Civilization and Culture at War

God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the earth. This mission was confided to them, not to let it become stale but to make it bear fruit. They were called to take care of it, to tend it, and to develop it. Nature was the material, and man was to foster its development and to beautify it. If one compares a virgin forest with a Tuscan or Umbrian landscape, it is obvious that men have taken this mission seriously and fulfilled it lovingly.

Man’s intervention can take two different forms: Following my late husband Dietrich’s terminology, I will call one of them “civilization” and the other “culture.”

By civilization, I mean human achievements aimed at making life easier, more practical, and more convenient. Transportation comes to mind: It is a field in which technology has worked “miracles.” Walking has—in due time—been replaced by buggies, which, in turn, have been replaced by bicycles, cars, ships, and airplanes. Man can now crisscross the world in a matter of hours, whereas at the time of Columbus, reaching the American continent was a slow and dangerous enterprise. We have even landed on the moon, and soon we can hope to conquer other planets.

Modern man lives in a world where the victories of technology are mind-boggling: running water instead of drawing water from a well, electricity instead of candlelight, elevators, radio, television, telephones, cell phones, the Internet, and email. (Let us compare our lives with those of the Aborigines in Australia: These people live in a world that technology has not yet conquered.)

But civilization reaches further: The structure and organization of the state are also its fruits. The enactment of laws and the organization of public life are achievements that have been built up through the ages.

No doubt these achievements are amazing and call for praise and commendation of man’s genius. They are the products of long years of labor and effort. But these feats expose many to the temptation of believing that man is a god and that there is nothing beyond his reach, if only he is given the time necessary to reach his goal. Indeed, man believes himself to be the king of the universe.

But man’s action on nature is not limited to civilization. He can also leave his mark in a very different way: culture. Contrary to civilization, the aim of culture is not to make things easier, faster, more convenient, more practical, safer, or healthier, but to make things more beautiful, elevate them, and stamp them with the seal of spirituality. A beautiful knife is not a knife that cuts better and is sharper but a knife that apart from its use has been marked by a note of spirituality completely transcending pragmatic considerations. No doubt, the plain knife precedes the beautiful one: It was made out of necessity. How was man to protect himself against wild animals with claws and powerful teeth if he had to rely on his hands? Being intelligent, he understood that he needed to make a tool that would compensate for his weakness—a tool that had to be sharp to be a match for wild animals. That was the genesis of the knife—probably one of the most ancient of all tools because it was necessary for survival.

While man succeeded in slowly conquering nature and the animal world, he realized that “he could not live on bread alone.” Deeply rooted in the human soul, man feels a longing for beauty, for something that does not serve a practical purpose, something that is not just a means to an end but an end in itself because of its value. Beauty does not serve a practical purpose: It has its own unique meaning in itself. Indeed, Plato was right in his Phaedrus: “At the sight of beauty, wings grow on the human soul.”

Granted that some degree of civilization must precede culture (man first had to guarantee his survival), culture is precious because it adds a note of spirituality and sublimity to man’s daily life, which—without it—would be deprived of poetry and beauty. Culture is meant to be a Sursum Corda. Civilization serves man’s bodily needs, but culture feeds his soul.

Another striking difference between the two spheres is that civilization can be called a factum. Man sets his mind on achieving a practical aim and works at it until he finds a solution. It is the product of his accomplishments, will to succeed, intelligence, creativity, perseverance, and awareness that a need must be met.

The birth of culture is much more subtle, mysterious, and difficult to pinpoint. We shall call it a genitum, something that grows and develops mysteriously in the human soul, until one fine day, it reaches an artist’s consciousness and blossoms into an artistic creation. Man, following the inspiration of what the Greeks called the Muses, works at ennobling nature. It is an inspiration, a gift. Indeed, it is a birth whose origin could be compared to the mystery of procreation: the meeting of an invisible sperm and a tiny egg to create a human person in God’s image and likeness.

Civilization is artificial while culture is organic. I mean by this that civilization tends to replace nature: A telephone is a very convenient substitute for a face-to-face encounter, thereby eliminating a crucial human element—presence and the other person’s facial expression. Similarly, typewriters and computers replace calligraphy (though, obviously, a typewritten letter will never have the personal value and the seal of a handwritten letter). A car eliminates walking. An electric light bulb replaces candles. A faucet replaces going to a well to draw water. Technology has produced an immense network of interrelated agents.

However, the tragedy of September 11 has given the world an inkling of the catastrophe that is bound to happen if this network were to collapse through a disaster of great proportion. Man would have to go back to living in caves, and modern life has not prepared him for the transition. On November 9, 1965, the East Coast of the United States was the victim of a gigantic blackout. Millions and millions of people found themselves in the dark. This would have been impossible in the Middle Ages. If one man’s candle was extinguished, his neighbor would not be affected by it, and rescue would be easy and immediate. Technology has, therefore, its drawbacks.

But it has an enormous appeal, as well—not only because it aims at facilitating life but because it keeps progressing. Those of us who are senior citizens recall a time when telephones were a rarity. Radios were nonexistent, and when they were invented, they offered very limited programming. Television is relatively new, and at first the images appearing on the screen were blurred. Now, in a few years, we have gone from black-and-white to color TVs, which are now admirably clear and focused. It is now possible to watch events unfold on the other side of the world as they are happening. Time and space seem to be conquered by man’s genius.

Once a technological discovery has been made, it is bound to lead to another, and still another. Unless a catastrophe of world proportion happens—which recent events do not exclude—man can dream of a future in which his conquest of the universe will achieve proportions that edge on the miraculous and that are bound to feed the human hubris.

