A Synopsis on Culture

Culture is an enormous force shaping man's character and views of the world. It has inspired the loftiest goods and the greatest of evils, from the foundation and maintenance of Christendom for a millenium to the massacres of the American Indians. It inspires what and how we do everything.

Yet culture has not been much examined by Catholics, and what examination there has been has focused almost entirely on how religion impacts culture. While this is, of course, a very important pursuit, culture contains many more aspects than those informed by religion. Furthermore, because culture has such an immense impact on every aspect of the life of man, it deserves a more thorough examination. This article attempts to make such an examination, though briefly and necessarily incompletely. First must be a definition of culture, and the discussion may flow from there.

The Definition of Culture

Most Catholics, indeed most men in general, know the word "agriculture." It signifies the cultivation of the field, the art and science by which man subdues the earth and makes it yield fruit; that is, makes it approach its end of serving man. Its roots are in the Latin ager, "field," and cultus, "cultivation." Our own word "culture" comes from a similar root: cultus, "cultivation." In this case, however, "culture" is the cultivation of man; it subdues his passions and makes him yield forth fruit. That is, it makes him approach his end. In this sense, culture is identical to virtue itself: culture is a set of habits which cultivate man toward his end.

Culture, however, is specific to given peoples, such that we often refer to these peoples specifically as "cultures": the Irish culture is devoted to St. Patrick, the French culture loves enjoyment of wine. Furthermore, the end toward which a culture cultivates those who adhere to it is not universal, but rather determined by that culture. Thus, the many cultures of Christendom sought the end of the good life, lived in the grace of Jesus Christ, while other cultures sought other ends. So culture is very different from virtue in this sense: virtue are the habits which make a man good insofar as he is man, while culture is the set of habits which make a man good insofar as he is a member of a given culture. So a Frenchman will have many cultural habits in common with the Irishman and the German; these will be the habits which are also virtues. But many of his cultural habits will be different; these will be the habits which are specifically French, and make a good Frenchman, but not necessarily a good man.

Furthermore, because the end is always the first principle, the first principle of a given culture is its end. This idea has a number of consequences, two of particular importance. The first is that the goodness of a culture must be judged based on its end. Insofar as a culture's end is good, that culture itself will be good in its essence, though the means by which it pursues that end may be bad. The second is that any group of habits and practices which has no end is not truly a culture, but merely something similar to culture, to which the very word "culture" can only be applied analogously. This leads us to our second consideration, the death of culture in the modern West.

The Death of Culture

As Catholics, we often complain about the various problems with modern culture, American culture, and even the "culture of death." However, in this case we are using the word "culture" only analogously. Modernity does not, and cannot, have any authentic cultures. It has only facsimiles of cultures, orange peels which contain no fruit.

Modernity, with its concomitant pluralism, refuses to admit any common end for a group of people. Each individual is entitled to, and indeed encouraged to, select his own end, or no end, according to his own tastes and conscience (unless, of course, that end is contrary to pluralism, in which case he is ridiculed and reviled). This means, of course, that no country or nation can have such a common end; it further means that no people, and thus no "culture," can have such a common end. Thus, the cultures which have embraced modernity have, by that very fact, eviscerated themselves, tearing out their own hearts and replacing them with nothing, mere gaping holes surrounded by cultural superficials. There is not modern culture, nor American culture, nor even a culture of death, except insofar as that term indicates a commitment to death and the things of death. True culture is dead.

Modernity hates authentic cultures; their commitment to a common end is a violation of everything which modernity stands for. Consequently, modernity takes one of three avenues for destroying them. The first is outright war and destruction. This is the path which it took against communist Russia and Nazi Germany, for example; while both of these cultures were very bad, insofar as the ends toward which they were dedicated were bad, modernity hated and destroyed them not because they were dedicated to bad ends, but because they were dedicated to ends as such. They denied individuals the right to reject their ends and choose their own, and consequently they had to be---and were---destroyed.

The second is by far the most common, and the fate of most of the authentic cultures of the West has been to succomb to this attack. This is the strategy of simply withering away. After the Revolution, for example, French culture was under full-scale attack; it resisted for a long time, but over time it gradually became less and less common as a modern, endless "culture" took its place. This process was completed only after the Second World War; but French culture was not killed, it merely died, slowly, on the onslaught of a modernity which cannot tolerate anything more substantive than its own empty heart.

The last is perhaps the most insidious: plasticization. By this, the superficial aspects of a culture---songs, accents (rarely languages themselves), games, foods---are preserved, but the real substance of the culture is gutted. Highland culture in America is probably the best example. Everyone loves the quaint little Highland festivals; they love to watch large men in plaid skirts throwing telephone poles. But any of the substance of Highland culture---the fierce devotion to Faith and clan, the martial spirit---was very carefully removed. Thus, the culture has been "plasticized"; while it has superficial aspects of culture, it has none of the substance.

Thus, modernity eviscerates true culture, and nothing of it remains. However, the immense value of culture, and the great role which it has played in forming the saints and heroes of ancient Christendom, does not allow Catholics to permit it to shrivel up and die. We must try, as best we can, to preserve and foster culture; which leads us to our next section.

The Revival of Culture

Catholicism has, since its inception, infused culture with many customs and symbols, diverted its end to the proper one (the good life in God's grace), and otherwise sanctified all the good aspects of culture while purging even the slightest of the bad. This has been the Church's role wherever she has gone, and there is no reason for her to cease now, simply because culture itself is now under attack and losing. Catholics must take up this cause themselves in their own lives and families if we are to preserve these immense goods for future ages.

Each Catholic should know the culture of his inheritance, or if there are many at least one, and attempt, as far as he is able, to delve into it and make it real. Embrace it; learn both the superficials and the substance; sing the songs, speak the language, learn the history and customs, and otherwise conserve what is still left and revive what has already died. Let these cultures cultivate us and our children; we must not let modernity take more of our precious Christian inheritance than it already has.

Only in this way can we guarantee that what has been handed down to us by our ancestors will be passed down to our descendents. Otherwise, we have failed both ancestor and descendent; one's sacrifices have been in vain, and the other's inheritance has been gutted. Let us be formed by what has been handed down, and help revive still another small piece of Christendom.