In Defense of CultureBy Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Alexandria, VA This past weekend, about 20 Georgetown students and a few Front Porchers enjoyed magnificent weather, food, conversation, and good cheer in a beautiful setting in western Virginia for the second annual Tocqueville Forum student retreat. We were especially fortunate to be treated to two fine lectures by Mark Mitchell (on Wendell Berry) and Jason Peters (on beached fish, making out, Augustine and the virtues of dirt), as well as the opportunity to read, talk, dine, fish, bike, hike, throw horseshoes, and spend long evenings together over pool, cards, and a game of Trivial Pursuit for the ages.
I opened the proceedings on Friday evening with a lecture that I entitled “In Defense of Culture,” which was broadly the theme of our weekend’s discussions (among other things, we read selections from Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, and Romano Guardini’s wonderful little book, Letters from Lake Como). The text of my lecture follows:
In Defense of Culture
Second Annual Tocqueville Forum Student Retreat
Today, in and beyond the academy, we tend to use the word “culture” promiscuously and without any real understanding of the deeper meaning of the word. At institutions such as Georgetown, and most other modern institutions of higher learning, we speak frequently of the fact and virtues of multiculturalism; while beyond the gates of academe, the word “culture” is most often combined with the adjective “popular,” indicating most often varied offerings on different forms of electronic media. Yet, while the word “culture” rolls easily from our tongues, it is not often that reflect on its meaning – and further, whether “culture” continues to exist in today’s world in any real sense. It is on the idea and meaning of the word and concept “culture” that we will devote our attention during this short but vital weekend.
I want to begin this day and a half of sustained reflection with a fairly straightforward conclusion: the modern world is unfriendly toward culture, and in particular, its dominant political philosophies have combined to displace culture from its ancient place of pride, to eviscerate culture in any meaningful sense and to leave behind a disordered set of fragments that we now call “multiculturalism.” In the next few minutes, I want to lay out a case that modernity is actually an anti-culture, a way of life that seeks wherever possible the elimination of culture and its replacement by a globalized anti-cultural monoculture, a homogenous way of life that exists in profound contradiction to the basic elements of culture that were once the assumed way of life.
The political philosophy as a whole that has effected this destruction of culture is the dominant school of thought – and life – of the modern period, namely liberalism. Liberalism, in its many forms – whether classical or progressive, whether purportedly on the Right or the Left – shares one basic feature in common, namely a hostility to cultural forms that are a pre-modern inheritance. Whether in the form of classical liberalism that forefronts individualism, or in the form of progressive liberalism that aspires to collectivism, both forms of liberalism seek to effect their ends by the same means – namely, the displacement of culture. Indeed, I would go farther to argue that the two have combined in a pincer movement, alternating in their claims toward the common end of detaching people from traditional forms and ways of life in favor of various visions of liberation.
So, what do I mean by culture? Here I turn for help from the author whom we will be discussing tomorrow, Romano Guardini. In his little masterpiece, Letters From Lake Como, Guardini gently seeks to describe an understanding of the human creature as that creature that is at once of, but not completely defined by, nature. Unlike all the other creatures of the planet, humans survive not primarily by instinct, but by artifice, endowed with none of the “natural” tools of the other creatures, but relying almost entirely on tools created through artifice, reflection, experimentation and choice. That is, we might rightly call humanity “homo techne” – “technological man” – the creature that survives through the tools he creates, one that allow him to carve out a space for survival and even flourishing from the natural world that would otherwise be so hostile and unforgiving. This understanding of humanity lie behind the Greek myth of Prometheus, whose theft of fire and the arts from the Gods allowed otherwise naked and powerless humanity to survive, and gave to humanity some part of the divine gift that so angered the gods to place Prometheus under a painful and endless punishment.
Yet, as Guardini strives to explain, the human freedom to exert some measure of control over nature is nevertheless ultimately governed by nature. The variety of human cultures arose in great part because of the various ways in which nature manifests itself. Human techne developed alongside nature, seeking to conform itself to nature’s offerings, its rhythms, its cadences, and in cognizance of its place of majesty and governance. Human practices and traditions arose in concert with the variety of natural diversity; thus, while every culture has tended to share certain basic features – the celebration of birth, the ceremonial acknowledgement of adulthood, the sanctification of marriage, honor paid to the elderly, and the memorialization of the dead – these practices have varied in accordance with the accumulation of experience and interaction with the world.
