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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Benefits of Culture

       People currently like to pretend that fields like literature, philosophy and other humanities are useless.  These people pretend that science and social sciences can exist without being grounded in the arts.  Matthew Arnold and Jose Ortega y Gasset argue in books from different centuries similar points--that culture is a necessary precondition for liberal democracy.
       Matthew Arnold, in his Culture and Anarchy, posits culture as the main remedy for the social problems of nineteenth century Britain.  He begins by subdividing moral thinking into Hebraism and Hellenism.  Hebraism is an emphasis upon proscribed behaviors.  (That is, do good things, and don't do bad things.)  Hellenism is the pursuit of truth and enlightenment.  Arnold felt that most of his contemporaries either embraced Hebraism to the exclusion of Hellenism, or vice versa.  Culture, for Arnold, meant embracing both Hebraism and Hellenism.  The groups rejecting culture Arnold called Barbarians and Philistines.  Barbarians extolled sports and the military;  they romanticized aristocracy and wished for absolute monarchy.  Philistines thought wealth was the greatest good;  they either thought free markets and trade were the answer or craved more social programs.  "The pursuit of perfection, then, is the pursuit of sweetness and light.  He who works for sweetness works in the end for light also;  he who works for light works in the end for sweetness also.  But he who works for sweetness and light united, works to make reason and the will of God prevail.  He who works for machinery, he who works for hatred, works only for confusion.  Culture looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred;  culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light.  It has one even yet greater!--the passion for making them prevail.  It is not satisfied till we all come to a perfect man;  it knows that the sweetness and light of the few must be imperfect until the raw and unkindled masses of humanity are touched with sweetness and light(p. 69)."  "Having, I say, at the bottom of our English hearts a very strong belief in freedom, and a very weak belief in right reason, we are soon silenced when a man plead the prime right to do as he likes, because this is the prime right for ourselves too;  and even if we attempt now and then to mumble something about reason, yet we have ourselves thought so little about this and so much about liberty, that we are in conscience forced, when our brother Philistine with whom we are meddling turns boldly round upon us and asks:  Have you any light?--to shake our heads ruefully, and to let him go his own way after all (p, 79)."  Arnold says that those who seek culture and perfection can look beyond social class.  "And this bent always tends to take them out of their class, and to make their distinguishing characteristic not their Barbarism or their Philistinism, but their humanity (p. 108)."  "Now, it is clear that the very absence of any powerful authority amongst us, and the prevalent doctrine of the duty and happiness of doing as one likes, and asserting our personal liberty, must tend to prevent the erection of any very strict standard of excellence, the belief in any very paramount authority of right reason, the recognition of our best self as anything very recondite and hard to come at (p. 109-110)."  Culture is seeking personal development.  "There is no unum necessarium,or one thing needful, which can free human nature from the obligation of trying to come to its best at all these points.  The real unum necessarium for us it to come to our best at all these points (p. 150)."  Arnold sees culture as a way of ending religious strife.  "The State is the religion of all its citizens without the fanaticism of any of them.  Those who deny this, either think so poorly of the State that they do not like to see religion condescend to touch the State, or they think so poorly of religion that they do not like to see the State condescend to touch religion.  But no good statesman will think thus unworthily either of the State or of religion (p. 156)."
       As stated above, Arnold saw culture as the uniting of moral excellence (Hebraism) and mental excellence (Hellenism).  Arnold saw it as the antidote for both overly clas-conscious British society and for lopsided personal development.
       Similarly, Jose Ortega y Gasset in his The Revolt of the Masses laments the fact that modern man has less pressure constraining his life;  that is, it has never been easier to live one's life due to advances in science and the triumph of popular government.  Excepting those who challenge themselves intentionally, the masses are like impatient, spoiled children.  They have forgotten the culture that made today's technological society possible.  Their political language devolves into violence.  "An idea is a putting truth in checkmate.  Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it.  It is no use speaking of ideas when there is no acceptance of a higher authority to regulate them, a series of standards to which it is possible to appeal in a discussion. . . .What I affirm is that there is no culture where there are no standards to which our fellow men can have recourse.  There is no culture where there are no principles of legality to which to appeal.  There is no culture where there is no acceptance of certain final intellectual positions to which a dispute may be referred (p. 72)."
       Due to the idea of equality, the masses actually see themselves as the ascetic's equal, and refuse to submit to his direction.  Not only does the average man celebrate vulgarity, he is "indocile," and refuses to accept authority.  The abandonment of mental standards and culture means totalitarian government becomes inevitable.  If men will become indifferent to what Arnold called Hellenism, Ortega y Gasset sees civilization itself at risk.
       Totalitarianism arises from rejection of the principles that undergird liberal democracy.  We have already discussed Arnold's treatment of culture as the solution for class-consciousness.  Now, Ortega y Gasset envisions the stifling of intelligent opinion by the tyranny of the mediocre.  "Can we be surprised that the world to-day seems empty of purposes, anticipations, ideals?  Nobody has concerned himself with supplying them.  Such has been the desertion of the directing minorities, which is always found on the reverse side of the rebellion of the masses (p. 46)."
       Arnold states:  "But in each class there are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity bout their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery, for simply concerning themselves with reason and the will of God, and doing their best to make these prevail;--for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection (p. 108)."  The ascetic man Ortega y Gasset envisions takes on mental challenges, pushing himself constantly.  "Contrary to what is usually thought, it is the man of excellence, and not the common man, who lives in essential servitude.  Life has no savour for him unless he makes it consist in service to something transcendental.  Hence he does not look upon the necessity of serving as an oppression.  When, by chance, such necessity is lacking, he grows restless and invents some new standard, more difficult, more exigent, with which to coerce himself.  This is life lived as a discipline--the noble life.  Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us--by obligations, not by rights (p. 63)."  Where Arnold thought every man could potentially benefit from culture, Ortega y Gasset seems convinced many university graduates are uninterested in the subjects of philosophy and other humanities which constitute culture.  The fact that medical doctors were among the first to embrace National Socialism in Germany would seem to confirm Ortega y Gasset's theory that science unmoored from the humanities creates a technologically proficient barbarian.
       Although Ortega y Gasset does not discuss in as much detail what constitutes culture as does Arnold, both see political violence and an erosion in the possibility of democracy arising from the abandonment of culture.  How ironic is it that college campuses are becoming places where the free discussion of ideas has been replaced by trigger warnings and safe spaces!  How long will the liberal arts and sciences languish while people extoll business curriculum and STEM as the only fit fields of study?  Will fields such as political philosophy die of starvation when disconnected from the classics and literature?

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