through Plinio Correa de Oliveira
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 the definition of culture, and the related word “civilization” is so contradictory that international congresses of scholars and professors have been assembled specifically to discuss its meaning. After so much discussion, it often happens that no agreement is reached.
The meaning of culture
In this short lecture, we cannot go into the proposals and arguments of the different schools of thought. Nor can we explain and justify our position and then turn to Catholic culture. We can, however, seriously consider the myriad meanings of the word “culture” as expressed by peoples, social classes, and schools of thought, and show what they have in common. Thus, a fundamental and unchanging element of the concept of “culture” is that it is always about improving the human spirit.
The purpose of culture
At the heart of this improvement is the idea that every human mind has qualities that can be developed and flaws that can be limited. So improvement has two aspects: a positive, the growth of the good, and a negative, the pruning of the bad.
This principle unites the many current ways of thinking and thinking about culture. For example, we all agree that a university, a music conservatory or a theater school are cultural institutions. We can even extend this to clubs involved in chess or stamp collecting. All these entities or social groups aim, directly or indirectly, to improve people’s minds.
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The non-obviousness of culture
Likewise, we can imagine a university or other cultural institution opposing culture when it distorts minds through its mistakes. For example, some schools are driven by an excessive enthusiasm for technology to the point of instilling contempt for anything philosophical or artistic. One trained in this way worships mechanics as the highest value and makes it the sole area of interest of the soul. A student who denies any certainty not based on laboratory evidence, and scornfully rejects all that is beautiful, is undoubtedly a warped mind.
Equally culturally disfigured is one driven by an immeasurable philosophical hunger, which denies any value to music, art, poetry, or humbler pursuits that also require intelligence and culture, such as mechanics. We can say that universities that educate their students with such false guidelines are promoting anti-cultural action or false culture.
Fencing, for example, is recognized as an exercise of some cultural value because it requires physical dexterity, liveliness and elegance. However, common sense is not willing to recognize the cultural nature of boxing, which has something humiliating to the mind as the face is hit by heavy and brutal blows. Current parlance includes improving the soul of the term culture in all these senses and many others.
Culture and education
At first glance, the distinction between education and culture as a general concept is less clear. But if we analyze things carefully, we see that this distinction exists and rests on a solid foundation. One who reads a lot is said to be highly cultured compared to another who reads little. Between two avid readers, the one who has read the most is considered the most civilized.
Education aims to improve the mind. So someone who reads more is also considered more educated (unless there are reasons to argue otherwise). So some people may err by inadvertently simplifying concepts and measuring culture by the number of books read. This is clearly wrong, because reading is not measured by the quantity, but by the quality of the books read. It depends on the characteristics of the readers and how they read.
The crucial distinction
In other words, reading can theoretically educate people by making them knowledgeable. A well-read and educated person can thus be aware of many facts or scientific, historical or artistic concepts. However, the same person may be much less cultured than someone with a less informative background.
This makes the distinction between education and culture clear. Education improves the mind to its greatest extent when followed by thorough assimilation through careful reflection. Those who read little but assimilate a lot are therefore better educated than those who read a lot but assimilate little. A museum guide, for example, is generally very knowledgeable about the objects he shows visitors. However, he is often not very cultured, as he limits himself to memorizing information and does not try to assimilate it.
How can culture be acquired?
Everything we perceive with our senses or intellect affects the powers of the soul. Depending on the case, we can free ourselves from this effect more, less or even completely, but as such everything we grasp tends to affect us. Culture, as mentioned, consists in positively cultivating those things which strengthen the mind, and negatively limiting those which mar it.
Of course, thinking is the most important means of improving the mind. A man of culture must be much more a thinker than a bookworm or a living repository of facts, dates, names and texts. For this thinker, reality is the ledger in his mind; he is his own most consulted author. Other authors and books are precious but minor elements.
Perception and intellect
But just thinking is not enough. We are not pure spirits. Through an affinity that is not merely conventional, there is a connection between the superior realities we contemplate with our intellect and the colors, sounds, shapes and smells we perceive through our senses. Our cultural effort is not complete until we imbue our whole being through the senses with the values that our intellect has contemplated. Song, poetry and art serve this very purpose. Through a precise and superior interaction with the beautiful (if it is well understood), the soul is fully imbued with truth and goodness.
The above article is taken from a lecture from 1954 by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira at the Jesuit Seminary in São Leopoldo, Brazil. It has been slightly modified for release and previously shown on TFP.org