T.S. Eliot, 
Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. 

This is a really difficult topic, but one that has been very important among conservatives, for fairly involved reasons. Major conservative thinkers have tended to have interests in aesthetics, the arts and culture which go beyond the curiosity of the philosopher. Burke’s first important work was his treatise on the Sublime and the Beautiful – an immensely influential work which introduced a distinction that rapidly became fundamental to 18 th -century aesthetics. Hegel’s dialectic is really an application of aesthetic categories to metaphysics, history and politics, and his lectures on aesthetics are ground-breaking works in the subject. De Maistre is esteemed as much as a stylist as a thinker, and took a literary approach to everything he wrote about. Modern conservatism in the Anglo-tradition owes much to Ruskin and Arnold – major figures in the world of art and poetry – and the most important modern influence on Anglo-American conservatism has probably been T.S. Eliot, the leading English-language poet of the 20th century, and also a conservative philosopher in his own right. His Notes Towards the Definition of Culture is a classic, and can be regarded as the foundational text of the ‘cultural conservatism’ associated with Russell Kirk, William Buckley III and more recent thinking associated with New Criterion – a journal of culture and the arts, expressly recalling the journal founded and edited by Eliot himself, called Criterion. It is doubtful that you could understand conservatism in America (and this includes ‘neo-conservatism’, so called), if you did not see it as a movement within, and focused upon, cultural life. True, there is the input from libertarian economics (Friedman, Rothbard etc.), and from individualist philosophies opposed to the ‘liberal’ state (Ayn Rand, Nozick etc.). But the appeal of conservatism is felt far more at the cultural level, than either the economic or the political, and we need to know why this is, whether it is justified, and what it tells us about the arguments for and against conservatism.

The Meaning of ‘Culture’.

Anthropologists write of the ‘culture’ of the people they observe, meaning those customs and artefacts which are shared, and the sharing of which brings social cohesion. Ethologists define culture more widely, to include all intellectual, emotional and behavioural features that are transmitted through learning and social interaction, rather than through genetic endowment. Sociologists, on the other hand, use the term more narrowly, to mean the thoughts and habits whereby people define their group-identity, and stake out a claim for social territory. In all those uses, the term ‘culture’ is associated with the human need for membership, and is regarded as a shared asset of a social group. In conservative thinking the term ‘culture’ is defined in another way, to denote an acquisition that may not be shared by every member of a community, and which opens the hearts, minds and senses of those who possess it to an intellectual and artistic patrimony. Culture, on this understanding, is the creation and creator of élites. This does not mean, however, that culture has nothing to do with membership, or with the social need to define and conserve a shared way of life. Although an élite product, its meaning, according to the conservative position, lies in emotions and aspirations that are common to all.

Culture, so understood, has also been called ‘high culture’ – the accumulation of art, literature and humane reflection that has stood the ‘test of time’ and established a continuing tradition of reference and allusion among educated people. But that raises a question: whose accumulation, and which people? In response it is useful to revisit a distinction, made in another way and for another purpose by Herder, between culture and civilization. A civilization is a social entity that manifests religious, political, legal and customary uniformity over an extended period, and which confers on its members the benefits of socially accumulated knowledge. Thus we can speak of Ancient Egyptian civilization; Roman civilization; Chinese civilization and Western civilization. Civilizations can include each other, whether as contemporaneous or as successive parts. For example Roman civilization includes that of Roman Gaul, and Islamic civilization that of the Abbasids.

The culture of a civilization is the art and literature through which it rises to consciousness of itself and defines its vision of the world. All civilizations have a culture, but not all cultures achieve equal heights. The stone-age civilization that produced the wall-paintings of the Lascaux caves has left a memorable icon of its world. But its one lasting cultural achievement pales beside the art and literature of Greece. Whether we can describe one culture as objectively superior to another is a question that we need to consider – cultural conservatism is predicated on the assumption that our culture is at risk of being replaced by something worse. If cultures are the means through which civilizations become conscious of themselves, and are permeated by the strengths and weaknesses of their inherited form of life, then it could be that in judging a culture, we are also judging the civilization that produced it.

Culture and Cult.

