The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Apostle of High Culture

Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famous senator, orator, and philosopher of the Roman Republic, in its last days before the rise of the dynasty of the Caesars, in his Tusculan Disputations, compared the education of the mind to the cultivation of the field. In response to the objection that bad lives on the part of philosophers discredit their philosophy, Cicero wrote:

[I]t is not every mind which has been properly cultivated that produces fruit; and, to go on with the comparison, as a field, although it may be naturally fruitful, cannot produce a crop without dressing, so neither can the mind without education; such is the weakness of either without the other. Whereas philosophy is the culture of the mind: this it is which plucks up vices by the roots; prepares the mind for the receiving of seeds; commits them to it, or, as I may say, sows them, in the hope that, when come to maturity, they may produce a plentiful harvest. (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, Book II: “On Bearing Pain”, translation by C. D. Yonge)

There is an interesting parallel between this passage and the parable Jesus told of the sower and the seed. In Jesus’ parable, a man sowed good seed in different types of soil with results which varied in accordance with the soil. The seed, Jesus explained, was the Word of God, and the soil was the hearts and minds of men. In Cicero’s illustration, philosophy is to the mind, what cultivation is to a field. Both illustrations make the point that the quality of the soil affects the quality of the harvest, i.e., that the quality of the heart or mind, determines how fruitful the seed of the Word in the one case, or the cultivation of philosophy in the other, will be. Without making this point, Cicero’s illustration could not have served the purpose for which he gave it. Cicero also, however, stresses the flip-side, that no matter how good the soil – the mind - , it will not produce a good crop without the cultivation of education and philosophy.

In addition to the points Cicero intentionally made, this passage also illustrates the origins of the concept of “culture”. “Culture” is, of course, etymologically derived from the same Latin root as the verb “cultivate”. The word “agriculture” is created by the addition of this word, meaning “to till” or “to plough” and by extension “to prepare” to the Latin word for field. We have come to apply the word culture to a wide variety of activities which make up our way of life. This use of the word culture would appear to have begun as a metaphorical application of the idea of “cultivating” the human mind, heart, soul, or spirit similar to Cicero’s.

There are variations to how we use the word “culture” in reference to human beings. Anthropologists and sociologists use it to refer to religious beliefs and practices, languages, folklore, customs and habits, and everything about a particular people’s manner of living which gives that people a distinct identity. We can see the root meaning of culture in this when we think about how these things, which are passed on from one generation to the next, cultivate or prepare people for life within a particular society.

There is another way in which we use the word culture in which the idea of cultivating our mind and character is even more apparent. We sometimes speak of a person with sophisticated and refined tastes as “having culture” or, when someone goes to a Shakespearean play, symphony, art gallery or opera, say that they are “getting culture”. When we use these expressions we are referring to what is called “high culture”. The idea of high culture, is that of a society’s greatest cultural achievements which mark that society as being truly civilized. It is supposed to have a civilizing effect upon the minds, character, and manners of those it influences, much like that which Cicero claimed for philosophy.

The concept of high culture came under heavy attack in the 20th Century. Relativist critics have challenged its claims to superiority over popular or mass culture, and weight has been given to their challenge by the growing popularity of democratic and egalitarian ideals. The fraudulent nature of much that was passed off as high art, music and literature in the avant garde era of the early 20th Century and even more so in the post-modern era of the late 20th Century, has not helped the case for high culture.

That case was brilliantly made, however, in the 19th Century, by poet and critic Matthew Arnold. In the 1860’s he wrote a series of essays which were published serially, then compiled into a volume entitled Culture and Anarchy, to which he added a lengthy preface. In this preface Arnold stated that the purpose of the essay was to “recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties” after which he gave a now famous definition of culture:

Culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.

By “total perfection”, Arnold does not appear to have meant absolute flawlessness so much as well-roundedness, balance, and harmonious integration. To demonstrate the nature of the perfection he believed culture strives after, he borrowed the phrase “sweetness and light” from an allegory by Dean Swift. In that allegory, a spider was arguing with a honeybee about which of the two of them produced superior work. This took place within the context of a satire about the 18th Century argument between French intellectuals over whether the writings of classical authors or modern authors were superior. In Swift’s satire, “The Battle of the Books”, the books themselves come to life and go to war with each other, and it is a volume of Aesop’s fables which finds the spider and the bee and settles their argument in the bee’s favour by saying that the bee fills his hive with “honey and wax, thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.”

