April 20, 2015

Ain't Gonna Work On Maggie's Farm No more

"Just as the soil needs cultivators of the soil, the mind needs teachers. But teachers are not as easy to come by as farmers." — Leo Strauss, What Is Liberal Education

I’ve been talking a lot recently about the concept of Culture in my writing.

This, again, is another one of those big words that we throw around all over the place today, despite it having lost all meaning. Now, when we say "Culture," all we mean is any random group of individuals who happen to have shared values and at least some sort of collective hopes and dreams. It is truly amazing, though, how far this word has fallen from its original meaing, and the implications that this has had for our society.

I think the best place to start would simply be to point out the etymological root of the word: cult. Originally societies were basically no different than what we would call a “cult” today, i.e. an unquestionable worldview that has been indoctrinated into you. Historically, wherever you happened to be born determined pretty much everything about your life—and as Margaret Mead and her ilk of Anthropologists like to point out, there are a million and one differing and conflicting versions of this. 

But although Cultural Relativism is largely a 20th century phenomenon, this insight is hardly novel. The fact that there have been vastly differing conceptions of the “Good” is actually the very foundation of Political Philosophy and has been known for at least 2500+ years. It was this discovery —the distinction between Nature and Convention, Physis and Nomos—in Ancient Greece that caused Socrates to be put to death, and all the political upheavals that have animated modern Europe since the Enlightenment.

And this is why our current usage is so problematic.

The word “Culture” today has almost no content, used simply to designate and and every collection of individuals: Online Culture, Drug Culture, Gang Culture, Hip Hop Culture, Sports Culture, Corporate Culture, and, of course, all the various ethnic and religious groups of the world, as well. It is now used as a completely neutral and indiscriminate descriptor. Originally, though, it had not only a very precise application, but an exclusively positive intention.

Derived from the Latin cultura, it is meant to evoke imagery of a farmer working in his field, cultivating the land in the hopes of growing the finest crops. But rather than produce, Culture is the cultivation of the mind, talents and manners of individuals in society. And just as a farmer does not plant any old seeds anywhere, so must an instructor be equally discerning. One must plant only the best seeds in order to reap the best fruits; and one must understand the nature of the mind as one understands the nature of the soil in order to produce the healthiest results.

Today, however, “Culture” is no longer imbued with this positive content, and it is declared that all fruit tastes equally good. But—to wear out this metaphor completely—those of us fortunate/unfortunate enough to have not lost all taste in our present wintery intellectual climate continue to seek the sweetest organic produce, but are only offered the sacchriny, sweet artificial substitutes. The laboratory has replaced the field, and we are now told that we must change our palate to fit this newly fabricated diet. But there are too few calories, and our minds are withering from lack of substance.

In the strangest (stupidest) turn of events, we now claim—thanks to the Cultural Relativism of Mead/Boas/Benedict/et al—that both everything is a “social construct” and that cultures are unjudgable. But if all values are equally good, what criteria can we possibly use to choose the content of our constructs? We are now in the impossible situation where we believe we are radically free to decide, but have no means of making decisions.

Culture, in the older sense, assumed that there was a ground—a natural field—for which it was possible to discover the seeds which best suit it. Now, however, we are told that there is no ground, no farm, no field, and some say, not even a single “reality” which could possibly guide us.

Check back next week as I delve deeper into how this non-sense has come about.  

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