For a variety of reasons culture and religion are associated, both theoretically and historically. Here it is useful to distinguish high culture (the self-consciousness of the community) with the shared or ‘common’ culture by which the community is held together. The latter consists in customs, norms of social conduct, habits of dress and behaviour, festivals, dances, folklore, myth, and religious traditions. Religion is a fundamental part of it, maybe the original source from which all the other aspects flow. But it is one of the interesting aspects of modernity that cultures grow apart from their religious origins, and survive, often in distorted form, through the customs and habits of the community, even when there is no common religious belief, or no religious belief at all. (It could be that this situation is unstable, however, and therefore transitional). The work of anthropologists confirms that religious belief is often a by-product and commentary upon rituals and customs that pre-exist it, and whose significance in cementing the community depends upon their mystical ‘given-ness’: in these rituals and customs we discover what we are. They embody an intuition of our social togetherness, and reference points with which to orient ourselves in the wider world. (Thus there are two views of the relation between the Crucifixion and the Eucharist, or the hajj and Muhammad’s imposing of it as an obligation.)

High cultures usually presuppose some common culture, as a source of social meanings and background beliefs. But they have an even greater capacity than common cultures to grow away from their religious roots, and to explore the realms of scepticism and pure enquiry. Cultural conservatism would seem to make more sense when the culture intended is common culture, than when it is high culture. There is a serious motive for preserving the customs and habits of a community, when these are part of a shared identity. But what is the motive for preserving an artistic and philosophical tradition which is of interest only to an elite, and which is in any case constantly evolving and of no immediate connection with any given human community? Yet the efforts of cultural conservatives have usually been directed towards high culture. Why is that?

One reason is this: a common culture is self-sustaining, if it is to be sustained at all. It is a form of human life, and cannot be propped up from outside, any more than a person can be propped up by an external skeleton. This is evidently true of a religion: it is renewed by its members and believers, not by kindly anthropologists. All the same, as Burke and de Maistre both recognized, common cultures have enemies, and none greater than the intellectual scoffers which they produce from within themselves. Much of Burke’s Reflections is devoted to a defence of prejudice against rationalistic scepticism, and by ‘prejudice’ Burke means all those customs and preconceptions which are passed on unquestioningly from generation to generation, and which embody the inner life and enduring wisdom of the community. Burke’s principal complaint against the French Revolutionaries was that they wished to replace the accumulated practical wisdom embodied in a common culture with the rationalist goals of the Enlightenment. (Of course, he didn’t put it like that, as we might with hindsight.) The argument here is a kind of diachronic version of the Hayekian argument against planning: the information needed for social peace and continuity is contained within the spontaneous order of custom and tradition, and destroyed by any attempt to replace that order with a rational scheme, devoted to explicit social goals. The argument is plausible, though of course far from watertight.

Nevertheless, after Burke and de Maistre, modern conservatives have not on the whole made the defence of common culture, or of its religious heart, into a core part of their intellectual concerns. They have usually, like Eliot, deplored the attacks of liberals and atheists on the ‘given’ values of the community; but they have had no suggestions as to how those values might be endorsed or supported at the philosophical level. If this is changing now, it is not because of any philosophical position about the nature and role of common culture, but because of explicit battles at the legal and political level – for example, over abortion, divorce, gay marriage, and other matters in which the ordinary conscience is often in conflict with the claims of the liberal elite. I return to this matter below, since it is of such importance in American politics.

That said, however, there is clearly no way of understanding culture at any level if one does not see the connection between culture and religion as non-contingent. They don’t just happen to go together: cultures are rooted in religions, and high cultures make constant reference to the religious feelings of the community to which they are addressed. This is no accident, the believer will say, because we were made to worship God and art is a way of doing so. That may square well enough with Beethoven’s 9 th symphony, but it doesn’t square too well with those sceptical works of art, like Middlemarch Dr Faustus, Bluebeard’s Castle etc. One of the questions wrestled with constantly by Eliot was that of the exact place of the Christian religion in the high culture that he wished to define and to protect. Is it essentially an Anglican culture? Does its continuity depend upon the continuity of that religious tradition? If so, how can it survive in a tumultuous and sceptical world?

Culture and Leisure.

There is another connection that needs to be explored, which is that between culture – high culture in particular – and leisure. The Greeks took leisure seriously: witness their name for it: schole, which became ‘school’ in English. Work was called ascholia , leisurelessness, and Aristotle argued that we work for the sake of leisure – implying that only in and through leisure do we attain the ends of life as opposed to the means to pay for them. Work, for Aristotle, is a condition of lack, which we strive to overcome so as to enjoy our true human fulfilment, which is the life of contemplation. This emphasis on contemplation may seem like so much philosophical snobbery. What Aristotle had in mind, however, was an activity which is its own reward, and which therefore illustrates the condition of contentment. For the philosopher the question ‘Why contemplate?’ neither has nor deserves an answer. Contemplation is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. And this, Aristotle implies, is what all true schole involves.

