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Future tense, XI: The lessons of culture
On culture's role in the economy of life and the fragility of civilization.
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We sit by and watch the Barbarian. We tolerate him. In the long stretches of peace, we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us: we laugh. But as we laugh, we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond. And on these faces, there is no smile.
"If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
—Tancredi, in Lampedusa’s The Leopard
The simple process of preserving our present civilization is supremely complex, and demands incalculably subtle powers.
—José Ortega y Gasset
The lessons of culture: What are they? One of the leitmotifs threading its way through the essays that compose “Future Tense” is the recognition that we are living in the midst of one of those “plastic moments” that Karl Marx talked about. Future tense: not just subsequent, but also fraught. To revise an old song: Will there always be an England? That “will there always be . . .” is everywhere on our lips, in our hearts. And it’s not just England we worry about. The law; the economy; the political prospects; changes in our intellectual habits wrought by changes in our technology; the destiny that is demography: America, the West, indeed the entire world in the early years of the twenty-first century, seems curiously unsettled. Things we had taken for granted seem suddenly up for grabs in some fundamental if still-difficult-to-grasp way. Fissures open among the confidences we had always assumed—in “the market,” in national identity, in the basics of social order and cultural value. Future tense: the always hazardous art of cultural prognostication seems brittler now, more uneasy, more tentative.
Granted, the parochial assumption of present disruption is a hardy perennial. As Gibbon observed in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.” But we know from history (including the history that Gibbon gave us) that there are times when that natural propensity has colluded seamlessly with the actual facts. In Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, Burke (as usual) got it exactly right:
To complain of the age we live in, to murmur at the present possessors of power, to lament the past, to conceive extravagant hopes of the future, are the common dispositions of the greatest part of mankind; indeed the necessary effects of the ignorance and levity of the vulgar. Such complaints and humours have existed in all times; yet as all times have not been alike, true political sagacity manifests itself, in distinguishing that complaint which only characterizes the general infirmity of human nature, from those which are symptoms of the particular distemperature of our own air and season.
A book called Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents will always be pertinent. Burke’s point is that whereas some discontents are part of the human condition, others are part of the conditions humans forge for themselves. It is the latter, and the pressure or intrusion of the former upon the latter, we have sought to highlight in this series of essays.
Is there something unique, or at least distinctively different, about the economic crisis that began in 2008, was supposed to have evaporated by now, but that is lingering on if not getting worse? Has the ideology of transnational progressivism made such inroads among political elites that it threatens American self-determination and individual liberty? (I think of Burke again: “It was soon discovered, that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government, were things not altogether incompatible.”) Is America on the brink (or even beyond the brink) of a “fourth revolution”—following on the original revolution of American Independence, the Civil War, and the revolution wrought by FDR’s New Deal—are we, another eighty years on, facing a new revolution that will fundamentally reshape political and cultural life in this country? These are among the questions we have conjured with in “Future Tense.” Last month, Charles Murray asked whether “a major stream of artistic accomplishment can be produced by a society that is geriatric [as ours, increasingly, is]? By a society that is secular? By an advanced welfare state?” We do not know the answers to those questions, Mr. Murray observed, because “we are facing unprecedented situations.”
We have never observed a great civilization with a population as old as the United States will have in the twenty-first century; we have never observed a great civilization that is as secular as we are apparently going to become; and we have had only half a century of experience with advanced welfare states.
Which leaves us—where? In 1911, the poet-philosopher T. E. Hulme observed that “there must be one word in the language spelt in capital letters. For a long time, and still for sane people, the word was God. Then one became bored with the letter ‘G,’ and went on to ‘R,’ and for a hundred years it was Reason, and now all the best people take off their hats and lower their voices when they speak of Life.” I think Hulme was on to something, both in his observation about the inveterate habit of reverence and the choice that sanity dictates. I wonder, though, whether we as a culture haven’t shifted our attention from “L” for “Life” to “E” for “Egalitarianism” or “P” for “Political Correctness.”