The accumulation of these practices and traditions as a way of life is what we call culture. Culture is among the paramount forms of human technology, perhaps in its purest form the lived collection of memory. Again, Greek myth is instructive: the Muses, who embody the different arts and sciences that we have come to call “culture,” were the daughters of Mnemnosyne, the goddess of Memory. Culture is thus unique to humans, for it is the way that we make the continuous flow of time present to us in spite of its fleeting nature. Culture is the repository of memory of time past, just as it is the promise to the future, an inheritance that is passed on to future generations. Culture assumes that, in order for future generations to survive, the accumulated knowledge of the past must be passed on, and thus, that the conditions of life of the future will be continuous and similar to the conditions of life of the past. Culture innovates, but slowly, carefully, cautiously, with awareness that novelty can endanger as much as it can liberate. Culture, in fact, tends to mistrust the new, the strange, the unique, as temptations that can offer shortcuts or easy solutions that experience shows more often than not to be a Siren’s song.
Culture, then, cultivates: it is the medium and the context in which each new generation is raised, part of a long narrative that stretches back countless generations and assumes the existence of countless new generations. Culture is not only knowledge, but also a set of dispositions – in particular, gratitude to the past for what has been achieved and passed on, and a sense of obligation to the future for what is owed as an inheritor of something one did not create, but rather, which created and fostered you. Culture inherently teaches us that we are part of a web or a fabric of intertwining strands, each part necessarily in combination and relationship as part of a larger whole. It was such an understanding of culture that led the great author G.K. Chesterton to describe us as all part of that “democracy of the dead,” as equals because of our shared presence in a long narrative in which we are part, and which we can expect to remain part of after our deaths and the death of all of our kin.
Now consider the modern philosophy of liberalism. Liberalism begins with the political philosophy of Hobbes, with refinement by John Locke, with the idea that humans by nature are naturally free and equal. These thinkers sought to describe the natural human condition to be one of autonomous and whole individuals who have no past, no culture, no history, no relationships, no memory. They are like Athena, sprung from the head of Zeus – and, for that reason, its theorists were described by the political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel as “childless men who have forgotten their childhood.” Even as we are prompted to leave the State of Nature for reasons of its inconvenience, this vision of natural human liberty remains the standard and even ideal. We enter society better to enjoy liberty, but society itself ideally will work toward creating conditions in which we can enjoy the kind of autonomous liberty that was only insecurely our natural condition in our pre-political state.
That standard is introduced into a world of actual cultures, attachments, histories, obligations and gratitude. That ideal – the autonomous individual – eventually comes into conflict with that reality, and liberal theory eventually becomes liberal practice, weakening and then outright destroying those bonds. Culture is experienced as a constraint upon the freedom of the individual, and for that standard to be realized, the limitations represented by culture must be overcome. The autonomous individual at the heart of liberal theory cannot in fact come into being in reality without first liberating him or her from the inheritances of cult and culture. Liberal theory thus redefines all human relations in its wake – rather than culture in a sense defining the individual, rather the individual becomes the judge of culture, and places all relations and bonds under the logic of choice and voluntarism. Whether one’s religion, one’s community, one’s nation, even one’s family, all human relations are redefined by liberalism’s logic. Inheritance becomes a lifestyle; culture becomes “multi-culturalism,” a set of fashion or styles that one can try on for size, entering and exiting at will.
Liberalism begins by claiming to be neutral among personal ends and choices, indifferent to the ultimate purposes of individuals so long as those purposes do not come into violent conflict. However, one can quickly see that this indifference must eventually become outright hostility toward those choices that involve ultimate purposes, particularly inasmuch as they involve not individually defined ends, but ends that require community and culture for their fruition. So long as such communities and cultures are open and make no authoritative claim on the individuals who belong to them – so long as there are strong opportunities and rights of exit – then such communities can be tolerated by the liberal state. But, this very logic proves destructive of the fundamental status of culture, which requires a kind of preliminary devotion and loyalty in advance of choice.
One sees, then, how a diversity of cultures becomes the liberal form of multiculturalism. Cultural diversity in the truest sense results from internal standards and practices within cultures, and cultures collectively and cohesively provide definition of their beliefs, their practices, their customs, their ways of life. Cultures patrol their borders, defining what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and involves distinctions between members and outsiders. “Multiculturalism,” or – to use the updated language – “diversity” – reduces beliefs and ways of life to the level of the individual, demanding then in advance of any belief that every individual first assent and commit to a willingness to tolerate any other belief or way of life, so long as there is no threat of physical harm. What becomes intolerable are people who will not give that preliminary assent, who insist that certain standards or beliefs ought to govern in a particular context or setting. Such people need correction, restriction, or ostracism for their intolerance.
The result is the elimination of actual diversity in the form of groups, institutions, associations, in favor of a kind of uniform monoculture of individualistic diversity. A good example of this is to be found in universities today: universities everywhere constantly invoke the language of “diversity” – by which of course is meant the “diversity” of lifestyle choices based upon individual choice – and seek to eliminate any remnant of actual cultural diversity by which colleges and universities were once differentiated (e.g., different religious, regional, historical traditions….). What remains is a monoculture of completely identical individualists: no matter their individual “lifestyle” choices, they first must maintain a preliminary allegiance to the ideal of multiculturalism – that is, the indifferent toleration based in the logic of individual choice. This is the anti-culture of liberalism.
