What Is Culture?
People answer this question in many different ways. Some are inspired by philology, others by all kinds of philosophical and social systems. So many contradictions have arisen around defining culture, and the related word “civilization” gives rise to so many contradictions that international congresses of scholars and professors have met especially to discuss their meaning. After so much discussion, it often happens that no agreement is reached.
In this short lecture, we cannot address the theses and arguments of the various currents. Nor can we expound and justify our thesis and then focus on Catholic culture. However, we can seriously consider the countless meanings of the word “culture” as expressed by peoples, social classes and schools of thought and show what they have in common. Thus, one basic and invariable element of the notion of “culture” is that it always involves the improvement of the human mind.
At the heart of this improvement is the idea that every human mind has qualities susceptible to being developed and defects liable to being curtailed. Therefore, improvement has two aspects: a positive one, growing what is good, and a negative one, pruning what is bad.
This principle unites the many current ways of thinking and feeling about culture. Thus, we all agree that a university, music conservatory or theater school are cultural institutions. We can even extend this to clubs dedicated to chess or stamp collecting. All these entities or social groups aim directly or indirectly at improving people’s minds.
Likewise, we can imagine a university or other cultural institution that works against culture when it acts to deform minds due to its errors.
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For example, certain schools are driven by an exaggerated enthusiasm for technology to the point of instilling contempt for all things philosophical or artistic. A person thus educated adores mechanics as a supreme value, making it the soul’s only sphere of interest. A student who denies all certainty not based on the laboratory evidence and contemptuously rejects all things beautiful undoubtedly has a twisted mind.
Similarly deformed is someone driven by an immoderate philosophical appetite, which denies any value to music, art, poetry or more modest activities that also require intelligence and culture such as mechanics.
We can say that universities that form their students with such false guidelines promote anti-cultural action or a fake culture.
Fencing, for example, is recognized as an exercise of some cultural value because it presupposes physical dexterity, vivacity and elegance. However, common sense is unwilling to acknowledge the cultural character of boxing, which has something demeaning for the mind as it targets the face with massive and brutal blows. Current language includes improving the soul in the notion of culture in all these senses and many others.
Culture and Education
At first glance, the distinction between education and culture is less clear as a general concept. However, analyzing things well, we see this distinction exists and rests on a solid foundation.
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A person who reads a lot is said to be very cultured compared to another who reads little. Between two avid readers, the one who has read the most is presumed the most cultured.
Education aims to improve the mind. Thus, a person who reads more is also deemed more educated (except when there are reasons to the contrary). Thus, some people might err by inadvertently simplifying notions and considering culture as measured by the number of books read. That is blatantly wrong because reading is measured not in quantity, but the quality of the books read. It depends upon the traits of the readers and how they read.
In other words, reading can theoretically educate people by making them well-informed. Thus, a well-read and educated person may be informed of many facts or scientific, historical or artistic concepts. However, that same person may be much less cultured than one with a lesser informative background.
Thus, the distinction between education and culture becomes apparent. Education only improves the mind to the fullest extent possible when followed by profound assimilation resulting from accurate reflection. Accordingly, those who read little but assimilate a lot are better educated than those who read a lot but assimilate little. For example, a museum guide is generally very knowledgeable about the objects he shows visitors. However, he is frequently not very cultured because he limits himself to memorizing information and does not try to assimilate it.
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Everything we grasp with our senses or intellect affects the powers of the soul. We can free ourselves more, less, or even entirely from this effect depending on the case, but as such, each and everything we grasp tends to have an impact on us.
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As we said, culture consists of positively cultivating those things that enhance the mind and negatively curbing those things that deform it.
Of course, reflection is the primary means of enhancing the mind. A man of culture must be a thinker far more than a bookworm or a living repository of facts, dates, names and texts. For this thinker, reality is the primary book he has before his eyes; he is his own most consulted author. Other authors and books are precious but subsidiary elements.
However, mere reflection is not enough. We are not pure spirits. By an affinity that is not just conventional, there is a link between the superior realities that we consider with our intellect and the colors, sounds, shapes and perfumes we grasp through our senses. Our cultural effort is only complete when, through the senses, we imbue our whole being with the values that our intellect has contemplated. Singing, poetry, and art have precisely this purpose. Indeed, through an accurate and superior interplay with the beautiful (rightly understood, of course), the soul is fully imbued with truth and goodness.
The article above is taken from a 1954 lecture of Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira at the Jesuit Seminary of São Leopoldo, Brazil. It has been adapted slightly for publication.