For a great many people today leisure is not a state of contemplation but one of physical activity – although activity which, like Aristotle’s contemplation, is its own reward. Recreation, sport, and games are all to be understood in the spirit of Aristotle’s schole, as activities which are not means to an end but ends in themselves. That is why these activities, however strenuous, are activities in which we are at rest: for our plans and projects come to rest in them. This, we are apt to say, is the point of it all, what we worked for, the goal to which our labour was a means.

What I am saying about leisure was said, in another tone of voice but for a connected purpose, by Schiller, not about leisure but about play, which is its prototype in the world of the child. In his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller described play as the higher condition to which we aspire whenever we relinquish our practical concerns. The contrast he had in mind was not that between play and work, but that between playing and being in earnest. And he used that distinction to make an interesting remark about aesthetics. ‘With the good and the useful,’ he wrote, ‘man is merely in earnest; but with the beautiful he plays.’ That phrase ‘merely in earnest’ is of course heavily ironic, but it expresses a systematic rejection of the workaday world. Fulfilment does not come through purpose, Schiller is implying, but only when purpose is set aside. And for Schiller the paradigm of fulfilment is the aesthetic experience – not contemplation as Aristotle understood it, but the disinterested contemplation of appearances, the self-conscious alertness to the presented meaning of things.

Schiller believed that we can understand aesthetic judgement if we refer it back to the world of play – a world in which nothing really has a purpose, and where every action is engaged in for its own sake, as something intrinsically delightful. Art returns us to that world of primal innocence, by enabling us to set our purposes aside. It is not merely that the work of art is valued for its own sake, and without reference to a purpose. It is also that we, in the act of appreciation, reassume the mantle of a child, allowing our emotions and impressions to follow imaginative paths, constraining them to no purpose, no goal, no earnest endeavour. And just as a child learns through play, so do we learn through the aesthetic experience, by exercising our feelings in imaginary realms, enlarging our vision of humanity, and coming to see the world as imbued with intrinsic values, meaningful in itself and without reference to our own self-centred interests.

Culture and Intrinsic Value.

Schiller saw culture as the sphere of ‘aesthetic education’, and play as its archetype. And through uniting the two ideas he hoped to show that the decline of religion had not bereft mankind of intrinsic values. Through ‘aesthetic education’ we could reconnect to those primordial experiences of wonder and awe which show us the lasting meaning of our life on earth. That is why culture matters: for it is a vessel in which intrinsic values are captured and handed on.

Schiller’s view is the true archetype of the conservative defences of high culture in Arnold (Culture and Anarchy) and Eliot. The idea is this: it is not just that we enjoy works of art and other cutlural artefacts. They provide us with a special kind of knowledge. Indeed they are, in the absence or decline of religion, the best or even the only route to this knowledge. What kind of knowledge are we talking about? The knowledge of intrinsic values. But what are they?

At the back of Schiller’s mind is the Kantian categorical imperative. In everyday life, he is suggesting, we are constantly treating the things that we encounter as means to our ends. Purpose dominates our commerce with the world, and purpose is essentially defective, in that it is never at rest, never content just to be. Our lives can be meaningful only if they contain something other than purpose, and only if we learn to treat some things in our experience not as means only but as ends in themselves. Kant argued that we ought always to treat human beings in that way, but he never said clearly what he meant by that. He also said that, in aesthetic experience, we see the objects of our attention as ‘purposeful without purpose’. Schiller is trying to synthesize those two ideas, by offering a theory of what it is, to treat something as an end in itself, while nevertheless being open to its fundamentally purposeful character. It is to take delight in that thing for its own sake, for the thing that it is, without reference to any purpose of our own or any use to which we might put it. The archetype of this delight is the play of the child; but the delight is recuperated and transformed in adult life, with the kind of contemplation of appearances which we experience through art. Art shows us the worthwhileness of things, by detaching them from our purposes and putting them before us, as objects intrinsically meaningful in themselves. (Matthew Arnold contrasted, in this connection, the ‘Hellene’, who is the adept and advocate of culture, with the Philistine and the Barbarian. The Hellene lives in a world of ‘sweetness and light’, in which the true value of things is exhibited; the philistine (e.g. businessman) sees only instrumental values, while the barbarian sees no values at all apart from those promoted by his appetites. All this has a dusty Victorian air now: there is something true there, but what?)