There are profound consequences of this transformation. Culture is and was the conduit of memory, the carrier of obligations and the necessary condition for gratitude. Culture binds the generations through a fostered understanding of generational continuity. By destroying the basis of culture, liberalism induces a strong form of temporal myopia. In such a setting, humans understand themselves to live for themselves, shorn of their gratitude to the past and their obligations to the future. They tend to irresponsibly draw down on the cultural inheritance of the past even as they fail to replenish its stores. And, they tend as well to borrow against the future, unmindful of the children they are increasingly unlikely to bear. Culture is seen as an obstacle to the achievement of this temporal condition. Technology, rather than being culture itself, seeks to replace culture. We create instruments that liberate us from past practices and which we are certain will be displaced in the future. Our technology now liberates us from the need to know what previous generations once had to know. In such a situation, can there be any wonder that education becomes obessed with the up-to-date, and sees it as a central role to liberate its students from obligations to know deeply about the past?
Along with the destruction of the basis of culture, liberalism also seeks liberation from nature. As much as culture, nature is a limit upon thorough human freedom, a set of external constraints upon the possibility of satisfying an expanding set of human choices. Where culture was the generational effort to live alongside nature, conforming a range of human activities to its rhythms and ways in the expectation that future generations would be able to live well by the same set of practices, liberalism views nature as a foe, as an enemy that needs to be mastered so as to achieve ever greater expanses of human freedom. Technology now no longer conforms at some level to nature (think of Guardini’s example of the sailboat), but rather transforms nature, subjecting it wherever possible to uniformity and standardization. The destruction of culture and the conquest of nature go hand in hand, just as culture and nature at a certain level were bound together. Where culture attempted to understand the limits of human freedom in relation to the natural world and human nature itself, the modern project rejects the idea of such limits, actively transforming the world – and increasingly, seeking the transformation of humanity – as best to accord with the liberal ideal of the autonomous individual.
This place, then, is a perfect setting for us to reflect on the meaning and possibility of culture in today’s world. It would seem that culture is everywhere under duress if not outright retreat – in all but its most superficial, which is to say, eviscerated forms – but a serious question lingers over your generation today whether this wager could be won. Let me quote some lines from Wendell Berry – the Kentucky farmer, poet, essayist and novelist, whom we’ll be hearing more about tomorrow. If we are indeed at war with nature – to use the phrase that comes right from the writings of Francis Bacon and has been echoed over the years by such acolytes as America’s philosopher, John Dewey – then, Berry urges us, we need a frank assessment of how the war is going. And so he writes,
“This war, like most wars, has turned out to be a trickier business than we expected. We must now face two shocking surprises. The first surprise is that if we say and believe that we are at war with nature, then we are in the fullest sense at war: that is, we are both opposing and being opposed, and the costs to both sides are extremely high.
“The second surprise is that we are not winning. On the evidence now available, we have to conclude that we are losing – and moreover, that there was never a chance that we could win. Despite the immense power and violence that we have deployed against her, nature is handing us one defeat after another.”
We would need to further assess the costs of the destruction of culture – not only the liberties that it may have gained individuals, but the extreme burdens in particular it has placed upon future and increasingly the present generation. We could expect, after all, that along with the liberties that would accompany liberation from gratitude to the past and obligations to the future, would also come discernible forms of irresponsibility, in the form of both moral and natural depletions of past inheritance and burdens and debts (rather than inheritances) being bestowed upon future generations. A civilization geared toward extreme presentism – a preeminent feature of modern anti-culture – would be the expected result.
Perhaps the worst burden of all would be the sure knowledge that one’s death would mean one’s elimination from the memory of humankind. The destruction of culture involves the elimination of temporal continuity in the form of remembrance and memoralization, those stories that are told about the souls of those still present in our own practices and ways. If the past ceases to be a guide or in any way relevant to the actions of the future, then the faster forgotten, the better. We speak today of a “health care crisis” in terms that only treats us as bodies, and for such radically individuated bodies, the cessation of our life is the worst imaginable possibility – the summum malum of Hobbes. Living in culture of memory and expectation, one’s death – while always hard – is not the worst imaginable possibility, since one’s death is not tantamount to a condition as if one had never existed. Although we live longer than ever, we live amidst a “health care crisis” that we can’t see is a crisis of culture, and the sickness lies in the unhealth of family, community, and cult. Membership in these – not more health club memberships – is what is needed.
We can remember only in times of leisure. As Josef Pieper argues, leisure is the basis of culture, because it is especially in our feasts, festivals and in reflection – all, in skole – that we recollect and anticipate, that we weave the past and future into our present. Over the course of these several days and two nights, let us feast and be festive and reflect – let us have that true experience of skole, of leisure. Let us taste what a cultured life would be.