Analysis of the original meaning of the word ‘culture’, and investigation into how it has been corrupted over time, might give us insight into the state of our society.
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 – how we use our language, and, perhaps more to the point, how it uses us. The words we have at our disposal are nothing more nor less than 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 and armour that were forged long ago by our very enemies, and which they are therefore likely to employ more effectively than we shall ever know how to.
This is a wide and fertile subject. I limit myself to but 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 highest import and of noblest hue, has become as effaced as the commonest coin of our day, 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, condition, duration or quality (so long as it is not merely an accidental and momentary assemblage of human beings with no unifying factor adhering between them) is automatically supposed to possess its peculiar ‘culture’. A tribe of cannibals, the society of Germany in the eighteenth century or Italy in the sixteenth, the protesters moiling outside the state building, and the bar of drunkards down the road – each of these groups is understood as having its peculiar and identifying ‘culture’. One speaks freely of ‘popular culture,’ of ‘primitive culture,’ of ‘drug culture,’ and other such noxious concoctions, without perceiving for a moment the gross contradiction in terms, not to say offence against justice contained in such formulations.
Then let us reconquer our sense of perspective.
To begin with, a note on 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.1 The concept of culture thus derives explicitly and directly from the philosophical tradition which originated in Ancient Greece.2 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 merely physically, but spiritually; it therefore signifies a process, one in which deliberation, knowledge, experience, and awareness all play fundamental part. It implies a clear sense of value, a sense of high and low, founded on a clear sense of principle, of human perfection and human imperfection. It implies effort over long periods of time – not the work of a moment, but rather of seasons, years, decades, even lifetimes. It implicates reason on the one hand (the deliberation and consciousness which is demanded in such effort) and nature on the other (the peculiar quality and kind of the soul in question). It is to be contrasted precisely with the wild, the fallow, the untended, the neglected, accidental portion of the soul which our modern term intends precisely.
Culture was historically considered to be the preserve of a few high civilizations (the fateful and dubious division between culture and civilization, as expressed most notably in the work of Spengler,3 was late born). During the Romantic period and the valorization of art which accompanied it, the word culture was extended to encompass also the artistic aspects of civilization, which indeed have since the beginning of Western culture in the cradle of Greece enjoyed a unique social role. Cultures were understood as belonging either as the noblest extinct societies of antiquity, or else the noblest extant civilizations of modernity – civilizations which existed exclusively in Europe, delimited regions of Asia, and delimited periods of the Middle East. Up until very recently indeed, to refer this term ‘culture’ to, say, Africa or Australia or pre-European America would immediately have been recognized as the absurdity it objectively is. We, alas, are not so keen of our vision; we pay the price for our blindness daily.
The reduction of the idea of culture imposes a tacit equivalency between all cultures; it represents therefore but an instance of that levelling phenomenon which we observe universally in our contemporary society. Consider for a moment the psychological effects of our present use of the word. What must it do to one’s estimation of European culture in particular, to believe that European culture is but the European version of a universally shared social quality? To see this problem more clearly, consider the sensible distinction between the words society and civilization. One might feel proud of one’s society in particular, but not of the mere fact of living in society; 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. One can however feel proud to live in a civilization as such, for these other groups clearly all lack such, being inferior to it. ‘Culture’ is now understood as being every bit as universal as society. One cannot take any pride in the mere fact of possessing a culture, for every human being as human being possesses a culture.
One can, of course, feel pride in one’s particular ‘culture’. This pride is the pride that every human being is supposed to feel toward ‘his own’, no matter its character or quality. But part and parcel of the specific culture of the West is a certain liberty of view and critical power turned against one’s own;4 to have pride in one’s culture, as a man of the West, is simultaneously to distance oneself from it. The Westerner therefore cannot limit himself to thoughtless or reflexive pride in his culture; he is in need of justification for the same. That justification can only come from an objective reckoning, which convinces him, not only that this culture is really his own, but that it is a higher culture, a better culture, a culture worthy of the preserving. One cannot even begin to think in such a way so long as one holds to the contemporary notion of culture, according to which every human group automatically possesses a culture, and each of these cultures is equal in value. The Westerner today is therefore constrained to accept his historically critical state of being, and denied the ability to affirm the same.
This makes the Westerner weak with respect to other human groups – a weakness for which we are decidedly paying the price in this present historical moment, as we are confronted by globally shifting alien communities which hold unreflectively to their native ways, even as they come to live among us. The automatic and ‘natural’ pride in one’s ‘culture’ is insufficient to Europeans in particular – and this not to mention even that other and deeper problem, that the native ‘cultures’ of Europe have in late years been eroded almost unto erasure by the worst forces of modernity, for whose existence they themselves are responsible. The question of culture, in its highest aspects, touches directly upon the crisis of Europe; the latter cannot be addressed without addressing the former.
