January 20, 2018 by John Bruce Leonard
IN THE STRUGGLE which presently engages us, and upon which our very future rides, it is imperative that we keep stern vigil over our tongues. The words we have at our disposal are our weapons in the metapolitical aspect of our war. And I am afraid that too often we take the vice of riding into battle wielding arms that were forged by our very enemies, and which they are therefore sure to ply more effectively than we shall ever do.
I limit myself to a single example taken from the multitude possible, albeit an example which has long seemed to me of special importance: the use, rather say abuse, which the word “culture” receives in our day. This word, once a term of noblest significance, has become as effaced as the meanest coin, and passes freely from hand to hand in the most banal exchanges imaginable. Yet it is we who have been impoverished thereby.
In its present use, the term “culture” is extended to every form of communal human existence. Every human group of any size, composition, duration, or quality is automatically supposed to possess its peculiar “culture.” A tribe of cannibals, the countries of Renaissance Europe, the protesters moiling idly outside the state building, and the local bar of drunkards—each of these groups is understood as having its peculiar and identifying “culture.” One speaks freely of “popular culture,” “primitive culture,” “drug culture,” and other such noxious concoctions, without perceiving for a moment the gross miscarriage of justice they represent.
To reconquer our right perspective, let us return to the origins. The word “culture” derives from the Latin; it makes its first recorded appearance in Cicero, who in his Tusculanae disputationes speaks of philosophy as a cultura animi, a culture of the soul. The metaphor employed by that old master of oratory is at once precise and enlightening. Culture is a means of improving the human being, not only physically, but spiritually; it therefore signifies a process, one in which deliberation, discretion, knowledge, experience, and awareness all play fundamental part. It implies value, a sense of high and low, of human perfection and human imperfection. It implies effort over long periods of time—not the act of a moment, but rather the work of seasons, years, decades, even lifetimes. It implicates reason on the one hand (the conscious deliberation which is demanded in such effort) and nature on the other (the peculiar quality of the soul in question). It is to be contrasted precisely with the wild, the fallow, the untended, the neglected, the entire accidental portion of the soul, which our modern term encompasses precisely.
Culture was historically considered to be the unique preserve of a few high civilizations (the fateful and dubious division between culture and civilization, as expressed most notably in the work of Spengler, came later). Owing to the valorization of art which accompanied certain important epochs of the modern era, the word culture came to indicate also the aesthetic aspects of civilization, which have fruitfully striven for primacy over Western culture since its very birth. Cultures were thus understood as belonging either to the noblest extinct societies of classical antiquity, or else the most illustrious extant civilizations—civilizations exclusively of Europe and delimited regions of Asia. Up until very recently, to refer this term “culture” to, say, sub-Saharan Africa or pre-European Australia or America would immediately have been recognized as the laughable absurdity it objectively is. We, alas, are not so keen of our vision; we pay the price for it daily.
The modern decadence of the idea of culture imposes a tacit equivalency between all cultures. Consider for a moment the psychological effects of this. How must it alter one’s estimation of European culture in particular, to believe that culture is but an instance of something which exists whole and complete in every human society? To see this problem more clearly, consider the sensible distinction between the words society and civilization. All men everywhere live in a kind of human society, be they the Bushmen of Africa, the Bedouin of Arabia, or the banshees of Antifadom; thus no man feels proud to live in a society as such. One can however feel proud to live in a civilization as such, for these other groups all lack civilization. Nowadays, in noteworthy contrast to the past, “culture” is understood every bit as universally as society: every human being, even the most primitive or wretched, possesses a culture. By our contemporary idea, one can at best feel proud of one’s peculiar culture; but one runs the risk of esteeming arbitrarily, on account of the mere accident of one’s birth.
The way was paved for this essentially egalitarian understanding of culture by early anthropology and sociology, which in their initial attempt to produce a rigorous and objective science of human societies sought to comprehend human things without reference to “value judgements.” This attempt could do nothing but paralyze such social concepts, as for instance culture, which are founded essentially on value. In the nineteenth century an effort was made to resist this aridification of culture: one began to speak of “high” and “low” culture. Matthew Arnold is perhaps the most celebrated spokesperson for this attempt; he must then be regarded as the foremost symbol of its failure. We shall not dwell on his default, informative though it be. The inconsistency and weakness of the “conservatives” of our era is too well known to occasion much surprise; nor is this the place to analyze the deeper reasons for it.