This view does not see intrinsic value in persons only; through aesthetic education (i.e. culture), we apprehend the intrinsic value of objects too – we gain access to the meaning of the world. This is a striking claim, and surely an exaggeration! A more temperate claim is that implied in the writings of Leavis and Eliot, which is that there is a discipline of the emotions that is conveyed by art and culture – a knowledge of the human heart and an ability to distinguish the true from the false among our feelings that is fundamental to the educational process. If we let this go, then we risk losing a precious store of knowledge. This is the line of thinking that best helps us to make sense of the ‘culture wars’ between conservative and liberal today.

Knowing what to feel.

Thinkers like Leavis and Eliot (and also Valéry in France, Broch in Germany, R.P. Blackmur in America, George Parkin Grant in Canada etc.) were part of the general movement in art and criticism, in reaction against the cheapening and coarsening of sentiment by the new media of communication. This reaction did not occur only on the right: there is a left-wing version of it too, typified by the attack on ‘mass culture’ by members of the Frankfurt School, specifically by Horkheimer and Adorno. Indeed, no conservative went as far as Adorno in pouring scorn on the surrounding popular culture, which for Adorno was simply part of the ubiquitous ‘fetishization’ of the world that had been managed and achieved by American capitalism. The arguments here mix insight and prejudice, truth and falsehood, so promiscuously that it is almost impossible to untangle them. But here, I believe, is the core of the conservative case, at least as would make it.

The purpose of education is to preserve, augment and hand on knowledge. (This is a controversial view already. For liberals influenced by John Dewey, the purpose of education is to benefit children by giving them something that they need. The conservative response is to argue that the purpose of children is to benefit knowledge by giving it something that it need, namely the brains that will conserve it (though that is not a tactful way to put the point.)) Knowledge is not all of one kind. There is knowledge that and knowledge how – factual and technical knowledge, science and skill. It is easy to see how these might be taught and what place they ought to have in the curriculum. But someone can know many facts, and possess many skills, without knowing how best to make use of them. There is another area of knowledge that is needed, which is knowledge of what to do and what to feel. This kind of knowledge is often at risk in modern societies and modern forms of education, which emphasize knowledge that, and knowledge how, often neglect to consider knowledge what. They do not teach students how to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate emotions; or between fulfilling and unfulfilling aims. And the cultural conservatives see the critical study of culture as vital in conveying this jeopardized form of knowledge.

Objection: how do you teach it? Through what Eliot calls the ‘common pursuit of true judgement’, in other words, the process of emotional coordination, whereby people, faced with the presentation of human emotion in art and literature, learn to fit their sympathies to the objects presented. There is a large dispute here about the nature of criticism, and its capacity (or otherwise) to deal objective results.

Objection: to whom do you teach it? Culture is a minority dispute, so what happens to the rest of the class? And if the knowledge contained in culture is so important, should we not try to spread it around? If the result of that is the ‘mass culture’ deplored equally by Adorno and Eliot, then isn’t that a positive mark for mass culture – that it is conveying something to everyone, rather than to the few? Here the cultural conservative wants to say that it is conveying precisely nothing, or even something negative – a form of emotional ignorance, sentimentality, kitsch and so on.

Objection: so what good does it do, if the elite are saved and the rest are sacrificed? The response to this is to emphasize the idea of knowledge. Emotional knowledge is a value even to those who do not possess it. Just as scientific knowledge, which exists only in a few heads, benefits all of us by shaping the decisions on which we all depend, so does emotional knowledge benefit us all, by shaping the language of public debate, the ambitions of teachers, the decisions made by those to whom the future of society is entrusted – and so on. Although culture is the possession of an elite, it is the possession of the same elite on which the broad movement of society depends. If it is not, then this is something we should strive to rectify, by whatever educational reforms might achieve the goal. It was these educational reforms that preoccupied Arnold, Leavis and (in his way) Eliot.

Objection: exactly what does culture do to the recipient? This ‘knowledge of the human heart’ is not the same as moral virtue, and might involve a certain aestheticism. Culture in the heart of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao made them worse – steeled them against compassion by enabling them to exercise their emotions in purely aesthetic spheres. Conversely good people don’t need culture in order to be good – how much culture can you discern in Billy Budd, Huckleberry Finn, etc., or in the saints and heroes whom we are brought up to admire? This objection is a tough one, and depends upon getting clear about the relation between normal and abnormal cases, and about the ways in which emotional knowledge can inform human decisions.