The way was paved for our essentially egalitarian understanding of culture by early anthropology and sociology, which in its initial attempt to produce a rigorous and objective science of human societies sought to comprehend human things without making ‘value judgements’;5 this could do nothing but raze all social concepts, like culture, which are founded essentially on such judgements. In the nineteenth century a decided intellectual effort was made to resist this transformation of the idea of culture. One began to speak defensively as it were 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 us to occasion much surprise; nor is this the place to analyze the reasons behind it.
The problem with Arnold’s stance, and the stance indeed of most of the cultural conservatives of and since his time, can be briefly explicated. By supposing that the difference between high and low culture is the unique cultural distinction which can legitimately be made, one thereby presupposes the universality of culture: all societies possess culture; the difference between them is in the elevation, or the quality, of their respective cultures. The same logic holds for the idea of society itself, but the situation is complicated in the case of culture, on account of culture’s inherent and inseparable connection to value. For in the end, one judges a ‘culture’s’ quality on the basis of those values which one has been furnished – by one’s own ‘culture’. Each man who speaks of high culture thus demonstrates himself to be an interested party, incapable of independent and objective judgement. More often than not, one’s presumed right to adjudicate ‘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 technological, economic or military strength of one’s society, which has nothing essential to do with ‘culture’, and certainly not with ‘high culture’.6
This state of affairs has gradually undermined the arguments proposed by the defenders of ‘high culture’, until they have finally been reduced in our own day to mouthing the feeblest apologia for their merest preferences. It is no wonder they have been routed by the bolder egalitarians and nihilists at practically every turn; these latter are entirely more honest and consistent in their point of view. ‘High culture’ has thus come to mean the artistic and intellectual achievements which a given society arbitrarily believes are of particular worth or quality. The idea of ‘culture’ has in consequence been radically redefined, in such a way that it has finally grown meaningless. It has fallen prey to the creeping relativism of our times – subject which, despite its dire urgency in our day, too far outreaches our present scope for us even to touch upon it. But we should not for a moment close our eyes to what this transformation has practically meant so far as the question of culture itself goes: in rendering the word culture universal, we have robbed it of all its higher significance.
The problem can be clearly seen in a comparison of the word culture as it is used to day with its older acceptation: the word today is in fact precisely the contrary of what was originally meant by it. Today ‘culture’ is taken as a spontaneous growth of the human soul; whereas the word culture originally indicates deliberate care, conscious development, or careful preparation of the same. It is today taken as that which is given a human being, that historical and historically determined medium within which a human being dwells; when hitherto it was taken almost as the very ladder by which one might climb out of that medium, and exist at a higher and super-historical level. It is today taken as essentially arbitrary, dependent on the accidents of local usage and custom or the whims and follies of human society; whereas the word itself indicates nurture in accord with the specific nature of the crop involved – which is here to say, with the specific society or race of men in question, which nature exists despite all mere customs or whims or follies. One today takes culture as a term indicating any and all societies; but the term itself rather indicates rare societies, societies of a very peculiar warp and woof – societies, that is to say, which have progressed so far beyond the merely economic concern with survival that they can afford to embark upon the adventure of the soul.7 The word is taken today to indicate no judgement whatever; but in point of fact it is essentially a term of distinction, of elevation, of implicit and inevitable judgement and discrimination. Indeed, culture, as it was originally understood, was precisely a term of distinction, and for this could be regarded as objective: some societies possess culture, and others do not, and conflating the one category with the other is equivalent to performing an act of conceptual violation or revolution.
And here the truly horrible aspect of the problem in question: we no longer have a word to express the higher meaning which the word culture once intended. This word ‘culture’ has thus become symptomatic of the linguistic disease of modernity: a high word which has been robbed from us by overuse and by the wretched metapolitics of modern egalitarianism. It is our task to take it back.
I could not more strongly urge my kin and comrades to restamp this word ‘culture’ with the excellence it once nobly bore, and to use it exclusively in describing the heights of principally European artistic and philosophical achievements. Indeed, from the very little that has been said here we are already in a position to set forth a bold thesis: so far from being universal, culture, rightly understood, is the native and natural aspect of European societies exclusively.
In accordance with this claim, which would amount to a reclamation of the conditions for European pride, the word culture should be used to describe, not even the achievements of a given kind of soul, but rather the cultivation of the same.
The prime difference standing between Cicero’s day and our own, is that the men of Cicero’s time could simple presuppose the prima materia, the good ethnic and human substance upon which the work of culture could rightly be undertaken. Today, this subsoil must be reconstituted, and this is perhaps the greatest task confronting the legislator today. Sadly, it is a task whose necessity is largely not even recognized. It is a task which then must be addressed first on the intellectual level, before it can be addressed on the practical level; hence, again, the metapolitical aspect of our war. But in waging this battle, in engaging in this struggle, it is a matter of course that we reawaken the slumbering European culture itself, its ties to philosophy, its rightful place of mastery within our souls. To fight on the intellectual and spiritual plane, is the first step toward revitalizing the physiological or physical plane.