If the contributions of the ancients appeared to be the “sweetness and light” of the honeybee in comparison with the web of venom and dirt spun by the spider of modern thought to Jonathan Swift in the 18th Century, the comparison must have seen that much more apt to Matthew Arnold in the 19th Century. Arnold lived and wrote in the Victorian era when the industrialism of Manchester was reshaping Britain after its own image before his very eyes. He saw the new industrialism as having begotten a “faith in machinery”, which exaggerated the importance of machinery and treated it “as if it had a value in and for itself” and he regarded this misplaced faith as “our besetting danger”. He recognized that the “movement towards wealth and industrialism” which spawned this faith was necessary “in order to lay broad foundations of material well-being for the society of the future” but warned that the material well-being of future generations was being purchased at the price of the spiritual well-being of the present generation. In these warnings, Arnold anticipated Jacques Ellul’s critique of “the technological society” by almost a century.

Arnold introduced his essay by referring to remarks by “that fine speaker and famous Liberal” John Bright, who had dismissed culture as “a smattering of the two dead languages of Greek and Latin”. At the end of his introduction, he said that “like Mr. Bright” and others, he was a liberal but one “tempered by experience, reflection and renouncement” and “above all , a believer in culture”. Culture and Anarchism is a criticism of liberalism – 19th Century classical Victorian liberalism – from within, which it is important to keep in mind if we want to understand how the various threads of the critique tie together. It is the agenda of 19th Century liberalism – ecclesiastical disestablishmentarianism, individualism or “doing as one likes”, and industrialism, which are criticized as the source of “our present difficulties”, but from someone who accepts liberalism’s basic principles.

Thus, when the move to disestablish the Irish church “not by the power of reason and justice, but by the power of the antipathy of the Protestant Nonconformists, English and Scotch, to establishments” is discussed, Arnold’s criticism is in many ways the mirror image of that of his godfather, John Keble almost forty years previously. Keble, an Anglican vicar, had responded to a move by Parliament to eliminate several dioceses in Ireland, with a fiery sermon against “the National Apostasy”. This sermon was credited as the beginning of the Oxford Movement by John Henry Newman, who led that movement until he left the Church of England to join the Church of Rome. The Oxford Movement was a spiritual revival within the High Church branch of the Church of England, which in response to the growth of philosophical, religious and political liberalism, sought to refocus the Church on her spiritual establishment, as a branch of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, Church” by Christ and His Apostles. One of the fiercest opponents of the Oxford movement had been Arnold’s father, the latitudinarian and liberal headmaster of Rugby School. Arnold shared his father’s Broad Church position and his rejection of the miraculous and supernatural, and so when he criticized the Puritans, Nonconformists, and the disestablishment movement within the Church of England it was for different reasons than Keble and Newman. These groups, he argued, tend to promote provincialism, whereas ecclesiastical establishments tend to produce the kind of total view of things which he called culture.

This provincial attitude, like Puritan and Nonconformist faith and industrial capitalism, tended to be associated with the middle classes, and Arnold dubbed these “Philistines”. This term, taken from the name of the enemies of the Israelites in the Old Testament, was already being used in Europe to refer to people who had no appreciation for culture. The Philistine, Arnold wrote, is “the enemy of the children of light” and this label which “gives the notion of something particularly stiff-necked and perverse in the resistance to light and its children” is particularly appropriate to the middle class because they “not only do not pursue sweetness and light” but “prefer to them that sort of machinery of business, chapels, tea meetings, and addresses…which makes up the dismal and illiberal life on which I have so often touched”.

If we think about the kind of person who judges the status of others solely or primarily upon their level of income, who only understands the value of education in the utilitarian sense of it being a means towards getting a good, well-paying job, and who dismisses books, art, and all other cultural products which do not provide cheap amusement or contribute towards career advancement as useless, you will have a pretty good picture of what Arnold meant. It is not a flattering picture of the middle class, but Arnold was no easier on any other class. The aristocracy he dubbed “Barbarians”, after the people who overthrew Roman civilization and argued that their culture was merely external and did not touch the heart. The industrial labour class he called “the Populace”, and while this is the least blatantly insulting of these labels, the anarchy referred to in the title of the volume consists largely of this class “marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes”.

By treating these classes in this way, Arnold made the point that culture is not the property of any one class while simultaneously arguing that active hostility to culture is characteristic of one particular class – the Philistine middle class.

