Flight Of The Culture Vultures
Culture is the character and essence of a society, and the loss of culture is a loss for all. With a strong culture, commerce thrives and citizens are free. When culture is lost, crime becomes rampant and the individuals move through life without purpose.
A war on one fundamental aspect of society is a war on the society's culture itself, no matter how insignificant. T. S. Eliot, in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, tried to first define culture before explaining how individuals affect the continuation or the destruction of it.
Eliot begins, “My purpose in writing the following chapters is not... to outline a social or political philosophy; nor is the book intended to be merely a vehicle for my observations on a variety of topics. My aim is to help to define a word, the word culture.”
He continues by describing his belief that many “misuse” the term, especially among those who confuse it with the word “civilization.” There are two uses of the term: “by a kind of synecdoche, when the speaker has in mind one of the elements or evidences of culture—such as 'art'; or... as a kind of emotional stimulant—or anaesthetic.”
This is a casual misuse, but it is not necessarily one that has immediate consequences. However, each misuse degrades the ability of individuals to recognize the importance of culture and the essential factors that makes one prosper. Eliot admits that he “is not without political convictions and prejudices; but the imposition of them is no part of his present intention. What I try to say is this: here are what I believe to be essential conditions for the growth and forth the survival of culture.”
Before continuing, he tries to mollify any possible opposition to his personal beliefs: “If they conflict with any passionate faith of the reader—if, for instance, he finds it shocking that culture and equalitarianism should conflict, if it seems monstrous to him that anyone should have 'advantages of birth'—I do not ask him to change his faith, I merely ask him to stop paying lip-service to culture.”
Going further, Eliot declares, “If the reader says: 'the state of affairs which I wish to bring about is right (or is just or is inevitable): and if this must lead to a further deterioration of culture, we must accept that deterioration'--that I can have no quarrel with him.... The effect of such a wave of honesty would be that the word culture would cease to be abused, cease to appear in context where it does not belong: and to rescue this word is the extreme of my ambition.”
He then focuses more on the political ramifications of grand social change and the abuse of the term culture: “As things are, it is normal for anybody who advocates any social change, or any alteration of our political system, or any expansion of public education, or any development of social service, to claim confidently that it will lead to the improvement and increase of culture. Sometimes, culture, or civilisation, is set in the forefront, and we are told that what we need, must have, and shall get, is a 'new civilisation'... That is quite conceivable: what we are not justified in concluding, with regard to... any other changes in the social framework which anybody advocates, is that the 'new civilisation' is itself desirable.”
Eliot's believes that change is not the same as progress and new is not the same as better: “For one thing, we can have no notion of what the new civilisation will be like: so many other causes operate than those we may have in mind, and the results of these and the others, operating together, are so incalculable, that we cannot imagine what it would feel like to live in that new civilisation... Every change we make is tending to bring about a new civilisation for the nature of which we are ignorant, and in which we should all of us be unhappy.”
Although he has an essentially conservative view of change and social progress, he also has a realistic understanding of the constant and inevitable change of civilization: “A new civilisation is, in fact, coming into being all the time: the civilisation of the present day would seem very new indeed to any civilised man of the eighteenth century, and I cannot imagine the most ardent or radical reformer of that age taking much pleasure in the civilisation that would meet his eye now. All that concern for civilisation can direct us to do, is to improve such civilisation as we have, for we can imagine no other. On the other hand, there have always been people who have believed in particular changes as good in themselves, without worrying about the future of civilisation, and without finding it necessary to recommend their innovations by the specious glitter of unmeaning promises.”
This seeming conflict between constant progress and the need to conserve the past structure of society leads Eliot to a fundamental question: “The most important question that we can ask, is whether there is any permanent standard, by which we can compare one civilisation with another, and by which we can make some guess at the improvement or decline of our own. We have to admit, in comparing one civilisation with another, and in comparing the different stages of our own, that no one society and no one age of it realises all the values of civilisation.”
However, there is a way to measure improvement: “Nevertheless, we can distinguish between higher and lower cultures; we can distinguish between advance and retrogression. We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidence of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.”
Although technology has progressed and more rights have been achieved, they came at a great cost: our culture was abandoned. World conflicts might have come to an end, but crime and poverty increased. Eliot describes the beginning of the decline, but he also predicts it will only get worse: “I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it is possible to say it will have no culture. Then culture will have to grow again from the soil; and when I say it must grow again from the soil, I do not mean that it will be brought into existence by any activity of political demagogues.”
Ultimately, the success of culture is connected to our elites. Being “elites” is not a pejorative in Eliot's sense, but the leaders of their fields: politicians, businessmen, philosophers, artists, and so forth. They are supposed to champion their industries, but a loss of this mission can undermine all aspects of society.
In his chapter on politics, Eliot explains, “We observe nowadays that 'culture' attracts the attention of men of politics: not that politicians are always 'men of culture,' but that 'culture' is recognised both as an instrument of policy and as something socially desirable which it is the business of the State to promote.”