It is therefore not sufficient to merely resist the erosion of our language: we must in truth renew its very foundations. This requires a double work: first, the disinterment of and older and loftier language;8 second, invention or rediscovery of language capable of substituting the low uses to which we have subjected high words. On this last point, as for the concept the word ‘culture’ is now generally used to indicate (i.e., the ways and practices of a given human group or society), there are a handful of good substitutes which are readily available to us: ‘customs,’ ‘ethos,’ ‘usages,’ even the word ‘society’ itself, all quite adequately fill the requisite definition, and can easily take the place of the abused word ‘culture’ with only a modicum of syntactical manipulations. These are indeed the very words that prior generations used to express the more general concept, which of course was hardly foreign to them. There is no need here to despoil an excellent word, to enslave it to menial work for which others are better fit. To do so is indeed to play directly into the hands of our enemies, and the general disintegration of our times.
It behooves us indeed to look more carefully at our language in general, and to engage in the kind of etymological research here suggested, toward the improvement of our tongues. 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 the political left in the past several centuries. There can be little doubt that one of the most insidious and effective forms of egalitarian metapolitics is found in the reduction of terms of distinction to mere terms of inclusion – in the transformation of high and elect words, into broad, universal, egalitarian ones. Not only are low things thereby inflated with the semblance of an exaggerated and utterly unmerited worth, but we non-egalitarian thinkers are quite literally hobbled in our rhetoric, for this clever transformation tears from human speech the power of so much as expressing nobler 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.
Truly, this is the first indispensable step toward a reawakening in our day of European culture, as it is rightly understood.
1Cicero, Tusculanae disputationes, Book II, §13: Cultura animi philosophia est.
2It is thus clear that the crisis in Western culture cannot be resolved save as the crisis in Western philosophy is resolved. This gargantuan task, which falls upon the backs of the present and uniquely unprepared generation, whether or not they be meet to its burden, demands an exacting clarity regarding at least the following, integrally related questions: 1.) To what extent do we owe the crisis in the West to Modern philosophy? 2.) To what extent is Modern philosophy the direct descendant of pre-modern or Classical philosophy, and to what extent is it a perversion of or innovation on the same? 3.) Is it possible to return to Classical philosophy to resolve this crisis, or can it be resolved through Modern philosophy, or is it necessary to hope and strive for a new philosophy, a ‘philosophy of the future’? Or, finally, does the present crisis in Western philosophy force a reappraisal and potentially an utter rejection of the same – is Western philosophy the product, as Nietzsche suggested, of decadence, but of a decadence so profound that it cannot be healed or eradicated? And if this is the case, whither then the West, and what options remain to it, within its own traditions, for an inner revitalization? And finally – is this very seeking not Western philosophy once more?
3A similar dichotomy is drawn by Thomas Mann in his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, as literature or art versus politics. The falsity of this position seems to me to have led directly to Mann’s final obsequious and improbable capitulation to a most facile democracy. As Leo Strauss puts it, as he was ‘unpolitical in his youth’, he became ‘simplistically political’ in his middle and old age. See What Is Political Philosophy? (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1959), Chapter 10, ‘Kurt Riezler’.
4Suffice it to note here that philosophy is the unique preserve of the West. This will be taken as a highly controversial statement: let those who would dispute it find me a case of a non-Western philosophical tradition which meets the fundamental prerequisites of Western philosophy, as established by the Socratic tradition: 1.) the tradition in question remained essentially sovereign with respect to all official political or religious traditions, thus establishing liberty in the face of any and all authority; 2.) the tradition in question clearly distinguished itself from custom on the one and poetry on the other. I would suggest that no Asiatic tradition has met the first condition, and no African, Middle Eastern or aboriginal tradition has met the second. The question of spirituality and its relation to philosophy is of course a complex one; to what extent can the esoteric teachings of religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam be considered identical to philosophy? To what extent is the Sophia Perennis identical to the Sophia Socratike or the Socratic Anthropine Sophia, and supposing there is a distinction between the two, how can it be characterized and understood? All of this is work for a different place; for the nonce, we can at least state this much: in no other part of the world has the philosopher sought to legislate as in the West. This alone distinguishes the West and its philosophy from every other part of the globe.
6Anyone who believes otherwise must perforce consider the United States of America in its present incarnation as 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.
7Cf. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ‘Economy’.
8This would be the stuff of an essay all its own. Let it suffice here to mention the two primary aspects of this: first, as indeed is in a way instinctual to us, we must begin to use a vocabulary which today might seem antiquated, not shying before words like ‘virtue’, ‘honour’, ‘nobility’, etc. Second, wherever high words have been polluted by the common use of our days (as in the case, e.g., of ‘hero’, ‘awesome’, ‘great’, etc.), we must discipline ourselves to their transvaluation, using them consciously and deliberately with their right scope, intension and extension.