as many Australian Aborigines are poorer for the loss of theirs. Poorer in that we, like the Aborigines, are no longer in a position to achieve what Aristotle and, later, the scholastics of our early universities, would have called our proper end and, with it, our ability to live out our lives in such a way as to maximise happiness and that general sense of well-being which accompanies the realisation of potentials.
There is a great irony here in that we are now rightly sensitive to the loss of this ability in the case of the Aborigines, but completely oblivious to our own loss. Note that I am speaking here mainly of the life of the mind, not our mere animal existence. I accept that in material terms we may be “better off” than our ancestors, but this is not the same as being better.
In large part, modern philosophy and the modern universities are to blame for this gap between what we might be and what we actually are. If one looks at the history of Western universities, it is immediately apparent that today’s universities, though they bear the same name as their medieval antecedents (and, indeed, claim them as their ancestors), are radically different in most respects.
The chief difference lies in the fragmentation of disciplines, so characteristic of today’s universities, such that each faculty pursues its own sphere of knowledge with little or no reference to others. But the very name, university, connotes a unity behind all knowledge and supposes that the proper model for all learning is that which seeks to bring all knowledge under some unifying principle.
For those early universities such a principle was at once religious and philosophical because religion and philosophy were closely intertwined. You may call this unifying principle what you will — God, the Absolute, the One, the Idea of the Good — from my perspective, the important thing is that it confers objectivity to human knowledge. That is to say, it is an absolute reference point both outside and above the reasoning human mind. All real knowledge, then, is tradition-bound, but outside of a tradition all knowledge is, in the final analysis, subjective.
Outside of a tradition, the relationship between thought and things becomes a very hazy one, and, today, a thousand contending philosophical systems vie for supremacy. Mere human reason is not enough to supply the needed discriminatory principle because reason itself requires some vantage point or toehold upon which to operate.
It then becomes an act of faith to believe in one’s own system. There is no hope of any resolution to this situation because each philosophical camp argues from a starting-point which is wholly incommensurate with that of any contender. For us, the inexorable logic of this situation leads to an outright scepticism which we vainly attempt to paper over with various utilitarian schemes. For our remote ancestors, on the other hand, there were certainly differences in philosophical outlook, but all of these were ultimately brought before a point of reference shared by all.
If we translate this modern situation to my earlier description of a culture, what we see is a complete inability to apply meaningful and agreed standards to artistic merit or, indeed, to scholarly merit.
We have seen the spectacle of a pile of cow dung arranged as a piece of art; we have heard noise presented as music, and of sophistry or even mere data presented as real knowledge. It is perfectly possible today to be awarded a PhD for a thesis on Superman comics. Moreover, there is absolutely no standard of reference to maintain that such a thesis is of lesser scholarly merit than a thesis on Dante, for example. Indeed, novelty itself becomes a standard worthy of reward.
But there is one form of universal judgement that still applies to matters of culture. This judgement supposes that the cultural achievements of the past matter only insofar as they form a sort of prelude for the gospel of modernity.
In short, in all things, our ancestors were less well off than we are. All that we can discern from the past amidst the assumed squalor, the oppressions, the superstitions, and the ignorance, is the slow advance of human knowledge and of human freedom to which we give the name progress. And it is this notion of progress which emboldens us, in our cultural endeavours, to forget the achievements of the past and seek other means of self-fulfilment — means which centre on the spontaneous creativity of the autonomous individual.
How did this situation come about? Human ideas, when they are encapsulated in a philosophy, always have consequences. The idea that one might form a scheme of human society without recourse to metaphysical principles may have had its roots in the distant past, but is essentially a product of Enlightenment philosophy. There, the unlikely combination of empiricism and scepticism destroyed the notion of an underlying unity in human experience.
Beginning with Hume, the new empiricism gave us a philosophy reduced to a mere skeleton of logic and a gaunt epistemology. If you add to this the sociology of Auguste Comte, then what you get is not just a new era in philosophy, but a new era in the way in which humans conceive of themselves. It remains only for the political philosophy of J.S. Mill to complete the picture of the new, autonomous individual, fitted out with a myriad of assumed “rights”, and unfettered by the inequalities and superstitions of the past.
And it is quite wrong to suppose that these philosophical or sociological theories taught at universities had no real purchase in the world of ordinary people. We must remember that these same universities produce our teachers, our business executives, our finance experts, our advertising gurus and most of our politicians.
Of course, we still have something which we call culture and it comes in two forms — the popular and the pseudo-sophisticated. They differ only in the manner of presentation. Popular culture makes no apology for its direct appeal to our lowest animal instincts as a sort of globalised exercise in thinly disguised depravity. The sophisticated version merely uses the same material in a manner which is contrived to assure us of its high aesthetic standard. Its depravity is more vicious but more refined.
Whereas the poets of old, for all their failings, sought to praise such things as continence and valour and sanctity, our purveyors of culture seek to ridicule such virtues and to attack even Beauty herself. For she is the last enemy, the one irritating reminder of what we could behold if we were to risk raising our snouts from the swill trough to glimpse Reality.
This is not a real society that we live in but a reluctant collection of individuals — millions of jostling egos crowded uncomfortably into a Hobbesian collective and ruled, not by leaders, but by opinion polls.
Culture, in all its aspects, is now simply just another item on the supermarket shelf. It has about it an air of tawdry sophistication, of desperation and, at bottom, of a disguised despair. The self-made man and the self-made woman, as it turns out, lack any sort of construction plan. The struggle to be new, to be confronting, to be different, to “do your own thing”, has finally taken us into a stifling social conformity immeasurably greater than anything recorded from the past.
You cannot maintain a culture by deconstructing it. Getting and spending may keep the black dog at bay for a time yet and, for those that fall through the cracks, there is always a ready supply of anti-depressant drugs. And so we stagger on, like some prehistoric monster in a primeval swamp, sinking under the weight of our own affluence.
Oddly enough, our children love dinosaurs. Perhaps they dream of starting the human journey all over again in the hope that, this time, we might get it right.
Brian J. Coman, PhD, a former agricultural scientist, is a widely published author and essayist.