ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
November 3, 2011
Wherever we turn, we are faced with the words "in our culture." "Our culture tells us." We are implicitly told that we have a social duty to follow the dictates of our culture; we belong to our culture. To deviate from our culture is to isolate ourselves from our contemporaries, and is labeled antisocial. Our culture should shape our life.
Before proceeding to an analysis of this (unwise) recommendation, let me distinguish between two words which are often used interchangeably: culture and civilization. I shall follow Dietrich von Hildebrand's terminology. He makes a sharp distinction between them.
Civilization is characterized by the fact that man, conscious of his vulnerability, invented tools the purpose of which was not only to protect himself against animals (for example, by clubs, knives, spades, spears, arrows, and bows—which in the course of time developed into technology and electronics), but also to facilitate his everyday existence, that is, to make it easier, safer, faster, more efficient, more hygienic.
These tools were at first very primitive, but by dint of hard work, they became more sophisticated; the improvements throughout the centuries are nothing short of amazing — some seem to edge on the "miraculous." A child born today finds himself in a world not only totally unknown to his grandparents, but inconceivable for them. Let us limit ourselves to noting computers and cell phones. The list is long and grows every day. What was new yesterday is discarded today as "old." The 20th century has given "modern man" a golden key, in fact, a master key, enabling him to open hundred of doors which, to elderly people, seem to belong to the world of magic or fairy tales.
The power that technology now gives man, however, threatens to nourish in him the poisonous and deadly illusion that—given time—there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that he will not be able to control: the weather, sickness, and even death. Unlimited "progress" lies in front of him, one day he will become god without God. That was the promise that Satan gave to our first parents. "You will be like God." Let us face it: Behind all these scientific marvels, there is a monster lurking in the background: hubris, or pride. Like strong alcoholic beverages, metaphysical arrogance threatens to drive us towards an abyss, after having artfully blindfolded us to the fact that we are heading for ruin. This was already perceived by the Greeks. Sophocles’ great Ajax informs us that this hero, the victim of hubris, was punished by madness. Athena judged that this alone was an adequate chastisement for his crime, which was: He declared he did not need the help of the gods.
Let me quote: His father tells him: "My son, seek victory by the spear/But seeks it always with the help of Heaven."
Ajax’s reply to this wise advice is: "Father, with heaven’s help a mere man of nought/ Might win victory: but I, albeit without/Their aid, trust to achieve a victor's glory."
The day the atomic bomb became a reality, man became exposed to the temptation of being enamored of his own genius, promising unlimited "progress." Now he was on his way to gaining perfect control over the universe. Primitive people because of their helplessness assumed that the wonders of nature pointed to the existence of an all-powerful being they called God. Feuerbach had proudly declared that man finally realized that he was the one deserving this title. Up to then, according to Feuerbach, man made the mistake of attributing to an unknown being called God all the remarkable talents that in fact belonged to him. What up to the 19th century man called God was only a projection of his own power and greatness: The time had finally come to reclaim his metaphysical rights. Man's true greatness is acknowledged: He no longer "needs" God.
I recall my spontaneous response when I heard that this deadly weapon was living up to the expectations of the great scientists who had collaborated in his realization. The thought that immediately crossed my mind was the following: "Is not the triumph of having produced such a powerful means of destruction a sort of metaphysical revenge for man's incapacity to create? Now he can say; Be not, and only press on a button to realize his command."
It must be bitter to atheistic scientists to acknowledge their incapacity to say: "Be" and bring something out of nothing. Of course, professional atheists will reply: Give us time. Science will find a way of doing it.
The marvels of science in the hands of pride inevitably lead to atheism. For the atheists have conveniently convinced themselves that God is an invention of weak minds, and therefore modern man can discard this empty concept and throw it into the trash bin.
That science keeps progressing in its knowledge and control of the material universe is a fact. Man's desire to unravel the secrets of nature in order to dominate matter is deeply rooted in his nature. This craving for knowledge is laudable. The whole question, however, is the use that man makes of his discoveries. We just pointed to the fact that when misused, it can lead to the destruction of the universe. St. Peter informed us that the world will be destroyed by fire.
The solution is not to curb legitimate research, but to guarantee that the knowledge gained is put at the service of the good, and not used either as a means of power or to eliminate those viewed as "undesirable" for whatever reason, mostly because they cannot contribute to the progress of humanity. Such people deserve their fate: They cannot justify their existence.