It is noteworthy, in any event, to what extent certain key words live in a state of existential diminishment. Consider the word “Gentleman.” It was not so long ago that it named a critical moral-social-cultural aspiration. What happened to the phenomenon it named? Or think of the word “respectable.” It too has become what the philosopher David Stove called a “smile word,” that is, a word that names a forgotten or neglected or out-of-fashion social virtue that we might remember but no longer publicly practice. The word still exists, but the reality has been ironized out of serious discussion. It is hard to use straight. Just as it would be difficult to call someone “respectable” today without silently adding a dollop of irony, so it is with the word “gentleman.”
Leo Strauss made the witty observation that the word “virtue,” which once referred to the manliness of a man, had come to refer primarily to the chastity of a woman. We’ve moved on from that, of course. Chastity was for centuries a prime theme of Western dramatic art even as it was an obsession of Western culture. Who can even pronounce the word these days without a knowing smile? And as for manliness, well, the philosopher Harvey Mansfield wrote an entire book diagnosing (and lamenting) its mutation into ironized irrelevance.
Here’s the question: Absent the guiding stringencies of manliness, which are also the tonic assumptions of cultural confidence, how should we understand “the lessons of culture”? In his reflections on Pericles for “Future Tense,” Victor Davis Hanson noted that “the unabashed confidence of Pericles in his own civilization and national ethos . . . were once gold standards for unapologetic Western democratic rhetoricians.” And not only rhetoricians, but for Western democracies tout court. Pericles, Mr. Hanson observes, reminds us that “should a great culture not feel that its values and achievements are exceptional,” then no one else will either. The eclipse of that fundamental confidence is “injurious” to small and insignificant states, but “fatal” to states, like the United States, with aspirations to global leadership.
And where does that leave us? In one of his essays on humanism, T. S. Eliot observed that when we “boil down Horace, the Elgin Marbles, St. Francis, and Goethe” the result will be “pretty thin soup.” “Culture,” he concluded, “is not enough, even though nothing is enough without culture.” In other words, culture is more than a parade of names, a first prize in the game of “cultural literacy.” Let me me return to and elaborate on Mr. Hanson’s observations about Pericles. What lessons does the great Greek statesman have for us today? Does his example as a leader of the Athenians at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War have a special pertinence for us as we think about “the lessons of culture”?
To answer these questions, one first wants to know: What is it that Pericles stood for? To what sort of society was he pointing? What way of life, what vision of the human good did he propound?
In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts the public funeral oration that Pericles, as commander of the army and first citizen of Athens, delivered to commemorate those fallen after the first year—the first of twenty-seven years, be it noted—of war with Sparta. As Mr. Hanson reminds us, the short speech is deservedly one of the most famous in history.
The funeral oration outlines the advantages of Athenian democracy, a bold new system of government that was not simply a political arrangement but a way of life. There were two keynotes to that way of life: freedom and tolerance on the one hand, responsible behavior and attention to duty on the other.
The two go together. We Athenians, Pericles said, are “free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law”—including, he added in an important proviso, “those unwritten laws,” like the lawlike commands of taste, manners, and morals—“which it is an acknowledged shame to break.” Freedom and tolerance, Pericles suggested, were blossoms supported by roots that reached deep into the soil of duty. Burke again: “Manners are of more importance than law. . . . The law touches us but here and there and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform and insensible operation like that of the air we breathe in.”
Athens had become the envy of the world, partly because of its wealth, partly because of its splendor, partly because of the freedom enjoyed by its citizens. Athens’ navy was unrivaled, its empire unparalleled, its civic and cultural institutions unequalled. The city was “open to the world,” a cosmopolitan center.Political life was “free and open,” as was private life: “We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor,” Pericles said, “if he enjoys himself in his own way.”
Of course, from the perspective of twenty-first-century America, democracy in Athens may seem limited and imperfect. Women were entirely excluded from citizenship in Athens, and there was a large slave class that underwrote the material freedom of Athens’ citizens. These things must be acknowledged. But must they be apologized for? Whenever fifth-century Athens is mentioned these days, it seems that what is stressed is not the achievement of Athenian democracy but its limitations.
To my mind, concentrating on the limitations of Athenian democracy is like complaining that the Wright brothers neglected to provide transatlantic service with their airplanes. The extraordinary achievement of Athens was to formulate the ideal of equality before the law. To be sure, that ideal was not perfectly instantiated in Athens. Perhaps it never will be perfectly instantiated, it being in the nature of ideals to inspire emulation but also to exceed it.
