…whatever be cause or effect, the disintegration of culture is the most serious and the most difficult to repair.
T S Elliot, Notes Toward a Definition of Culture, 1948
What words can be used to portray the present state of European and Western culture? Diluted, fragmented, anchorless, drifting, and increasingly meaningless? Are we living in the mere afterglow of the brightest moments of a civilization now dimming? Or, are these false notions? Does Europe remain a coherent whole, its culture, traditions and heritage intact and unthreatened?
To pull back, to ‘zoom out’ in an attempt to discern the process of a declining civilization, to assess the state of health of a culture comprising centuries of shared recognition is no small intellectual task. Nevertheless it was undertaken by the Anglo-American poet and critic T. S. Elliot in his famous post-war essay, Notes Toward a Definition of Culture. Elliot, the Nobel Prize for Literature winner for that same year, was convinced that Europe as a historic focus for our common values and beliefs was indeed in trouble. Writing three years after the close of the Second War, he laid the groundwork for his observations by first arguing that ‘culture’ and religion were inseparable, the opposite sides of the same coin:
The first important assertion is that no culture has appeared or developed except together with a religion: according to the point of view of the observer, the culture will appear to be the product of the religion, or the religion the product of the culture.
By culture, Elliot meant the aggregate of human excellence and achievement in every sphere, and not just the more modern and narrower notion of art, literature and music. As for religion, it was the accumulated and shared recognition of our Judaeo-Greek heritage. And, it is the linking of these two – culture and religion, that Elliot sought to underscore and emphasize.
. . . we may ask whether any culture could come into being, or maintain itself, without a religious basis. We may go further and ask whether what we call the culture, and what we call the religion, of a people are not different aspects of the same thing: the culture being, essentially, the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people.
The decline of religious belief and practice in western society is well documented. The impact of that decline less so. If Elliot is right, might it mean a concomitant decline in western culture as well? Can there be a Europe, a Western civilization without the foundation of Christianity and its precursors? Or, is the very essence of two millennia of the ethics derived from our Judaeo-Greek heritage so ingrained that even a thin vestige remains a permanent basis for our day-to-day functioning as a society, informing virtually everything from law to art? Put another way, can we successfully cling to long-recognised beliefs without believing?
For the culture we know, for its evolved system of values to survive, Eliot thought three conditions must be met:
The first of these is organic (not merely planned, but growing) structure, such as will foster the hereditary transmission of culture within a culture: and this requires the persistence of social classes. The second is the necessity that a culture should be analysable, geographically, into local cultures: this raises the problem of ‘regionalism’. The third is the balance of unity and diversity in religion — that is, universality of doctrine with particularity of cult and devotion.
To take the most contentious, why ‘social classes’? In an era of mass democratization, the smoothing out, flattening and blurring of racial, ethnic and even sexual distinctions, now inflamed and driven by social media, may be the first hint that trouble lies ahead.
In her 1961 book, The Crisis in Culture: It’s Social and It’s Political Significance, German-American political scientist Hannah Arendt traced the origin of class to the second half of the 19th century:
Society began to monopolize “culture” for its own purposes, such as social position and status. This had much to do with the socially inferior position of Europe’s middle classes, which found themselves as soon as they acquired the necessary wealth and leisure in an uphill fight against the aristocracy and its contempt for the vulgarity of sheer moneymaking. In this fight for social position, culture began to play an enormous role as one of the weapons, if not the best-suited one, to advance oneself socially, and to “educate oneself” out of the lower regions, where supposedly reality was located, up into the higher, non-real regions, where beauty and the spirit supposedly were at home.
This evidently is Elliot’s ‘transmission of a culture within a culture’ at work. It clearly would not have worked had there been no ‘upper class’ to envy, admire and imitate. The trouble Elliot foresaw was also predicted by Hannah Arendt, albeit more than a decade later. For both it was a fragmentation of the social classes and the uses they put to culture which was at the root of the problem.
Instead of enriching life, thought Arendt, culture was increasingly becoming utilitarian, a method of social advancement, and not an end in itself. This, of course, is what is behind the rise of mass culture, a culture to be bought and sold. For Elliot that meant fragmentation and decline:
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.
What neither could have known or even anticipated was the re-emergence of another totally different culture, one that had swept much of the then known world in the middle ages – including significant parts of Europe. It is, of course, Islam, and today it is happening as Christian culture falters and stumbles, unsure of itself, questioning its relevance to modern life and hence its very future.
In an ironic echo of early Christian and Jewish values, the religion of Mohammed is demanding and uncompromising. To step aside invites harsh punishment. It is disciplined, organised and above all, rising in influence within Europe. The overwhelmingly Muslims migrants causing so much political turmoil in Europe are a growing in every respect – in numbers, and in economic and even in political power. Abandoning much of what is taken for granted by Muslims as their religious duty, Christians have made their ‘deal’ with God. ‘Render onto Caesar’ has become manifest, best seen in the West’s insistence on the strict separation of church and state. In Islam there is no such concept.
We must turn to Roman history to see what could be the outcome of what the late American historian Samuel Huntingdon thought would become a ‘clash of civilizations.’ Gibbon in his Decline and Fall, saw the incursion of Christianity into Rome as fundamental to the Roman collapse. In his autobiography Gibbon says “…I believed, and as I still believe, that the propagation of the Gospel, and the triumph of the church, are inseparably connected with the decline of the Roman monarchy…”
Modern scholarship on the relationship between Christianity and the fall of Rome is more nuanced, as was Elliot himself in his essay, noting that “. . . the culture with which primitive Christianity came into contact (as well as that of the environment in which Christianity took its origins) was itself a religious culture in decline.”
Whatever is happening, whatever will be its outcome, this conclusion by Elliot seems indisputable:
… the one thing that time is ever sure to bring about is the loss: gain or compensation is almost always conceivable but never certain.
If there is neither heaven nor hell; neither saints nor sinners, what will we tell the children?
Christmas, 2018, Benicassim, Spain