Culture, on the other hand, does not enjoy this victorious march forward. The history of the world tells us that there are ups and downs in the history of cultural development. Athens reached its acme in the fifth century B.C. and then turned downward. Italy reached its summit starting from the Quattrocento, leading to the glorious accomplishments of the Renaissance. How foolish it would be to claim that the Guggenheim Museum is—by definition—more beautiful than the Parthenon because it is 25 centuries younger. To match the greatness of Bach, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert is not easy. Anyone is free to claim that Schoenberg is a greater musician than Beethoven because he is a product of the 20th century, but it is unlikely his opinion will be endorsed by music lovers. Is Picasso a greater painter than da Vinci because he is our contemporary? Recently, beautiful Vienna has seen the birth of a new church that could be dubbed a blasphemy in stone and cement. To compare it to Chartres is a form of desecration.

Culture and art are blossoms of the earth in which they were born. When man’s moral life degenerates to such an extent that the difference between good and evil has been blurred through a systematic relativistic education, it is inevitable that the soil on which authentic culture can blossom no longer has the sap necessary for great achievements (granted that exceptions are always possible).

A concrete example is called for: Music lovers will all agree that Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is an operatic masterpiece with few equals. An opera is not only heard; it is also seen, and the set should match the poetry of the work. But cultural decadence—a punishment for immorality—has today reached such a pitch that I just heard that in the Salzburg Festival 2001 performance of this immortal masterpiece, the traditional lovely baroque castle was replaced by a bare room in which the only things visible were two doors marked “Men” and “Women.” Vulgarity and culture can never be bedfellows, and the growing taste for coarseness signals that in many instances, we can no longer speak of contemporary culture. We live in a time of anti-culture. Instead of refinement and noble polish, some actually relish whatever is indecorous and rowdy. Instead of appealing to what is best in man, instead of being a Sursum Corda, it caters to the lowest animal instincts in us. This is the death of authentic culture.

Civilization is animated by the spirit of parsimony: Whatever is not absolutely necessary is eliminated. Civilization unifies and simplifies. Culture, on the other hand, thrives on the principle of superabundance. Shakespeare formulated this truth in his own inimitable fashion: “Allow not nature more than nature needs, man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s…” (King Lear). Let us compare a meal eaten from a coarse earthen pot with a meal marked by culture: with a lovely tablecloth, silver (or even golden cutlery), a flower arrangement, and the food served on a beautiful platter, so artistically arranged that one hesitates to destroy this culinary masterpiece. It is not pragmatically necessary, but it is beautiful, and beauty is its own justification. Culture mirrors the generosity evident in God’s creation: Millions of sperm are ejected, but only one of them will fecundate an egg. Christ’s first miracle exemplifies admirably what we mean by the principle of superabundance: The guests at Cana already had had plenty of wine; pragmatically speaking, more wine was not “necessary.” But Christ chose to change large urns of water not only into wine but one of superior quality. The great mistake we make in our pragmatic approach to life is to believe that the importance of something is to be measured by its practical use. It was the great Pascal who wrote that he was not a pragmatist because he could go

I dare assert that in society today, culture is in danger of being choked by technology. A case in point is contemporary education. When I was a child, a student was supposed to have a well-rounded education, learning science, mathematics, at least one other language, literature, history, geography, philosophy, and fine arts. Throughout my teaching career, it became increasingly evident that modern “educators” viewed college exclusively as preparation to make a living. In many universities, the core curriculum was either severely curtailed or even totally abolished, and finally a student could graduate from college with no knowledge whatsoever of history, philosophy, literature, the fine arts, and geography. A friend told me that his acquaintance with what is called the humanities is in fact nihil. It would do no good to ask him who wrote the Divine Comedy or what the greatest dramas of Shakespeare are. When it comes to music, his ignorance touches on the pathetic. Now most anyone goes to college and can graduate being an ignoramus—totally unacquainted with the great traditions of Western culture. The problem is aggravated by the fact that most of these graduates become successful businessmen and soon make an impressive amount of money. They feel they have achieved their goals; their horizon is limited to money-making, having fun, watching sports on television, and taking it easy.

This same pragmatic attitude—”This is not useful; this will not help me make money”—explains why Latin and Greek have disappeared from school curricula. The value of these two crucial European tongues is no longer understood by contemporary man, whose outlook is totally geared toward accumulating wealth. Now that English is spoken all over the world, most Americans are not interested in learning foreign languages—a knowledge that is deeply enriching and enables one to penetrate into the souls of other peoples. Every language expresses a way of looking at the world. Saying “I can get along without it” is true enough, but once again, it eliminates the dimension of authentic culture.

How right Plato was when he praised the importance of tradition—this golden cord linking us with the past. To cut oneself off from this source of knowledge, beauty, and culture is to opt for a world stripped of spirituality and greatness.

No doubt, the “trousered ape” has made his proofs: By pressing a button, he can watch scenes taking place thousands of miles away. But, alas, by pressing a button, he is now capable of destroying a world that he could not have created. Economically speaking, modern man is richer and richer; spiritually speaking, he is bereft.

Authentic culture can only be resurrected by remembering that man is not an animal with a remarkably developed brain but a person made in God’s image and likeness. True culture can only blossom in a world steeped in reverence and a consciousness of man’s spiritual dignity.


  • Alice von Hildebrand

    Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the renowned author of many books, including The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius, 2000), The Privilege of Being a Woman (Veritas, 2002), and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sapientia, 2010).

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