The point to bear in mind is that both the ideal of equality before the law and the cultivation of an open, tolerant society were new. They made Athens the model of democracy for all the republics that sought to follow the path of freedom—just as America is the model of freedom today. Pericles was right to boast that “Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.” To continue the theme of aviation, we might say that in Athens, after innumerable trials elsewhere, democracy finally managed to get off the ground and stay aloft. In Periclean Athens what mattered in assuming public responsibility, as Pericles said, was “not membership in a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.” To an extraordinary extent, within the limits of its franchise, Athens lived up to that ideal.
It is also worth noting that life in Athens was not only free but also full. Here we come to the lessons of culture. When the day’s work was done, Pericles boasted, Athenians turned not simply to private pleasure but also to ennobling recreation “of all kinds for our spirits.” For the Age of Pericles was also the age of the great dramatists, the age of Socrates, the great artist Phidias, and others. Freedom, skill, and ambition conspired to make Athens a cultural as well as a political paragon.
A recurrent theme of the funeral oration is the importance of sound judgment, what Aristotle codified as the manly virtue of prudence. The blessing of freedom requires the ballast of duty, and informed judgment is the indispensable handmaiden of duty. It also requires courage: the indispensable virtue, as Aristotle pointed out, because it makes the practice of all the other virtues possible. A free society is one that nurtures the existential slack that tolerance and openness generate. Chaos and anarchy are forestalled by the intervention of politics in the highest sense of the term: deliberation and decision about securing the good life. When it comes to cultural activities, Pericles said, Athenians had learned to love beauty with moderation—the Greek word is euteleias, “without extravagance”—and to pursue philosophy and the life of the mind “without effeminacy,” aneu malakias. The lessons of culture were to be ennoblements of life, not an escape from its burdens.
The exercise of sound judgment was required in other spheres as well. In their conduct of policy, Athenians strove to be bold, but prudent, i.e., effective. “We are,” Pericles wrote, “capable at the same time of taking risks and of estimating them beforehand.” The exercise of sound judgment was not simply an intellectual accomplishment; it was the tithe of citizenship. “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business,” Pericles observed, “we say that he has no business here at all.”
Pericles did not mean that every citizen had to be a politician. What he meant was that all citizens had a common stake in the commonwealth of the city. And that common stake brought with it common responsibilities as well as common privileges. At a time when everyone is clamoring for his or her “rights”—when new “rights” pop up like mushrooms after a rain—it is worth remembering that every right carries with it a corresponding duty. We enjoy certain rights because we discharge corresponding responsibilities. Some rights may be inalienable; none is without a price.
Something similar can be said about democracy. Today, the word “democracy” and its cognates are often used as fancy synonyms for mediocrity. When we read about plans to “democratize” education or the arts or athletics, we know that is shorthand for plans to eviscerate those activities, for lowering standards, and pursuing them as instruments of racial or sexual redress or some other form of social engineering. Alexis de Tocqueville was right to warn about the dangers of generalizing the principle of equality that underlies democracy. Universalized, the principle of equality leads to egalitarianism, the ideology of equality.
The problem today is that the egalitarian imperative threatens to overwhelm that other great social impulse, the impulse to achieve, to excel, to surpass: “always to be best and to rise above others,” as Homer put it in one classic expression of the agonistic spirit. Radical egalitarianism—egalitarianism uncorrected by the aspirations of excellence—would have us pretend that there are no important distinctions among people; where the pretense is impossible, it would have us enact compensatory programs to minimize, or at least to paper over, the differences. The results are a vast increase in self-deception, cultural degradation, and bureaucratic meddlesomeness: the reign, in short, of political correctness. It is refreshing to turn to Pericles and remind ourselves that a passion for democracy need not entail the pursuit of mediocrity. Democracy is a high-maintenance form of government. Freedom requires disciplined restraint and circumspection if it is to flourish. Athenian democracy was animated by freedom, above all the freedom to excel, and it inspired in citizens both a healthy competitive spirit and “shame,” as Pericles said, at the prospect of “falling below a certain standard.”
