Sunday, December 31, 2017

Why the Cultured Life is Worth Pursuing

Most people today prefer to spend their lives gathering more and more information. This plethora, this plague of information, now available to all—to what, precisely, does it lead? The best I can see, it leads to two things: the illusion that one understands the world, and the formation of opinions, countless opinions, opinions on everything. Opinions are well enough, sometimes even required; but I have never quite been able to shake the capping remark made by V. S. Naipaul on a character in his novel Guerrillas: "She had a great many opinions, but taken together they did not add up to a point of view." Culture, true culture, helps form complex points of view.

Some years ago, the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott was asked what he thought of England's entering the European Union. "I don't see," he answered, "why I should be required to have an opinion about that." An extraordinary thing for a contemporary political philosopher to say, or so I thought at the time. But later, reading Oakeshott's Notebooks, I came across two interesting passages that made clear the grounds on which he said it: First, "To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know & to have the courage not to be tempted beyond this limit." And second, that culture "teaches that there is much one does not want to know." I wonder if, in the current age, our so-called Information Age, recognizing "what one doesn't want to know" isn't among the greatest gifts that the acquisition of culture can bestow.


And that is the problem with culture, or rather Culture. I was semi-educated in this tradition and have the credentials to prove it. But then culture died in 1995 or so and I had no choice but to become interested in everything. Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Hebrew University, etc., etc. -- they don't have the answers anymore, if they ever did. It was nice, sort of, while it lasted, but one thing culture did not teach us is that inevitably it has to die.

I'm not sure that what we called culture was any older than perhaps the Great War anyway. You had T.S. Eliot (who wasn't even that great of a poet) and the rest of them, preaching about culture. You had all the Jews who came over to get away from Hitler, who sort of developed the idea of capital E Europe which had culture, which we in the US should try to acquire. You had some OK playwrights such Tennessee Williams and some awful ones like Arthur Miller. It was a much smaller world than the one we live in now.

What I think killed the cozy world of culture was the computer, but especially the World Wide Web. I certainly didn't see it coming. Byt why is anyone going to read Polybius when one can read 100 articles on the separation of powers, or anything else that strikes one's fancy, all just a few clicks away? The answer is, because Polybius is a great mind, or a near-great mind, but is he really? All of this culture stuff relies on a narrow hierarchy of thinkers and thought, and not particularly strenuous thought about them by anointed gate-keepers. But do I even care what Edmund Wilson thought was worth reading? Wasn't he just another dissolute communist who knew (per force) almost nothing about history?

Unless you're going to be satisfied in the end with fuzzy thinking that ends up in bromides about Plato and Aristotle, you're going to be sucked in to the gyre of what really happened, what people actually thought in the infinitely complex historical past. The Greeks were so strange, so weird, for example,can what they thought really be applied to us? And so you can say about just about all of the great thinkers and their great books. Sure, some of it can be applied, but what and how much requires so much care to know or partly know, care that is well beyond anything in culture.

So, yes, culture is dead but we have something better for my money in its place, or at least something necessary: the messy but human history of humanity. I might have liked culture better, but it's gone. Welcome to the world.

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"The Greeks were so strange, so weird, for example, can what they thought really be applied to us?" But strangely enough you don't say the same thing about contemporary Judaism nor about the cult that developed from it a little later and assumed the name Christianity.

Posted by: dearieme | Dec 31, 2017 3:36:36 PM

Arent you rather underselling “Culture” here, the western tradition in which you were schooled and which gives you the perspective you bring to “the messy but human history of humanity”? Surely you are yourself evidence that said culture may be compatible with being interested in everything. Epstein seems to think so in spite of his citation of cultural “vegans” like Kramer.

Posted by: Tom | Jan 1, 2018 9:11:03 AM