The problem with the Arnoldian argument can be briefly explicated as follows. By supposing that the difference between high and low “culture” is the unique legitimate cultural distinction, one thereby presupposes the universality of “culture”: one allows that all societies possess “culture,” the unique difference between them being their respective quality. The same logic applies to the idea of society itself, but the situation is complicated in the case of culture by culture’s inherent and inseparable connection to value. For it is evident that most men judge a “culture’s” quality (or a society’s, for that matter) on the basis of those values which they have been furnished by their own “culture.” Anyone who speaks of his own “high culture” thus appears to be the mere subjective advocate of the land of his birth. More often than not, one’s presumed right to adjudicate the rank value of various “cultures” is simply the consequence of one’s ability to impose one’s “culture” on other societies—the result, that is to say, not of any inherent superiority of one’s “culture,” but only of the greater military strength of one’s society, which, especially in our technological age, has nothing essential to do with its culture. (Anyone who believes otherwise must perforce consider the United States of America in its present incarnation to be the highest “culture” which has ever existed. Whatever else one might say of such a proposition, it is utterly incompatible with any kind of truly aristocratic thought.)
This state of affairs gradually undermines the arguments proposed by the defenders of “high culture” until they are finally reduced to mouthing the feeblest apologia for their merest preferences. “High culture” comes to mean the artistic and intellectual achievements which a given society arbitrarily holds to be of particular worth or quality: the idea of culture falls prey to the creeping relativism of our times. We should not for a moment close our eyes to what this transformation has meant: in rendering the word culture universal, we have robbed it of all its highest significance.
The problem can be clearly observed in a comparison of the word culture as it is used today with the word in its older acceptation. The word today is in fact the exact inversion of what it once was. Today “culture” is taken as a spontaneous growth of the human soul; whereas the word culture itself indicates deliberate care, conscious development, or careful preparation of the spirit. It is today taken as being essentially arbitrary, dependent on the accidents of local usage and custom; whereas the word itself indicates nurture in accord with the specific nature of the crop involved—with the specific essence or race of men in question, which is the cause and the not the consequence of usage and custom. Culture today is taken as a term indicating any and all societies; but the term itself exclusively indicates high societies, societies of a very rare warp and woof—societies which have progressed so far beyond the merely economic concern with survival that they can afford to embark upon the adventure of the spirit. The word is taken today to implicate no judgement whatever; but in point of fact it is essentially a term of implicit and inevitable estimation and discrimination. Indeed, culture, as it was originally understood, was precisely a term of distinction, and for this reason alone could be regarded as objective: some societies possess culture, others do not, and conflating the one category with the other is equivalent to an act of conceptual vandalism or revolution.
As for the concept which the word “culture” is now generally used to indicate (i.e., the simple aggregate of ways and practices of a given human group or society), there are a handful of perfectly adequate substitutes: “customs,” “ethos,” “usages,” even the word “society” itself, all quite adequately fill the requisite definition. There is no need here to despoil an excellent word, enslaving it to menial uses for which others are by nature fit. We gain nothing thereby, and we lose the use of an inimitable word.
And truly, here we find the most horrid aspect of our modern quandary: thanks to the success of this linguistic travesty, we no longer possess a term to express the higher meaning which the word culture once contained. An excellent word has been robbed from us by the wretched metapolitical and linguistic disease of modern egalitarianism. It falls to us to take it back. I could not more strongly urge our kin and comrades to restamp this word “culture” with the power and nobility it once proudly bore, and to use it with due discretion and with meet pride, as a term to describe the heights principally of European artistic and philosophical achievements.
It is not sufficient to resist the erosion of our language, as prior generations have attempted— and failed—to do. We must in fact rebuild the very foundations of our speech.
It behooves us to look more carefully at our language in general, and to engage in the kind of etymological research which has here been indicated. Anyone who believes this work to be of secondary importance would do well to spend even half an hour researching the manipulation of language effected by progressive and egalitarian thinkers in the past five centuries, and to reflect on the manifold and profound consequences this has had in our own day. There can be little doubt that one of the most insidious and effective forms of egalitarian revolution is found in the reduction of terms of distinction to mere terms of inclusion—the transformation of high and select words, into broad and universal ones. Not only are low things thereby inflated with an exaggerated and utterly unmerited worth, but we non-egalitarian thinkers are quite literally hobbled in our rhetoric: for this linguistic debasement tears from human speech the power of so much as expressing loftier ideas.
We, who would reinstate the heights to human life, who would indeed build our castles at those bracing reaches, will not proceed far on those parlous paths if we must drag such low usances behind us like lead shackles. We must shed the bad linguistic habits of democratic times, and grant ourselves the free dexterity of a higher speech. We must deliberately and consciously work our linguistic alchemy, transforming leaden terms of inclusion once again into golden terms of distinction. Truly, this is the first indispensable step toward a reawakening in our day of culture, as it is rightly understood.
Return to Part V