“What Does Culture Mean?”

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 empoloyed 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 worshipping 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.