Let me say emphatically: Any chasm between science and wisdom will, in the long run, lead to a world disaster. Indirectly, this gives us a key to understanding what I stated above: that whereas science progresses, culture is subject to ups and downs, to periods of glory and to periods of decadence.
For authentic culture is the fruit of wisdom, that is a philosophy of life based on truth. It aims not at improving man’s daily life, but at feeding his spirit, by knighting daily life with beauty. For man cannot live on bread alone. His soul longs for spiritual food that visual objects and noble sounds can give him. Through their sheer beauty, they point to a world which, being perfect, will no longer need tools for inventions, but will be an eternal contemplation of Perfect Beauty, that is God.
This reverent attitude will guarantee the birth of a noble culture, one that both glorifies God and ennobles man. If, however, it is based on a wrong philosophy (such as materialism, relativism, subjectivism) "culture" will inevitably reflect these grave deviations; nay, it will produce what I shall dub an anti-culture.
Literature is particularly revelatory in this domain. Is its message uplifting or does it feed the monster which lies dormant in every fallen creature as mentioned by Socrates? (Phaedrus, 230). This appeal for what is "low" and "base" (the rebellious horse in us, as also mentioned in Plato’s Phaedrus) will inevitably lead to a degeneration of culture to the point that instead of lifting up mans’ s soul, it will drag it down into the pit of coarseness, vulgarity, and immorality.
This poisonous philosophy will affect all arts: architecture, sculpture, painting, and it also will be expressed in "fashion." All these inevitably will reflect the spiritual (or anti-spiritual) climate prevalent in "our" time and, simultaneously contribute to its formation. He who places Picasso above Leonardo da Vinci, or rock and roll above Mozart, or Sartre above Plato is, whether he knows it or not, a product and a victim of an "anticulture." No one can "'prove" by arguments either Shakespeare's greatness, or Mozart's genius. What is "self-evident" to those who have eyes to see and ear to hear need not be "proven."
Some of us are born with perfect vision; others have some defect; others are born blind. It is not their fault and they know that they have defects. But spiritual and intellectual blindness is often the fruit of evil choices, and might turn out to be the punishment of those who make those choices. There are people who have eyes and do not see; ears and do not hear. For as St. Augustine put it: "Every sin brings about its own punishment" (Confession, I, 12).
It is legitimate to question whether or not what some people today call "music" deserves that aristocratic title. For to confuse deafening noise that triggers violent sensations, with a message of authentic beauty, is a cultural curse.
Happy are those who long to know what is worth knowing, to admire what is worth admiring, to hear what is worth heming. Artistic receptivity is a gift, but irreverence and pride inject poison into whatever talents a person has received, and can prevent him from properly developing these gifts for the sake of "money," "fame.," "fashion," or immediate success.
Sartre, to mention one "famous" and immensely popular thinker of the 20th century, certainly did not lack "intelligence" (or should I call it cleverness?) in the sense of intellectual sharpness, but his books are the product of a mind that has gravely derailed. His thought echoes the confusion that is the curse and calamity of the world in which we live.
Wings Grow On The Human Soul
How does Dietrich von Hildebrand justify his distinction between culture and civilization? A knife has been invented to cut; it is highly practical because its uses are varied. Man needs knives for his daily existence. In contrast to animals, he does not benefit from claws or from a sharp beak, or from powerful teeth, or from gigantic strength, or from the speed of horses. His intelligence enabled him no only to supplement these deficiencies, but to compete with animals, and to dominate them.
But man, being a person, realizes that he cannot live "on bread alone" (in this case, tools), and that deep down, he longs for something which is not just the fulfillment of a need, but delivers a spiritual message: that is, beauty for its own sake.
Some will say therefore that culture fulfills a "spiritual need." But there is a difference between things the importance of which are exclusively limited to their usefulness (that is, if a tool became no longer necessary, its existence would no longer be justified), and objects that uplift the human soul and the value of which lies not in satisfying the "need." Rather, it is their very beauty that justifies their existence independently of any "practical" use they may have. Their value is definitely not to fulfill a pragmatic need.
Plato wrote that at the sight of beauty, wings grow on the human soul (Phaedrus, 249). Beauty is a source of joy; it differs radically from the usefulness of tools, which are mere means to an end. This justifies their being discarded when better tools have been invented, better meaning faster, easier to handle, more efficient. Personhood opens up a new world: the world of things sought for their own sake, because of their value. Beauty justifies its own existence.
Why did artisans start producing beautiful knives? They do not cut better than an ordinary knife; they are not sharper. But they deliver a message that transcends the anemic limits of pragmatism. This was strikingly formulated by Pascal, who wrote that he was not a pragmatist because he went much further without it. As always, his wisdom is rich in insights. Avaricious calculation wages war on greatness.
