A Definition of Culture: The Spirit of a Social Body Reproducing Itself

So, I love my Facebook friends. Yesterday I shared an article from The Weekly Standard on being cultured, and received in return a wonderful conversation.

One friend asked for a definition of culture. Questions drive all expansion of the mind. That particular question is so crucial, and yet so often unasked. In Catholic circles, for instance, there is much talk about the new evangelization, yet little clear analysis of what culture is (though culture is one of the central arenas for evangelization). Or, on the right, we have a tendency to talk about baleful influences in "the culture." But unanalyzed concepts are Trojan horses for ideology.

Another Facebook friend asked that I re-post the answer that I proposed as a starting-point. Now I'm hoping for further discussion. So much depends on understanding this word. For myself, I'm going to turn to Terry Eagleton (a brilliant critic, of the left) and his book The Idea of Culture as a next step in grappling with this question.

This is my initial proposal for a definition of culture, slightly modified:

I like what Saint John Paul says at the beginning of Fides et ratio: "Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives."

Culture is a society's response to the basic existential questions as embedded in a set of practices and institutions and narratives meant to raise (cultivate) the next generation (and to orient every member of the society) according to that common worldview: the means of reproduction of a worldview and of a way of being-in-the-world.

Each person has a "spirit," which is our knowing and our loving (and, unfortunately, our hating). A society is a group of persons with a shared "spirit": a shared way of knowing and loving and (too often) hating. Culture, then, is the operation of the spirit of a people, of a society, upon itself as a social body extending through time, an operation to develop minds and hearts and to regulate bodies.

When THE Spirit, the Holy Spirit, moves an individual or a social spirit, then we have progress in and towards the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Each individual spirit, and communal spirit, grows by asking questions and by loving. To evangelize a culture is to allow one's own spirit to serve as an instrument by which the Holy Spirit moves a culture towards the true, the good, and the beautiful.

That said, "to be cultured" is to be taken up into the authentic elements of a culture (the elements containing the dynamic motion of the Holy Spirit upwards into the true, the good, and the beautiful) constituting the heights of a culture..."high culture," culture at its most self-transcendent.

Of course, this means the worship of God above all, but worship must follow God into all of His effects in nature and in culture. The latter includes those miracles of divine and human spirit that are the masterpieces of high art.