The Catholic Thing
It’s the Stupid Culture Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 21 January 2013

Everyone today complains about the culture. From liberals who think it promotes gun violence and “hate crimes” to conservatives who believe it’s taking us on a high-speed luxury liner to Hell. Perhaps the only thing that rivals this agreement across ideological lines is the utter bewilderment at what to do about the whole sad mess.

I have been reading around in a fascinating little book, The Civilization of the Spectacle, by Mario Vargas Llosa, the novelist who once ran for president in Peru. I’ve always liked him because his books combine rare literary gifts with a firm rejection of the kinds of nonsense that radicals in Latin America and elsewhere have been peddling for decades (try The War at the End of the World).

He’s so good that he won the 2010 Nobel Prize for literature, even though the selection committee admires – and sometimes honors – those very radicals, and usually passes over their critics, however talented.

His latest effort (unfortunately, still only available in Spanish), opens with a bold thesis:

Probably never in history have so many treatises, essays, theories, and analyses been written on culture as in our time. This fact is even more surprising inasmuch as culture, in the traditional sense of this word, stands in our day on the point of disappearing. And maybe it’s already disappeared, discretely emptied of content and replaced with another that has denatured the one it once had.

He adds: It’s more than the fact, universally admitted, that the culture is decadent. The very nature of “culture” has changed to the point that maybe today we have no culture worthy of the name.

Sixty years, ago, T.S. Eliot wrote a well-known essay “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.” Eliot argued that a healthy culture is articulated into three parts: a few at the high end, a significant middle, and a large number of common folk. And back then, it was clear that culture did not coincide with social class (as Chesterton observed, many of the rich are “born tired”).

There was exchange among the three – which some of us can still remember – in everything from music to religion. Family and church were and must be key carriers of culture – not universities (to say nothing of the current art scene, theater, etc.), says Vargas Llosa, because knowledge is not culture.

Knowledge is useful, but what it’s useful for depends on religion and culture. Besides, universities have stopped teaching about religion:

which for good and ill, in history, philosophy, architecture, art, literature is indispensable to keep culture from degenerating at its current pace and to see that the world of the future will not be divided between functional illiterates and ignorant or heartless specialists.
Without religious knowledge, new generations will be, “bound hand and foot to the civilization of the spectacle, which is to say, to frivolousness, superficiality, ignorance, gossip, and bad taste.”  

Mario Vargas Llosa receiving the Nobel Prize

Recent theorists have used Marxism, sociology, political theory in efforts to understand culture. But all of that has been eclipsed by what is now a global standard culture that requires no personal cultivation, makes no special demands on anyone, anywhere. Its primary vehicles are pop music and movies – reinforced and spread by the Internet and social media.

Vargas Llosa notes that this situation does not equally empower all, as is often claimed. Quite the opposite. Without independent cultural bases, it’s very difficult for anyone – whether your “culture” is Hollywood or Bollywood – to maintain real freedom.

The worldwide civilization of the spectacle promises endless diversions. The very definition of what counts culturally is what is commercially successful because it “diverts” enough people around the world.

Another characteristic is that culture objects are consumed in the enjoyment. So one film follows another, one rock concert or album replaces the last, and maybe soon one digitized text by another. Very little is intended – or expected – to survive passing enjoyment.

When he was living in London in the 1960s, Vargas Llosa noticed that the counterculture partly turned even religion into a superficial self-indulgence to go along with promiscuity, drugs, and dropping-out.

But real religion has survived: In bad forms in al Qaeda, Fundamentalisms of various kinds, but also in ways eminently human. Despite the intellectual attacks of the Dawkinses and Hitchenses, he says, all human cultures have valued transcendence, in their different ways, and not solely out of ignorance. The New Atheists are merely repeating the old theory that secularization inevitably following education, which has not proven to be the case.

Every civilization has embraced something beyond itself, partly as a bulwark against present suffering and hope of future justice. But Vargas Llosa notes that it’s an obscure – and sound – human intuition that without something that transcends us – that envelops and gives us reliable guiding stars – the worst human evils will inevitably follow. That something, for most people, is religion. We’re already bad enough, even with the transcendent.

Let’s hope that this little book will soon appear in English, because it’s time to figure out why several distinguished non-believers – Jürgen Habermas in Germany, Marcello Pera in Italy (both of whom have done books with the current pope), and now Vargas Llosa – are arguing that you can’t have high democratic culture and, maybe even a moral economy and stable democracy, without religion.

En route, he also gets important things wrong about the compatibility of faith and freedom. But to understand culture in such lucid and deep terms is a great step forward. Others have suggested it will take “creative minorities”  (Benedict XVI) and communities of meaning (Alasdair MacIntyre ) to escape our current morass. 

It’s no small matter for a Nobel Prize winning novelist to come to the realization that culture has passed – and must pass – through family and Church rather than what we assume are the usual “cultural” institutions. (The decay of family and Church is a subject for another day.) It may mean that, even in secular precincts, all is not lost for us yet.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Frank, January 21, 2013
"Perhaps the only thing that rivals this agreement across ideological lines is the utter bewilderment at what to do about the whole sad mess."

