Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Culture and Civilization

When we use the word culture more or less unthinkingly to mean “the things going on around us” and “the general arrangement of things,” we are very close to the original and still used secondary meaning of the word. That origin lies in “cultivation,” thus the arrangement and working of the soil, garden, field, and forest land done to sustain us. The modern word ecology carries a very similar meaning but with an unstated stress on the mutual linkage of everything.

Oswald Spengler, one of my cyclic historians, proposed (in Decline of the West) a distinction between culture and civilization. I found this view most apt and informative even when I first learned it at around nineteen or twenty years of age. Kultur for Spengler was the early and still organic phase of a distinctive society; Civilization was the late phase. The chief characteristic of civilization is deracination (still citing Spengler), a neat derivative from French which euphemistically makes its blunt Anglo-Saxon rootless sound sophisticated. You might say that the word itself describes civilization. We move from rootless to déraciné and in the process begin to float in the air, from Conan the Barbarian riding a great steed to Master of the Universe riding clouds of default swaps and derivatives. I realize that the analogy is inexhaustible: the homestead is culture, the mortgage-based derivative is civilization. One last pairing: tradition and public opinion: one is rooted in long-established and time-tested habits; the other is the unstable and flighty flutter of moods in the winds of the media.

We can escape neither culture nor civilization. It pervades, it penetrates, it’s everywhere. If you’re a person of culture, whether primitively so or highly cultivated, you will not, repeat not, feel at home in a civilization. The cultivated person will in some real ways be related, will belong to the same category, ultimately, as the fundamentalist.

More pairings will make this plain. Rationalism belongs to culture, intellectualism and sophistry to civilization. Culture cultivates the will, civilization the appetite. Sports and contest (whether of teams or spellers) are on one side, spectator-sports and soccer riots on the other.

The chief differences are that cultures are coherent, if often carrying an irrational element; they are also hierarchical, perhaps because they are coherent. Civilization is incoherent and ultimately flat. Its incoherence is in fact caused by its flatness. Power in civilizations derives from mass opinion. It is a single value although differently named: wealth, celebrity, popularity (as in politics).

Multiculturalism is an example of incoherence. All cultures are equal. Give us a break! I wouldn’t want to be a woman in a Muslim or a Hindu culture. No thanks. But let’s look at the ultimate meaning of that term. When everything is equal, nothing has value. Multiculturalism is the de facto rejection of culture dressed in a patronizing tolerance.

I’ve had the good fortune to experience real culture before the last wave of civilization submerged most of it in Europe. I was born in Hungary and therefore in the provinces of Christendom where modernism had had somewhat muted influence. In my early childhood I lived on the edges of Hungary yet, thus even more removed into spaces still dominated by the past. And, in the last year of World War II, and for a time thereafter, I lived in a backwater of Bavaria, in Tirschenreuth, where Christendom was still in full flower—more by the nature of its location and national neglect, I think, than any other reason. This background formed me. I’ve always been grateful—even if living in civilization gives me little comfort. Living in modernity, however, cannot be avoided—no matter where we first saw the light of day. My coming to America had nothing to do with it. Here, too, many have lived in pockets of resistance, but the times keep marching on, the blight spreads, indeed will do so until the season once more changes. I have a sense that, beneath the undifferentiated devastation modern civilization represents, new shoots are sprouting. In time a new culture will be born of these green things as the old order finally breaks down and its rubble is carried off as raw material to build something new. Signs of that are also evident.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful ! you have differentiated culture and civilization beautifully.I am sure years of thougtful observation has helped you develop this kind of insight.
    You Blog is a discovery channel for me.
    Blogging is culture and news is civilization.Did I get it right ?