In all this, Pericles noted, Athens was “an education to Greece,” a model for its neighbors. At the moment he spoke, at the beginning of a long and ultimately disastrous war, his words must have had special resonance. In celebrating what the Athenians had achieved, he was also reminding them of all they stood to lose. His funeral oration was therefore not only an elegy but also a plea for resoluteness and a call to arms. It is a call that resonates with special significance now that the United States and indeed all of what used to be called Christendom is under siege. Pericles was right: The open society depends upon the interdiction of forces calculated to destroy it. “We who remain behind,” he said, “may hope to be spared the fate [of the fallen], but must resolve to keep the same daring spirit against the foe.”
The view of society and the individual’s responsibility that Pericles put forward was rooted in tradition but oriented toward the future. He did not think much of the custom of public funeral orations, he said, but he felt bound to observe it: “This institution was set up and approved by our forefathers, and it is my duty to follow the tradition.” At the same time Pericles reminds us of the claims of the future by stressing the future’s main emissaries: the children of Athens. “It is impossible,” he suggests, “for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not . . . children whose lives are at stake.”
The vision of society that Pericles articulated in the funeral oration has exercised a permanent fascination on the political imagination of the West. Although occasionally lost sight of, it has always returned to inspire apostles of freedom and tolerance. But it is imperative that we understand that the view of society that Pericles described is not inevitable. It represents a choice—a choice, moreover, that must constantly be renewed. It is one version of the good life for man. There are other, competing versions that we would find distinctly less attractive. In the West, Pericles’ vision, modified by time and circumstance, has proven to be a peculiarly powerful one. It was absorbed by Christendom in the eighteenth century and helped to inform the democratic principles that undergird British and American democracy.
But we would be untrue to Pericles’ counsel of vigilance were we to think that some of the alternatives to this vision were incapable of inspiring strong allegiance. This was true when Pericles spoke. His entire speech presupposes the contrast between the Athenian way of life and another that was inimical to it. It continues to be true. The spectacle of radical Islamists dancing joyfully in the street whenever news of a terrorist atrocity breaks reminds us of that fact.
Indeed, the status of Pericles’ vision of society as one alternative among others was dramatically sharpened by the events of September 11. For that attack was not simply an attack on symbols of American capitalism or American military might. Nor was it just a terrorist attack on American citizens. It was all those things and more. It was an attack on the idea of America as a liberal democratic society, which means that it was an attack on an idea of society that had one of its primary sources in the ideals enunciated by Pericles. Shortly after the attacks, Benjamin Netanyahu made the observation that 9/11 was a salvo in “a war to reverse the triumph of the West.” Netanyahu’s words should be constantly borne in mind lest the emollient tide of rationalization blunt the angry reality of those attacks.
Many illusions were challenged on September 11. One illusion concerns the fantasies of academic multiculturalists, so-called. I say “so-called” because what goes under the name of multiculturalism in our colleges and universities today is really a polysyllabic form of mono-culturalism fueled by ideological hatred. Genuine multiculturalism involves a great deal of work, beginning, say, with the arduous task of learning other languages, something most of those who call themselves multiculturalists are conspicuously loath to do.
Think of the fatuous attack on “dead white European males” that stands at the center of the academic multiculturalist enterprise. For a specimen of that maligned species, one could hardly do better than Pericles. Not only is he a dead white European male, but he is one who embodied in his life and aspirations an ideal of humanity completely at odds with academic multiculturalism. He was patriarchal, militarist, elitist, and Eurocentric. He exhibited a manly confidence in the values of his culture that was as inspiring as it was indispensable.
Did Pericles survive September 11? Even now, a decade later, it is too soon to say which way the rhetorical chips will ultimately fall. The elimination of Osama bin Laden by a team of Navy SEALs last year marked the end of a chapter, but it was quickly absorbed into a larger metabolism of doubt. There are few signs that America remains prepared to follow through on its promise to eradicate terrorism and hold responsible those states that sponsor, finance, or abet it. There are even fewer signs that America, or the West generally, is prepared to stand up for its own cultural and political legacy in the face of the existential threats that besiege it: Islamism and its encroaching effort to establish Sharia law the world over as well as that potpourri of enervating imperatives that congregate under the banner of transnational progressivism.