Culture Wars.

All that has a bearing on politics on account of the ‘culture wars’, so called, between liberals and conservatives. These are conflicts both within culture and about culture. They include the following:

(1) Battles to defend common culture, in one or other aspect. These are fought out often at the intellectual level – the level of high culture. Consider, for example, the current battle over gay marriage, as it is being pursued in American courts and legislatures. This is a battle which is on one level very simple: conservative desire to enshrine the traditional conception of marriage in law, and so to grant it some kind of special protection; liberal desire to free the law of that traditional conception, so as to give legal reality to other life-style choices. But the arguments are conducted at a much higher level (when they are conducted at all!). On the liberal side we find sophisticated philosophical arguments about liberty and the separation of law and morality, about the nature of institutions, and the extent to which sexual orientation belongs to identity rather than to appetite. On the conservative side we find equally sophisticated, though often more theological, arguments about the nature of the marriage vow, the telos of sexuality, and the reproductive needs of human society. This dispute is way beyond the comprehension of the ordinary person and involves philosophical, literary and similar sources that are available only because the work of cultural conservatism has been successful. (It is one of the complaints against cultural conservatism that it makes liberals possible.)

(2) Battles over what should be taught in the name of culture. The cultural conservative operates with a notion of the ‘canon’ of significant works. Some works of art, music, literature and philosophy have ‘stood the test of time’, and created the evolving frame of reference which enables us to understand our current situation and gain insight into the peculiarities of the modern world. This canon is a paradigm of tradition in Burke’s sense, and was famously defended by Eliot in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ by arguing that (a) originality, and therefore artistic significance, can only arise against the background of tradition, and (b) tradition can only be meaningful if it is renewed and kept alive in original works. This idea of a ‘living tradition’ enables us to see high culture as a model of society – something always evolving, but always the same, like an organism. On this view it becomes vital to conserve the canon, as the background without which culture will cease to make sense. It is the necessary precondition for the self-knowledge of a modern society. You don’t have to be a political conservative to see the point of this – it has been defended by political conservatives like Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind), and political liberals like Harold Bloom (The Western Canon). Maybe we should add Leopold Bloom also as an authority here: the perfect representative of that intermediate culture, which unites Mozart and Music-Hall, in a string of keepsakes for the mediocre heart.

The canon has come under attack from two quarters: those who say that it is the product of dead white European males, predicated on values that we no longer share, acting as a kind of ideological gloss for old modes of exploitation; and those who say that in culture anything goes, and nothing has authority at all. Conservatives have responded, as a rule, by pointing to the open-ness of the Western canon to those who dissent from prevailing social norms (Stendhal, Wagner, Lawrence, etc.), and its ability to absorb and find meaning in the products of other cultures. (The battle then shifts to Edward Said and ‘orientalism’: how generous has our culture really been?) You don’t actually find, in Western culture, the endorsement of slavery or wife-beating that its critics are looking for – it has to be imported by some kind of underhand device, a ‘going behind’ the surface statement of the kind you find in Foucault or in much feminist criticism. But there is no doubt that the disputes here are really important, because they have helped people to articulate what is really at stake between liberal and conservative concerning the matter of life-style, virtue, happiness and the relation between the sexes.

(3) Battles over how culture should be taught. The conservative position is encapsulated in the phrase I quoted from Eliot: ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’. In other words a shared critical enterprise, attempting to explore, through sympathetic response, what the works of our culture are trying to say to us. This contrasts with the essentially ‘debunking’ methods introduced in the wake of structuralism and doconstruction, which ask us to take the works of our culture apart, and discover what is lurking behind them – what attitudes they are trying to gain acceptance for, whether or not they explicitly express them. The first shot at this kind of approach was the Marxian theory of ideology. Downstream from that theory you find Foucault and ‘discourse theory’, structuralism and Roland Barthes, deconstruction in the mode of Derrida, and countless other ‘methods’ for deciphering the hidden meaning of cultural artefacts. Invariably these methods are used to impose a leftist perspective: in other words, to undermine the authority of the works to which they are applied, and to advocate the transitoriness and arbitrariness of the values that are enshrined in those works. What should we respond to this?

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