The unfortunate fact I believe is that there is nothing that can amicably done about two sides of a culture being at intractable loggerheads. History, however, provides an ominous sign as abortion has been compared to slavery as it took several decades before factors deteriorated into an all out shooting war. After the dust settled, approximately 630,000 Americans died at the hands of the other.

We've called it a culture war for some time now and at this time, different weapons are being used. Right now, it's the weapons of persuasion through media. Tomorrow, lethal force? Let's hope not but my faith in humankind acting on its own "justified" impulses believing it's doing the right thing gives me pause for concern. It can't happen here you say? I hope you're right but it's also wrong to whistle past the graveyard of history.
written by Manfred, January 21, 2013
A gladiator in ancient Rome wrote on the wall of his cell in the Coliseum: I am born, I live, I die-I don't know why.
Thank you for and excellent column, Dr. Royal. We at our desks every day often reach the same conclusions as Senor Vargas Llosa, but perhaps we do not express them as well. We need to look no further than Lance Armstrong, the sports "heroes" who, it is discovered later, achieved their successes in football or baseball by using illegal steroids, and the celebrities/experts we can see daily on Charlie Rose. Does anyone remember that Pres. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath and subornation of perjury? His appearances assisted Pres. Obama to be reelected in 2012! When a sentient person realizes that some people of whom they have heard nothing are, by the gift from God, lying INCORRUPTED in Catholic shrines, that person has to respond to the grace which says that this world is truly irrelevant and,as Christ Himself said, Satan IS the prince of this world and salvation comes only from above. That is the beginning of the journey toward true conversion.
written by Dave, January 21, 2013
It was the Church -- and specifically the monasteries -- that saved and elevated the best of Roman culture and that developed norms of culture based upon the three supernatural and the four cardinal virtues, which, at their lowest common denominator, find their expression, I suggest, the norms of courtesy -- common and not so common -- that we see passing away at high velocity. The spectacles of the Roman Empire passed away, because they were unsustainable. Literary culture was preserved, and, in the case of the evangelized tribes, invented, because of contact with the Word.

This time of darkness shall pass, too, for the reason that all times of darkness have passed: "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." When it does, I believe that those of us who are here to see it will also discover that throughout the world, groups of committed Christians -- now monks, now orthodox laity running orthodox schools and universities -- have retained the best knowledge and will transmit it again, and that we will see the re-creation of a culture that defends and advances all that is good, worth knowing, and worth practicing in life, starting with true religion and irradiating outward.

In the meantime, those of us committed to the Faith and to its propagation need to stand firm in the Faith, to go deeper into the Faith, through recourse to prayer, to the sacraments -- especially daily Mass -- to veneration of the saints, especially Our Lady, and to study, of the Faith and of authentic culture. This will be difficult for those of us whose professional and family duties do not admit of the time and the energy necessary for deep study. Perhaps for those of us in that situation, we can start by turning off the television and by making sure our time on the Internet is well-spent in resources available through it that really can help us with this project. Perhaps, too, we can revive a feature of our civilization that seems to have fallen into widespread disuse, the dinner party, whose purposes were to deepen ties of friendship with kith and kin and to converse about worthy things.

written by Grump, January 21, 2013
This essay calls to mind the works by Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968), a 20th century sociologist who classified societies according to their 'cultural mentality', which can be "ideational" (reality is spiritual), "sensate" (reality is material), or "idealistic" (a synthesis of the two).

He suggested that major civilizations evolve from an ideational, to an idealistic, and eventually to a sensate mentality which now characterizes the current Age as follows:

-- The defining cultural principle is that true reality is sensory – only the material world is real. There is no other reality or source of values.
-- This becomes the ubiquitous organizing principle of society. It permeates every aspect of culture and defines the basic mentality. People are unable to think in any other terms.
-- Sensate culture pursues science and technology, but dedicates little creative thought to spirituality or religion.
-- Dominant values are wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasures, power and fame.
-- Ethics, politics, and economics are utilitarian and hedonistic. All ethical and legal precepts are considered mere man-made conventions, relative and changeable.
-- Art and entertainment emphasize sensory stimulation. In the decadent stages of Sensate culture there is a frenzied emphasis on the new and the shocking (literally, sensationalism).
-- Religious institutions are mere relics of previous epochs, stripped of their original substance, and tending to fundamentalism and exaggerated fideism (the view that faith is not compatible with reason).
written by Chrysostom, January 21, 2013
Thank you, Mr. Royal. It seems that you can read Spanish, hoping that Vargas Llosa is soon available in English. Why not translate it yourself? There seems to be a great need for it.
written by kristinajohannes, January 21, 2013
I have always liked Bl JPII's definition of culture which I recently rediscovered thanks to Randall Smith's (1/7/13) TCT suggestion that we all (re)read Centesimus Annus.

In #24 he states the following:
"At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence."

The pope also points out in the same section,"When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted."

So I guess our job is to do all we can to reintroduce the question (and answer!) into contemporary life.
written by Mr. Levy, January 23, 2013
Fascinating - and encouraging - essay, Mr. Royal. Thank you.
written by Tony Esolen, January 23, 2013
When I read Guardini's The Death of the Modern World, which I believe was published in 1948 (or 1946, I forget which), I was stunned to find that he was already declaring culture itself to be dead, in the west. The terrible thing is that human beings must have culture, to remain fully human; otherwise we are only flotsam.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters