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?