The hollowness of the left-liberal wisdom about the war brings me to another illusion that was challenged by the events of 9/11. I mean the illusion that the world is basically a benevolent, freedom-loving place, and that if only other people had enough education, safe sex, and access to National Public Radio, they would become pacific celebrants of democracy and tolerance. This is the temptation of utopia—Greek for “nowhere”—and it must be acknowledged that America’s fortunate geographical position in the world has long encouraged certain versions of this temptation. The extraordinary growth of America’s wealth and military power in the twentieth-century—like Athens’ great wealth and power in the fifth-century B.C.—has kept the wolf from the door and the marauder from our throats. They have also abetted the illusion of invulnerability. But increased international mobility and the widespread dissemination of technological know-how have conspired to neutralize or at least attenuate those advantages. And let’s not forget the world-wide economic crisis that, since 2008, has introduced a new current of anxious uncertainty into our deliberations about the future. September 11, which brought the destruction of war to American soil for the first time since the war of 1812, made it abundantly clear that we have implacable enemies, enemies we cannot hide from, effectively appease, or negotiate with, enemies that will struggle to the death to destroy us. The still percolating economic dégringolade should remind us that the spectacular wealth of the West is an achievement, not a birthright. As Robert Heinlein wisely observed,
Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
A third illusion that was challenged on September 11 concerns the morality of power. It has been fashionable among trendy academics, CNN commentators, and other armchair utopians to pretend that the use of power by the powerful is, by definition, evil. Violence on the part of anyone claiming to be a victim was excused as the product of “frustration” or “rage”—emotions that for mysterious reasons are held to be exonerating for the dispossessed but incriminating when exhibited by legitimate authority. Hence the ponderous scramble to uncover “root causes”: that is, the search for sociological alibis that might absolve the perpetrators of evil from the inconveniences of guilt. As the French philosopher Charles Péguy put it: “Surrender is essentially an operation by means of which we set about explaining instead of acting.”
This favorite liberal pastime has not been abandoned, but it looks increasingly rancid. As the commentator Jonathan Rauch wittily put it shortly after the terrorist attacks, the cause of terrorism is terrorists. September 11 reminded us that with power comes responsibility. Power without resolution is perceived as weakness, and weakness is always dangerously provocative. In the aftermath of September 11, we in the West were often cautioned against exciting Islamic rage. My own feeling is that it is salutary for our allies and our enemies alike to understand that American rage, too, is an unpleasant thing. Pericles commended the Athenians on their “adventurous” spirit that had “forced an entry into every sea and into every land.” Everywhere, he noted, Athens “left behind . . . everlasting memorials of good done to our friends or suffering inflicted on our enemies.”
Since the 1970s, we have tended to flinch from such frank talk; we shy away from talk of forcing anyone to do anything; we seem ashamed of acknowledging that we have enemies let alone acknowledging that we wish them ill; we are embarrassed alike by the perquisites and the obligations of power. Such squeamishness is precisely part of the “effeminacy” against which Pericles warned. We desperately wish to be liked. We forget that true affection depends upon respect.
What, finally, are the lessons of culture? One lesson concerns the proper place of culture in the economy of life. The critic Clement Greenberg, arguing for the importance of disinterested aesthetic experience, was no doubt correct when he argued that “a poor life is lived by any one who doesn’t regularly take time out to stand and gaze, or sit and listen, or touch, or smell, or brood, without any further end in mind, simply for the satisfaction gotten from that which is gazed at, listened to, touched, smelled, or brooded upon.” At the same time, Greenberg stressed that “there are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I’ve heard art-silly people say all my life. . . . Art shouldn’t be overrated.” One thinks of Dostoyevsky’s exclamation that “incredible as it may seem, the day will come when man will quarrel more fiercely about art than about God.” Are we there yet?
Another lesson concerns the fragility of civilization. As Evelyn Waugh noted in the dark days of the late 1930s,
barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment, however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on. . . . The work of preserving society is sometimes onerous, sometimes almost effortless. The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. At a time like the present it is notably precarious. If it falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history.
It is a prime lesson of culture to acquaint us with those facts. “History,” Walter Bagehot wrote in Physics and Politics, his clear-eyed paean to liberal democracy, “is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.” Culture is a precious inheritance, immeasurably more difficult to achieve than to destroy, and, once destroyed, almost irretrievable. It’s not at all clear that we have learned the lesson, though wise men from before the time of Pericles have sought to bring us that sobering news.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 June 2012, on page 13
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