True culture is a liberation from the ephemeral, a journey toward permanence and value. A cultured life, therefore, consists in more than just piling up facts; it must include reflecting on the meaning of man’s works—especially those works which have stood the test time—and how they fit into the larger scheme of reality.

As the old year ends and the new year arrives, The Imaginative Conservative looks back at some of its finest essays of 2020. —Editors

Attempts to define “culture” have been endless. I would echo a number of previous essays on The Imaginative Conservative that using “culture” to refer to what are essentially social customs or entertainment is an abuse of the term. Such misuse tends to make the word increasingly fuzzy and vague. Sharpness and clarity are called for in any word invoked as frequently as “culture.”

H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic study Christ and Culture comes to our aid by defining three essential elements in culture. 1) Culture is something that is above, and builds upon, nature. This implies that 2) culture is human achievement—something we strive toward, something we cultivate. Cultivated by individuals and humanity at large, culture is also necessarily 3) a heritage, something that is preserved and passed on from age to age.

It’s not culture as a scaffold upon nature or culture as heritage that I would like to discuss here, but the second element: culture as achieved or cultivated, lovingly sought after and lived; in short, culture as something personally possessed. What is a cultured life?

To live a life of culture would seem, first, to go beyond the commonplace, the mundane, and the utilitarian. A cultured person is interested in things beyond the daily headlines, the stock market, and the newest technological gadgets, necessary though these things might be for the management of our temporal lives. Culture brings us to a higher plane where we encounter ultimate values of the truth, goodness, and beauty. Culture is thus a habit of life, by which we accustom ourselves to seek and love these transcendentals.

The forms of culture include first and foremost art, music, and literature. Niebuhr also includes “speech, education, tradition, myth, science, philosophy, law, rite, beliefs, inventions, technologies” among the rollcall of cultural items. That seems a bit broad, embracing as it does the bulk of human achievements. For me, culture is more or less identifiable with serious literature and the fine arts and, more broadly, with learning. To be cultured is to seek to know and to appreciate, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, the best that has been thought and said. Things like technology, law, and science seem to belong to a larger entity of which culture is a part, namely civilization; yet we might stretch a point and include scientific inventions and legal codes as products of culture.

Niebuhr stresses that culture—unlike, say, religious worship—is directed toward the good of man as primary value. Culture considered in itself is for the sake of man—although it of course leads man to contemplate higher things than himself. In Niebuhr’s words, the world of culture is a world of values. It is not the matter-of-fact or the world of data. That’s why a cultured life consists in more than just piling up facts; it must include reflecting on the meaning of man’s works and how they fit into the larger scheme of reality.

Although it strives for the immaterial, culture expresses itself, instantiates itself in material forms. Culture gives birth to individual products and works: laws, constitutions, scientific inventions, works of literature, art, and music. Culture does not exist in the abstract; it has a particularity to it. Thus, to be cultured is to acquaint oneself with a range of specific works. To have read among the great books, developed an ear for fine music, or trained the eye to see the beauty in great art and architecture, are all phases of culture. When dipped into repeatedly, these products of culture build up our souls, become a part of our consciousness, and mold our tastes and sentiments.

Not only must culture be acquired and preserved, it must also be disseminated. Hence the “culture machine”—that omnipresent force that includes museums, libraries, concert halls, with all their promotional activity. Yet to be a person of true culture is to raise oneself above the commercialism, the faddishness, and the cult of celebrity that the culture machine thrives on. The true person of culture will also reject the superficial notion of culture as social status symbol or snobbish fashion accessory. Needless to say, forms of entertainment that are chiefly about making money and that appeal to the baser parts of our nature are not culture in the true sense.

True culture is a liberation from the ephemeral, a journey toward permanence and value. Culture is closely tied to the idea of the classic, of works which have stood the test of time and embody standards of excellence worthy of admiration and emulation. Thus, a canon is essential; cultural appreciation cannot exist in the midst of a relativistic deluge of material—even while granting that the ready availability of culture is a boon to all of us.

So total is the utilitarian drift of our civilization, though, that even the spreading of culture has become driven and mechanistic. Forms of culture such as books, movies, music, art images, etc., are overproduced and endlessly replicated. To live a true life of culture requires that one break free of this consumer merry-go-round and foster, in perfect freedom and independence, a personal cultural program.

Culture can indeed exist on a more grassroots level apart from the professional culture machine. To know hymns or Bible verses by heart, to make music or craftworks in one’s home, surely qualify as cultural acts in a way that attending a rock concert does not. Indeed, culture is a universal human aspiration and not only for the academic or the sophisticated. Everyone has strivings for truth, goodness, and beauty; no one lives on bread alone. There are, further, “classics” in every medium, not only high literature and classical music but also more popular forms like the movies; a cultured person will seek out the fine examples of every genre and immerse himself in them, making them a part of his daily life.

The etymological root of “culture” serves as a fine metaphor for the cultural life: The Latin colo, colere meant, primarily, to till the soil, with secondary meanings to care for, guard, protect; to honor, revere, worship; to adorn or dress; and to follow or practice religion. Culture is like a garden which one faithfully tends, discerning and selecting what to include, carefully planting, watering, and nurturing the seeds, slowly bringing to fruition. The process of discernment and cultivation implies excellence as the aim; in a process equivalent to that of weeding, the cultured person rejects the base and unworthy.

Josef Pieper’s great thesis in his Leisure the Basis of Culture is that culture is allied to both leisure and worship. The essence of culture is contemplative leisure, not tied down to any practical application or function. Culture induces reverence for the variety of being that exists around us, as opposed to the desire to use things instrumentally. Pieper, indeed, contrasts this enlightened leisure with diversion and entertainment, which would be the antithesis of culture in the true sense. The cultural life is not a diversion or escape from the practical business of life. It is, on the contrary, the very goal of living and the reason for which we pursue our practical affairs. The cultural life develops from the habits of reflection, repose, and receptiveness. In this way it is certainly related to cult, or religious worship, practiced on the sabbath or day of rest.

We might say that religious things are a part of culture insofar as they are considered under the aspect of being for the good of man—as indeed the love of God is man’s proper happiness and fulfillment. Granted, believers have at various times felt impelled to reject “the culture” as it existed in their time and place. Niebuhr makes an interesting suggestion that the phrase “the world” as used in the New Testament can be taken as equivalent to “the culture,” so that when St. Paul instructs us not to live according to the world, we might translate it as “according to the culture.” Yet this again seems to reflect an overly sociological definition of our term. Ages of Christian civilization have shown that culture, properly defined as the best of human achievement, can be a ladder from the natural to the divine. In its highest sense it is the life and mind of man illuminated by the Logos, the light of God, and leading to Him.

This essay first appeared here in August 2020.

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The featured image is a detail of The Art of Painting (1666–1668) by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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