In his preface, which, remember, was written after the body of the text had already been written and published serially, Arnold remarks that the “strongest and most vital part of the English Philistinism was the Puritan and Hebraising middle-class” and says that “its Hebraising keeps it from culture and totality”. Hebraism, in the fourth of the essays in Culture and Anarchy is contrasted with Hellenism as one of two great forces shaping human history, both with the “final aim” of “man’s perfection or salvation”. They differ in that “The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience”. This essay is one which no orthodox Christian could possibly agree with because he associates the idea of “seeing things as they really are” with the rejection of the supernatural and because Christianity itself is obviously a Hebraising force. Arnold acknowledged that Christianity is a form of Hebraism but distinguished it from Puritan Hebraism. Early Christianity, he said, was a Hebraism which replaced the Hellenism of Greco-Roman culture, but it did so at a time when Hellenism was naturally waning and Hebraism naturally waxing in the mainstream of Western history. Conversely, Puritanism was a Hebraism which checked the “central current of the world’s progress” when the Hellenism of the “Renescence” (1) was that mainstream.

While this reads like a case of special pleading that allows Arnold to condemn Hebraism in Puritanism while praising it in early Christianity the distinction is actually important to his argument, because it is precisely this matter of being “not in contact with the main current of national life” which he identifies as the source of provincialism among the Nonconformists.

Arnold’s association of “the main current of national life”, i.e., what we would call “the mainstream” today with the balanced, harmonious, and “total” or “whole” worldview which he argues that culture imparts, is both a strength and a weakness of his book. Sectarianism and separatism have long gone hand in glove with a tendency to exaggerate the importance of minor and peripheral matters to the point where major and central matters are eclipsed or even lost. Thus Arnold’s linking of Nonconformity, Dissent and disestablishmentarianism to provincialism and Philistinism has much merit. What if, however, the mainstream is itself diverted into the wrong channel? Arnold’s basic acceptance of the liberal concept of progress appears to have been a hindrance to his giving this question the serious thought which it deserves.

That this was a weakness in his argument is all to clear today when we realize just how appalled Arnold would be if he could return to the 21st Century and see where the mainstream has led us since his day. The Greek and Latin classics, which he and Dean Swift associated with “sweetness and light”, have lost the central place they once held in the curriculum to be replaced with subjects considered to be more appropriate for a world where industry and machinery dominate. Philistines are now mass-producing “culture” which resembles the “dirt and poison” of the spider more than it does the “sweetness and light” of the honeybee and have made it difficult for people to escape their web, even in the privacy of their own homes.

Throughout his book, Arnold struggled with the undesirable consequences of the liberalism he had inherited from his father. Liberalism in all of its manifestations, was an attempt to cling on to everything good which had been passed down from the classical and Christian eras while embracing the philosophy of the “Enlightenment” which was killing those good things off at the root. Religious liberalism sought to cling on to Christian ethics while rejecting the basic message of Christianity that the all-powerful, miracle-performing, Creator God, came down and dwelt among us as a man, and redeemed us to Himself through the shedding of His own blood, then rose from the grave to offer us new and everlasting life. Political liberalism sought to find a rational defense for the traditional rights and liberties of Englishmen which arose out of a constitution and common law that had evolved over centuries in a kingdom influenced by Roman law and Christianity which would maintain those rights and liberties once everything that had given birth to them had been lost. The very idea of “progress” is an attempt to keep the Christian hope of the Kingdom of God alive, for people who no longer believe in God, and who reject the authority of God the king.

Each of these attempts proved to be a colossal failure in the 20th Century. Religious liberals found that Christian ethics could no longer be maintained without Christian doctrine and so found themselves preaching a watered down, subtance free morality, to dwindling congregations. Political liberals threw away the prescriptive rights and liberties of Englishmen in favour of the soft tyranny of the nanny state. The doctrine of progress has led to the kingdom of hell rather than the kingdom of heaven on earth.

None of this, of course, was evident in the 19th Century. Matthew Arnold deserves much credit for seeing as many problems as he did. His concept of a wholistic, integrated culture in which beauty and truth, sweetness and light, are given their proper due, remains an admirable ideal, albeit one the high culture of the 20th Century has fallen rather short of. This is not Matthew Arnold's fault, however, and the fact that the difference remains noticeable to anyone should be attributed to his abiding influence on cultural critics up to this day.

(1) i.e., the Renaissance. This term was new at the time, Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy having just been published 9 years earlier, the English translation not yet having appeared. Arnold correctly predicted that the term was “destined to become of more common use amongst us as the movement which it denotes comes, as it will come, increasingly to interest us”. His Anglicized spelling of the word did not, however, catch on.

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