Civilization and Culture at War

swordsGod 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 Walking has — in due time — been replaced by buggies, which, in turn, have been replaced by bicycles, cars, ships, and airplanes.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 e-mail. (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.”

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Alice von Hildebrand

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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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  • James H, London

    That link to Crisis has one of the funniest error messages ever! LOL!

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