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Russell Kirk

From Amer­ica’s British Cul­ture, pp. 1–3

This slim book is a sum­mary ac­count of the cul­ture that the peo­ple of the United States have in­her­ited from Britain. Sometimes this is called the An­glo-Saxon cul­ture—al­though it is not sim­ply Eng­lish, for much in British culture has had its ori­gins in Scot­land, Ire­land, and Wales. So dom­i­nant has British cul­ture been in America, north of the Rio Grande, from the seventeenth century to the present, that if somehow the British elements could be elim­i­nated from all the cul­tural patterns of the United States—why, Americans would be left with no coherent culture in public or in private life.

When we employ this word culture what do we signify by it? Does “culture” mean refinement and learning, urbanity and good taste? Or does this “culture” mean the folkways of a people? Nowadays the word may be employed in either of the above significations; nor are these different meanings necessarily opposed one to the other.

Our English word culture is de­rived from the Latin word cultus, which to the Ro­mans signified both tilling the soil and worshiping the divine. In the beginning, culture arises from the cult: that is, people are joined together in worship, and out of their religious association grows the organized human community. Common cultivation of crops, common defense, common laws, cooperation in much else—there are the rudiments of a people’s culture. If that culture succeeds, it may grow into a civilization.

During the past half-century, such eminent historians as Christopher Dawson, Eric Voegelin, and Arnold Toynbee have described the close connections between religion and culture. As Dawson put it in his Gifford Lectures of 1947,

A social culture is an organized way of life which is based on a common tradition and conditioned by a common environment. . . . It is clear that a common way of life involves a common view of life, common standards of behavior and common standards of value, and consequently a culture is a spiritual community which owes its unity to common beliefs and common ways of thought far more than to any unanimity of physical type. . . . Therefore from the beginning the social way of life which is culture has been deliberately ordered and directed in accordance with the higher laws of life which are religion.

Dawson gives us here a quasi-anthropological de­f­inition of cul­ture. At the be­gin­ning of the twentieth cen­tury, his­to­ri­ans and men of let­ters would have raised their eyebrows at this so­ci­o­log­i­cal ap­proach. The prin­ci­pal dic­tio­nar­ies of nine decades ago of­fered di­verse de­f­i­n­i­tions of the word—the agri­cul­tural mean­ing, the bi­o­log­i­cal one, the bac­te­ri­o­log­i­cal one, and oth­ers; but the com­mon ap­pre­hen­sion of cul­ture ran much like this: “The re­sult of men­tal cul­ti­va­tion, or the state of being cul­ti­vated; re­fine­ment or en­light­en­ment; learn­ing and taste; in a broad sense, civ­i­liza­tion, as, a man of cul­ture.”

This lat­ter em­ploy­ment of the word, con­not­ing per­sonal achieve­ment of high standards in manners, taste, and knowl­edge, con­jur­ing up the image of the vir­tu­oso, is not ar­chaic today. But the pre­vail­ing an­thro­po­log­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of the word sig­ni­fies the many el­e­ments which a peo­ple de­velop in com­mon. We may take as a work­ing an­thro­po­log­i­cal de­f­i­n­i­tion that of­fered by H.J. Rose, in a foot­note to his Hand­book of Latin Lit­er­a­ture (1936).

“By ‘cul­ture’ is meant sim­ply a mode of com­mu­nal life char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally human, i.e., beyond the capacity of any beast,” Rose writes. “Re­fine­ment and civ­i­liza­tion are not im­plied, al­though not ex­cluded. Thus we may speak alike of the ‘cul­ture’ of the Australian blacks and of the modern French, distinguishing them as lower and higher re­spec­tively.”

To ap­pre­hend the re­la­tion­ships be­tween “cul­ture” as the word is em­ployed by anthropologists and “cul­ture” as that word is un­der­stood by the cham­pi­ons of high achieve­ments in mind and art, we may turn to the chief poet of this cen­tury, T.S. Eliot. Since fairly early in the nine­teenth cen­tury, re­flec­tive men and woman have tended to re­gard this lat­ter sort of cul­ture as some­thing to be sought after. Just what is it that the cham­pi­ons of cul­ture seek? Why, “im­prove­ment of the human mind and spirit.”

Eliot sug­gests that this high cul­ture con­sists of a min­gling of man­ners, aes­thetic attainment, and in­tel­lec­tual at­tain­ment. He ar­gues too that we should re­gard cul­ture in three senses, that is, whether we have in mind the de­vel­op­ment of an in­di­vid­ual, or the de­vel­op­ment of a group or class, or the de­vel­op­ment of a whole so­ci­ety.

As Eliot ex­plains, the dif­fer­ent types of cul­ture are in­ter­de­pen­dent. The ques­tion is not re­ally one of con­flict be­tween “de­mo­c­ra­tic” and “aris­to­cratic” modes of cul­ture. A na­tion’s cul­ture may be diverse, seem­ingly; yet the per­sonal cul­ture can­not long sur­vive if cut off from the cul­ture of a group or class. Nor may the high cul­ture of a class en­dure if the pop­u­lar cul­ture is de­based, or if the pop­u­lar cul­ture is at odds with per­sonal and class cul­tures.

“Cul­tural dis­in­te­gra­tion is pre­sent when two or more strata so sep­a­rate that these be­come in ef­fect dis­tinct cul­tures, and also when cul­ture at the upper group level breaks into frag­ments each of which rep­re­sents one cul­tural ac­tiv­ity alone,” Eliot writes. “If I am not mis­taken, some dis­in­te­gra­tion of the classes in which cul­ture is, or should be, most highly de­vel­oped, has al­ready taken place in west­ern so­ci­ety—as well as some cul­tural sep­a­ra­tion be­tween one level of so­ci­ety and an­other. Religious thought and prac­tice, phi­los­o­phy and art, all tend to be­come iso­lated areas cul­ti­vated by groups in no com­mu­ni­ca­tion with each other.”

With in­creased speed, that lam­en­ta­ble process of dis­in­te­gra­tion and sep­a­ra­tion has con­tin­ued since Eliot wrote those sen­tences four decades ago; it is es­pe­cially conspicuous in Amer­i­can higher ed­u­ca­tion. If the decay goes far enough, in the long run a society’s cul­ture sinks to a low level; or the so­ci­ety may fall apart al­to­gether. We Americans live, near the end of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, in an era when the gen­eral outlines and in­sti­tu­tions of our in­her­ited cul­ture still are recognizable; yet it does not follow that our chil­dren or our grand­chil­dren, in the twenty-first cen­tury, will re­tain a great part of that old cul­ture.

Books by Russell Kirk and other Imaginative Conservatives are available from The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis piece originally appeared in Vol­ume 46, Num­ber 2 (Sum­mer 2008) of the University Bookman and is posted here with permission.

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