Joy at the sight of a sunset is not a means to an end; it transmits a spiritual message that transcends narrow finality.
In the realm of animals, on the contrary, finality is the alpha and omega of their existence. But man is not an animal: He is a person incarnated in a body. The means-end relationship, which plays a valid role in certain domains, will never shed satisfactory light on man’s existence and justify it.
And so in the animal realm, the distinction between civilization and culture is meaningless. From the very beginning, each animal species was given the "tools" necessary to fulfill its role in creation. There is no change, no development, no improvement necessary. From the start, a bird nest was "perfect" as a bird nest. Nothing was needed to "improve" it. It fulfilled its purpose, The same is true of the masterpiece called a "beehive." The process is endlessly repeated because there is need and no room for improvement; it is exactly as it should be. A nest is a masterpiece but a masterpiece that its inhabitants take for granted. Being deprived of a spiritual soul, they cannot marvel at its perfection.
It is typical of man's greatness as a person that he can wonder, and this leads him to contemplation and awakens gratitude in his soul, which in turn is a source of joy.
Loss of Reverence
There is another very fundamental distinction between civilization and culture. Whereas the former keeps progressing (unless some disaster occurs that annihilates it), culture far from automatically getting better has periods of greatness and periods of decadence. Athens in the fifth century BC was rightly the pride of the Greeks.
Plato, born in the fifth century BC, deplored the fact that the next century, the one in which his life ended, was no longer enjoying this greatness. This king of Greek philosophy offers us a key to explain this decline. He writes that whereas in the fifth century BC "reverence was our queen and mistress" (Laws, 698), this mother of all virtues (as Dietrich von Hildebrand calls it) was being neglected.
To my mind, this remark is of immense value. It sheds light on the nature of great culture; the artist is required to adopt the right metaphysical posture— the child and reward of wisdom, i.e., the right philosophy. This explains why the history of culture is so chaotic: Scientific developments—fruits of hard work and also ambition— progress according to an immanent logic. Inevitably each scientific step forward leads to the next. As mentioned above, this previous and "dangerous" knowledge should be gratefully received, but should also be linked to the awareness that is should be "baptized" by wisdom.
If arrogant scientists view it as a means of feeding man's hubris ("knowledge is power," said Francis Bacon, that is, it enables men to dominate, and feeds their craving to control), they have opened the road to a greater efficiency in the art of mass murder. Science hijacked by the Devil leads to to mass murders and concentration camps. The Evil One was a murderer from the beginning and is perversely nurturing and enjoying man’s insane hubris.
Culture and Contemplation
There is, however, a connection between civilization and culture that should be mentioned. A minimum of civilization is necessary for the birth of culture. As long as man is forced to spend all his energies on survival in a threatening world, he has no time left for culture. There is a deep bond between culture and leisure, which in our super-active society is identified with laziness.
I think it was Michelangelo who once said that an artist works most intensely when "he does nothing." Clearly he means to say that contemplation is a key to artistic productivity. Only those who have tried to contemplate know how demanding it is: It requires recollection and silence. In our society, he who does not work, does nothing. But our next concern is the following: ls it possible that the gigantic "progress" of scientific knowledge in the 20th century can become or even has become a threat to authentic culture? We have mentioned that whereas "civilization," when unimpeded, keeps progressing, the same is not true of culture. Does mind-boggling scientific progress guarantee a parallel development in other domains? Can we say that modern man— a wizard in computer sciences or in electronics— is a better man morally speaking than his predecessors, living in an age where these marvels of technology were unknown? The answer is clearly: No.
Let me put the question more plainly. Does an ever greater control over the material universe guarantee a similar control over our passions? Is modern man a "morally better" man because of his ever-greater control over the universe? The answer is once again a resonant no. Can we declare that our masterful control over the material universe will necessarily guarantee a similar blossoming of authentic culture, a culture delivering a spiritual message, a sursum corda?
To be still more precise: Can we claim that art in all its forms in architecture, sculpture, painting, music produced in the 20th (and now in the 21st century) has benefited from scientific discoveries? Can we claim that they are "more beautiful" because they are more "modern" than artistic accomplishments of the past? Is "modern art" because it is modern more beautiful than the masterpieces of yore?
Chesterton put it best: "There we have in full operation that strange religious dogma which crept into the minds of so many evolutionists— the notion that the last thing must be the highest."