Eliot acknowledges that our culture is dominated by politics but not everyone is concerned with political affairs. The political elite, the leaders and power players, must interact with the rest of society if there is to be any success: “a society is in danger of disintegration when there is a lack of contact between people of different activity—between the political, the scientific, the artistic, the philosophical and the religious minds. This separation cannot be repaired merely by public organisation. It is not a question of assembling into committees representatives of different types of knowledge and expertise, of calling in everybody to advise everybody else.”
To truly run a nation and to have a thriving culture, a true community is necessary: “The elite should be something different, something much more organically composed than a panel of bonze, caciques and tycoons. Men who meet only for definite serious purposes, and on official occasions, do not wholly meet. They may have some common concern very much at heart... but they will continue to retire from these encounters each to his private social world as well as to his solitary world.”
However, our society is so large that we are unable to truly interact with those all of backgrounds. We become isolated by the size, and Eliot warns that books are a poor substitute for social interaction: “In our time, we read too many new books, or are oppressed by the thought of the new books which we are neglecting to read; we ready many books, because we cannot know enough people; we cannot know everybody whom it would be to our benefit to know, because there are too many of them. Consequently, if we have the skill to put words together and the fortune to get them printed, we communicate by writing more books.”
Eliot continues, “It is often those writers whom we are lucky enough to know, whose books we can ignore; and the better we know them personally, the less need we may feel to read what they write. We are encumbered not only with too many new books: we are further embarrassed by too many periodicals, reports and privately circulated memoranda. In the endeavour to keep up with the most intelligent of these publications we may sacrifice the three permanent reasons for reading: the acquisition of wisdom, the enjoyment of art, and the pleasure of entertainment.”
Politicians have less time than average to devote to reading important studies or essays and, as a result, they receive less information. They become disconnected to the rest of society, and they only go along with what they think the people want to hear out of fear of losing their power. This causes a decay in culture from the very top, and our leaders become unable to determine what essential aspects of our society are being neglected.
Eliot's solution is to provide those who seek a career in politics must have a common understanding to be successful, “It is always desirable that a part of the education of those persons who are either born into, or qualified by their abilities to enter, the superior political grades of society, should be instruction in history, and that a part of the study of history should be the history of political theory.”
In Eliot's view, these fields, with a focus particularly on Greek history, philosophy, and political theory, are “manageable” because they are tightly contained subjects. However, our current elite do not focus on these areas, which denies them proper foundation in the origin and importance of our culture. They are too overwhelmed to understand the people, and they are too ill-educated to defend tradition.
Instead, we have a new culture, one without meaning, one that is relative: “The kind of political theory which has arisen in quite modern times is less concerned with human nature, which it is inclined to treat as something which can always be re-fashioned to fit whatever political form is regarded as most desirable. Its real data are impersonal forces which may have originated in the conflict and combination of human wills but have come to supersede them. As part of academic discipline for the young, it suffers from several drawbacks. It trends, of course, to form minds which will be set to think only in terms of impersonal and inhuman forces, and thereby to de-humanise its students.”
The focus in society becomes on “justice,” “power,” equality,” and similar terms that lack their original meaning, because meaning is no longer objective. As a result, society breaks down: “Being occupied with humanity only in the mass, it tends to separate itself from ethics; being occupied only with that recent period of history during which humanity can most easily be shown to have been ruled by impersonal forces, it reduces the proper study of mankind to the last two or three hundred years of man. It too often inculcates a belief in a future inflexibly determined and at the same time in a future which we are wholly free to shape as we like.”
Ultimately, these problems led to our culture disintegrating. To this, Eliot warns, “Some important activities, it is likely enough, will never again be possible without official backing of some kind. The progress of the experimental sciences now requires vast and expensive equipment; and the practice of the arts no longer, on any large scale, the benefit of private patronage. Some safeguard may be provided, against increasing centralisation of control and politicisation of the arts and sciences, by encouraging local initiative and responsibility: and, as far as possible, separating the central source of funds from control over their use.”
Eliot concludes, “We should do well also to refer to the subsidised and artificially stimulated activities each by its name... speaking of each by its name, and restraining ourselves from using the word 'culture' as a comprehensive term. For thus we slip into the assumption that culture can be planned. Culture can never be wholly conscious—there is always more to it than we are conscious of; and it cannot be planned because it is also the unconscious background of all of our planning.”
By degrading the term culture and undermining society's respect for culture as a whole, the very institutions that make us great come under the control of those who want power but lack the ability to preserve it. Token gestures will be made, but they will only be done to placate the cries of the few, serving nothing more than window dressing. Slowly, they will exist to benefit those in power or will disappear completely.
At the same time, policies that promote “justice” and “equality” are embraced by those who do not understand the true interaction between individuals. They see only a material, number-based gains without seeing the disregard and disrespect of culture that comes with it. The people who are helped become mere dependents on handouts, incapable of something higher, and the social bonds that preserved society are destroyed.
Without appreciating the true meaning of culture, we lose out on what made us so successful. We must heed Eliot's warnings and re-embracing the foundations of our society, including our promotion of individual success and educating our children on the foundations of Western Civilization. If we can restore a common appreciation for culture, then we can become great again.
Jeffrey Peters is an Annapolis, Md.-based writer and political consultant.