Saturday, March 23, 2013

“Culture” is Young

It startled me to discover today that the concept of culture, as we now use it, arose, why, just the other day. As we know from “agriculture,” it is rooted in the systematic cultivation of the land. And in that sense the word is already present in the Latin cultura. Cicero is said to have used the phrase cultura animi, thus cultivation of the soul—but the word was not in use as it is with us. That began around 1500, thus in what for me is the Latter Days. Then it meant cultivation through education. It had grown up to mean “the intellectual side of civilization” by 1805. By 1867 it had reached maturity and had come to mean the “collective customs and achievements of a people.” In 1909, W.B. Yeats gave it the following interesting meaning:

For without culture or holiness, which are always the gifts of a very few, a man may renounce wealth or any other external thing, but he cannot renounce hatred, envy, jealousy, or revenge. Culture is the sanctity of the intellect.
     [W.B. Yeats, V. III of Collected Works, a journal entry dated March 7, 1909]

Yeats here is returning to Cicero’s sense, but as that word continued to be used by ever more people, it has expanded on the 1867 meaning more and more and, in our day, has endless tributaries of which pop culture is one and innumerable subcultures yet others. Yeats anticipated something of the kind when he wrote about the “widening gyre” in his “The Second Coming” and observed that “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

It strikes me as interesting that in secular times, which look outward rather than within, the collective becomes visible and needs all kind of words to describe it. And culture is one of those.

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